Interview: Carl Gene
I was introduced to the music of Carl Gene after completing an interview with Dennis Mcgonigal of Iron Price for an episode of Getting It Out Podcast. Dennis had mentioned they/he would be playing their upcoming record release show and since I was unfamiliar, I gave it a listen. It wasn't what I was expecting. What I found was a surprisingly quiet, yet dense record, of shoegaze/post rock/gloom. As the record went on I was drawn in by the raw emotion of the music and the real audio clips within the songs. That led me to look Carl Gene up and read his heartbreaking lyrics and the story behind the music on his Bandcamp page. The following is a conversation with Carl about his involvement in the local scene and his stunning record Songs Of Mourning.
You started going to shows in middle school? That seems pretty early, how did you pull that off?
My very first show was Christmas for Misfits 2007 hosted by Kobra Klutch. I was invited by the pastors son of the church I went to when I was a kid, and we went together. We had both gotten into christian bands like Underoath, and he had started getting into local bands like Ruiner, and was sharing them with me. The lineup for that show was xLooking Forwardx, Ruiner, Once Nothing, Counting The Days, This Message Will Self Destruct, and Sachmo. Instantly fell in love with live music, and had to get involved. After that show, I found a venue in Severna Park called Woods, which was a community center, and my mom would drive me every week to shows there. I would see bands of all genres, and I really tried to immerse myself into the scene. A few months later I went to a camp over the summer, and met someone in a metalcore band. We exchanged information, and became friends pretty quick. If my mom couldn’t take me to a show, I would try to get the newly formed friends who were a bit older than me with cars to take me places. To afford the shows, I would save the lunch money my mom gave me for school and would go to almost every show I could. I loved the environment, and the people involved. After a few years of going to shows 2-3 times a week sometimes, a promoter came to me and said “If you come to every single one of my shows and just help people move gear, you can come for free”. By my sophomore year of high school (2010), I was going to 6-8 shows a month.
What bands and venues were you going to see in those days?
Most of the shows I went to were run by a promotion called Kobra Klutch. They had a handful of venues in random spaces in Linthicum, Annapolis, and Crofton. I would see bands like A Plea For Purging, MyChildren MyBride, Gwen Stacey, and The Chariot. Very occasionally I would get a small dash of hardcore every now and then seeing bands like Advent, Call To Preserve, This Is Hell, and Venia to name a few. I didn’t really get into hardcore until 2009 when I was introduced to Ruiner’s “Hell Is Empty” after my father had passed in October of 2009. That record absolutely changed my life. I started going to venues actually in Baltimore like Charm City Art Space, Sidebar, Ottobar around the time I got into hardcore, which was around the start of high school. From there it snowballed into getting into bands like TUI, One Step Too Many, Pulling Teeth, and xLooking Forwardx.
I remember the Kobra Klutch name and a lot of those bands have Christian ties I believe. Did you grow up in a religious household? How did your family feel about you getting involved with the local music scene?
I believe my mother was raised lutheran, and my father was raised baptist. We went to a handful of churches, but for the most part I was raised southern baptist. I never wanted to go as a kid or believed, and I pretty much completely stopped going around the time my dad started getting sick in 2008. For the most part, my younger years consisted of seeing heavier bands with “a message”, so thats how I convinced my parents to let me go to these shows. I would end up getting rides to shows from my best friend Keith Higgins (Sharptooth, Curse Catcher) who is five years older than me. My mom got to know Keith pretty well, and she gained trust from them to where it was never an issue. Once I got into high school, my mom didn’t really care what I did as long as I was back home by midnight.
That's very cool that your Mom let you book shows at your house. What was she thinking? I'm kidding, but not everyone involved in underground music has that kind of support at home. Why do you think she was willing to put up with the potential hassle?
My mom was a TROOPER. I tried to keep the shows tame, but at some points we had up to 80 people in a basement that held maybe 20 people tops. We had to be super strict and sober on everything, so I never really got to relax and enjoy my own shows that I booked, but I was able to make it work. She knew how passionate I was about music, and even though she never vocalized it, I think she was pretty supportive of me and my music. I had to gain a lot of trust from my mom, and had to also trust the people that came out to the shows. Thankfully in the two years of putting on shows, we never had an issue with unruly people, and the neighbors never called the cops. My next door neighbor was a huge Metallica fan, and would have conversations with me days after a show telling me he sat on his porch and drank beers listening to the music.
