For Post-Rock Octet caroline, Everything Is Up for Debate

In this Rising interview, members of the expansive British band discuss the folk traditions and feelings of hope behind their music.

Two weeks before the biggest show of their lives, the experimental folk octet caroline squeeze into a south London rehearsal space the size of a pub bathroom, shuffling around to accommodate incoming bandmates. Amid the stream of trumpeters, flautists, and violinists, the core trio—Casper Hughes, Jasper Llewellyn, and Mike O’Malley—confer in the far corner. The founding three, all 29 and promiscuous with their instruments, are reluctant bandleaders, forever dreaming up ways to usurp their authority and make caroline an autonomous, eight-person democracy. 

They debate nearly everything as a group, including the particulars of the imminent show, at Hackney’s 750-seater EartH Theatre. They interrogate the setlist, optimal song lengths, and matters of “mic complexity.” They propose, peer-review, and revise plans for the rehearsal itself. A faint buzzing is detected, despaired over and, to everyone’s relief, eradicated. After 40 minutes of this, all at once, caroline settle, ready to belt out some lugubrious noise. Nearly.

“Shall we... turn off the lights?” ponders O’Malley. He sounds unsure how this will play, but probably knows full well it is a winning suggestion. Some bands hype themselves up with bravado, but for caroline, uncertainty—fallibility—is the life force. In its manners and music, the band embodies the manifesto for a late-2010s performance art project co-founded by Llewellyn: “No teachers, no students, no hierarchy.”

As impatient instruments hum and honk, O’Malley’s lighting proposal is debated. Is it really worth the fuss? Are there even enough sockets for their mood lights? Haven’t they dithered enough already? It is, and there are, and they haven’t. O’Malley rummages beside the drum kit, produces two antique lamps, and plunges us into a reverent glow. 

At the heart of today’s practice is a new song, tentatively titled “When I Get Home,” which begins with a circulating choral refrain. The idea is to introduce spicy instrument pairings—a clarinet, say, sputtering over scattered drum claps—that will guide that opening mantra toward a frenzied finale. At no point should the trance be broken; every element is contentious. Hughes chews over a proposed vocoder layer. O’Malley frets about timings. Is the pause between each repetition too long? Yes. “Everyone wants you to speed up,” Llewellyn, the softly imposing lead singer, deadpans. To cue each oncoming wave, O’Malley devises a system of yanking up his guitar neck and sweeping the room with a stare. The band drills the elegy for nearly an hour before breaking for cigarettes and pizza.

Llewllyn, to his bandmates’ regret, once gave an interviewer a perfect tagline for caroline’s tender, declamatory style: “sadboy triumphalism.” Their earthy emo/post-rock hybrid is a scrappy meld of Low and the Dirty Three, pairing self-aware melancholy with the camaraderie of campfire song. 

Depending on the room, a caroline show might also feel like a vigil. I first saw them live last year, in Lisbon, at a shabby venue plastered with Portuguese antifa stickers. They set up among the crowd, performing in the round; violinists Magdalena McLean and Oliver Hamilton started things off with a folksy duet that, approaching merriment, tripped on razor wire and plummeted into a modernist squall. Llewellyn, wailing shipwrecked pleas, alternated between drums and cello, or plucked at his derelict guitar, its strap fixed with a loop of string. O’Malley squatted, coaxing drones from a harmonium. At one point, like a lobster realizing his pot had boiled, he leapt to his feet and throttled a scherzo from an electric guitar. It was the last night of the tour, and when the show ended, the eight of them laid down their instruments and concertinaed in for a group hug.

I meet O’Malley, Hughes, and Llewellyn for the first time several months later, at a pub in southeast London. Beside the chipper Hughes and affable O’Malley, Llewellyn’s shaved head, abundant ear piercings, and sapphire blue eyes give him a striking and vaguely severe air. But the three musicians share a lightness and emotional attention. They ask questions about each other’s parents. Talking about the band, they avidly call out misremembered facts and unconscious lore-making.

Llewellyn and O’Malley grew up a few towns apart in the south coastal region of Sussex. Where did they meet? Llewellyn remembers not; O’Malley does. Llewellyn, ashamed, asks if he was rude.

“Maybe 10 percent aloof. But not rude.”

“That’s standard,” says Hughes. 

“I’m surprised it’s only 10 percent,” Llewellyn concedes.

Hughes was raised an hour’s drive west of them, in the commuter town of Farnham. He devoted his teens to skinny-jeaned UK indie bands, until his dad steered him towards Radiohead’s In Rainbows and the oeuvre of Pink Floyd. The mental image reduces his bandmates to giggles. “A little record called Dark Side of the Moon,” O’Malley intones as Father Hughes. “Prepare to have your mind blown, son.”

In the same period, O’Malley was already an “obsessive music cataloguer,” burrowing from third-wave emo into murkier finds like Sparklehorse. “Stuff I still think is cool,” he says. “But I was also really into prog metal.”

“Because he’s a virtuosic guitarist,” says Hughes, with a little irony.

“Did you learn guitar by playing solos?” asks Llewellyn.

“I got bored of solos. I was into really fast, complicated riffs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t understand now why it felt good to listen to.” 

