Photos by the author
We were the percussion: “Whenever Zach hits the block, hit yourself,” Sean Carey instructed the overflowing living room. We stood and sat and leaned in the small space, watching Zach and waiting for him to hit his wooden block so we could all hit ourselves in the name of rhythm. We were a collective sharing our bodies with S. Carey for their performance of “In the Dirt.” We were also a group of strangers jammed into the smallest room the Wisconsin trio had played on their living room tour.
S. Carey is often billed as Carey’s solo project, a sideline to his gig as the drummer for Bon Iver, but at this point it’s an established band in its own right. In the last five years, Carey has released two LPs and a pair of EPs, including, most recently, this year’s Supermoon EP. He’s been well regarded on the indie folk circuit since a breakout run as one of the most buzzed-about CMJ acts in 2010. S. Carey is not in the indie rock stratosphere of Bon Iver, but he still commands pretty big crowds: His spring 2014 tour took him through several-hundred-person venues like New York’s Le Poisson Rouge and Chicago’s Lincoln Hall. But even as a three-piece band, S. Carey’s music is relatively quiet and subtle, so for this tour the band went as intimate as possible, asking fans to volunteer their living rooms as venues.
To be chosen as a tour host, fans were asked to provide nothing more than some viable, heartfelt rationale. A friend of mine applied with a particularly candid letter about Carey’s influence on his own music, and his living room was chosen for the Boston show.
I arrived about an hour early to my friend’s cozy Cambridge apartment and spoke briefly with Ben and Zach—the two dudes in S. Carey not named S. Carey—as they set up their gear before making my way to the porch to share a beer with the hosts. Guests arrived in twos and threes over the course of the next hour, contributing six-packs to the fridge. The impromptu beer-luck was just one of the intimate amenities of the home that prevented us from casually ignoring all the strangers around us. The band mingled among us with wine glasses in hand as visitors negotiated their unaccustomed closeness to the performers. By the time S. Carey managed to breach the crowded living room to perform, we were practically a family.
The trio pressed themselves against one wall while we occupied every other inch of the room. Sean sat at his piano and sang lead in one corner, Ben manned the mixer and steel pedal to his right, and Zach sang backup vocals and played everything else—from electric guitar to karimba to kick drum—in the other corner. The simplicity of the songs coupled with the heartbroken character of Sean’s voice made for a poignant set, and a sense of closeness immediately permeated the room when S. Carey began with “Glass/Film” and “Mothers.”
There were downsides to our proximity, though: During the modest apotheosis of the “Mothers,” Zach moved ever so slightly beyond the minuscule one-foot-by-one-foot space that had been allotted to him and all of his instruments, accidentally shattering his wine glass. It was graciously replaced—a grand gesture in a grad student apartment with five wine glasses total to its name. These small tokens of hospitality, which would have been meaningless at some venue with limitless glassware, highlighted the inescapable intimacy of our environment and made the night feel all the more personal.
That inherent intimacy is also what makes S. Carey’s music so ideal for a space like this. S. Carey’s music is emotive, but its power is in the small gradations—the rasp of his voice, for instance—that create the subtle differences between similar moods. It’s music that mimics the way we behave in living rooms, which are private yet social spaces. When I spoke to Sean later, he elaborated on his own motivations: “The engineer on my records, Brian Joseph, always said from the beginning, ‘I just think you need to play weird art spaces and go after the intimate live show thing.’ It’s hard to do when you’re trying to do a more standard tour. Some of them are great and then other shows you’re thrown into a rock club and you’re trying to play music that has a lot of subtlety. You can’t really bring certain things out and you can’t play every song. It’s something that’s been in the back of my head for awhile.”
True to Carey’s word, the night’s experience wouldn’t translate to venues much larger than a living room. Small elements in the songs—the softly struck kick drum, the textured reverb from Ben’s mixer—were more apparent than they would have been otherwise. People gave in to the music, listening with their eyes closed or staring off into space as much as they focused on the band just feet away. And although there were downsides—getting to the bathroom sucked—the space made sure these moments of personal reflection were matched by a sense of community, whether that came from the participation on “In the Dirt” or from being literally squeezed together.
The show ended with “Neverending Fountain,” which is both the last track on Carey’s most recent full-length, Range of Light, and one of the songs he reimagined for his 2015 EP, Supermoon. The song begins with the line “I know my heart better than you may think” and ends with Carey repeating the words “searching, patient.” It’s private but it implies a close familiarity with someone else: It’s a conversation that’s ideal for a quiet room.
“I knew it would go really well with the house show thing because it’s stripped down versions of the songs,” he later told me about his choice to reinterpret and rerelease a handful of his preexisting songs. This wasn’t the first time anyone had ever thought to do a living room tour—Carey himself cited a David Bazan house show back home in Eau Claire as inspiration—but it’s tough to imagine one more fitting of the venture. The immense vulnerability pervading Carey’s music needs to be felt and engaged with and, most of all, reciprocated. It demands human interaction on a core emotional level that can sometimes get lost in the formality of studio recording or the spectacle of a large venue.
Carey continued with his explanation: “I think I was enamored by the process of when you have to go and do a radio thing or a house show where you have the song and you’ve spent years making this song, writing it, recording it… and then all of a sudden it’s like now you have to perform it on a just a piano, or just a guitar; you’re put on the hot seat. I like that idea of saying, all right, well, let’s strip the song down to its basic form, and that’s it.”
Keagon Voyce is a writer living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter.