Close to Her

Certainly much will be said beginning this coming Tuesday when If I Were a Carpenter hits record stores. The release is a collection of songs by the Carpenters, Karen and Richard, as performed by some of today's hottest and coolest alternative rock acts, including Sonic Youth, Redd Kross, Cracker, and Bettie Serveert. Everyone should have something to say about that.

But as per usual New Times has gone that extra mile, or in this case that extra million miles, and secured an exclusive interview with the queen of somber pop herself, Ms. Karen Carpenter, who, along with us, heard an advance cassette of If I Were a Carpenter. Here then, in her own words, Karen Carpenter:

New Times: Overall, what do you think of the new album?
Karen Carpenter: I was shocked! I mean, I didn't know what to expect, I guess, so I expected the worst -- that these new young groups would take our songs and, like, deconstruct them and puke -- excuse me -- I mean, um, regur...that they would come out in a way unrecognizable as the originals. When I heard how faithful the versions are I was just flattered to high heaven.

NT: I agree that these are fairly faithful renderings, which raises the question of why. People can just go buy the old Carpenters stuff, right?

KC: Yes they can! And, for Richard's sake, I hope people do. But seriously, Carpenters records still sell quite well in Japan and Europe. I think that partly explains why A&M -- the label Richard and I signed to 25 years ago -- decided to release this.

NT: To exploit your name and catalogue, right?
KC: No, not at all. I wouldn't put it that way. No, no, no. Like I said, it's an honor and a wonderful way to recognize the 25th anniversary of our first popular success. They're even putting out a deluxe box set of these songs on seven-inch 45s.

NT: Cool. So what's your favorite track on the new record?
KC: That's a toughie. You know, I'm a big Sonic Youth fan. That might seem strange, but they did a song on their album Goo, "Tunic (Song for Karen)," that brought tears to my eyes. In some ways I can't think of a group more different from what the Carpenters did, but listen to "Superstar," which was written by Leon Russell, in case you didn't know that. The utter restraint of the vocals, the singer almost swallows the words, and the instrumental touches, so fuzzy yet warm. And Grant Lee Buffalo sounds just like us on "We've Only Just Begun." Very sweet.

NT: Getting back to the Sonic Youth track, there's a crafty use of dissonance, distortion I guess, even though they're working within standard scales and using traditional progressions, which they normally avoid, and other unusual touches that reflect the fact that Thurston and company, not untypically, seem to understand and appreciate the Carpenters on a higher level, that they did, in fact, deconstruct the song and then rebuild it in their own image without losing any of its essence. They seem to know going in what your group was all about, the layers of sound, the constructing of recorded pieces of music that worked in many dimensions.

KC: What's that about dementia? I'm sorry, I wasn't listening.
NT: Never mind. It is a great record, but there are a few cuts I thought could've been better. Don't you think "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" by Babes in Toyland lacks balls?

KC: You're asking the wrong person. It's a bit of a mess, I guess. Those women don't sing all that well, but their band really rocks live!

NT: Sure they do. I just think it's kind of weird that a lot of the vocal work here is less than stellar. You certainly had pitch and range, you were always on-key. If nothing else.

KC: Well, I worked with Richard in a few bands before Herb [Alpert, A&M cofounder] discovered us. I didn't even sing in our first group, this little jazz trio, I only played drums. That was after our family moved to California, when Richard and I were hanging out with the U-Cal crowd. We won a contest that let us record two albums for RCA, but they didn't release them. Said they were too "soft." Yeah, right. We knew in our hearts that people like nice music performed well. We never claimed to be any kind of rock and rollers. I'm from Connecticut, for chrissakes. Whoops. Sorry, J., didn't see you standing there.

NT: Ms. Carpenter? Karen? Karen? Are you there?
KC: I have to learn to watch my mouth. Sometimes stuff just comes out. You say one little thing around here and you don't know who you might offend.

NT: You were talking about the singing on the new album, how a few of the songs are comparatively sloppy --

KC: Live with it! No one ever said Mark Eitzel could sing, but you have to admire American Music Club, and you have to like what they've done with "Goodbye to Love." So what if the guy has the vocal range of a brick? You can hear the sincerity, the emotion, and that's a very emotional song. And he pulls it off with such subtlety, you know? It's all about feeling.

NT: Okay, then explain Shonen Knife's "Top of the World." Would you admit that Shonen Knife sounds more French than Japanese? That they left out too many consonants?

KC: That was one of our happy songs, and they're a happy group. It's good clean fun. They captured, in a cute way, the spirit of the tune.

NT: One song that is sung well is 4 Non Blondes's "Bless the Beasts and the Children."

KC: Oh, yes, I love the way that gal sings. I do wonder why they put all those squalling guitars in there. It sort of sets my teeth on edge. But I think they pull it off. In all of these songs, even the kinda strange thing that Bettie Serveert does with "For All We Know," the passion comes through. That makes a difference. I listen to that, and it's like floating on a river of Jell-O spiked with razor wire, all tension and release, like a little play, very dramatic. And what about "Let Me Be the One"? Now that fellow Matthew Sweet, he can carry a tune. And did you know that that's Richard on background vocals?

NT: Yes, I understand that Mr. Sweet called Richard directly and asked him to participate.

KC: It's true. Matt drives an old Dodge Charger, because he knows how fanatical Richard is about Seventies cars. And Berend Dubbe of Bettie Serveert has a shrine to me in his bedroom! Can you imagine?

NT: Sometimes something that's intended to be rather serious can become kitschy and enter the cultural iconography through the back door. It becomes accidental camp.

KC: Accidental camp doesn't move 50 million units worldwide, my earthly friend. Look, I know the critics never gave us much credit. But critics never like anything popular, whether it's any good or not. I learned something since I've been up here, which is that being worshiped is tricky business. Even the most sincere worship can be misguided. I think heavy metal bands seek that sort of genuflection, rappers often do, too, but Richard and I simply wanted to make good records. Which is not to say that all art must be self-depriving. Everyone has to pay the rent and put food on the table. Thanks to the fans, we were able to afford higher rent and put more food on the table than most people. There's nothing campy about that.

NT: I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I'm well aware that you had five platinum and two gold albums, ten gold singles, three Grammy Awards, even an Academy Award. That you performed for Nixon and that your 1976 tour of Japan was the biggest concert tour up to that time in that country. So what I want to ask is, Dishwalla really rocks on "It's Gonna Take Some Time," do you like that one?

KC: It's like butter. Like garlic sauteed in butter with fresh parsley, then chilled and stuffed into the shells, with the escargots placed atop and sprinkled lightly with paprika -- uh, excuse me. [Long pause.]

NT: What about the cranberries's version of "Close to You," your signature tune and one of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's great songwriting moments?

KC: Don't say cranberries!
NT: Is the food any better up there?
KC: Ha ha. Very funny. What's your editor's name?
NT: I'll ask the questions, vomit breath.

KC: Screw you. Why don't you just shut up and play the record? Why don't you idiots ever write about the music? God, you journalists. Huh? Oh, sorry, Big Guy. Nothing, um, personal. No, Sir, I'm talking long-distance to one of those damn music critics. You know how they can be.

God: No, I don't. I've never met one.