Carissa's Wierd: Don't Know What You've Got Until It's Gone

The Seattle band's popularity makes it easy to forget their under-appreciated existence.

The memory that Mat Brooke and Jenn Ghetto recall most vividly from their near-decade in Carissa's Wierd is killing a deer.

It was 2003; the year before, Songs About Leaving, their third and best studio album, was released through Sad Robot, a small Seattle-based label. They purchased a new van. Ghetto remembers feeling optimistic, an unfamiliar emotion for musicians who penned sad, quiet songs.

Then they left on tour, and hit a deer the first day.

"The deer was a bad omen," Ghetto says.

They killed that deer, Brooke says, "and then we broke up."

Of course, it took more than a deer's demise to derail Carissa's Wierd, the super-slow, highly emotional band that spawned Band of Horses, Grand Archives, Sera Cahoone, and S. They officially called it quits weeks later, after a drunken show in a flooded Baltimore basement, a record label that was too small, and the winning of few fans beyond Seattle's city limits.

Brooke and Ghetto still don't understand how a band they founded as teenagers in Tucson, Ariz., and populated with a rotating cast of musicians, including Cahoone and Ben Bridwell, has become so posthumously popular. To them, the band's tenure was a series of accidents and youthful bad choices. They express surprise—Brooke shakes his head and laughs to himself, while Ghetto is wide-eyed and humble—that anyone would care about the July 13 release of a retrospective album, a one-off reunion show this Friday, July 9, and the October reissues of their three studio albums on Hardly Art.

"We never thought we were going to be big," says Brooke. "We were just trying to sabotage our own careers the whole time."

In fact, within years of the band's split, their music became impossible to find, leaving fans longing for the lilting, tragic songs Carissa's Wierd perfected.

"I think it would have been different if the records had been available this whole time," Ghetto speculates, shrugging. "I don't think it would have been this thing that people wanted to get their hands on."

Not long after the band's breakup, all three of their full-lengths—1999's Ugly but Honest, 2001's You Should Be at Home Here, and 2002's Songs About Leaving—went out of print. (Some now fetch $100 on eBay.) Brooke and Ghetto, the band's primary songwriters and two consistent members, never intended this to happen. In their mid-20s, broke and enthusiastic, they sold the rights to their first two records to Sad Robot, and used the money to buy that deer-killing van and embark on what became their final tour. Soon after, Sad Robot disbanded.

Neither the defunct label nor the ex-bandmates were motivated to continue pressing CDs. While Carissa's Wierd might have been popular in Seattle a decade ago—Cahoone was a fan before joining, and she remembers them as "the most coolest band ever"—they weren't a commercial success.

"There was no demand for Songs About Leaving for years," says Mike McGonigal, one of Sad Robot's founders. "There were boxes and boxes of them lying around." Their fans may have been "super-passionate," as Ghetto remembers, but there weren't many of them.

"When we got 30 miles out of Seattle," Brooke adds, "we were nobodies."

After years of heavy drinking—Brooke lived on whiskey and potato chips on most tours—and playing to 13-person crowds in Omaha, Ghetto and Brooke were burnt out. They embarked on separate projects: Brooke started Band of Horses, then left to form Grand Archives, while Ghetto performed solo as S.

Eventually, the duo attempted to buy back their rights, but only recently have they had the money and time to do so. "It was like a year of negotiations, and we whittled it down to what we could afford. It was a little pricey," Brooke says, declining to put a dollar value on the deal.

Reuniting was almost coincidental. While at the Sub Pop office on Grand Archives business, Brooke asked whether Hardly Art, a Sub Pop imprint, would want to reissue Carissa's Wierd albums. From there it snowballed. The label suggested putting together a compilation and a reunion show. Brooke and Ghetto agreed, taken aback by the attention.

"I don't think we ever could have headlined the Showbox back when we were a band," Brooke says, referring to the venue hosting the reunion.

Looking back, it's easy to imagine the story of Carissa's Wierd ending differently. Maybe if the band had initially signed with Sub Pop instead of Sad Robot—both Ghetto and Brooke say they declined offers from the label, and general manager Megan Jasper says that a deal fell apart during negotiations—their albums would still be in print. With the label's larger distribution and promotion arms, Carissa's Wierd might have reached a wider audience outside Seattle, "and no one would give a shit if we reunited," Brooke says, laughing.

"I think everyone thinks we're some kind of fucking mystery, because you can't find our stuff in record stores anymore...and that makes us elusive," he adds. "But we're not. We're not trying to be creepy."

Ghetto and Brooke have remained friends and collaborators. Ghetto sang on the most recent Grand Archives records; Brooke played banjo and ukulele on S's Sadstyle. They share a practice space and often tour together. In some ways, they are like siblings. "We've been seeing a lot of each other since we were 16 years old," Brooke says.

Neither musician, though, can give an exact reason why they haven't written a song together since "Phantom Fireworks," a track, penned on their final tour, which appears with 15 others on the new compilation. Listening to it now, it sounds like a metaphor for the band's end. It's slower than most Carissa's Wierd songs, opening with a long instrumental introduction. Unlike "Low-Budget Slow-Motion Soundtrack Song for the Leaving S cene," one of their best-known songs, Brooke and Ghetto don't sing in unison on "Phantom Fireworks." At times, they're singing different lyrics—almost different songs—over one another. Compared to "One Night Stand," a perfectly layered song which they wrote together as teenagers, "Phantom Fireworks" feels disconnected and distant.

The possibility of writing music together again looms. Brooke jokes that maybe Ghetto would "write a song with me" if she were drunk; Ghetto says she "still loves writing with Mat." But both prefer to keep Carissa's Wierd in the past, insisting it represents a younger, more irresponsible time in their lives. Brooke implies they may have new material for their reunion show—"there might be a secret surprise," he says—but vows Carissa's Wierd will not tour or record again.

"I think when the band broke up, there was a general feeling that it was time to grow up," he says. This echoes the story of Carissa, an acquaintance Brooke and Ghetto named the band after nearly 15 years ago. She was a gutter punk and train-hopper they knew in high school who would "randomly show up in our lives," Ghetto says. "She was inspiring. There was something mythical about her," Brooke says.

A few years ago, Brooke bumped into Carissa in Minneapolis, where, he reports, she looked and acted like an adult. "She's grown-up. Classy," he says. "Being young and reckless can't last forever."

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