The Unknown Guitarist: Throwaway's Kirsten Carey is in the bag for avant sounds



Brown-paper frag: Kirsten Carey's explosive avant-punk-metal-jazz fits in every genre bag. Photo by The Ottolab.

Kirsten Carey shreds on guitar like free-jazz icon Derek Bailey.

She also wears a paper bag on her head like The Gong Show's Unknown Comic.

That combination of avant-garde string slaying and performative humor defines Carey's art-punk duo Throwaway, which just released the songs "Bonathan Jyers" and "Exotic Bird" as a digital single and booked several shows in Southeast Michigan, including March 16 at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti.

In fact, whatever project Carey is working on -- the free-jazz-rock of The Great Collapsing Hrung; the avant-prog of Motherfish; the sludgy noise of Shima -- there's an element of knowing wit. She displays doses of whimsy even in the middle of a chord sequence that sounds like it's from an angry noise-rock band.

Despite earning a University of Michigan jazz and contemplative studies degree in 2014, Carey doesn't sound like a formal upper-education guitarist. Despite intimately knowing the circle of fifths, Carey can sound like someone who's chugged a fifth while headbanging to The Melvins. Or she can sound like a wildling wobbling through the Primus catalog while screaming lyrics that range from science-fiction-inspired political metaphors to personal but self-consciously meta. Or she can sound like an astute literary scholar who writes a song cycle based on James Joyce's UlyssesOr be chill enough to play a concert for an experimental music program for really little kids in a Hollywood public library.

Carey's music is difficult, unique, compelling, and not for everyone, which is why it's special. Genres mean little to this guitarist; for Carey, all music is part of the same bag (brown paper or otherwise).

I chatted with the Chicago-raised guitarist about her influences, her new songs, and what it's like to be an idiosyncratic musician in a university jazz-studies program.

Q: Throwaway has a distinct No Wave vibe whereas your other projects sound like metal-jazz. What was the impetus for Throwaway, what's the story behind the name, and was No Wave a primary influence?
A: I’m flattered by both of those comparisons! I’m certainly a fan of No Wave -- some WCBN co-horts brought me to a James Chance concert in Brooklyn years ago, which is insane in retrospect, so I got into it from there. It’s certainly influenced me, but it wasn’t what was primarily on my mind when I first started writing Throwaway songs. That being said, I’ve been grappling a lot with how to advertise Throwaway, genre-wise, and might take your suggestion.

Throwaway was basically the phoenix rising from the existential ashes of graduating from music school. I majored in jazz studies at U-M, focusing on guitar. I found it more horrifying than I expected to be suddenly let loose into the world, without any lucrative job prospects whatsoever. I worked a lot of food service gigs that first year. I tend to be very hard on myself, so it was difficult for me to think of the future and the big picture. I was driving around thinking, “Now what? This is it?”

So Throwaway was created that late summer after graduation, when I first started grappling with those ideas. The name Throwaway and the paper bag mask occurred to me in the same instant. It just happened. Ideologically, it all rose out of that existential crisis -- being uncertain where life was headed, what I wanted to do, how I could survive financially, where I wanted to be, etc., etc. I felt like an underdog, very in the dark and cast aside. A lot of the songs still focus on these kinds of inner demons.

Musically, I discovered two albums that summer that I became absolutely obsessed with: California by Mr. Bungle and, hilariously enough, Sailing the Seas of Cheese by Primus. I also delved into the Talking Heads for the first time and, in the fall, David Bowie. Add Deerhoof, Melvins, tUnE-yArDs, the Boredoms, and the Pixies’ Doolittle, and you basically have the musical concoction that created Throwaway.

Q: Why a bag over your head? What does it represent? And do you ever play live while wearing it a la Buckethead?
A: Thematically, the bag is basically a comment on my own lack of confidence -- it’s a character I can slip into and act inside. Initially, I thought of it because I find band photos inherently strange and awkward, so wearing an obstructing mask that automatically makes pictures surreal, weird, and/or funny was an intriguing way to solve that problem.