I don't think many show goers consider what a hassle booking shows can be for the promoter. I've always been pretty aware and that's why I never even bothered. It can be a pretty thankless job. Do you still book shows?
I don’t really book anymore unless I get an offer from a band or artist that I think would be unique. Usually when asked I tend to steer people to actual promoters who could be more help. Most of my time within the scene I have lived too far away to really be able to do any promoting outside of social media, so it was never really worth it to me to attempt booking.
When did you start making music yourself?
I started writing instrumental solo music in 2009 right before the death of my father. His health was declining, and I didn’t want to think about his death. The first actual song I wrote was called "The End Of Misery, and that was my way of preparing for his death. I had a hard time expressing myself, so writing music was my way of talking about feelings of grief, and mourning his death. I never did it with the intention of “writing good music” or even getting my music out there. It was only meant for me, and my way of grieving. I have never been in an actual band, and for the past 10 years under multiple different names, I have only released solo music. I always wanted to be in a band, but could never make things work because for most of my younger years I lived so far away from the actual city and didn’t have many friends that lived close enough to me to make it work.
Despite being pretty entrenched in what I think most people would classify as aggressive music, your solo stuff is pretty far from that. There is certainly a heaviness to it, but it's pretty different. Did you find that comfort you were looking for immediately? Did you play what you wrote for your Dad or anyone else in your family?
I found it to be really cathartic and helpful for me mentally. I was 15 at the time of my fathers death, and writing music when I felt something bothering me or I was having a rough time made me feel better, even if it was just for a brief moment. As far as playing music in front of my family, I’m sure my father heard me playing from my bedroom from time to time. My family lived in a three bedroom townhouse, so when my sister moved out, I took her room, and my father moved to my old bedroom because he couldn’t walk up and down stairs. I think my mom only came to one show when I first started playing live (besides the house shows I booked years later in the house we moved into when she remarried), and I don’t remember if I played that song about my dad or not, but I do remember it being really awkward. I don’t think it was until I started playing in a live setting regularly that I felt like I was making progress in healing.
When did you start releasing your music for other people to hear? Were you surprised to hear other people liked it or did you know you were doing something good?
I was silently releasing music without really pushing it for a while. It wasn’t until 2011 when I played a really weird show at a music store in the middle of nowhere that I felt the need to push myself further musically and more publicly. I played probably the worst set of my entire life, but was approached by so many people about how passionate I came across during that set. I hadn’t ever experienced a stranger coming up to me and wanting to talk to me about something I created. Playing that show lit a spark in me to keep creating in my own way.
15 is young to deal with that type of loss. But it's pretty impressive you found a way to channel your grief at that age. Was anyone else in your house a musician?
To my knowledge, I am the only musician in my immediate family. My dad wrote poetry and somehow composed a song called “one in a million” he wrote for my mom at one point. I had no clue until I went through his belongings when he passed.
Were there certain bands or artists that inspired your musical direction?
To be honest when I started writing music, I didn’t know what I wanted to write, or how to write it. I just wanted to create an atmosphere for the words that I wrote, and wanted the listener to feel, or visualize the way I was feeling. I loved This Will Destroy You and Chelsea Wolfe, but wanted to create something completely different.
Songs Of Mourning was my first experience with Carl Gene and I was admittedly confused on my first listen. I had no idea what the random audio clips were. I didn't get the context, but the way it was presented, it made me look into it. Is that how you hoped the album would work?
My mothers suicide was absolutely devastating and I had so many emotions and wanted to write about the scenery around me, the things I saw, and things I didn’t think I could say to another person without them being completely concerned for my own life. I would put the actual date on when the words were written and would just continue the narrative throughout the weeks. At my mothers viewing / service, they had recorded the whole service and put it on a CD. They gave a copy to every member of the family. I had written a speech about my mom that I felt was important for me to share. The song “Suicide Note” is an audio clip of the police investigator reading her suicide note to the family for the first time almost a month after her death. I had recorded the whole hour and a half visit on my phone, because I was afraid of what was going to be said, and wanted to hear back everything that was said.
When the investigator came in, he told us that her cause of death is “unknown” because they believe that there was some form of physical violence done to her, causing her to want to kill herself. They don’t know if the pills she took were forced on her or not, and can’t prove guilt on anyone. Her suicide note specifically put blame on my stepfather. On September 15th (the evening after the investigator told us his findings), I wanted to kill myself. I couldn’t put into words, and still can’t on how much pain I was in. Upon the investigator saying he thinks my step father was involved in her death, I packed all of my belongings and moved in with my girlfriend and her family.
