Longstanding D.C. quartet the Caribbean have deep roots in that area’s scene through their current project as well as past work in Townies and Dischord indie-punks Smart Went Crazy (drummer Anthony Dennison). The band’s third album Populations is their most delicate collection of expansive encyclopedia-pop, where fleshed-out scenes — “I took to Wayne Lee cuz we both loved the Who / His father was a Jehovah’s Witness. / One day he said, ‘Hey man, do you believe in dinosaurs?” And I didn’t have the heart to tell him I believed in dinosaurs not God” — float through skeletal (but compositionally rich) bedroom transmissions. Or it can get especially subtle: referencing the end of the Go-Betweens via an Elliott Smith-redolent vocal line. That overall impulse toward hushed minutiae ends up sounding something like extinct D.C.-area crew Eggs hooking up with Franklin Bruno for a late-night whisper session.
After finding out they were gainfully employed, I caught up with the Caribbean core to discuss work: guitarist Dave Jones is a librarian at the U.S. Department of Transportation; multi-instrumentalist/editor Matthew Byars teaches English at a private school in the Baltimore area, and vocalist/guitarist Michael Kentoff is a civil litigation attorney at a law firm in D.C. To get a sense of the kind of yarns they’re spinning on record, take a listen to Populations’ “Stockhausen Serves Imperialism” after our yarn-spinning Q&A.
Michael Kentoff, vocals, guitar, keyboards, electronics, tapes, bass
STEREOGUM: How long have you been practicing law?
MICHAEL KENTOFF Nine beautiful years.
STEREOGUM: About how many cases are you normally handling at a time?
MK: Right now, I’m working on seven or eight cases, but different cases are at different stages; some are fairly quiet with little to do, while some are a blast furnace. I get bored easily, so I sort of prefer the hot ones. The summers are often a little quieter than the rest of the year; so we tour a lot over the summer.
STEREOGUM: Ever have a client recognize you as a member of the Caribbean?
MK: Not yet, although I had an interview candidate look me up on-line and get a few hundred hits for me in the Caribbean. He said, “I thought I had the wrong Michael Kentoff.” I smiled and said, “You did.” Wink. Actually, there probably aren’t any other Michael Kentoffs … I checked phone books when I was a kid.
STEREOGUM: Do you know any other rocker lawyers?
MK: I sort of half-know Andy Cohen of Silkworm. I guess they’re Bottomless Pit now. We e-mailed each other when he was about to start law school and I’d just finished. I can’t remember who set up that correspondence. I tend to keep being lawyer and being a songwriter pretty separate because I’m always terrified that someone’s going to say, “Oh yeah, my cousin’s an orthodontist and he’s in a band, they’re called 4 Out of 5 Doctors and they wear scrubs and play parties.” There’s a picture in the Washington Post today of Mike Huckabee playing bass at some Republican fundraiser and that’s the kind of crap, or fucking Lee Atwater playing a Telecaster or Bill Clinton blowing a tenor sax, that just sends chills. I tend to keep my two lives sort of on the QT from each other to avoid that sort of thing. Granted, I’m not a politico and when of those clowns do it, it sends a ridiculous message. Like Atwater: you think I’m an evil stiff but look. OK, you’re an evil stuff who plays a Telecaster. Could be worse, I guess: he could have played a Paul Reed Smith.
STEREOGUM: The band houses a librarian, teacher, lawyer — that’s a lots of data. How much has your job influenced your songwriting?
MK: I like your use of the word data. We’re all data machines — data in the form of knowledge, experience, phobias, prejudices, and personality quirks. A relationship is really just the synthesis of exchanged data. I write the words; I’m interested in relationships. I’m interested in that data. I spend 50 hours a week or so at work, so that forms a lot of my understanding of the way people deal with each other. Some people have hypothesized that our songs are about work and that doesn’t completely ring true to me. I don’t write songs about motions for summary judgment. I haven’t yet, anyway. Having a job that involves lots of writing and interaction with often interesting people has forced me out of my den. A lot of the human dynamic all around me plays into the Caribbean’s songs. Some stories take place in a work setting, others not at all. I like seeing how people grow and change and interact and lots of our songs betray that interest. I say betray because none of it occurred to me at all until someone else pointed it out.
