Recently, the East New York gallery Tomato House announced that it would be distributing rare and hard-to-find posters and ephemera from the influential and mysterious West Coast band and collective Caroliner.
“I saw Caroliner as not being a band but being a totalized art form,” Tomato House’s Matthew Thurber (who runs the space alongside Rebecca Bird) told me over the phone. Although Thurber has been a fan of Caroliner since high school, he only recently reached out to the group, establishing what he calls a “pipeline of some merchandise” for Tomato House to distribute.
Caroliner, formed in 1983, are known for their merging of 1800s Victorian-esque sensibilities (both musical and visual) with more contemporary and abstract psychedelic styles. They use old timey instruments alongside fried electronics to a deranged effect. Live, they transform whatever space they are playing, often with the liberal use of cardboard, black light, and heavy costuming. On stage, they look a little bit like neon sea creatures.
Caroliner could be seen as fitting in a general continuum with collectives like Forcefield and Destroy All Monsters, both of which were included in the recent group exhibition “What Nerve,” curated by Dan Nadel. The show—which made its debut in Providence at RISD before traveling to Matthew Marks in New York—attempted to create an alternate canon for American art, one rooted in comics, music, and counterculture.
Caroliner’s sensibilities have informed movements as disparate as Steampunk, underground music, and contemporary art, and their influence can be seen to this day. ARTnews conducted an interview with the band as a collective over email. The unedited results of that exchange are below.
Could you talk a little bit about the genesis of Caroliner the group—how things came to be, what it came out of, what your inspirations were at the advent?
Inspired by the Caroliner 1800s book of lyrics from the singing bull, we chose to take the lyrics and create the sound of the times with any available instrument, device, or object. At the time the most entertainment you could have was watching a long train go by. The sounds an old train made were advanced beyond our capabilities of sound today. We try playing train sounds & there are some complicated adjustments you have to make to your banjo or woodblock. You have to get creative & furious, or possibly buy something to replace what you just broke. We were nearing the sound of a steam whistle on some of the recordings, but never quite made it past calliope. That particular “steam whistle” instrument actually caught on fire twice. Once at practice, once at the repair shop!
How has the group changed and developed over the years?
Going from a frustrated group of semi talents it blossomed into super talents receding into a hostile city where keeping a band together is interfered by highest rent, lousy neighbors, & piles of records unsold. [It] seemed like at times it was hard to keep the band from making a buck or breaking even. The opposite is happening now with the new bank world intruding heavily onto the 1800s scene. If there is a way for the band members to be more centralized, live shows would occur more often, and naturally. The river has some major sewage in the way of the pure drinking water. There might have to be a handful of filtering chelifers, hand tents, and the carolinesis beavers (selected for the name & abilities!) who could navigate the river & save us from losing rent money after shows or record releasing. More spare communications and get togethers are shunted into a flume of drapetomania with maybe a note left behind for another member to stumble over months after.
Could you tell me about the posters that you are selling through Tomato House?
They are hand painted first off. One is a Yerubae from the Rear End Hernia Puppet Show. One is from an upcoming long play titled “Jade Breath In Green Drawers”, another is detail from the wallpaper found on Tarantula Hill most famously depicting acts from Bank Notes, Dreams and Signatures mixing with The Sabre Waving Saracen Wall displays. The last one has 1800s written boldly near the top. You can see the original singing bull with a rotten version of it’s food guide, the young woman taken to her starvation end likeness. That poster also includes some fancy folks from upcoming Caroliner songs (recorded, not released) including “Fourty Fie” & Dampton Lice Brothers being sick over their own hymns. Other newer 1800s things sneak below that..
Do you think of Caroliner as a band or an art collective or some sort of synthesis of the two?
Caroliner, The Singing Bull Memorial Band started out as an educational device for listeners. We hoped with imparting wisdom in song there would be some natural gravitation towards the intelligent side of things with so much knowledge banged about in the lyrics. The music, as muciferous as it is, might make you get all visceral with your roots & past. People end up taking notes at live shows, washing hands, or just reading lyrics from a backpocket lyric sheet to hit home history lessons overlooked in your awful day read book. Using the glow, from blacklight, we had the ergot dream of awfulness mixed with starvation that started all these scar stories with death or insanity. Hopefully some of these more curious folks found their own little ergot starvation and cabin fever place they could retreat to when the bore-tomb of jackasserfied modern foolishness became too much.