It also fit very comfortably with the sort of existential themes that Throwaway’s music deals with. Even just the name “Throwaway,” to me, invokes some kind of cast-aside character, and a hand-made paper bag mask really accentuates that.

But, at the end of the day, I’m just very, very, very interested in the connection of music with multidisciplinary elements - I expressed that in The Ulysses Project by having underscored theatrical readings from the novel between songs. 

But I’m particularly fascinated by the use of avatars to create a band “mystique.” I can probably trace that back to the intense fanaticism towards Gorillaz I’ve felt since Demon Days came out in 2005, which in turn blossomed because of my life-long obsession with anything animated. However, I wasn’t consciously thinking about Gorillaz when I decided to create a character for my weird rock band. I now naturally feel an attraction to those kinds of projects -- bands like The Residents, Ghost, Caroliner, GWAR, Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles. Anyone who adds a twist to the traditional presentation of a band. I also find it interesting that, to my knowledge, there’s not a lot of female-led multimedia bands like this.

For this reason, the “playing live with the mask” conundrum has started weighing especially heavily on my mind as the band’s starting to get a little more traction. The first Throwaway shows were as a solo project where I did wear the mask, but once it became a duo, I decided to let the mask be media-only. My guitar playing was getting very sloppy with the mask on, and the songs were getting more intricate and difficult. Pulling it off while keeping tight with a drummer seemed, at the time, not worth the musical risk. So if you’d asked me this question a year ago, I would have said no way.

But I’m really, really coming around to it. I think it’s what I would want to see if I were in the audience. So I’ve started reaching out to costume designers to try to figure out how to jump over the guitar-sightline hurdle. If that problem is settled, there’s a very distinct possibility there will be a seismic shift in Throwaway’s all-around presentation before the album comes out. 

We’ll be testing some waters in our entry video to the Tiny Desk Contest, which we’re filming next week with me in the regular ol’ mask. So stay tuned!

Q: Is fellow U-M alum and Threads All Arts Festival founder Nicole Patrick the primary drummer in Throwaway, or does the chair rotate?
A: I did two shows of Throwaway as a solo project, but the second I realized I wanted a drummer, I immediately knew it had to be Nicole. We were in undergrad together, and she’s absolutely incredible. But because of my stint in Los Angeles, the chair started to rotate based on my geographic location and people’s availability. Nicole cordially stepped down last fall because of her involvement in the Threads Festival and Mobius Percussion and a dozen other amazing projects. She’s on the new single, though.

The L.A.-based drummer has been Oliver Dobrian, who will be the drummer on the full-length album that will hopefully arise in the fall. He slams the drums in a very aggressive, reckless, and yet somehow always temporarily correct way, and it’s fantastic. 

For the Michigan shows coming up, I’ll be playing some with Jonathan Taylor of saajtak fame and some with Cory Tripathy of Betsy Soukup fame. I’m super excited to play with both of them -- it’s thrilling to hear how new drummers transform the project. It’s all Throwaway, of course, but Jon’s style is way more meticulous than Oliver’s, for example. The Throwaway drummer skill-set is very particular, I’m finding, because of all the mixed meters and wanton eighth notes. But you still have to have that noisy rock sensibility. I seem to systemically write hard music!

Q: I haven't seen Netflix's Stranger Things, but ol' Duck Duck Go tells me Jonathan Byers is the primary character. What about the show inspired "Bonathan Jyers" -- if it did at all?
A: Oh, it certainly did. I believe wrote that song the day after I finished the first season, which was two months later than everyone else watched it because I was in Japan during the whole initial Stranger Things fervor. I got back and there were still whispers to the effect that I had just missed out on this big cultural event -- it was very bizarre.

Initially, the song was called “Demogorgon,” but I decided to stiltedly name it after my favorite character. The lyrics are very much about fighting the Demogorgon: “Holed up inside / but it’s still clawing at the door / and it won’t subside / you’re what it’s looking for.” I was thinking of that scene with Nancy and Steve and Jonathan at the Byers’ house toward the end of the first season!

