carney

On a recent spring evening in Manhattan, a certain skull cap-wearing Irishman knelt down to tweak the guitar pedals at the feet of a young, raven-haired protégée. The discussion that followed between celebrated sonic architect and rising star pertained to delays, effects and eighth notes. The next day, at an extended luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for the New Dramatists, the collaboration would make headlines in the Broadway community, and an arachnid superhero would don his iconic costume, and be crowned a sure bet.

The brothers Carney are not quite the ragtag duo their evocative name would suggest. The band’s moniker is courtesy of their family, although other names, like “the Platoon Sisters of West Virginia” were jokingly considered. Implied carnivals, roving vagabonds, daring feats of skill and wide-eyed splendor included, however, just the way they like it. Mr. Green, the titular character (though not necessarily based on actor Michael McKean’s hilariously bumbling murder suspect of the silver screen) that haunts and hovers over the band’s enthrallingly cinematic debut album is but just one reason to pay attention. The remainder of the details rest in the element of surprise and “great power” of the responsibility to harness and explore one’s own imagination.

Growing up in New York City, Reeve and Zane Carney loved their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video games like any children born in the 80s. But what set them apart from their friends were the dreams and ambitions they carried with them into waking life. Zane, the affable, guitar-wielding scientist of the group, dreamed of growing up to be two very specific things. “I wanted to be a food store or a Chinese doctor with no hair on his arms.” Indeed, he did want to be a building. Not work in the building. Be the ball? No, be the building. (Or a follically-challenged healer.)

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Reeve, on the other hand, had more reasonable aspirations. “I wanted [to be] a firefighter, although I don’t think that’s going to happen, or a lighthouse keeper.” At just eight years of age, a truer calling came knocking. “I knew I wanted to be an entertainer by the time I was 8; but when I was 12, I knew I wanted to be a guitar player.” The elegantly handsome singer couldn’t have guessed the outcome, but he did come very close.

It’s hard these days to make a steady racket and a living above the throbbing din of electro-punk laptop symphonies and the beat-tripping hipsters and tastemakers who love them. So what to do if you’re an up-and-coming band out of Los Angeles with a heavy lean towards Led Zeppelin-esque dynamics and theatricality, with the type of musical pedigree that is too often an exception rather than a rule? Not in the Berklee School of Music/John Mayer vein, but the type of hard knocks that go along with performing on records by Michael Jackson (HIStory) and Peter, Paul and Mary as a kid (Reeve), and starring on a sitcom with Night Court’s Harry Anderson in your early teens (Zane). All the while learning guitar with a studied precision and tenacity that would years later impress U2’s The Edge and the vocal chops to blow back Bono. That’s what happens when you spend a summer teaching yourself Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata at 12 years of age, or learning to harmonize to Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” as Reeve did, or falling in love with Debussy, as Zane is happy to name as a great inspiration, along with legendary jazz artist Wes Montgomery’s landmark 1965 album, Smokin’ at the Half Note.

Just ask film director Julie Taymor (Across the Universe, the upcoming adaptation of The Tempest) what she thinks of Carney. She thinks so much of the combined talents of Reeve, Zane, drummer Jon Epcar and bassist Aidan Moore that she hired them in one fell swoop after catching one of the band’s typically rousing shows. Her response to Reeve’s extraordinary prowess as a front man was immediate, and she offered him the starring role of Peter Parker in her production of Broadway’s upcoming Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (penned by Bono and The Edge) on the spot.

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That’s right: the marvel that is Carney is fronted by a handsome superhero with an impossible vocal range, and the grace and style of a cat. Once you dig in and enter the band’s ever-growing big-top tent, this will no longer surprise you. It didn’t entirely surprise Reeve himself.

In 2005, while on tour with popular blues singer-guitarist Jonny Lang, Reeve, who likens his closed-eye nocturnal excursions to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and other Michel Gondry-esque flourishes, dreamt himself into the role of the Webbed One. It was the type of manic waking dream that found him “…flying through the skies of New York as Spider-Man. The weird thing is the details. The fact that I was flying from the Hilton Theater or Hilton Hotel, and the theatre where we’re doing Spider-Man is a Hilton. I was flying to the Hilton Hotel in Chelsea. Spider-Man’s creative hub was in Chelsea. I mean, I didn’t know that. It hadn’t happened yet! I flew from there to my old childhood apartment building and into the penthouse where our childhood babysitter who didn’t have a lot of money, was sleeping in her bed. She didn’t live here. I flew into the window and didn’t want to wake her, but I walked over and saw on her nightstand, this is really weird, two albums: Jeff Buckley’s Grace, and our album, which is just now coming out. But the weird thing is: the connection of all things, and for whatever reason, maybe it was because of some of my accessibility to my higher register, it was just weird that those CDs were next to each other, and I was Spider-Man.”