“It must have been satisfying that you got it, even though you were quite young,” reasons Llewellyn. “If I’d understood complex music like that, I’d have felt really good about myself.”

caroline’s core three: Mike O’Malley, Jasper Llewellyn, and Casper Hughes.

Llewellyn dabbled in metalhead endeavors as a tween but soon became obsessed with indie-pop artisans the Maccabees. In his rural hometown of Lewes, acoustic guitars were a ubiquitous convenience—he recalls singalongs on stoned camping trips by the town’s chalk pits—and his taste “got progressively more quaint,” he jokes. The lodestar, to his retrospective dismay, was Mumford and Sons, who struck him as a British Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver. 

“It was easier to covertly appropriate, as [Mumford and Sons] did, because there wasn’t much going on like that,” he says of the dust-bowl cosplayers. “They got lumped in with bluegrass and country artists that me and Mike loved, like Old Crow Medicine Show. In retrospect, they’re from different worlds. One has come through that route, and the other is appropriating an aesthetic that they ditched when it wasn’t useful.”

Before caroline emerged, Llewellyn and O’Malley belonged to a ragtag crew of Sussex folkies. They honed a ramshackle brand of “drunken Appalachian folk”—including a dubious cover of Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls”—at local weddings and, during a pair of campervan adventures, on the streets of Europe. When the outfit ran its course, a second caroline prequel took shape in 2016, when uni friends Llewellyn and Hughes made some recordings for fun while holidaying in France. They moved to London and booked shows at New Cross pubs, barking out post-punk inspired by the cult Montreal outfit Ought. As the U.S. Primaries dominated that fall’s news cycle, the usually quiet Hughes transformed himself into a polemicist.

“I wasn’t talking about Trump, but the stakes felt higher, and being overtly political felt apt,” he says. “That’s why there’s been this growth of speak-singy bands. I’m glad we don’t do that anymore, because I don’t have it in me.” One song used jarring guitars to mangle words lifted from a Neo-Nazi rant, “not in the punk sense of trying to shock, but to say: This is fucking happening.”

“It was showing it again in another context,” Llewellyn elaborates. “We talked about it a lot. It was a serious thing.”

“Then I came in,” O’Malley says, grinning. “Fuck the political. Have you guys ever heard of prog? There’s a lot of fantasy elements at play...

In 2017, when the leftist politician Jeremy Corbyn surprised pundits by making gains in a UK election, the narrative shifted. The caroline we now know stirred to life. As the trio began expanding into the thriving democracy it is today—collecting players ad hoc from their extended friendship group, as the songs required— they wrote the signature tune “Good morning (red),” which appeared on their self-titled debut last year, about the promise of Corbyn’s movement. Instead of rallying for social collapse, the song’s ascendent, twinkly thrums envisaged the new dawn.

“The political mood was one of hope—the idea that, structurally, things could change for the better,” says Hughes. “That didn’t just manifest itself in the lyrics, but also in the experimentalism. I do think that wave of optimism has had a wide impact on culture and music.” That sense of artistic adventure can inspire social change, he says. “You think, how has this been constructed? That’s politically interesting.” 

When Boris Johnson’s Conservatives crushed Corbyn’s Labour in 2019, focus returned to fostering local communities and building systems outside government, including within music. Hughes acknowledges rising awareness of streaming economics and dodgy label models, and would like to see musicians who earn “tiny fucking crumbs” return to collective action and “agitate for an assertive class politics.” 

Without a belief this might in fact happen, caroline could be doomed. “The idea of doing some sort of commercial venture as an eight-piece band is insane,” says Hughes. 

“Making this sort of music, and then having eight people,” Llewellyn adds, chuckling.

“You couldn’t dream up a scenario where you would earn less money. But everyone is irreplaceable.”

A fortnight later, eight pairs of wide-leg trousers billow onstage beneath EartH Theatre’s steep auditorium. So rapt is the crowd that a security-intercom crackle, or a tiptoeing toilet-goer, can send a frisson through the room, jolting us back into the material world. Folk principles gird the ethereal experience. For the new song, “When I Get Home,” Llewellyn brings up a horde of young acoustic guitarists from the crowd, who encircle him on wooden chairs and learn the chords in real-time.  Though Hughes ended the show with an emotional kiss-off to caroline’s debut, they will bring it on the road for another round in North America this spring, ushering in the band’s second phase. 

As the auditorium empties, band members stack gear by the stage door. Is there a system for loading the van? “Just biggest stuff first,” says Llewellyn, lugging his cello downstairs. He turns to appraise my helping hands, carrying dainty keyboard cases. “So that’s probably...” He grasps for a tactful word. “Small?” 

Outside, shivering in a thin jumper, Llewellyn reflects on the concert and band—on the whole precarious enterprise. Where Hughes spoke passionately about politics, Llewellyn is more circumspect. For him, the performance is a social ritual built on little acts of faith. The trumpet will sing, and the cymbal will crash, the instant you lash the cello. 

“There’s something fundamentally moving in that fragility,” he says. “So many micro cues and spaces being stretched. Things hanging on a precipice. It’s always teetering a little.” The rest of the band has dispersed, heading off for early nights and day jobs. O’Malley and Llewellyn, a quarter of an empire, jump into the van with their precariously stacked cargo and, safely tucked inside, peel into the chaos of the city.