But, as with all Throwaway songs, using the Stranger Things / Demogorgon idea was really just used a gateway for me to talk about something else, because three months after I wrote the first version of this song, Trump was elected. So it’s more accurately about Trump as the Demogorgon: “What is this? / The dribble that pours from its mouth / I think it’s contagious / Can a town so easily decay? / I don’t buy it.” That line’s specifically about Trump. The song’s a rallying cry to fight against the bigotry, the nonsense, the hatred, and the lies that we’re faced with every day from this administration. It’s a cry to keep fighting because it’s worth fighting against.

Of course, as also with all Throwaway songs, there’s also an existential crisis reading of it -- fighting against self-doubt and self-hatred and all that good stuff. It’s a three-layered song, really. I’m a little proud I got all that in about two minutes.

Q: "Exotic Bird" feels a bit more directly confessional than some other Throwaway songs -- even if it's couched in some meta phrases such as "This is a song where I express angst." You even say, "I moved away from my friends ..." Is this a reference to your California move? What brought you back to Michigan from California or even Chicago? 
A: Bingo! “Exotic Bird” and “Six,” one of the new-new ones that will also be on the album, are the two most blatantly personal Throwaway songs. I wrote “Exotic Bird” in December 2015, about a month and a half after I moved to Los Angeles. I remember that night acutely: I was sitting on a mattress I had no frame for, in an empty room I was leasing for the month, with nothing to do and no plans. I was feeling really lonely, but very aware that it was my choice to be in L.A. So I wrote these really wry, smirking lyrics about moving to California but still feeling sad. I’m basically making fun of myself during the verses because I don’t really write songs that are so obvious about its emotions. I typically write through metaphor and allegory, so the sarcasm twist was natural for me.

The haunting thing about “Exotic Bird” is that by the time came into the Throwaway cannon in early 2017, I only felt more like how the lyrics suggest. It became a really cathartic song for me to sing because I felt I had really hit the nail on the head, but over a year ago! Which is a pretty good hint that Los Angeles was not working out for me. 

There’s not one reason I decided to move back, but I was certainly homesick and a lot of the musicians I missed working with were in Detroit or in the Midwest / East Coast. On the West Coast, I felt very distanced from that whole network, which comes out in “Exotic Bird” as well.

Q: Are these two songs going to be on a 7-inch or digital single? Or will they be on an album I saw mentioned as happening in 2018?
A: Both! Kind of. These particular recordings are part of a double-single we’re jointly releasing with our friends Sea Lords, a performative metal band from Chicago. They dress up in sea monster masks and banter about bringing an end to the human race. Naturally, I was really into it. We played with them during our Midwest tour last year and they offered to record us for this purpose while we were in Chicago.

The single will be released digitally, but I’m going to create a poster to sell at shows. I have a concept based on old horror-film posters, and Ben Willis, renaissance man, is going to help me shade and color it. The idea is that if you buy the poster, it will come with a download code. We won’t have it in time for Ziggy’s, but I have high hopes it will be available for our PJ’s gig on April 11.

But different versions of both these songs will appear on the album. Those were recorded with Oliver in Santa Monica, by my extremely talented engineer-producer guru-friend Lizzy Erickson. We recorded them when I was unsure whether this single was ever going to see the light of day, but the L.A. recordings actually sound really different, so it’s worth it to release both. It probably means we won’t do a music video for these versions, however.

Q: How did your idiosyncratic approach to music -- specifically improv, metal, and noise jams -- go over while you were a jazz studies major at U-M? Do you ever play something closer to "regular" jazz, or does that world not hold much interest to you?
A: Hah, I was something of a black sheep, especially within the guitarists. But there’s a very, very strong contingent at U-M for improvised music -- we even have the Creative Arts Orchestra (CAO), which was one of the first large improvising ensembles offered by any college, I believe. I don’t know if I would’ve been properly steered towards improv and the avant-garde without the help of some of the U-M faculty, namely Mark Kirschenmann, Andrew Bishop, and Steve Rush.

