My virgin tour of almighty San Francisco led me to, oddly enough, a brown burlap bag tucked away on the dirty bottom shelf of some run-of-the-mill shop in the Lower Haight. My resident friend—who I'd only before known through mail-order correspondence—motioned coolly toward the nondescript lump amid clouds of patchouli incense and uttered the absurd: "That's the first Caroliner record."
It was then that my mind exploded.
Too hip to jump up and down and wave my arms midspace while yelling "whoopee!" in public (a ritual in which I regularly indulge myself these days), I maintained my "big deal" composure, only to return home and immediately send away for said burlap-bagged recording through the mail. I hyperventilated until it arrived.
Mine came wrapped in a fine and wonderfully strange canvas painting.
But this is just the beginning—a second album was delivered to me some months later, just as my lust for Caroliner truth had reached a level no longer confinable by the first recording. Adding to my fire—which was, at that point, a raging inferno—the chance to see Caroliner (gasp!) LIVE arose! Had all the darkness of my so-called life finally turned to this great bounty? Had light shown, at long last, upon my dark path in the form of these Wondrous Masters Who Are Called Caroliner? But this joy was not to be mine—their damn van broke down in Joliet, Illinois—that stinking cesspool of the Midwest—and all was lost.
So I moved to Los Angeles—I had no more hope left for life, after all. Stupid van!
Ok, so a third album was released, and with it the possibility of another show. Yadda yadda yadda, the van broke down, whatever. Then a fourth album and yet another "possible show", yeah yeah... I may have been slow on the uptake where desire was concerned, but that time I called ahead to the club hosting Caroliner's "possible show" to ask if Caroliner was actually playing that night or just taking up marquee space. The voice on the other end of the line said, simply, "yes." After some pause, I rephrased my question: "Is Caroliner actually in the club?" The answer—"yes" —nearly cost me a driving misdemeanor.
What I saw that night was a macabre black light reactive circus the likes of which will not soon fade from memory, and it was almost worth all the disappointment brought about by crappy van mishaps from years before. —At the time, I was working the third shift in a QC position of a valley tape duplicator (jealous?), so, naturally, I had to re-orient myself a bit for this evening show. As fate would have it, Caroliner played again the following evening at a different club, so I was left with no choice but to skip sleep (who needed it?) between Caroliner shows and work in order to attend the second show (with eight of my closest friends). —During the second show (remember, this is sans sleep), as Caroliner's distortion, noise, drones and hillbilly music blew past me, their bizarre take on the world finally began to make sense to me. After all those years of examining Caroliner's music (most often during the third shift while the supervisor wasn't around), I discovered, at long last, that what I really needed to unlock the mysteries of their talents was sleep deprivation! Imagine that!
I still can't think of a stranger band than Caroliner. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, Caroliner is a singing bull that lived once in the 1800's and told stories around lonesome campfires. Crap Hat Carson told me that Mittens Samdrags doesn't actually "sing," per se—rather, he "channels the singing bull" at each performance. And what a cosmic trip it is! Take Caroliner Rainbow Cooking Stove Beast, their fourth record—as you are hurtled through this dense, muddy world of the singing bull's stories, you can't help but laugh (albeit nervously) at the absurdity of it all.
Listen to "Fiddle With the Heart Stuck In It", which opens up bass drone and a simple fiddle melody played on a Korean stringed instrument which seems to relay, "That's how they did it back in the civil war." Then you hear the first verse of Mittens' channeled vocals:
I need bad to companion my life I give up the horse and work up a fuss Now I got money and dirty hands Before I wash I'll fiddle first
Ok, what does that mean?
Several other cuts on this album are hootenanny-esque, complete with banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and pots and pan percussion. Then we are side-swiped by a few quick edit interludes, ending up deep in the whirlwind drone of "Huge Gunset" with extra reverbed drums (recorded with cheap mics, yee-haw!), four tracks of extra distorto-bass played low and slow, coupled with guitar and synth dronesl Through this cacophony of sound, we begin to hear the deep-voiced, singing bull which once lived in the 1800's, recorded through a fan. Reminds me of Flipper in some distant way. "Keel Over Curing" starts in as a quick punk rock number that out-buttholes the Butthole Surfers' "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave." Is this hillbilly music gone mad? Is this noise? Who really cares, it's amazing!
Mittens tells me that the mixing technique used on most Caroliner projects is one of throwing the faders up and making a few slight adjustments to the overall sound, but they mostly mix on "intuition." Gotta love that "intuition"! You know what they say—"your first mix is the best." Mittens reiterated that a good mix is one you are satisfied with, and "Keel Over Curing" is a great example of this wisdom, especially where their mixing technique is concerned. Each change of chord yields yet another change of mix, yet all the while a single drum track pans around in stereo and fades in and out aggressively.
Side two of Cooking Stove Beast offers a fast paced yet haunting little ditty called "Fixing and Mixing Cracked Skulls." Here are two unique, definable sounds of Caroliner—one is the unusually high, distorted voice of the Singing Bull, along with the creepy old organ which graces many Caroliner records. This piece features a truly maddening, overly repeated melody played on said organ which sounds like the soundtrack to an especially tragic Edgar Allan Poe tale. I originally thought that the vocals were run through a tremlo or leslie but Crap Hat Carson informed me that it was a mic technique that Mittens uses which consists of moving the mic between 1 inch and 2 inches from your lips...real fast! The vocal effect is quite unstable, yet dementedly effective for the lyrics:
Long births deep in women sat The coming out the heads bleeding cracks Dragging cloth skin and screaming ghosts So that cud magic and place birth back
The title track features cutlery thrown at drums, after which we settle in to my favorite Caroliner song of all time (this, after 10 albums of material to-date)—"Swoonskirt Accomplishment." Listen closely to the second half of this song, which features only the creepy organ and the Singing Bull—the organ pulses out a little circus composition reminiscent of Peter Iver's (in heaven) "Everything is fine" from David Lynch's Eraserhead. Ahhh, mania! The mood of this piece is dark, to be sure, but there is a brilliance to the simplicity of this music and the recording, itself, which is second-to-none!
The icing on Caroliner's psychotic cake is that all of their records are wrapped in hand-made covers, each one unique. Spend enough time with their collected works and you may come to see the vision which is the Singing Bull.
From an audio standpoint, you can't help but marvel at how all of Caroliner's sounds have been created—it sounds lo-fi, but with careful listening you will find a clarity unequalled by any other. What's more, the consistency of any Caroliner albums are indicative of a complete artistic vision, and that's what makes a great recording.
And this is why my mind exploded so long ago on my virgin tour of almighty San Francisco in that dark little dump in the Lower Haight... and I don't regret it one bit.
Interpreted by Jaye Barr. Originally appeared in Tape Op Magazine.