Band To Watch: caroline
During their set at the picturesque Green Man Festival in the mountains of Wales last summer, caroline hit a snag. While playing their second single, 2021’s “Skydiving onto the library roof,” a vicious rattle began emanating from the kick drum, throwing the sweeping, meditative song off course. Rather than stop the song and restart when everything was fixed, the eight members of the band battled through in defiance, with a few members leaving their instruments to tinker with the problem while the rest continued to play the track’s drawn-out and repeated pair of notes. When the rattle eventually ceased after a few minutes, and the band’s horn section rose together for the song’s triumphant finale, the roar from the crowd was one meant to be heard on the festival’s adjacent main stage, not the cozy new-bands tent they were playing. It was as if both band and crowd said to each other: We got through it together.
Unwittingly, the technical difficulty and its eventual resolution served as a microcosm of the experience of watching caroline live or listening to their music: They provide a communal experience like little else out there. “I still think about that all the time,” a smiling Freddie Wordsworth says of the Green Man set today, round the table of a pub in London’s Hackney neighborhood with his seven bandmates.
I meet all of caroline a few hours before they play the EartH Theatre venue in support of the Microphones, a show that goes off without a hitch. I’m told most interviews they conduct are attended by the band’s core founding trio — drummer, vocalist and cellist Jasper Llewellyn, guitarist Mike O’Malley and guitarist and vocalist Casper Hughes — but all eight cram into the Railway Tavern today, and it helps me to find out how this disparate cluster of members from all manner of musical backgrounds managed to come together and feel at home in the most untraditional of bands.
Back in the mid-2010s, caroline had its genesis in a very different form. Hughes and Llewellyn began playing music together at University in Manchester as a post-punk duo, bringing O’Malley in around 2017. O’Malley had roots in Midwest emo (“I’ve taken what I liked from it, and left the rest,” he says now in retrospect of the genre’s influence on caroline) but also played Appalachian folk standards with Llewellyn and drummer/percussionist Hugh Aynsley as a teenager. These influences were slowly expanded upon and let into the band’s formula as they expanded to incorporate new members.
Racking his brains to get the acquisitions into the right chronological order, Hughes reveals that Wordsworth, an old family friend of Hughes’, was recruited for trumpet, alongside Aynsley on percussion and Oliver Hamilton on violin, before an “absolutely amazing” performance from Magdalena McLean, sitting in for an absent Hamilton at a single show, earned her a permanent gig. Alex McKenzie, “the final jigsaw piece,” joined after stumbling upon one of the band’s shows and sending off a speculative DM to Hughes, and now contributes percussion, clarinet, flute, and saxophone.
“It never felt like it was a complete or incomplete thing,” O’Malley says of the slow accumulation of members from a two-piece to the now-eight. “It just set into its place as we played more shows.” He adds, “For logistical completeness though, eight is enough.”
Nonetheless, two months after we chat, the band grows even further, enlisting the help of Geordie Greep and Cameron Picton from London contemporaries (and fellow lowercase enthusiasts) black midi to join them for their six-hour improvised show at the capital’s Southbank Centre. Interconnected with the London post-punk scene despite sounding nothing like them, members of caroline have also become increasingly coveted hired hands for others, with McLean, Wordsworth and Hamilton joining Shame for their jazz-flecked Tiny Desk Concert for NPR last year.
As more members arrived into caroline’s orbit, the musical inquisitiveness of the original lineup also grew, with Llewellyn picking up the cello once again after “forgetting” that he played it as a child. It’s an instrument that is now pivotal to a number of the band’s tracks. “I’m the only one to play my instrument properly,” Wordsworth quips to bursts of laughter from the rest of the group (he’s the only classically trained member), before later on telling me that the fluidity and bending of rules that he experiences within caroline is what makes him feel at home in the band; he felt ostracized from local jazz scenes due to their rigidity, despite loving the music they play.
