"... Life in Akron Ohio in the 60's was typical midwestern, you know, regular barber, crewcut, army men, a bunch of friends on the block, we pretended we were Zorro, Batman, Vikings, etc. The usual dramas of friendship and betrayal. Kennedy, frisbee, superballs, etc. I was into wind up record players and derbies and old magazines. I felt the ghosts and now I know about past life stuff. Older brother and sister, dad who worked on polyester research, mom who smoked Carletons and had a creative imagination. I drew cartoons and stuff. 7th grade was the worst; but I grew my hair out a bit. Art class was my favorite. In love with lots of girls, only they didn't know. 8th grade -- ZOING!! Puberty hits and obsession with being a musician, started on a 5 string banjo. Bluegrass, country blues, Beatles (still). Banjo, violin (fiddle), harmonica. Then at 15 I took up saxophone, JAZZ JAZZ JAZZ. Mostly Blue Note, Rahsaan, Coltrane. Self taught. Worked in a cool mall record store. Graduated high school, joined "Tin Huey" older guys from different high school. Into Iggy and German rock, Faust, Can, etc. Played 3 nites a week in a basement. Also worked with Alan Myers of "Devo" playing out jazz. 1 year of college in Kent Ohio, went to see a lot of music. Jazz gigs in Cle. Sun Ra. Weather Report. Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Yuseff Lateif."
- Ralph Carney
With one foot planted in the historical, and the other in the hysterical, Ralph Carney has spent the better part of his life plotting an utterly singular path through the musical landscape. From his earliest sonic forays at the dawn of what some might call new wave to his current perch atop the summit of what he has dubbed “serious jass,” the Ohio-bred reedman has blown up storm after storm – leaving trails of pleasure, rather than destruction in his wake.
Carney first shimmied his way into the public consciousness in the mid-‘70s as an integral part of Tin Huey – one of the edgier proponents of a Northeast Ohio scene that also spawned Devo and Pere Ubu. In the intervening years, his particular brand of twisted swing has invigorated the work of artists as varied as Tom Waits, Frank Black, The B-52’s and The Black Keys – the acclaimed duo co-founded by his nephew, Patrick Carney. But it’s on his own releases that Ralph’s true personality – a winning combination of rapier intellect and barroom savvy – really shines through.
Carney’s no stranger to blowing minds. When he first hooked up with the musicians that would become Tin Huey, the then-teenaged horn player added copious elements of free jazz andhigh-concept comedy to the already-solidified foundation of Kraut-rock and Canterbury scene experimentation. The Hueys honed their craft the old-fashioned way, woodshedding around Ohio and releasing some cult classic seven-inches that got into the right hands – like those of critic Robert Christgau, who carried his torch for the band right to the offices of Warner Brothers Records, which released the acclaimed Contents Dislodged During Shipment in 1979.
“Basically we went from loud simple but still weird, band to one that was very complex and had lots of weird changes within songs,” Carney says, charting the evolution of the band, which still plays its share of live shows, despite having technically split in the early ‘80s. “We thought we were going to be “rock stars” but we were too unclassifiable, I guess… and hard to dance to unless you were on the right drugs!”
As that part of the new wave crested, Carney emerged from the surf with the respect of a wide variety of his peers, who made him one of the more in-demand reedmen on the ‘80s session scene. From the party-hearty tones he added to B-52s hits like “Mesopotamia” and “Whammy” to the more avant structures he erected on Hal Willner’s tributes to Thelonious Monk and Walt Disney, he established a reputation as a Hall of Fame caliber utility infielder. His most fertile – and long-lasting – collaboration was his partnership with Tom Waits – who explained Carney’s magic by saying “Ralph’s great. He’s guided by some other source of information. He’s like a broken toy that works better than before it was broken.”
Waits has called upon Carney again and again over the years, and Ralph’s singular sax and clarinet playing – as well as strands of baritone sax, pan pipes, even violin – can be heard echoing through the corridors of such classic albums as Rain Dogs, Bone Machine and Black Rider. “You get attached to each other musically and as people,” says Carney. “The way we’ve worked together was always based in trust. He’d have a very clear idea of what he wanted, but at a certain point, he’d hand the reins to me and let me go where I wanted to.” And go he went – with Waits and in a slew of outside alliances with some of the era’s most uncompromising artists. Carney’s sometimes moody, sometimes jolly, sometimes downright creepy tones can be heard backing folks like William S. Burroughs (whose surreal Spank Ass Annie album is chock-a-block with Carney’s playing) and Allen Ginsberg (on the late poet’s triumphant The Lion For Real).
Having proven his dexterity in scampering on the fringes, Carney tested his mettle in comparatively pop-centric environs as well, touring and recording with folks like Black Francis, They Might Be Giants and Elvis Costello. He also kept his own compositional juices flowing through an expansive array of soundtrack work encompassing tones both dark (Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth) and buoyantly light (the series-long scoring he did for the Children’s Television Workshop’s Encyclopedia and the dizzying ditties he contributed to Cartoon Network faves like Philo and Get Along Little Doggie).
The animated project he looks back at most fondly, however, is The Motion-Enhanced Chronodirectional Adventures of Romanov, a 24-episode, Sundance-honored, online series that was aimed squarely at adults. Carney mirrored the surreal tale – an examination of the title character’s descent into a netherworld of madness – with carnival-esque compositions that split the difference between funhouse and house of horrors.
“The work on that was some of the most purely enjoyable stuff I’ve ever done,” he recalls. “I had a free hand to do what I wanted, and it was great to be able to do things that were downright silly, because I’ve always been very suspicious of ‘serious’ music – which is one of the reasons I have this tongue-in-cheek name for this project.”
While it took more than two decades, Carney began releasing music under his own name towards the end of the ‘90s, turning out a pair of acclaimed solo sets, Ralph Sounds and I Like You (A Lot), the latter of which All Music Guide hailed by noting “Carney’s sound imagineering defies classification –his songs have the appeal of a freakish sideshow.”
By then ensconced in the Bay Area, Carney began balancing those avant forays with a parallel stream of decidedly user-friendly sounds – as co-leader of a brassy combo called The Cottontails, which has made a name on the wedding and bar circuit (“sometimes you got chicken, sometimes you got feathers,” he jokes) and ultimately led to the formation of the Serious Jass Project.
By the time the millennium dawned (and the Y2K bug was soundly defeated) Ralph found himself with a partner-in-crime at Carney family events – his nephew Patrick, who “started playing this really out there music when he was about 15 or 16, buying these really cheap keyboards from pawn shops. He was playing with some kid he’d met in Boy Scouts, and when they started to put together a band to rehearse, the drummer didn’t show up, so Pat took over drums.”
That no-show turned out to be fortuitous. Patrick stayed behind the kit for good, ultimately becoming one half of The Black Keys – a band he credits Ralph with helping shape the aesthetic of, both spiritually and literally (the elder Carney can be heard honking away on the Keys’ Attack and Release album). While the sonic route from the Black Keys to the sounds on Seriously isn’t exactly a direct one, it’s possible to trace, given an open mind and a willingness to hang on through hairpin turns that take the listener from the wisecracking of “Blue Creek Hop” to the wink-and-nod sexiness of “Carnival in Caroline” (the latter of which is keyed by the vocals of former Dance Hall Crashers singer Karina Denike).