Carissa’s Wierd: The Band That Got Away
The late days: Ben Bridwell, Jeff Hellis, Sarah Standard, Jenn Ghetto,Mat Brooke and Sera Cahoone
I saw Carissa’s Wierd for the first time this July. It was at the Showbox Theater here in Seattle – a venue the band never would have packed when they were actually together. Seven years have passed since they recorded their last album, went on their final tour, and played their farewell show at the Crocodile Cafe (the only one they ever came close to selling out, until this summer’s Showbox reunion). Since then, CW’s members have gone on to form some of Seattle’s best exports – Band of Horses, Grand Archives, Sera Cahoone, S – an array of bands which runs the gamut from low-core to indie rock to Americana-country, and beyond.
Like I said, I never saw them play when they were actually a band. I never even heard their music until I was tasked with the below article for Seattle’s CityArts Magazine – after all, their albums were out of distribution and unavailable pretty much everywhere. Nonetheless, I came to be a believer, due in no small part to the bands which CW’s members later became, and the legend of their music, which has taken on a life of its own in these parts. Happily, the live show – and the reissues of their albums, courtesy of Seattle’s own Hardly Art Records – sealed the deal.
The below piece ran in the July issue of CityArts Seattle, and I’m reprinting it here in full. Visit the CityArts website for more of the features I’ve written for them, as well as plenty of other great info on Seattle’s vibrant arts scenes.
The Band That Got Away
by KIM RUEHL — July 1, 2010
Seven years after calling it quits, Carissa’s Wierd returns, for a moment, with the same old heartbreaking songs and a brand new fan base.
One dark and stormy night in 2003, a van rolled up to a house party in Baltimore. As they’d done at numerous house parties across the country, the members of Carissa’s Wierd – a band from the other side of the continent that had been touring in support of its third album – got out, loaded their gear into the basement, checked the sound as best they could, and lit into their set. It was pouring outside, and before long, the water started dripping into the basement, forming puddles around them and their equipment. No doubt, long-time friends and lead singers Jenn Ghetto and Mat Brooke exchanged looks and shrugged. After all, the band had self-released three albums in the past six years and played countless gigs in dive bars. They had long since become accustomed to the unglamorous life of an indie rock band. Still, something happened as the quartet powered through its set despite the threat of shock. After the show, they packed up their gear and headed home to Seattle. “The third record felt pretty good,” singer and guitarist Brooke recalls, “until it wound us up in that basement. Then it was like, ‘Okay, I’ll bet we can call this one quits.’” Two months later, the band was done.
Until this month, when Ghetto, Brooke and many of the artists they played with throughout the band’s eight-year run will return to a much larger stage, the Showbox Market in Seattle. They will play music from their three records, all of which have been remastered and are being rereleased by local label Hardly Art, to what promises to be a larger crowd than the band ever played while active. It proves that, even though the music stopped, the evolution of the band and of Seattle did not.
Seven years after that evening in Baltimore, Brooke is preparing for happy hour at the Redwood in Seattle. The bar, located in a residential enclave of Capitol Hill, is dark and quiet. Inside, wood booths and rural imagery line the walls. The menu features comfort food – meatloaf, mac and cheese, beer, whiskey. A pinball machine goes mostly untouched near the bathrooms. A jukebox spins classic rock and old-school country. There are no Carissa’s Wierd albums on it.
The bustling activity on Broadway, Olive and the Pike-Pine corridor is a few blocks away in each direction, situating the bar so that nobody would just stumble upon it. People have to seek out the Redwood, and they do. Outside, an old man bends over and blows his nose into the bushes. Inside, bar owner Brooke stacks and unloads boxes of beer, before filing into a booth with Ghetto and recalling those last days of the band and the years since. In that time, the bandmates have broken out into other projects that have earned them fans and acclaim, while creating a posthumous notoriety for Carissa’s Wierd.