That being said, there’s definitely two camps within the jazz department: the straight-ahead contingent and the weirdo contingent. I was, obviously, a weirdo. I realized in my sophomore year that I didn’t really care about bebop -- it’s very masculine, and I quickly saw that the amount of work I’d have to put in to even wedge my foot in the door was not lining up with how strongly I actually felt about the music. Not coincidentally, sophomore year was when I joined CAO and Steve Rush’s Digital Music Ensemble.

There was a large pool of amazingly talented students, and we were basically an assembled hodge-podge of outliers from our programs. So being a weirdo actually meant that I collaborated a lot with people from other departments -- composers, Performing Arts Technology students, some classical majors -- that I might not have otherwise worked with, which I’m very thankful for.

I recently joked that I don’t think I’ve played a standard publicly in over three years. It’s not that I don’t want to ever again -- if someone asked me, I’d be thrilled because, now, it would be a breath of fresh air. But it’s certainly not my focus. It’s not how I write, either. Though I’m going to start working on a free jazz-rock-ish album this year.

Q: What was the inspiration for your Ulysses project?
A: During my all-important sophomore year, I took John Whittier-Ferguson’s James Joyce course -- which, if you’re reading this and enrolled at U-M, I would 1,000% recommend taking. You read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, and, finally, Ulysses. Ulysses is a life-changing work, and it was an honor and a pleasure to have someone as enthusiastic and knowledgeable as Prof. Ferguson guide me through it.

As I was reading it, Ulysses began to take up more and more of my brain-space, to the point it was eventually all I talked or thought about. At the same time, I happened to be taking Prof. Bishop’s jazz composition course. And because I was obsessing over Ulysses, all the pieces I wrote for that class were about Ulysses. 

Anyway, by the end of the course, I realized that if I wrote a few more songs, I’d have a rounded dramatic arc and an album’s worth of material. The rest, as they say, is history!

I’ve always written a lot of material based on literature, TV, and movies. Throwaway’s no different, as “Bonathan Jyers” suggests -- there’s five others I can think of. But somehow no one’s guessed which song was inspired by Fullmetal Alchemist.

Q: Since we're an Ann Arbor District Library blog, I'm curious about when you were in California and performed as part of an experimental music series for kids that's held at the West Hollywood Library. What was that like and what was the response?
A: That series is called soundSpark and it’s organized by SASSAS, the Society for the Activation of Social Space Through Art and Sound. They’re an incredible organization that I’m thrilled even exists, and I’m honored to have done that soundSpark twice for them. Unfortunately for Michigan, they’re Los Angeles-based.

SoundSpark is a really brilliant series. The West Hollywood Library has this incredible reading room in the children’s section with all these jaw-dropping celebrity donors listed on a plaque outside. SASSAS asks different local improvisers to come in and introduce the kids to improvised music for as long as they’ll pay attention, up to an hour. When I’ve done it, I’ll bring little hand-held percussion instruments and invite the kids to improvise with me. They’re really small -- between the ages of two and maybe five, tops. 

I don’t go loud and scratchy and atonal, of course -- I keep it appropriate for the space and the kids’ ages. Last time, I picked out some kids books from the library and the SASSAS representative, Karen, offered to read them to the kids while I improvised. We chose books that were onomatopoeic, so there were could be an obvious interaction between the words, my guitar, and the kids’ little percussion instruments. It was a blast!

It’s such a phenomenal idea to expose kids to creative music in that kind of setting at such an early age. The brilliance of it is almost overwhelming. I wish we had something like it in Michigan!

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Kirsten Carey's Throwaway plays Ziggy's, 206 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti, on March 16 with witchpucker. Additional Throwaway dates include:
March 28: Beatles Solo Night at The Loving Touch
April 11: PJ's Lager House, with A Deer a Horse and Summer Like the Season
May 5: Korner Bar, with
Plus, an Encore Records concert in Ann Arbor this summer with a date TBD.