It's just another day in the life of Tom Carter. He apologizes for the television's incomprehensible squelch in the background of his home in Oakland, Calif. He's finishing work on a CD-R collection of archival Charalambides recordings, waiting on a courier delivery to finish the deal. Carter's home is the headquarters of his Wholly Other label, which he's run parallel to his work in the pastoral psychedelic noise band Charalambides of the last 15 years. He's a little sore from a recent back injury: "Not the thing you want to do right before going on the road," he chuckles.
The first half of the decade saw the American avant scene take to new popularity. Flags like freak-folk and New Weird America got tossed around, and Charalambides was an associate in those realms early and often. Essentially, though, Carter is doing the same thing he's done for nearly two decades—hammering away at an underground label that emerged from the cassette tape music scene—in California he was back in his old Texas stomping grounds. Wholly Other releases out-music in collaborations, while Carter stays busy in his own projects like Badgerlore with Six Organs of Admittance's Ben Chasny and Rob Fisk, formerly of Deerhoof. He quit his day job as a bookstore manager in Berkeley in February, and now he's devoting himself to his artistic pursuits. He just finished packing for the next Charalambides tour, in support of their fourth Kranky release, A Vintage Burden, moments ago.
Though he and Christina Carter, his partner in the band since 1991 and his wife of a decade, split romantically in 2003, they've forged ahead as a band, noting that, as collaborators, they're unequaled. "I think the reason we've kept playing is our language developed over time, and we have so much communication that things we're going for can remain unspoken," he says.
In the realm of outward-bound musicians like Charalambides, the line between wrong-headed, unorganized noise and teasing out something transcendental from a voice and a guitar is razor-thin. In the new wave of noise dudes and folk obscurantists, it's ever easier to cross. When it's done right, some say the experience is as potent as a physical high or as intangible as a profound religious experience. "We try to resist spiritual interpretation, but it's definitely related," says Carter. "We take a lot from that psychedelic worldview."
After the New Weird America tag came out of a Wire piece, confusion set in on stateside scene borders. Christina Carter—at home in Massachusetts, also working on finishing a record by making album covers—shuns the category: "Most of the [folk revival] is unrelated to us; I just see it in magazines. I don't really think it's folk."
Thanks to tastemakers like Pitchfork and a tangential nostalgia for protest music, left-of-center folk music has found an increasingly younger audience, one that now embraces gray-haired, Nick Drake contemporaries like Vashti Bunyan under the veil of indie rock. At the first Terrastock, the multi-city festival that remains a template and mecca for the new psychedelics, Tom Rapp of '60s pioneers Pearls Before Swine played. It was the first time many 20-somethings there had even heard of him. Now, many of Rapp's peers are reforming, being reissued and enjoying a resurgent interest in their music. Bert Jansch—the guitarist behind British folk extrapolators Pentangle—has an album on Drag City.
But, while Charalambides has existed both within the same touring circuits, fanbases and festivals (they played at subsequent Terrastocks in 2000, 2002 and earlier this year), they've purposefully remained on the sidelines, in part to avoid treading a worn path. "I see us as coming more from that lo-fi noise thing; like The Dead C, Bardo Pond," says Tom. "Some of them like Devendra [Banhart] seem more revivalist, and that's something I try to resist at all cost."
Carter's still waiting on the UPS man when he hangs up. He'll start his tour with Christina, heading toward points east. It's a tour Christina says will include older unrecorded pieces, and adds that they try to stretch out on tour: "We're not interested in perfection live." Eventually, they'll return to their respective homes on opposite coasts and their ascetic musical life of recording and corralling others' sounds on little silver discs, as always, doing what they do.
Charalambides plays Nightlight in Chapel Hill on Friday, Nov. 10 with Josephine Foster and Chuck Johnson. The show starts at 10 p.m. and costs $6. A dance party follows with Datahata, One Duran and Markus Maerk.