“We all had our own things going on,” Ghetto explains. “We had already done all the wrong things, so the entire band knew what they had to do differently [to be more successful with their new projects].” No doubt the fans – few, but devout – were eager to hear anything the band’s members would release. Ghetto went on to form S, the band that is the most faithful to the Carissa’s Wierd sound, with the addition of electronic drum loops. Brooke and Carissa’s Wierd bass player Ben Bridwell formed Band of Horses, a group that took a decidedly more rocking approach on its way to becoming the most widely known CW spin-off – as of press time, the band’s 2010 release Infinite Arms sits at number 31 on the Billboard albums chart. Though CW drummer Sera Cahoone also played with Band of Horses initially, she and Brooke both left after the first recording to pursue their separate interests. Cahoone leaned hard on the twang and self-released her self-titled debut before signing to Sub Pop for its follow-up (both feature CW’s Sarah Standard on violin). Brooke, on the other hand, went the indie-pop route with Grand Archives, whose Sub Pop debut was praised by indie music’s online authority Pitchfork and others. He also turned an old Capitol Hill laundromat into a bar, and has maintained a close friendship with Ghetto, one that started in the mid-’90s when the two met at a goth club in Tucson.
Soon after Brooke and Ghetto first met, the then-teenagers began collaborating on songs. They recorded their early demos while Ghetto’s grandmother slept in the next room, so the music naturally evolved to be as quiet as possible. Within a few years, the duo – now called Carissa’s Wierd – and their straggler friend Ben Bridwell (who wasn’t in the band, but with whom they worked at a Tucson pizza place) picked up and moved to Olympia. There, they hoped to tap into the vibrant music scene that had grown up around the independent label K Records. What they found, though, was that the music scene in Seattle was even more exciting. So they moved again and started playing music with a rotating roster of collaborators. “Talent wasn’t a prerequisite to joining the band,” Brooke recalls. “You didn’t have to have any talent at all. If you were willing to drink whiskey with us and hang out with us, then you could be in the band.”
The first incarnation of Carissa’s Wierd following the move was as a trio, with Robin Perringer on drums. Bridwell eventually took over the rhythm section when Perringer left to play guitar for Modest Mouse. But the greater story of Carissa’s Wierd, which would later become a local legend in the Northwest music scene, started in a side room at the Showbox, the band’s first show in Seattle. Ghetto remembers it well.
“It was free hot dog night,” she says, “and we were super excited. But then [our friends] started throwing hot dogs at us.” It was the first of many unglamorous gigs that would slowly build buzz. With the grunge era on its way out, Carissa’s Wierd offered a respite from the directionless ride Seattle musicians were taking in its wake. For one thing, its music was often whisper-quiet and intensely personal. It meandered and grooved, a far cry from the distorted electric guitars of Seattle’s then-recent musical past, though not yet fully invested with the urban hush and twang to which the scene would eventually steer (aided in no small part by each of Carissa’s alums). In other words, between the influence of Kurt Cobain and that of Ben Gibbard and Neko Case, there were a handful of years when sparse pockets of die-hard fans knew what the rest of us have since learned: quiet is the new loud.
Among Carissa’s Wierd’s early fans was Greg Martinez, who, along with Dana Bos and others, started the influential indie music blog Three Imaginary Girls in response to their enthusiasm for Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Long Winters and Carissa’s Wierd. “I really thought they’d get signed [to a major label],” Martinez remembers. “They could’ve been number one on the college charts. I didn’t think they’d ever break into the mainstream unless it was through a single song, like Low or Elliott Smith, but from a critical standpoint I thought they were excellent.”
Though Carissa’s Wierd didn’t sound quite like anyone else in town, Martinez and others have had trouble pinpointing the secret to its allure. The music was quiet out of necessity at first and then out of habit. The group’s open-door policy on bandmates meant the sound was eclectic and constantly evolving. There wasn’t time to get too comfortable with any specific thing before a new instrument showed up in the mix or a new drummer hopped behind the skins.
Cahoone, who had previously played guitar with an indie rock outfit called Primrosa, took over the Carissa’s Wierd drum kit from Jeff MacIsaac in 2002. But she was a fan first. “I loved the sadness and the simplicity [of their music],” she recalls. ”When I went to their shows, I knew they mattered to me, and they did to a lot of folks. Their music hit me: the lyrics, the voices, the violin and piano, everything. Emotionally … Lord knows I like emotions.”
It wasn’t just future bandmates who became enthralled with CW’s hyper-emotional, quiet groove early on. Cheryl Waters, a DJ for influential Seattle radio station KEXP, remembers the first time she ever heard the band. She kept getting calls from “a nice kid named Ben [Bridwell],” who wanted her to listen to a record his band had made. “I always did a double-take on the spelling when I was filling out the KEXP playlist, which was a paper playlist back then. I had to cross it out and rewrite it every time. It was hard to get used to that spelling, but it made the band stick in my mind, and I played them a lot.”
