Post-rock meets choral folk from the obsessive London-based octet caroline talk about their self-titled release, previously in our MARCH 2022 issue of Uncut, available to buy here.
caroline are a band defined by their difference. As teenagers in East Sussex, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jasper Llewellyn and guitarist Mike O’Malley were an Appalachian folk covers duo; fast-forward several years and Llewellyn was playing rhythmic post-punk in London with university friend Casper Hughes, when the realisation that they were in a creative cul-de-sac led them to invite O’Malley onboard. They kept expanding, adding various other childhood and uni friends on bass, trumpet, violins, saxophone, flute and clarinet until they became a unique, eight-piece proposition.
Despite evolving in parallel to the south London punk/DIY scene that has produced the likes of Goat Girl and Black Midi, Llewellyn claims that caroline weren’t really aware of it. Instead they focused inward, making a virtue of Hughes’ technical limitations on the guitar. “Casper’s not having a musical background in conventional song structure meant that the containers we were making music inside weren’t verse-chorus,” Llewellyn explains. “Because of that, the parameters were never there. From the start, it set things off down a path of us deciding what we wanted the form to be, and the form became the interesting thing. It was like, if we’re not going to do verse and chorus, then what do we want to do? We can create a different order of priorities.”
caroline’s upcoming eponymous debut – a set of longform compositions rather than conventional songs – is built with almost architectural precision and has a post-rock spareness, making boldly unusual use of space and silence. Their prioritising of tone over melody or the interplay of distance and closeness in their music is especially striking on the oddly poignant cacophony of “Engine (Eavesdropping)” and “Skydiving Onto The Library Roof”, an epic exercise in slow build that suggests Richard Dawson fronting a minimalist chamber orchestra. All the tracks on the album are carefully considered, and Hughes admits that making them takes “a really long time – it’s about finding things we all love and are happy with”.
Most of the songs on caroline were recorded at London’s Total Refreshment Centre and mixed via marathon Zoom sessions with Lankum producer John Murphy. “It just went on and on,” laughs Hughes. “We’d be like, ‘Can you move it up one or two dB?’ Then that would ruin the balance and we’d have to go back. It’s fun – it’s intense problem solving, but we take it to its extreme, I think.”
“We are total perfectionists,” admits Llewellyn. Even before the core trio have taken their songs to the rest of the band, they have been extensively workshopped. “We do a lot of talking – as much as we do playing.” This dedication and obsessive attention to detail is what you might reasonably expect of a band whose members variously work for a political campaigning organisation, teach music in schools, design instruments for players with limited mobility or are studying “the role of improvisation within the ongoing happening of social worlds”. On top of that, Llewellyn makes performance art with an improv element and quite a few of caroline have their own bands and/or play in other friends’ projects.
This paints a picture of an ensemble in all-consuming pursuit of their art, but Hughes says there is no grand plan and their aims, for now at least, are modest: “We just want to keep trying stuff out, pushing our more recent experiments with recording techniques and different sound environments. We don’t have any particular intentions apart from to just carry on being open to the new ideas that come up when we play music together.”
caroline is released by Rough Trade on February 25.