When it came to putting the album together, I felt it to be necessary to put my words in order of days, and create music around it, to put a perspective on what that first month was, and to share my story. I struggled with if I wanted to release it for weeks.
What kind of feedback do you get from people who have listened to Songs Of Mourning?
I’ve had people say they couldn’t finish listening to it because of the content, and how intense the story gets. I don’t think this record is really something to have on in the background, or jam a song or two. It’s kinda something you sit down and listen to front to back to get the full feeling of the record. Occasionally people will share their own stories with me, which sometimes can really put me in an uncomfortable situation, but I understand it.
Did recording and releasing this album bring you any sense of closure?
If I’m being honest, no. I was in a lot of pain when I recorded it. Her suicide came after a week long family vacation that I did not go on, and in the weeks prior, my mom and I were not on the best of terms. The day before they went on vacation, my mother pulled me aside and had a private conversation with me to make things right. Looking back, that talk was very awkward. Most of the conversation was about my girlfriend, and how happy she was for me to be happy. After the conversation, we said I love you to each other, and that was the last time I spoke to her in person. I never got to say goodbye, and she was cremated completely out of nowhere. My step father made that choice on his own, and didn’t allow anyone to get a final goodbye even after myself and my grandmother had specifically requested it. My mother was terrified of fire, so her being cremated seemed a little suspicious. My house was considered a crime scene for seven hours, and I sat in my front yard the whole time because nobody was allowed inside. The only “closure” I got was seeing a body bag come out of the house.
You directly address your step father, by name, on this record. Have you had any confrontations with him since you moved out?
I have blocked all communication with any and all of his side of the family since the day the investigator came. To put it lightly, I do not wish them well at all, especially after the way my step father “handled” everything post death. From refusing to respect any wishes from my grandmother and me, to showing up late to his own wife's funeral. He made everything about himself and was selfish.
I found your speech about your Mom to be very moving and it has stuck in my head since I heard it. Particularly the part where the parents at your party threw goldfish and ice cubes at you. On the other hand, hearing the clip from the investigator reading the suicide note is devastating even if it's hard to make out at times. Including both feels like a very brave thing you've done. Do you feel that? You mentioned struggling with releasing your story, but how do you feel now that it has been out in the world for a while?
I felt that having both samples in the record were important to have. In “Funeral Service”, I wanted to share my story, but I also wanted to lift up, and share how incredible and selfless my mother was. At that point, I had no idea how fucked up everything was. Upon hearing the suicide note, it felt like everything had been flipped upside down. Everything I thought happened was wrong, and it was worse than I had thought. Now that the full album has been out for about a year now (the EP version came out in July of 2018), I think I made the right decision in putting it out. I wanted to share my story, and my pain. It has always been difficult for me to express myself, or to talk about it. Releasing this record was my way of saying what happened without having the tough conversations with acquaintances or people curious.
Have you begun working on follow up material?
After the release of Songs of Mourning, I kinda stopped writing altogether. I haven’t really sat down to write in almost two years. I feel like I can’t write if I don’t have anything of substance to talk about. I have an idea of what direction I would want to go with new music, but truthfully, I haven’t felt a true passion for even playing in a live setting, let alone writing. I have to be in a specific mindset to really get the gears going. I put writing and playing on the back burner to focus more on myself mentally last year, and it was the original idea for this year.
Do you plan to ever take your music on the road?
I’ve done four day weekend tours going up and a little bit down the east coast, but frankly I don’t think touring is for me. Most of my touring has been completely alone with nobody with me, so it gets really mentally draining with the content of my music. It’s been about four years since I have gone on tour. If a cool opportunity arose, I would definitely consider, but for the past few years, it hasn’t even crossed my mind at all. I would love to do something on the west coast someday.
You've made a lot of cool connections with well established artists, have you considered any future collaborations?
I would love to collaborate with more people. It’s a fun way to be creative, and do things I otherwise wouldn’t. I love the collaborations The Body have done with Full of Hell, Thou, and Uniform. I think it would be cool to work with them someday. I feel like collaborating would make me a better musician for sure. I’ve done a few features, but never a true collaboration with someone.
Is it possible that Songs Of Mourning is the last release as Carl Gene?
I think there is definitely a chance it could be. I would never say never though. I’d like to keep releasing music with this project, but I’m not certain. Right now I don’t really see anything in the pipeline, but the future is always unknown.