Not everyone was susceptible to the band’s inexplicable charm while it was still together, though. Carissa’s Wierd hardly ever played to packed houses. The band spent so much time on the road playing dive bars, splitting single hotel rooms six ways and smoking in the van with the windows rolled up, it could be argued that their local following never had a chance to grow too big. Though their name was easily recognized and on posters all over town, Brooke maintains, “Everyone tells us that we [got really popular], but I don’t remember that happening. Everybody tells us we were huge, but we weren’t. I was there, I know we weren’t. We couldn’t have sold out the Showbox. I think the only time we ever sold out the Crocodile was for our farewell show. If we only sold out the Crocodile once, then we obviously weren’t very huge in Seattle.”
Nick Heliotis might disagree. An employee of Hardly Art, the label that is reissuing Carissa’s Wierd’s three albums this month, he remembers the band’s final show at the Crocodile as if it were last week. He was in college at the time, and he and his girlfriend made the pilgrimage from Bellingham just to catch their favorite band’s final set. “[Carissa’s Wierd was] a big deal to me,” he says, “and I was surprised to see them casually walking around the bar. I introduced myself to Ben Bridwell and thanked him for sending me a CD that I’d had some trouble finding. The show itself was really great. They opened with ‘Heather Rhodes’ and played their cover of Avril Lavigne’s ‘Complicated.’ If I remember correctly, they finished with ‘Blessed Arms That Hold You Tight, Freezing Cold and Alone,’ a song that still totally breaks my heart. There were a ton of people there. I remember everyone just sort of hung out afterwards – I think no one wanted it to be over. I bothered Mat for a few minutes after the show, and he told me he and Ben were planning on starting a band together, which was exciting.”
The local music community has been abuzz with excitement since Hardly Art’s announcement this spring that it was reissuing all three CW albums, along with a compilation to introduce newcomers to the band’s work. The announcement of the reunion concert at the Showbox has only added to the anticipation. Local blog Sound on the Sound titled its post regarding the announcement “Carissa’s Wierd and Hardly Art Just Made My Day.” The Stranger’s Eric Grandy led his by exclaiming, “Fuck yeah!” The Portland Mercury even invited the band to follow the Showbox reunion with one in Portland, should the mood strike.
Maybe Brooke is right that during its run, Carissa’s Wierd wasn’t the superstar band everyone seems to remember. Regardless, given time and lore, it’s what the band has become. When Hardly Art reissues those albums and the band reunites at the Showbox, there is no doubt that its latecomer fans will be at the ready. Even Brooke won’t be terribly surprised to see a significant turnout. “We had an amazingly loyal fan base,” he says. “As small as they were, they were as true as a fan could be. They really subscribed to the whole style of music and what we were doing. We realized that was happening. And that was amazing for us, we loved that, but there was never a point in our career when we said, ‘We’ve made it.’”
Perhaps one reason Carissa’s Wierd never quite “made it” has to do with the fact that Seattle’s music community was fractured. Multi-instrumentalist Jeff Fielder, who now plays in Cahoone’s band, was part of a different scene entirely. Based in Ballard, Fielder was more familiar with Mark Pickerel’s post–Screaming Trees projects and bands like the Radio Nationals. “It was more of a rock ’n’ roll thing, as opposed to shoegazer, or whatever they were calling Carissa’s Wierd,” he recalls. Participating in a fragmented local music scene at that time meant that even plugged-in members of the community like Fielder saw and disregarded CW’s name when it appeared in ads and the local indie press. There was just no need for that swath of music fans to search outside their own neighborhood. “If I remember correctly,” he says, “the big news at the time was Modest Mouse, and that overshadowed everybody. At the time, all the Stranger would talk about was Modest Mouse. We [in the Ballard music scene] got so sick of hearing about it that, for anything having to do with indie rock, we were just, like, ‘Oh, come on.’”
But even Fielder came around to being a believer. His first tour as part of Cahoone’s backing band was as the opening band for Band of Horses during its meteoric rise. Though he knew Cahoone had been a drummer, he’d never seen or heard her previous band. He was surprised that, “even when we went to Arizona and New York, people would talk about Carissa’s Wierd. It tripped me out.” After the tour was over, he looked up the band on YouTube just to see what the fuss was about. “I thought it was weird that Ben was playing bass. It was a little sleepy, but I thought it was cool.”
