Music Preview: Carrigan
Some evangelical Christians claim to be "in the world, not of it." Substitute "Burlington" for the "world," and the same could be said about musical ascetics Carrigan. The band -- formed in 2000 as a loosely tethered, if sonically expansive, duo -- remain something of a mystery to local scenesters.
Shortly into their career, Carrigan blossomed into a rock-oriented four-piece. With the departure of two members in 2003, songwriter Zach Martin and drummer Ken Johnson nearly called it a day. Instead, they threw away their musical blueprint, embracing the two-piece format. But fans were left largely in the dark: The re-configuration happened behind the scenes, with only the occasional performance to hint at the group's continued existence.
That self-imposed exile is about to come to an end. With a release party this week for their excellent sophomore disc, Young Men Never Die, Carrigan are poised to ditch their dark-horse reputation once and for all.
Duos are seemingly ubiquitous in the rock world these days -- The White Stripes and Black Keys immediately come to mind. But where those acts rely on bare-bones primitivism, Carrigan musters a massively layered sound. Martin, 25, is a formidable multi-instrumentalist, often playing guitar, keys and/or vibraphone at the same time. In addition, he triggers sundry effects and samples. Oh, and he sings, too.
Johnson, 29, is likewise capable, handling both percussion chores and electronics. Despite the gadgetry, Carrigan's music -- which ranges from backbeat-heavy space rock to fractured electro-ballads -- doesn't sound sterile. "It's actually more organic than it's ever been," Johnson relates. "We owe a lot of it to the fact that we're a two-piece. It's so much easier to go into the rehearsal space, start making noises, and let the song bubble up out of nothing."
Carrigan began as an unnamed collaboration between Martin and bassist Jeb Interlandi, longtime friends who grew up in South Hero. With an ear to the post-rock sounds of late-'90s Chicago, the two explored new musical ideas. UVM grad Johnson joined in 2001, bringing a complementary rhythmic perspective. At that point, the band's highly textural instrumentals had only begun to take shape. But even then Martin anticipated change. "I knew that I wanted to eventually incorporate other kinds of songwriting, including vocals," he explains. "But it was a good place to start."
Around that time the band chose its moniker, which happens to be Martin's middle name. "I guess we can give up on keeping that a secret," he jokes. "We had a bunch of names on the table, and they were all pretty ridiculous. We decided to give the band a nice-sounding name, with nothing behind it." Nothing, that is, except genealogy. The group has received emails from a number of individuals with the surname Carrigan who ask what the deal is. "We've had several come through our website," Johnson divulges. "At this point they rival our fan mail."
With a fully functional lineup, the band began performing live, releasing a self-titled EP on Johnson's So Good Music label in 2001. Things went well, as local and national listeners swooned over Carrigan's wordless soundscapes. "Then we radically changed again," says Martin.
As he became more interested in writing tunes with vocals, Martin's bassist jumped ship. Says Interlandi: "I have a strong penchant for instrumental music, and the inclusion of vocals wasn't totally appealing to me at the time. I'm more impressed with Zack's singing now."
It was an amicable departure; Interlandi will even sit in on a few tunes at the upcoming release party. "The other day, Jeb came down to work on some stuff, and we played a new song," Johnson says. "And what came out sounded almost like it could have been on the old EP. I think that's a testament to the huge role he played during that era of the band."
Losing a key member was difficult, but Carrigan soldiered on, drafting ex-Drowningman low-ender Dave Barnett and ex-Cancer Conspiracy guitarist Daryl Rabidoux to flesh out their sound. This incarnation of the group veered towards epic rock, à la Radiohead and vintage U2. "It was a strange point for us," Martin recalls. "We got a lot of gigs, because it was a more conventional sound. But I wasn't completely satisfied with the material."
There were also problems within the group. Rabidoux, who now co-owns a local recording studio, eventually opted out of Carrigan to pursue his production interests. "Personal issues" drove Barnett from the fold not long after. With two members gone, the situation deteriorated rapidly. "It was a crash-and-burn scenario," Johnson recalls. "We thought the band was over."
For all intents and purposes, it was. Still, Martin and Johnson had a keen interest in performing together -- they just weren't sure how. "When we first started as a duo, it was for a once-a-week improv gig at [the now-defunct] Waiting Room," Martin explains. "We tried that, but it wasn't really working. 'Jamband' is kind of a blacklisted word to us. So when we went to practice for the show, we naturally started writing a song. And we weren't about to stop doing that."
Although their music has origins in spontaneous noisemaking, Carrigan's arrangements are meticulous and, in some cases, ongoing. Martin describes the process: "There's a general idea of what we want as a framework," he says. "Then we establish the changes, to make it fluid. While we're doing that we make notes about what kind of sounds and samples we eventually want to color it with. We play songs live that aren't quite finished; they continue to grow."
This open-ended approach is largely responsible for the long gestation of Young Men Never Die. Martin shrugs off the delay. "First of all, for people out of state, it's just another recorded album," he says. "It could've been done in three weeks. But our friends know that it's been like, a couple years."
It's obvious the album isn't a rush job. Engineered and co-produced by Rabidoux, Young Men has a sonic lushness that exceeds most local releases. Each musical passage sounds remarkably considered, probably because it was. "There was definitely indecision in the recording side of things," Martin explains. "I think we rushed it in the beginning, so there was a lot of backtracking. We finally had a framework after a year and a half. That's when we really said, 'OK -- let's do it.'"
In periods of inactivity, though, frustration built. "For a time, it was a very bad experience," Johnson admits. "A lot of it was left out of my hands, because I had already done my parts." In a two-piece band, blame can't be spread very far. "I understood that what was left -- the melodic aspects of the album -- were almost entirely in Zach's hands," he continues. "It was kind of soul-rending."
Not recording in a conventional studio can be liberating, but without deadlines and time constraints, things can easily get out of hand. "You can refine it forever, and never be happy with anything you've done," Johnson explains. "We were sort of stuck in that loop for a while. But then one day, the fog lifted. For whatever reason -- and Zach still hasn't told me what it was -- he became really committed, and started working every spare minute to get the thing done."
During the studio sessions, Carrigan all but disappeared from public view. This wasn't just due to their recording commitments. "In Burlington, you can get to a point where you're making decent money playing shows, because people know what to expect," Martin says. "I think that can be very damaging to a band. We strive not to wear out our welcome. It's as important to spend time writing new material and perfecting it as it is playing shows for friends. We like playing here, and people treat us really well. But we also try to set our sights outside of town. I've always said that Burlington is a great place to live, but an even better place to come home to."
With the release of Young Men, Carrigan are primed to deliver their music to new audiences. "Now that we have the album to support, we'll be getting out more," Martin says. "We're no longer 'the band behind the curtain.'"