The band’s debut single, “Dark blue,” has followed them throughout this transition. The simple circular guitar riff that runs throughout the track was first penned by Hughes and O’Malley in 2017 and has changed and evolved as the band did the same in the intervening years until its release in 2020. “That song was the start of the progression of the band — to have a very strong core that’s very simple and can be played almost infinitely, but has messier, more improvised elements over the top,” O’Malley says, pinpointing a recipe that runs throughout the band’s stunning, one-of-a-kind debut album, due out next month via Rough Trade.
On “Dark blue” the beginning riff is joined across the track’s near seven minutes by criss-crossing violins, clattering percussion and Llewellyn’s unique voice, which brings his folk background to the fore in brilliant ways, his voice producing more of a sombre, mantra-like chant than a traditional singing voice.
“I love ‘Dark blue’ to bits, but we’re different now,” O’Malley says of the band’s progression. Llewellyn adds: “We were within the format of guitar, bass and drums, and were trying to do something interesting within that ‘rock band’ format. We didn’t think of the potential for something else until it happened.”
“You feel safer being freer,” Wordsworth says of how caroline make music now. “You feel less fear of doing something a little bit different to what a ‘regular’ song sounds like. My musical background is completely different to the others, and I’d initially found it quite difficult, because we’d discuss our music so much. Everything would turn into this massive discussion before we’d even play a note, talking about these tiny minutiae. But now it feels really purposeful.” (“It’s excruciating!” O’Malley adds from the background.)
Another track that has been with the band since the beginning is “Good morning (red),” which is unveiled today with a video by Jonas Pequeno, a month ahead of the album’s release. A blast of gorgeous sunlight after the gloomy “Dark blue,” the track explodes in a wave of optimism courtesy of sweeping violins and melodic guitars. Written in 2017, the track’s lyrics revolve around the “febrile political time” of the UK’s 2017 General Election, when Labour Party candidate Jeremy Corbyn provided the prospect of a truly socialist government in the country for the first time in decades. A number of caroline were involved in campaigning and canvassing for the party at the time.
“There was a sense of hope, and I was trying to will that on with the lyrics in the song,” says Hughes, who shouts the lyrics “I need hope in this world!” in a wonderfully defiant outburst midway through the track. “They sound more hopeful to me than I feel now,” he reflects, with the politics of the UK on a continued trend towards conservatism ever since the 2017 election was lost. “When I shout it now, I shout it with way more venom than before. It used to have a bit of a lilt, but now I fully scream it. There’s a lot of anger and disappointment coming out in that.” Later on, at the show with the Microphones, Hughes — as promised — delivers a shuddering exorcism during the track, breaking the beautiful balance and poise of the band’s live show with a deeply passionate yell.
In caroline’s live show, as with their debut album, patience is a virtue. On “Skydiving onto the library roof,” the song from the Green Man set that’s based around two swelling, repeated notes, O’Malley conducts the band through the enticingly drawn-out repetition by swaying his body back and forth, before pointing his guitar towards the sky to start the repetition again. Hughes does the same with his head when they start “IWR” with an extended, a cappella version of its opening lyrics, rising from a crouch into almost a leap to indicate the repeated verse is to start over once again. Across the lengthy songs, these simple, repeated motifs become hypnotic and transcendent when played enough times. Though there are eight people in the band, caroline still feel truly greater than the sum of their parts.
These methods and their subsequent rewards are felt the same on the debut album, which lifts off from the blueprint “Dark blue” set half a decade ago and travels to softer, more vocal-led places (the beautiful “IWR”), through minimalist tracks of just vocals and cello (“desperately”) and improvised soundscapes (“Engine (eavesdropping),” which is both chaotic and tranquil across its five minutes), before closer “Natural death” brings it all together in nine minutes of music that’s simple yet packed full of ideas, sombre yet triumphant, messy but makes perfect sense. Trying to interrogate the inner workings of music like this takes away from its magic; you’ve just gotta let it happen to you.
caroline is out 2/25 on Rough Trade.