“Sleepy” is an understandable descriptor, though admittedly an incomplete one. Indeed, there was more at work than just quiet angst. Take, for example, the song Martinez and Bos name as the band’s finest tune, “The Color That Your Eyes Changed with the Color of Your Hair” (from the 2001 release You Should Be at Home Here). A certifiable heartbreaker, it starts with Brooke’s voice distant, behind Sarah Standard’s weeping violin. As the song progresses, however, his voice comes in closer for the line, “For the next fifty years I will still write you love songs.” Later, Ghetto’s voice enters, as if she can no longer stand to not sing along. These are not just words set to melody, but the outpouring of a band that seems to understand, at least in some small way, the difference in expressive power between poetry and music. That is, the words are just one of several instruments working toward a single sweet exposure of sadness. The subtle, understated percussion and the chunky triplets strummed on Brooke’s and Ghetto’s guitars also contribute to the song’s power as they close it out with the line, “My heart is gone; my heart is gray.”
But, it’s never enough for a song to be sad, or for a lyric to reach toward truth. It’s not enough for instrumentation to be slow and tight and vaguely nostalgic. These are all effects countless bands have mastered, with little or no fanfare, and certainly with no army (however small) of loyal followers and latecomer fans still hanging on every word nearly a decade after the band’s demise.
Despite her years-long unshakable allegiance to all things local music, Abbey Simmons, who runs Sound on the Sound with her partner Josh Lovseth, only recently discovered the band in the same way. “It’s so sensitive and sad-bastardy,” she says, “it doesn’t sound like what I thought Seattle sounded like at that time. It definitely doesn’t sound like what Band of Horses sounds like. It doesn’t have the twang of Sera Cahoone. There was a big indie pop scene [in the late ’90s to early ’00s] that was more upbeat than what Carissa’s Wierd was doing. Neko Case was getting big. There was a little bit of rock happening. It was a name I heard and knew I was supposed to know, but I just didn’t.” Based on the experiences related by the numerous local music fans I spoke to for this article, it’s safe to say Simmons isn’t alone. It’s been seven years since CW’s albums went out of print. Super-fans like Martinez admit to buying up any used copies they find in local record stores, while others have been known to sell them on eBay. A cursory search of the auction site found new unopened copies available for more than $100, while one used copy of Songs about Leaving was listed at $53.92.
“Although having their records disappear made it difficult to find new fans, it also built up a sort of mythology around the band,” says Sarah Moody, general manager at Hardly Art. “When I first worked at Sub Pop as a publicist, I came across a number of writers that were going nuts for Band of Horses based solely on what they knew of or had heard from Carissa’s Wierd. That was in 2006, and even then, it was impossible to find a CW record outside of torrent sites.”
Simmons can attest to the evolution of the mythology. “I never saw them [live],” she says. “I feel like I never even read a description of what their music was. It was just the name you saw everywhere. When Band of Horses started and S started, it was a name you heard referred to again and again. I feel like I missed out on it in a big way. I thought I would never get to see or hear them again. I went to Sonic Boom and tried to buy their records there. But nope, none of that.” Says music journalist Kurt B. Reighley, who has written promotional materials for the band, “Those records were hard to come by, even when they were in print. They were basically self-released. Years after the band had broken up, people were still coming into Sonic Boom trying to order them, to little avail, or find used copies – as if anyone would part with a Carissa’s Wierd record.”
Back at the Redwood, conversation turns to how a band built around whiskey and a rotating door of drummers managed to not suck, and even to develop its own urban legend and knew-them-when hipster lore. Barely pausing to breathe, Brooke follows up with a question: “Well, who’s to say that it didn’t suck?”
I ask, “Do you think it sucked?”
“We had some pretty interesting shows that, yes, definitely could be qualified as ‘really sucked,’” Brooke responds. “Then we also had lightning-in-a-bottle moments, where things really clicked, and it was such a unique sound because we weren’t even really trying to create any specific sound. We were more like a hippie collective that drank a lot more than hippies do.”
Brooke might be right and hindsight might be blinding, but the band’s return has certainly raised questions about whether CW could have “made it” given just another year or another album. But most agree that the band’s members needed to learn from CW’s growing pains to create the music for which they’ve all since become well known. Perhaps, as Ghetto sings in “Phantom Fireworks,” “The silence was getting too loud.”