If you like the saxophone honking on Tom Waits's CDs, you like Ralph
Carney. His solo albums are a lot of fun.
CARNEY'S LITTLE CARNIVAL
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Scattered among small tables at 12 Galaxies, Mission Street's newest
nightclub, the bar crowd watches CarneyBallJohnson, the trio onstage. As
the drummer and guitarist continue to jam, their mutton-chopped,
bespectacled front man blows into a red balloon. Holding it tightly to his
chest, he stretches and pinches its little neck, letting it yelp its odd,
somewhat melodic notes into the microphone until it's empty.
Welcome to the world of Ralph Carney, musical virtuoso and emerging master
of balloony tunes.
"The balloon solo is a really good solo," asserts 12 Galaxies' bartender-
owner Adam Bergeron. "It's not just some guy letting air out of a balloon."
"I didn't even know he played the balloon until last week," confesses
Carney's wife, Deena. "Our daughter must have dropped one and Ralph picked
it up, figuring it was something new to play."
Looking something like a Civil War brigadier in his wire-rim glasses and
medium-length hair, Carney exhibits a child's immense curiosity.
In conversation, he has the nonstop loquaciousness of a kid on four bowls
of Cocoa Puffs, spewing out noisy waterfalls of ideas that quickly vaporize
into incomplete sentences as new currents of thought swirl through.
During performances, he'll play clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, Tibetan
horn, Pan pipes, flute, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, or any one of his large
collection of vintage toy instruments -- often during the course of one
song. He counts famous cartoon composers Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott
among his musical heroes.
Aside from his CarneyBallJohnson gigs, the ever-kinetic Carney can be found
leading or supporting a wide range of bands playing live at local venues.
He's even been known to invent a band for the occasion -- like the biweekly
Doc's Clock gig with his "Hawaiian-Italian" band the Hula-Gins. "He just
bought a ukulele and needed a place to play it," says Deena, explaining the
With his ability to slip comfortably into any genre, Carney has contributed
to recorded projects by performers as disparate as alt-country rockers
Grant Lee Buffalo and late literary giants such as William S. Burroughs and
Allen Ginsberg. He'll be on forthcoming albums by Jonathan Richman and Jim
White, and he's involved in a pair of avant-garde projects hitting record
stores soon: Danny Cohen's "Dannyland" and "Twink," a toy piano orchestra
project with a cartoon rabbit theme.
Carney will also be the subject of a documentary by local filmmaker Laura
Torell, who has been filming him for the past two years.
After releasing three solo records since 1997 -- on which he played every
instrument -- Carney seems relieved to have found musical comrades in
drummer Scott Johnson and guitarist Kimo Ball. If the name
CarneyBallJohnson sounds like a musical circus, it's a fitting and
appropriate estimation of their ability to juggle a dizzying selection of
sounds including swing, folk, Delta blues, psychedelic pop, hillbilly jug
and bluegrass music, Dixieland and experimental jazz, and world music from
Turkey to Nepal.
"Kimo wants to arrange a Mahler piece for us soon," Carney says with a
laugh. "Seems kind of crazy for a bar band, but we just might do it!"
The trio's first exposure came last summer as the opening act for the Les
Claypool Frog Brigade. The musicians are currently recording their first
album while continuing their biweekly Sunday gigs at 12 Galaxies, where
they couple original music with odd interpretations of songs by Cream, Sun
Ra and Desmond Dekker, the early reggae star known for the hit "Israelites."
Early in his career, a late-'70s move to New York from Ohio brought Carney
his first taste of musical professionalism and led to one of his most
Music producer Hal Willner, who was the sketch music coordinator for
"Saturday Night Live" in its heyday, was an avid supporter of Carney's
music. Willner got Carney's band Swollen Monkeys a small record deal and,
in 1984, introduced him to a new transplant to New York named Tom Waits.
"Tom was doing a couple songs for a documentary called 'Streetwise' and he
wanted to have a kind of Salvation Army sounding band," Carney says. "I had
a street band at the time and we just hit it off, I guess."
Carney was undoubtedly the most vital contributor to six Waits albums
during the 1990s, including "Rain Dogs," "Franks Wild Years" and "Mule
"Sometimes he would ask me to play two horns at once, and he liked me to
play the bass clarinet a lot. But he doesn't like flutes," Carney says,
laughing. "It's hard not to become attached to working with him, but he
seems to like to change players a lot, so I guess I was lucky to have
worked with him more than most."
Not unlike Waits, the only thing Carney seems out of tune with is
contemporary life. He lives with his wife and daughter in a sunny Bernal
Heights home with neat stacks of old magazines, videos of 1930s musicals,
shelves full of music books, a Victrola and a 1906 upright piano across
from an antique photo of an Italian mandolin band from the same era.
"I'm in love with a lot of ghosts," he says. "Hearing so much old music, I
feel like I was there, so maybe it's a karma thing that I have yet to clear
"Go toward the light! Go toward the light!" he blurts in a spooky cartoon
voice, waving his hands and laughing. For anyone who sees Carney play,
they'll know in the first note that he's already in it.