STEREOGUM: Ever try to sing a rebuttal in court?
MK: No, but I have cross-examined people in the audience at Caribbean gigs. I’m actually in court very very little; I’m mostly writing at my computer, on the phone, or elbow-deep in a box of documents.
STEREOGUM: When you have been in court, what’s the strangest case you’ve had to argue?
MK: I did all of the briefing and some depositions in a case involving a death from auto-erotic asphyxiation. Had pictures and everything — totally fascinating. I know as much about that without actually doing it as pretty much anyone around. What do you want to know?
STEREOGUM: Was it Michael Hutchence? Seriously, though, how can someone sue in a situation like this?
MK: My client, an insurance company, was sued by the decedent’s family for not paying the Accidental Death and Disability claim. In the policy, there was an exclusion for intentionally self-inflicted injury. While the decedent certainly didn’t intend to die, he did mean to cause the injury (hypoxia), which led to his death. His family sued saying, one, he wasn’t performing autoerotic asphyxiation, which was absurd, and, two, even if he were, he did not intend the result. We agreed that he didn’t intend the resulting death, but argued that he purposely cut off oxygen from his brain to achieve a sexual effect and that was the self-inflicted injury. We won on summary judgment in federal court. It was cool. The law is actually pretty unsettled on this point, which slightly baffles me. Seems like a pretty easy call.
STEREOGUM: Do you offer the other band members legal advice?
MK: Casually, a little, but I’ve found that my legal skills rarely translate into anything useful to anyone close to me in my life.
STEREOGUM: Does the job ever get in the way of touring? The band in the way of the job?
MK: I guess so, but I’m not sure I really want to tour around in a van for two to three months at a time anyway. Now, a really beautiful tour bus — that’s a completely different story. Air conditioning, TV, couches, a head? Yessir. We were on tour this month and had a night off in Portland, Oregon, so we went to see Subtle at a club there. As we were leaving, we saw this giant Maddencruiser monstrosity. That I could fucking do. We were shocked that Subtle would have something that lush, but it must have been theirs. Yeah, I could work with that.
On the other hand I really like having a job that has nothing to do with music. It’s a refuge. Music’s not even really like a job because it seems like I’m almost always doing it, even while I’m working. It’s everywhere. So, if I can lose myself for a spell while in the creativity of my job, I enjoy music more. Whenever I get back from tour, I’m actually excited to start writing something for work.
We’ve all had work things come up that have played havoc with scheduling, but everyone does. I had a fetal position panic attack once on tour when trying to balance the two became a little overwhelming. That’s mostly because I’m a control freak in a band of control freaks and an office of control freaks. I recovered. I take good medicine now. The world stayed on axis. It was OK. For me, the band and the job co-exist peacefully; each knows a tiny bit about the other. Two ships passing at dawn in moderate fog.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain the title, Populations?
MK: That ties back to an interest in human relationships. In the song “Populations” itself, it’s actually an interest in people who are interested in other people’s relationships. In the Judaic tradition, this is called a “yenta.” In “Populations,” the song, the narrator disavows any special ability to help anyone with anything and then, as many people do, offers his observation and even advice to a struggling young couple. His advice — basically, get out of town for the weekend, go to Fallingwater — is probably harmless, but we all unknowingly get entangled in the lives of others and unintentionally project our own biases on them. Lots of us are people-watchers and yentas. Most of us are probably better equipped to be amateur sociologists than amateur psychologists. I know I am.
STEREOGUM: Would you ever want to do the band full-time?
MK: I don’t know. Right now, it’s not a choice: I have a mortgage and car payments and I like to eat food. As a hypothetical, I wonder. As good as working has been for me as a songwriter and as much as I like my job, under all the right circumstances I could possibly rule the pop world if I did it full-time. That’s where the tour bus comes in. Oh, and a professional driver. And a guitar tech. The thing is: I get a little stale-headed if I’m around music people all the time. Being around lawyers is generally different; they seem a little more well-rounded. Most of them are liberal arts people like me, but they seem more connected to Planet Earth somehow and far less preoccupied with being cool. I’m generalizing to make good copy, you understand. I’m hoping you have some pull-out quote, “I’d rather hang out with lawyers than musicians.” It isn’t really true, but it’s provocative. I like and dislike both musicians and lawyers. It’s true: I keep fishy company no matter what I do.
