[10 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The Caribbean makes music that rewards patience and attention, the kind of work that doesn’t just stand up to repeated listens, but actually requires them. That sentiment applies both to the Caribbean’s quirky, complex musical palette as well as literate, literary narratives that vocalist Michael Kentoff spins. “The Caribbean itself is like a secret,” Associate Music Editor Dave Heaton wrote of the D.C. act’s 2011 album Discontinued Perfume. “They walk out of step with prevailing pop-culture trends and fashions. Yet they’re making some of the most interesting and multi-faceted music that exists right now. Operating on the fringes, they’re nonetheless capturing essential dilemmas of our time, and doing so through the musical equivalents of quandaries, rumors, and whispers.” Such are also the virtues of the Caribbean’s newest offering, Moon Sickness, even as the full-length finds the group brightening and open up its sound just so. To mark the release of the Caribbean’s sixth album, PopMatters touched base via email with Michael Kentoff to find out about the making of Moon Sickness, what its music has to do with language ecology, and how the Caribbean can’t help but be what it is. PopMatters is pleased to premiere Moon Sickness, which comes out on 18 February, via Hometapes.
PopMatters: Moon Sickness is your sixth album. What, if anything, was different about your approach to recording this time?
Michael Kentoff: I don’t think we fought at all, which is pretty much unheard of for us. Everyone came in with ideas that were almost supernatural—as if we’d each heard these songs all our lives. Creepy.
PopMatters: What ideas or themes, musical or otherwise, did you specifically have on your minds this time around?
Michael Kentoff: If Discontinued Perfume described the challenge of integrating and balancing the disparate threads of one’s life in a coherent way, Moon Sickness is the morning after you realize such a place doesn’t really exist. Or, if it does, you’re not going there. And then you work on accepting the facts and working with them. Every book the great novelist Richard Yates wrote concludes the same way: We can’t help being who we are. That can be pretty disturbing, but it’s far worse never to realize it.
PopMatters: As a touring band, and in press photos, you’re a trio, but as far as I know, you still have a couple other members who contribute to recordings. Was that still the case this time, and if so what is that working relationship like?
Michael Kentoff: Don Campbell and Tony Dennison are all over Moon Sickness, although Tony’s contributions are mostly sent electronically because every time he comes to D.C. to record, he breaks something or spills coffee on a new rug.
PopMatters I always find myself describing your songs in terms of mysteries or puzzles, yet on a certain level they tend to deal with ordinary/mundane aspects of life (work, domestic life, etc.)—is that a dichotomy you’re aware of/interested in?
Michael Kentoff: Very much so. This is, scientifically, reflected in the field of language ecology, which examines how language grows when, as a form of communicative behavior, it is able to strike a balance between predictability (shared understanding of meaning, enforced by the community) and chaos (individual creativity seeking to express new meaning). That sentence is the sum total of what I know about language ecology, but I see this process, for instance, in the work of Philip K. Dick when he refers to people with otherwordly precognitive abilities as precogs (which he does often) and everyone in a Dick story accepts that a precog is something that simply exists in society, like a mailman. And soon, so does the reader. And this collective effort at nomenclature demystifies, conquers, and domesticates an absolutely mysterious phenomenon. In everyday life, we name things and it changes our brains, or at least our relationship to reality. I believe this is what art is meant to do.
PopMatters: The balance between your professional, non-music careers and your lives as musicians has at times, especially with the last album, been a part of the press coverage of the band. How is that balance going these days?
Michael Kentoff: See response to question two.
PopMatters: You’ve done nine installments of your podcast Labor, interviewing creative folk about their work and the creative process. How has doing that affected your outlook on your own creative endeavor as a band?
Michael Kentoff: Speaking only for me, finding new ways to collaborate—especially non-musically—is worthwhile and, sometimes, surprising. Personally, what our interviewees have said—some of it really thoughtful and funny and profound—hasn’t really changed my outlook on what the Caribbean does as a band; what changes things is doing something different together and getting, hopefully, better at it. It also confirms a suspicion I’ve had for a long time: Matt [Byars] really should have his own NPR program. I hear him while we’re doing these podcasts and it’s just so obvious—he’s a natural. My only request is that he play our new single every once in a while—I know it’s gauche to play your own band’s music on the radio, but dude.