When I wrote my retrospective on a decade of Madison music last month, I named Charlemagne the most influential local band of the '00s.
Charlemagne was Carl Johns' swaggering indie-pop project. Johns came to Madison from southern Indiana in the late 1990s and played a leading role in changing the primary brand of local rock from roots/blues to indie.
This weekend, Johns returns to play his first Madison shows in two years. He performs in Charlemagne at the Frequency on Saturday, Dec. 12. He plays again as part of Auntie Em and Uncle Carl at the High Noon Saloon on Dec. 15.
Last week I talked with Johns about what he's been up to since leaving Madison and what lies ahead for his music.
You left Madison for Philadelphia in 2006. How and when did you end up in Berlin?
I only lasted seven months in Philly. I liked living in Philadelphia, but I found myself visiting New York every chance I could. So when I found out about an open apartment in Brooklyn, it just made sense for me to move there.
I moved to Berlin about a year ago to work for an artist. In New York, I was working for an art gallery. One of their artists got two really large commissions and decided to make them in Berlin. I went to Berlin to help the gallery set up the studio and ended up leaving the gallery and working for the artist. That project ended a couple of months ago. Now I've decided to stay for another year or indefinitely.
Berlin for me is kind of a mix of some of the best things in Madison and New York. It has bike paths, organic food and a generally chill, at times college-town-esque milieu. But it's also very urban and an international art, music and fashion hub. It's a great place to be creative.
Tell us about how you met Emily Farrell, a little about her background and your musical collaboration with her. Are you two a couple? Married?
Emily and I met when I was on tour in the spring of 2006. She was a bartender in a bar I played in Philly. She's from Sydney, Australia, and studied musical composition at Oberlin. Her real passion is linguistics. She just finished her Ph.D. last year and is involved in all sorts of linguistic research.
When I had the chance to move to Berlin, she had some opportunities there as well, so it seemed pretty perfect. We played together some in Philly and on an Australian tour I did, but it wasn't until after we'd been in Berlin for about nine months together that we really started playing a lot.
Basically the process with Em and I is I write the songs and she adds her magic to them.
Yes, we are a couple. No, we are not married.
Does Auntie Em and Uncle Carl have a different musical identity than Charlemagne?
Yes, absolutely. I've always had an interest in playing three types of music: country-folk songwriter, pop songs, and avant-garde improvised. I used to want to do all of these things in the same band, but now I'm now more into separating them into refined entities.
Auntie Em and Uncle Carl is the country-folk songwriter project. Charlemagne is the noise-pop project. Ausländerbehörde, which is still in development, is the improv avant project.
All three are basically myself and Emily.
What are your plans now for Charlemagne?
The Charlemagne plan at this point is basically to take it as it comes. I had a few weeks free this summer, so I recorded a set of 10 demo songs. A couple of the songs were written beforehand, but for the most part I wrote, arranged and recorded the whole thing over about three weeks. I got offered a couple of shows opening up for friends coming through Berlin this fall and decided to perform some of these new songs as Charlemagne. And it felt pretty right.
Charlemagne, Frequency, Saturday, Dec. 12, 10 pm
Auntie Em and Uncle Carl, High Noon Saloon, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 6 pm