Dave Jones: guitar, keyboards, harmony vocal, banjo, violin
STEREOGUM: Do you have a degree in Library Science?
DAVE JONES: I do, an MLS from the University of Maryland.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been a librarian? And how long at the Department Of Transportation?
DJ: I’ve been a librarian since 1996 when I began working for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries. I moved to DOT in 1998.
STEREOGUM: Can you explain the holdings a bit. What’s the space like?
DJ: We’ve got a lot of technical literature, highway and bridge construction and maintenance, primarily. Some significant maritime holdings, and to a lesser extent rail. I get the impression there are less engineers around here than there used to be. They’ve been replaced by: lawyers. DOT is largely a regulatory agency these days. The library has an extensive legal collection and the attorneys around here are some of our
most dedicated users. We’re in a brand new space, DOT moved into a new Headquarters building this year, so everything is fresh and new. And hyper air-conditioned.
STEREOGUM: What are your duties?
DJ: I’m a reference librarian. I do research and help people find stuff. I also look after our “Ask a Librarian” inbox so I get a lot of questions/requests from people outside DOT, members of the general public: the American taxpayer.
STEREOGUM: Do friends make Borges jokes? Kafka?
DJ: All the time. I don’t get them, but they do. I get very positive feedback from friends and strangers when they hear I’m a librarian, actually. Maybe people think it’s a cool job, or maybe I just hang out with a lot of geeks…
STEREOGUM: Ever find material for Caribbean songs in the stacks?
DJ: I do. I don’t write any of the lyrics so it’s not a literary intervention, but I definitely get guitar ideas here. Like most musicians I’ve got tunes running through my head constantly. If the Caribbean is recording or particularly active live then it’s very often Caribbean songs bouncing around in there. The library is usually quiet, I get a lot of “micro ideas” when I’m poking around in the stacks, how to play a given passage just a little bit differently, plugging in a new or different effect to get this or that sound. I’ve got a good memory for specific live performances. If there’s something about my guitar playing in our live set that’s not as good as I want it to be the library is pretty fertile ground for inspiration: ideas not directly inspired by the library, but there’s an environment here where those ideas can grow.
STEREOGUM: What’s been the most fascinating search someone’s sent you far? Any oddball stuff popping up?
DJ: Well, “fascination” is relative. While I enjoy being a librarian and believe it’s an honorable trade, the subject concentration of my library is pretty boring. I find government documents and information interesting so sometimes the path data takes from source to publication to me finding it somewhere can be interesting. And I do sometimes feel a sense of accomplishment when I find exactly what someone is looking for, or locate something tricky to find, but at the risk of being too literal here, “fascination” is in short supply.
The oddest request I’ve received came by phone, and I don’t remember the information this guy was looking for specifically, but as soon as he heard that we didn’t have it, it was off to the races! I was informed that I “worked for” this gentleman, he was recording this phone call, the curses began and the black helicopters were in flight. We just passed the phone around so everybody could get a listen, no audible responses were necessary, he just kept on going. A real, honest to goodness Dale Gribble. Except angrier, and more profane. And probably not as bright.
STEREOGUM: Do you work with any other musicians?
DJ: I do not. My colleagues all know I’m in a band, and find it very interesting, a little exotic, even. They don’t really have a good idea what “kind” of band I’m in, though, that we’re artists and communicators more than anything else, and it’s pop music we employ to facilitate that. A colleague once asked me “Has your band looked into playing cruise ships? Those guys make a lot of money.” Another often asks whether we’ve got “a gig lined up for Memorial Day weekend,” or New Year’s Eve, etc. Not that I’ve got anything against “a lot of money,” or the band with the regular Tuesday slot at Shenanigan’s, but that ain’t us.
Matthew Byars: drums, bass, harmony vocal, keyboards, turntable
STEREOGUM: How long have you been teaching? What grade?
