Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Night of the Living Dead: Atlanta's Carnivores Rise From the Grave

Of Music and the Macabre, (or, "In Which I Try and Fail at Extending a Death Metaphor the Length of a Feature Article"):

Night of the Living Dead
Atlanta’s Carnivores Rise From the Grave

By Julia Reidy

The first time I saw Carnivores play, they were members of a band that is now dead. In early 2008, the four were still playing around Atlanta as Chainestereo, and I had low expectations. But when they opened for The Ruby Suns and Throw Me The Statue (two much more pop-inflected groups) at the Drunken Unicorn, from the first few damaged chords, I was hooked. Keyboardist Caitlin Lang started singing and whipping her hair around – one of my photos from the night shows it frozen in a great cloud around her head, blurred because she was moving too fast in the low light – and suddenly it was one of those rare moments when, having prepared yourself to be unimpressed, you think, “Wow. This band is actually good.

Almost two years later, they’ve killed that identity and re-birthed themselves as Carnivores. “No one could remember the name, spell the name or say the name,” says guitarist Nathaniel Higgins of Chainestereo. “We felt like a name change would help people remember us better.” After a lineup shuffle, the group decided to scrap the old model and begin again, and this new band in a short period of time has already proved itself memorable. Though they perform in basically the same style, new material and a renewed commitment to songwriting have given Carnivores a fresh lease on life.

But the members of Carnivores were always committed. “I kind of did all the bitch work with Chainestereo in town, and then once Carnivores came about, it was all gravy,” bassist Philip Frobos recalls. He remembers years of playing on bills with terrible bands and paying some serious dues. The thing about dues, though, is that they pay off. Over the summer, Georgia State’s radio station WRAS put Carnivores’ undeniably winning single “A Crime” into regular rotation. It played frequently on car stereos and in coffee shops, working itself subtly into the local consciousness. “I’ve only heard it on once” recalls Higgins. “I was ordering a sub at Sensational Subs, and I was like, ‘I know this song. Wait a second. That’s me!’ It freaked me out.” But Higgins wasn’t freaked out enough to take a post-sandwich victory lap; the band’s work in this world is far from done.

Carnivores borrow widely – from tropicalia, doo-wop, pop and punk – and no one I’ve heard sounds just like them. The four don’t let their referencing bury them; weighed-down, derivative slop can stay six feet under, for all they care.

To that end, I think their inclusive tendencies save them from that particular pitfall. The quartet’s debut full-length, All Night Dead USA, which released locally on Atlanta’s quickly-rising imprint Double Phantom in July and which will release nationally Jan. 26, runs the gamut from absolutely adorable, distorted pop to moaning ambient swaths, to angry riffage. Some numbers are raunchy, complete with atonal vocals, while some seem so perfectly and ecstatically orchestrated that each layer over Frobos’ dynamic, moving bass falls exactly where it should. Tracks devolve intermittently into multicolored grooves as the members take turns singing lead or all holler together. For all its sweetness, Carnivores’ compositions wield a sharp edge; Lang’s vocal delivery on “Organ Trail” comes across as completely demented – she switches from comely to psychotic with no warning and the transition is so smooth you can’t help but smile. Likewise, the band’s locally frequent live shows are almost wholly anarchic, which gives listeners of All Night Dead the sense that Carnivores’ sound is being funneled into a 2-liter bottle, shaken up, and sprayed. It bubbles.

Carnivores obviously nurse an obsessive crush on the macabre, as well. The record’s leadoff “For Griffin” mixes mellow surf guitar with ghoulish group vocals, topped off nicely with speaking samples about death that transition the track into the following psychedelic jam “Neon Bone Groove.” All Night Dead avoids heavy-handedness though, probably thanks to the band’s group songwriting efforts. Most numbers are co-written, and performances seem determinedly communal. At their 529 show Nov. 3, Lang ran repeatedly across the stage to shove her mic in front of drummer Tauseef Anam so that he could sing too.

Sitting across a rickety table from me outside Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points in late October, Higgins indicates Frobos. “Usually it starts out with me or Philip having a guitar part or a bass part or a melody or both,” Higgins says. “Then we usually take it to each other and build from it. And then drums and keyboards get added in and we all talk together about how the song should sound. And he writes all the lyrics.”

“He has some lyrics on the new material,” Frobos retorts, pointing at Higgins.

I ask how they decide who gets to sing what.

“Just what feels right, I guess,” Higgins says. “I feel like me and him and Caitlin all have very different voices. It’s just what’s right for the song.”

“Also, we all have very different vocal ranges and whatnot,” Frobos adds. “So if I write a song that I physically can’t sing…”

Higgins explains that Frobos often brings material to the table that has to have another singer because it’s outside his range.

“The demos are pretty awful,” Frobos admits, smiling.

Speaking of demos, the band has gone back into the studio, this time with producer Mike Wright, who’s worked with the likes of the The Black Lips and The Selmanaires, among others. Over beers in December, Frobos anticipates completing recording in late January, around the same time the group heads out on a Northeast tour and re-releases All Night Dead. This new, as-yet-unnamed full-length stands to evolve Carnivores’ sound and push this growing band into maturity. “I always personally envisioned All Night Dead USA to be a bit of a darker album, originally,” Frobos reflects. “But it came out and it’s not at all a dark album. It’s totally fun and whimsical, kind of. I don’t know. Whatever it is. Tropical. I legitimately think that this new record is a little bit darker and it’s got a little more edge to it. It’s a little lonelier, but it’s more confident.”

The same artists who have worked with Wright in the past, Higgins and Frobos say, have helped them gain that confidence. The Selmanaires, in particular, have been some of their role models in a town that, overall, has proved challenging. “They’ve helped us out a lot,” says Higgins. “They’ve given us a shot, helped us kind of bridge that gap into a scene that was a little bit before us.”

“I think that Atlanta is a really tough town,” Frobos adds. “And that’s what I really like about it, because when you’re from the South, you always have more to prove than anybody else. Everybody thinks that you’re a dumb hick.” Knowing they’ve had to fight for their place in the scene gives the band extra confidence as they go out on the road. “Proving yourself to be worth a damn down here is really hard,” he continues. “It used to be at least. And getting the promoter contacts three years ago, when Deerhunter and The Black Lips were getting huge and still doing big local shows and dominating, it was kind of hard to get on anything cool.

“I definitely feel proud about the grit, and going through all of it to get to where we are here,” says Frobos.

“If we didn’t really like to play shows and music,” Higgins concludes, “we probably would’ve quit a long time ago.”

Equipped with sellable singles like the split 7-inch they shared with fellow Double Phantom artists Abby Go Go, as well as loads of new live material, Carnivores are ready to ride the vinyl grooves of All Night Dead USA into hearts that don’t call Atlanta home. “I kind of take the old coach mindset when it comes to things like success,” says Frobos. “It’s like ‘Alright, you won your first game, but you fucked up a lot. This is what you need to do better. You got a lot of work to do to get to the next level.’ We might’ve gotten a couple of things written about us, and I think that that’s awesome. But I think that there’s a lot of things we can do better, and we need to do better and we need to keep delivering.”

For Carnivores, it’s not time to lay down and die. This music has a lot of living to do.

(A modified version of this article appeared in the January issue of Stomp and Stammer. Reproduced with permission.)

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