Defying Ambiguity: Jandek & 5 Other Curious Cult Musicians (UPDATED)

Categories: Pop Life

UPDATE (July 19, 8:20 a.m.): Some inaccuracies in the Charalambides item have been corrected.

Jandek JW July 12.jpg
Photo by Jason Wolter
Jandek at Big Star Bar in April
As a musician, there are many reasons behind choosing to remain an ambiguous character in the public eye as opposed to taking in all of the public attention one can. Choosing to remain ambiguous or elusive is sometimes a decidedly defiant statement, sometimes even a backwards-marketing tool, or is simply a pure reflection of one's personality.

Whatever the reason may be, musicians who have taken such a path, and have found success regardless, all share a common mystique. With a lack of a cohesive image of a musician, listeners have nothing to go on but bare-bones music.

It's the curious listeners who seek to attribute meaning to the music they're listening to, and then those who simply get lost in appreciating music for what it is, that keep fueling many of these musicians' cult status.

Houston's own Jandek (performing tonight at Mango's) is a great example of an all-elusive musician. For many years, his music could only be accessed via a P.O. box address.

His anti-pop sound managed to garner him a few significant fans, including Sonic Youth, Bill Callahan, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, and John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, although Jandek's sound is a bit far from the stark sweetness that is Death Cab for Cutie.

Point is, only about two and a half decades from his start did he finally start performing more regularly. His enigmatic tunes, while appropriately branded as outsider music, encompass a wide range of sounds, especially live. When Jandek does a show, no one knows what to expect.

While no one really compares to Jandek's extremely unique sound, there are quite a few more notably elusive musicians out there that, through their lack of... presence, are immensely inspiring and capturing to many. These artists also happen to be quite fitting to listen to on a rainy day like this.

5. Charalambides

This former husband-and-wife duo, also Houston natives, have released a steady stream of brooding psychedelic folk recordings that flew under the radar of most people outside the underground/experimental music community. That includes fans like Thurston Moore, who invited the two to play the 2006 "Nightmare Before Christmas" edition of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Until guitarist Tom Carter was hospitalized in Germany in May, Charalambides had been touring regularly since that year.

4. Jeff Mangum

Thirteen years since the release of landmark album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, when Jeff Mangum modestly toured as the head of Neutral Milk Hotel, Mangum has contributed to an odd album of sound collages with some old members of Elephant 6 and compiled a collection of live field recordings from a remote folk festival in Bulgaria. Also, if you try Googling Jeff Mangum, "crazy" and "dead" are in the top query suggestions.

In between those 13 years, too, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea went from being known only within a tight-knit circle of fans to being canonized as one of the top albums of the '90s by various music critics.

Since Neutral Milk Hotel disbanded in the '90s, Mangum now performs as a rarefied act. As photography is prohibited at his shows, it has been claimed that he manages to enrapture his audience into a rare void of any smartphone activity. When Jeff Mangum and his band made a rare performance of his in Chicago this year, an illustrator for the Chicago Reader made some sketches of the show

Location Info


403 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Music

Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help

In further explanation of my findings, I got the information I originally posted on Charalambides here: 

Here's the specific quote from the text that I used as a reference: "Houston has always produced its share of musical enigmas, from the 1960s psychedelic freaks of The Red Krayola to blues/folk savant Jandek, a musical recluse who, while releasing records annually, has never revealed himself to the public. The husband-wife duo of Tom and Christina Carter, known together as Charalambides, falls right in line with this tradition, having spent the last six or so years producing an admirable and extensive body of work orchestrated primarily in the couple's living room and rarely taken beyond those four walls."

Following that finding, here are a couple of other sources I read that proved some form of ambiguity in their recordings:


Considering all of these sources, my judgement was to use the information that had already been shared via this publication itself, which apparently had been previously overlooked, and led to this misinformation. Of all artists I could have listed, I chose to list Charalambides primarily because I enjoy their music and they are from Houston.

Alexa Crenshaw
Alexa Crenshaw

Hey, the music itself can be elusive too.  Honestly, I was under the impression that Charalambides kept more to themselves than they actually do, as I read some comparisons between them and Jandek, but turns out that's more just their sound. 

Ramon LP4 Medina
Ramon LP4 Medina

fair enough I likely took your "elusive artist" criteria too literally.

Alexa Crenshaw
Alexa Crenshaw

I understand your point.  Nobody is like Jandek.  That's not the point I'm trying to make.  That being said, there are thousands of artists I could have listed here.  I honestly chose them because they started out in Houston and their sound is fitting.  

Ramon LP4 Medina
Ramon LP4 Medina

Nah, that's total bollocks.  I'm nt sure where you pulled the six years number from but if they released their first album in 1992 that would put these recordings at 1996 which would in turn put Tom in his about freshman year of Univeristy when he first arrived in Houston.  So yeah, utter rubbish.   The original trio started performing with Kyle and just doign stuff at home for fun as a trio and it eventually became it's own thing but they released Our bed is Green pretty soon after they took the name Charalmbides.  I can't recall how long Mutal Admiration Society ran before that but I wouldn't expect it to have been around longer than maybe a year or two max.  But reagrdless of where youpulled your information from, if making stufff at home and not releasing it for years is your measure, then a majority of Houston musicians are also secretive Jandeks shunning the spotlight.  In reality this is no different than when you see an artist with a sketchbook. people do it all the time.  Sometimes it gets released and sometimes it does not.

Alexa Crenshaw
Alexa Crenshaw

I read there was a period of time that they indeed produced music primarily in their living room that pretty much stayed there for years.  I was just referring to that time, not them as a whole.  That's why I mentioned their abundance of live performances after that.

Ramon LP4 Medina
Ramon LP4 Medina

It's kind of a stretch to suggest that Charalambides were being secretive or shunning attention.  Both were actively involved in the Houston music community while they were here, their first release was a cassette release that came out while Tom was in the more Rock oriented Mike Gunn, and siltbreeze put out their first LP just a year or two after they formed.  They are also a duo who has toured extensively.  Maybe they are somewhat under a lot of people's radar but that's quite different than Jandek who for years actively shunned any spotlight so as to keep his life private. 

Now Trending

Houston Concert Tickets

From the Vault