MATTHEW BYARS: About ten years, almost all middle school. Currently fifth and sixth. Only been at a private school for four of them; previously taught special needs students in Baltimore City.
STEREOGUM: Can you talk a bit about the differences/similarities between the schools?
MB: Hmmm … night and day, ultimately. It’s just like you’d think, I guess: the kids who have money and parents and support get a big dose of all those things, the kids who don’t have much in the way of any of those, don’t. I wouldn’t trade my experience working in the city for anything, especially as a beginning teacher, because I’ve faced about some of the toughest behavioral and educational challenges one can face, and that made me a stronger person and teacher; in comparison, my current job seems pretty easy. That being said, the higher expectations I face working at such a great school — my current school — bring a lot of pressure with them, so there are different challenges (parental pressures, high expectations from administration and from yourself).
STEREOGUM: Do you have a teaching degree? What did you write on/study in College?
MB: I got an M.Ed. in Special Education when I began teaching, but wasn’t previously certified (I was an English major in college, as it was the closest thing to a rock music degree I could find).
STEREOGUM: What did you think was rock-n-roll about English? What’s your area of interest/expertise?
MB: I guess because there are lyrics in rock music, that sealed the English connection for me. I honestly don’t have an area of interest/expertise; through teaching, I’ve gotten pretty good at teaching certain areas of writing to specific age groups, and also at helping kids work through stories, but I spent most of college drinking, listening to music, and wishing I was in a band.
STEREOGUM: What’s books are on the syllabus this year?
MB: We’re moving away from the “here’s a big list of books” model in my school, and instead focusing on allowing students to choose their daily reading materials (called “Fread,” as in “free read”) and keeping a log of what they read. In class we work with some great short story anthologies, as I prefer short stories … they accommodate my short attention span as well as the kids’.
STEREOGUM: Any stories the students especially enjoy?
MB: The Junior Great Books series we use generally engages them enough so they can work through the stories, but they don’t generally “enjoy” them until we’ve worked through them together; they usually don’t fully “get” what they’ve read until that happens. I like the stories because there’s a lot to dig into there — a particular favorite is Doris Lessing’s “Through the Tunnel” — and, once explained to them, they relate to them because the stories all deal with independence (the lack thereof or the wish for), moving away from your parent’s control, and growing up in general, and so in a light-handed and artful way, I believe.
STEREOGUM: I always have to ask this of English Teachers: Are you the Dead Poet Society type or more workaday? The cool teacher? A taskmaster?
MB: Considering that by, say, January or February my class has devolved into a mixture of prop comedy and performance art, I can affirm that my reputation is as a “fun,” or at least “funny” teacher. I think that sometimes shorts-circuits me regarding my school-wide reputation with colleagues and parents, as it makes folks think that I don’t have high expectations for the kids, both behaviorally and academically, when in fact I do. I like goofiness in the classroom, but on my terms, generally, so I can maintain order and (perhaps more importantly) coach the kids on social nuances that they might not get otherwise.
STEREOGUM: Do the students use the library or are they more into web research?
MB: We have computers for every kid in all our classrooms, but we don’t do a lot of research work in my class; the computers are used mostly for word processing and the like. Same deal with the library — research is deadly boring, so kids just use it to get “fread” books. (We also have a terrific librarian who keeps things from getting too dorky up there — not a lot of posters of Whoopi Goldberg saying how cool reading is — which is a rare trait amongst middle school librarians).
STEREOGUM: Something else I feel a duty to ask: Do the students know about the band?
MB: Word leaked out in the past year, but I usually change the subject when I’m asked about it. I’m not really sure why I’m uncomfortable talking about it with them, but for some reason I am. They often harness the power of Google, however, to find out stuff about me (and, presumably, all their teachers), so they inevitably run across all sorts of stuff about me online.
STEREOGUM: Have they turned up anything particularly embarrassing? A tour diary or something?
MB: Funny you mention that — I’m parsing my words just a bit here for that very reason. Not much … just a bit. But as our profile rises and we get more press, that could be an issue in some ways, I suppose.
Populations is out in October on Hometapes.
Matt Byars, Dave Jones, and Michael Kentoff are just a Minor Threat…