Zane, who readily and charmingly admits his “food store” dreams are “crazy…because I’m crazy,” is a trained actor who studied oboe (“although I sucked”) and at 16, attended guitar camp where he transcribed Montgomery’s Half Note solos to learn. Church attendance, while not for spiritual needs, was also put to good use. “I thought, might as well make some fun out of this, so when you’re reading a hymnal, you go through four verses at least. So I was in the bass verse, the tenor part the second time, the alto part third, and the soprano part the fourth time. I figured, I don’t really want to be here, but I can practice my sight reading.”

carney4Technical discussions are a source of delight and pride for the brothers, because their classically trained chops have been developed with painstaking passion over the years. “That’s the thing with us and music. There’s two different camps: one, you make music to get the girls, and [two], you do it with because you have to, like the Suzuki Method. Your parents told you you have to practice after school. And even though you hate theory tests, you have to study. We’re kind of in a different spot, which is that we really…we have years and hours logged that prove to ourselves that this is really… it’s like a girl you can’t help but love,” Zane says.

“Everyone wants to feel something, and I think it’s the duty of every musician… You can lock into it, but, to also have some foundation backing it up, I think is a good thing, because … if I do this, [it] might make people feel this…,” Reeve offers.

Ever loving the Matrix-style aspects of the mathematics of learning music, fast-talking Zane is keen to go deeper. “I think of it like chemistry. It’s like an atom’s being taken away from the core. The note’s C, E, C, E, G, to B-E-G, essentially. There’s infinite things in music for us to discover, and that’s why our music sounds the way it does because we’re not trying to look to, ‘Oh, I knew that was going to be a hit because…,’ we just love finding new ways to express what we’re thinking, and hopefully it connects to people.”

“I like Ravel and Debussy. I love those two – they have a lot of textures. The logic I bring up a lot is of waterfall that’s made out of sugar. It just coats the whole thing, and I think about that sort of thing when I’m playing chords. There’s this depth to it, and I’m the opposite of The Edge with that, which is funny, because he’s so awesome.”

mrgreenThe band’s lead single, “Love Me Chase Me” is a sexy tour-de-force of sweaty desires and a perfect hodgepodge of Carney’s strengths. Its attention-grabbing video, starring True Blood (and star of Taymor’s Across the Universe) vixen Evan Rachel Wood recently garnered airplay on FUSE’s Top 20 Countdown. Like Mr. Green, Volume 1, the song (and video) is intentionally cinematic and vivid, with a cast of gypsy-esque, shady, carnivalian folk (each with the surname Green) and a willing audience unprepared for the razzle dazzle about to befall and captivate them. When asking the brothers who Mr. Green might be, Zane is quick to respond with, “Whoever he is to you…” Both are hesitant to fully explain the album’s narrative, preferring to allow each listener to use the looming character of Mr. Green (or multiple Mr. Green’s) in their own choose-your-own adventure approach (the three endings to Clue, anyone?) to understanding the album’s many possible interpretations (see also the excellent “Amelie,” “Tomorrow’s Another Day” and “Testify”). The band’s choice of “green” as a literary device is also not a lark, as Reeve points out: “…It implies sort of kaleidoscopic or prismatic if you will, which works, because I feel our music intentionally has a lot of color to it and a lot of layers,” following up later with, “It can represent a lot of things, whether it’s money, greed, envy…some people talk about marijuana.” He also admits to a “vengeful” aspect to Mr. Green.

“I feel that with any piece of art, whether it be a sculpture, a painting or a song, once it leaves the artist’s hands, it takes on a whole life of its own. And the response of the audience to that piece of art becomes just as much a part of the art as what the artist intended. That’s why I don’t like to necessarily delve too deeply into the meaning of things because I don’t even know what they mean. I know what I intended to write, but sometimes years later I have a new idea, as in, ‘Whoa, that means this.’”

“I’d like to tell better stories,” Reeve continues. “I love great storytellers like Hank Williams Sr., [and Leonard Cohen] but I don’t think I’m at that point with my lyrics yet. I’m hoping to get there. But yes, storytelling is important as a listener of music. I actually like listening to modern country music for the storytelling aspect, but I haven’t quite figured out a way to nail that yet. It’s always good to have things you haven’t done yet because what’s the point of continuing if you don’t have new goals to reach?”

So the only question left now is but a simple one: Shall we sit ringside for the spectacle or take a trapeze lesson and run away with the circus? –Carrie Alison, Photo courtesy of Interscope, live photos by Carrie Alison

 
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