“It definitely contributes to this kind of cavelike, sort of womblike environment up here.”
Tom Carter is surveying his kingdom, a.k.a. the Oakland apartment he shares with his partner, Natacha Robinson, and we both try to make the connection between Charalambides, his 15-year-old duo with ex Christina Carter, and the hundreds of Playmobil figurines that populate damn near every surface around him. The only Playmobil-free space seems to be Carter’s cranny-cum-closet-cum-studio housing a computer equipped with Pro Tools and sundry plug-ins that simulate analog effects. Otherwise the Lego-like pieces cover his mantles, bookshelves, lintels, and alcoves, reenacting the Crusades, banquets, pirate ship scenes, you name it. In front of Carter on the table is Robinson’s latest tableau in progress: a petite pair of anthropomorphized mice in wedding garb, fashioned from Sculpey, next to a pile of teensy clay food.
It’s a distracting collection, yet the multitudes also seem to mirror Carter’s prodigious creative output: in addition to Charalambides — which most recently released one of the more straight-laced recordings of its lifespan, A Vintage Burden (Kranky), an almost slow-fi folk album that manages to be both haunting and achingly beautiful — Carter is in Badgerlore (the Bay Area supergroup of sorts with Seven Rabbit Cycle’s Rob Fisk, Six Organs of Admittance’s Ben Chasny, Yellow Swans’ Pete Swanson, Grouper’s Liz Harris, and Skygreen Leopards’ Glenn Donaldson); Zaika with Marcia Bassett of Double Leopards; Kyrgyz with Loren Chasse and Christine Boepple of the Jewelled Antler Collective and Robert Horton; and various stirring CD-R projects with solely Horton (the latest, Lunar Eclipse [Important], collects 73 minutes of terrifying drone, conjured with the aid of e-bow, boot, vibrator, and field recordings). All of which led Carter, who also records other musicians regularly and continuously toils on live CD-Rs, to quit his job as a manager at Berkeley’s Half Price Books in order to concentrate on performing live with Charalambides, which plays its first show in the Bay Area this week since Carter moved to town in 2004. The duo has also lined up fall dates at Arthur Nights in LA and All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK.
There’s obviously a lot on Carter’s plate — we’re not even going to start with the dusting. But Carter is no one’s toy, despite his laid-back style and acid-washed drawl and the fact that Charalambides is now catching a second wind of attention from publications like Wire after putting out vinyl-only recordings throughout the last decade on respected underground imprint Siltbreeze.
Carter began Charalambides in 1991 with fellow Houston record store employee Christina after playing in “pretty goofy” bands like Schlong Weasel. (They named the band after a Greek surname noticed on a shopper’s check; “it was supposed to be evocative but doesn’t mean anything,” he explains.)
“I probably would have met her anyway,” Carter says now of their fateful encounter. “I knew all her boyfriends.” Nonetheless the two were wed, becoming creative partners.
Houston at that time was a hotbed of “superweird experimental stuff,” Carter says. “It was sort of grunge-influenced in a way, but it was sort of psychedelic and bizarre. People just making odd decisions based on drug use and volume.”
Third Charalambides members would come and go, like guitarist Jason Bill and pedal steel player Heather Leigh Murray, but the Carters were constants, even after they broke up in 2003. The 2004 album Joy Shapes (Kranky) documents the split. “It was kind of an intense record to make and kind of intense to listen to,” remembers Carter. “Exhausting to listen to and just exhausting all around.”
Developing their songs through improvisation and then overdubbing parts over the sounds, Charalambides dropped in and out of dormancy until 2000, mostly, Carter says, because “we were never really comfortable as a live band.” The group started to make music with an eye to performance. “We always wanted things to be somewhat formless when we approached a song, but at the same time, we wanted to kind of know what we were doing so it would actually exist as a song. What was the minimum thing you could have in a song and it still be a song?” Vintage Burden turned out to be their first “duo record” in ages, a return to the way the pair had once worked, producing sprawling psychedelic numbers, with one notable difference. Christina, who now lives in Northampton, Mass., wrote all the songs before Carter flew to her home to record on her eight-track Tascam digital recorder. Working on music was easy, he says. “Neither one of us is a particularly grudge-bearing person.”
Keep the grudges for movie-house sequels. Currently listening to ’60s West Coast rock groups like the Byrds and the Grateful Dead in addition to peers and pals like the Yellow Swans and Skaters, Carter might be considered the kick-back link between hippie experimentation of the past and the transcendent aggression of the present. “I do consider myself part of the tradition of Texas–West Coast transplants,” he says mildly. Why do so many Texans turn up on these shores? “I dunno. It’s a place to smoke weed in peace. Ha-ha-ha.” SFBG
With Shawn McMillen, Hans Keller,
Mon/16, 9 p.m.
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
Also Tom Carter–Shawn McMillen duo, Sean Smith, and Christina Carter
Tues/17, 8 p.m.
416 25th St., Oakl.