A hundred years ago (okay, somewhere in the early 1990s), I used to play in Houston's long-defunct psych/stoner band The Mike Gunn. My musical motto was, "We never try anything new, because everything we do will just suck." Fortunately, our other guitarist and occasional vocalist, Tom Carter, had the sense not to listen to me. He quit the band for the greener pastures of his free-form, totally inward-facing side project. The core duo of Tom (guitars) and Christina (vocals and guitars) Carter, together with friend Kyle Silfer, would play the occasional show under the name Mutual Admiration Society at the legendary Houston icehouse and current Rudyard's parking lot, Pik-n-Pak. Mutual Admiration Society eventually morphed from side project into full-time group, changing its name to Charalambides along the way.
Ten years later, Charalambides enjoys a well-earned place in the world of underground American music. While they're not a household name, they are wildly successful in a field that's difficult to break into. They routinely draw coverage in Britain's The Wire magazine and have racked up quite a rsum of collaborations and solo albums. And more importantly, they've developed a style that's possibly quite unlike anything you've ever heard before.
"I just didn't want to play riffs anymore," Tom tells me over the phone. It's the first time we've spoken in three years, and Tom and his partner (and ex-wife) Christina are set to embark on their first nationwide tour.
Things were admittedly a little tentative for Charalambides at first. Their early sound was informed as much by Christina's stage fright as it was by Tom's love of noisy New Zealanders. "About every six months or so, she was totally ready to throw in the towel," he says.
Christina adds, "I'm not the kind of person who can just jump into something and immediately be comfortable with it. I have to kind of learn to absorb every part of it before I can even begin to feel like I am where I wish to be." So to address the confidence issue, the duo decided to add another permanent member, friend Jason Bill.
"We wanted someone to fill out the sound, and also someone to take a little of the direct attention away from Christina's voice," Tom says.
Christina agrees. "With Jason I felt more comfortable focusing on what I wanted to say musically; we didn't have to worry so much about technical stuff. We also realized that sticking to just guitar and voice when we played live was the best way to represent ourselves to an audience."
"So much of how we sound now is because of her confidence, both performing live and with her singing," Tom adds. He's right; Christina has developed into one of the most distinct voices in contemporary music. She's as at home with a brash, impassioned wail as she is with more delicate and melodic singing.
Eventually, Jason Bill quit the group to move out of state, and soon after that the Carters left Houston for the more hospitable environment of Austin. The duo then added another female voice to the fold. Heather Leigh Murray, formerly of Galveston's sadly overlooked Ash Castles on the Ghost Coast, helped Charalambides further expand their sound. With Bill they sounded much more specifically American, touching on elements of country while still being grounded very much in the general vein of rock. But with the two stark, ghostly female voices, the band began to move even further away from discernable structures.
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With their latest album, A Vintage Burden, on the Kranky label, there's a noticeable effort to pare down their sound to its basic elements. Tom explains, "Now that I work with Pro Tools, I can basically just do countless overdubs until I get it right. I'll work on a solo until I get every note exactly where I want it. I admit it can be kind of silly." But this dramatic change in technique has paid off. A Vintage Burden is their most well-defined and focused release yet.
Christina explains, "With Vintage, it wasn't that we sat down and said that now we were going to try and take this element from here or there and use it. It was more like looking at a picture and noticing different things about it as your eyes wander. You know, what's up here? Without planning where your attention is drawn, you instead respond to whatever it is that grabs you."
What about future plans? Charalambides already has more than enough material recorded and mixed to release another album. "It's really up to Kranky as to whether they decide to continue with us or not," he says. "If they like it, who knows, we'll see. Otherwise we'll just take it from there."
Before we hang up, I ask Tom if he's happy with where he is in life right now, and he says simply, and without hesitation, "Yeah, I am. Things are going as well as I could ever hope them to." As a music fan, I think Charalambides represents something rare in today's musical climate: the strength to face yourself and do whatever is best for you. I'm glad to report that they definitely don't adhere to my old Mike Gunn motto. Charalambides performs Tuesday, November 14, at Rudyard's, 2010 Waugh. Call 713-521-0521 for more information. Tara Jane O'Neil and Shawn Mullins also perform.