Arts Desk

The Caribbean, Out of Exile

"I don't write autobiographical music," says Michael Kentoff, an hour into our interview last month. "Those are David Crosby songs. I just don’t like them."

If you've heard The Caribbean—and you should make of point of listening to the D.C. trio's excellent new album, Discontinued Perfume (Hometapes)—then you understand that: The band's songs are weird, self-contained universes, jewel-box vignettes about artists and spies and lovers. The Caribbean doesn't write songs, not exactly; they're more like gilded short stories set to music.

But far more than any other Caribbean album, Discontinued Perfume lends itself to armchair Freudian interpretation, even if it was completely written and about 80 percent recorded by the time Kentoff had a mental breakdown amid the massive snowfall that shut down Washington last year. In addition to fronting The Caribbean, Kentoff is a civil litigator and a partner at a prominent Washington law firm. And last winter, it all became a bit too much.

Got the record? Cue up the song "Artists in Exile" now.

For his day job, Kentoff often works on cases involving complicated financial-services products. The case subsuming his life last winter was a wilder beast. "Every day I was swamped. Every day I was extremely challenged," he says. "The facts of the case were extraordinarily complex. If I took a day off from working on it I had to reteach myself the next day."

For a long time, Kentoff says, he had compartmentalized: There was his rock life and there was his lawyer life. "That part of that compartment just way overfilled," he says. "It just sort started spilling into all these other areas, and I had no way of controlling that. And we had a blizzard and I just fell apart. I was non-functional." For three or four days, he couldn't get out of bed. "I picked up a guitar. I didn’t want to. I had no idea how to play it at all. And slowly I came out of that, where I knew chords for our songs. I didn’t know any of the words. I knew I was getting somewhere when I could actually play a chord progression of our songs. I just forgot how to do everything" related to music, he says.

He saw a therapist, who told him he had had a breakdown. She also diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He started taking medication. And he slowly became better.

But he also began recognizing themes on Discontinued Perfume with parallels to his own life. Take "Artists in Exile," which, he stresses, isn't about him. "It’s about people who have a what-you-see thing, and then they have this fascinating secret life." It's about guys like Gary Cohen, a colleague from Kentoff's firm who, in addition to being a notable securities lawyer, is also an artist and collector who rubbed shoulders with members of the Washington Color School. Kentoff profiled Cohen on the blog The Vinyl District last month.

The issues of balance brought up in "Artists in Exile" are relevant to Kentoff and his bandmates Matthew Byars and Dave Jones, who have families and professional lives (and in Byars' case, kids). The band has recorded five full-lengths since 2001 and tours from time to time; before The Caribbean, Byars and Kentoff played in the D.C. band Townies.

They're not hobbyists. "There’s no bigger insult in some ways than someone who meets you and they know you’re a professional, and say, ‘Oh you do music. That must be a great outlet for you,'" Kentoff says. "They call it a hobby. And it’s like, 'No, it’s the other thing that I do. It’s my job that pays really shitty. When it pays.'"

Once upon a time, Kentoff says, he was hesitant to let fellow musicians know that he's a lawyer, and to tell clients he had a band. "What I’ve learned after the breakdown is that compartmentalizing is ridiculous no matter who you are. It’s a coping mechanism to get things done, but ultimately it’s all part of the same life."

The thing is, even when Kentoff discusses heavier topics, they don't seem that way. Part of that comes from the fact that his songs and his demeanor can be very funny (the title of the song "Thank You for Talking to Me About Israel," from Discontinued Perfume, kind of says it all). He's also, well, very normal: He can get excited talking about the law just as much as he can get excited talking about the songs of Richard and Linda Thompson.

And he tends to explain his songs very plainly—even though, when you hear them, they can seem otherworldly. Chad Clark, the Beauty Pill leader who mixes The Caribbean's records, sums up Kentoff's lyrical style well, but even he's at something of a loss. "When someone describes a songwriter as literate, they tend to be implying that that person is coming from a certain kind of tradition—the Dylan-esque writer or the Leonard Cohen-eqsue writer or the Joni Mitchell-esque writer. And to me, the Caribbean’s songs don’t draw from those traditions at all. There’s this really powerful blend of the deeply surreal and dreamlike world and the supremely ordinary, almost actuarial kind of world. I don’t know where that comes from; that’s a mystery to me. I don’t know where Michael’s characters come from."

One lyric on Discontinued Perfume—from the title track—slays me every time I hear it:

I was unhappy for 17 years

When I met you at that Christmas bash

out on Sherman Avenue

Remember?

And then a ghostly female voice coos from a distance: "I do, I do."

It's the sweetest moment on the record's most tragic song, which is about the successive suicides of Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, two New York-based artists who met in D.C.'s punk scene. Their dramatic deaths a week apart—she via medicine and alcohol, he by walking into the sea—generated a large amount of gossip and media coverage at the time. You can see why: two well-known figures whose relationship was complicated by great professional expectations (theirs), unfulfilled promise (hers), and paranoia (they believed they were being surveilled on by Scientologists).

Kentoff didn't know them, although plenty of his musician friends in D.C. did ("When [Michael] told me that’s what he was writing about I was like, ‘Oh man. OK.,’” says Clark). But Kentoff was intrigued by the story. "Anybody who has that much going for them and chooses to kill themselves—I don’t understand it but I’m fascinated by it," he says.

The song, sung from Blake's perspective (or the perspective of a character in a similar situation), finds a protagonist discovering his dead lover and her note, dealing with the fallout, assuring friends he's OK, and eventually taking his own life. For Kentoff, several themes begged exploration: The question of why such talented people would kill themselves; that relationships can be artistically constructive (Duncan was clearly Blake's muse); and that they can also be destructive.

"They had a lot of things we can only appreciate in the abstract," Kentoff says. "But they also had each other...and in the end they only saw each other. Whatever psychosis they were generating, it was in a feedback loop."

It's tempting—but a mistake—to draw a line from Kentoff's breakdown and the serious despair he experienced to the series of events he describes in "Discontinued Perfume." In the end it's just a song. His story has a happy ending.

"The first question they always ask you [in therapy] is ‘Are you suicidal?’ That’s just due diligence," he says. "But I wasn’t. I wanted to be dead but I had no interest in killing myself. Here are the distinctions. I’m not mechanically inclined." He laughs. "I said no, no, I want to get better. This is not the way I’m supposed to feel."

The Caribbean performs with Tereu Tereu and Carol Bui Saturday at 8 p.m. at St. Stephen's Church. $8.

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