As idealism dies, a thirtieth birthday approaches, and the rent’s due – the time to take practical action draws near. When self-taught musician and formally trained luthier Jeremy Carter’s dreams of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle began to slip away, he saw his music career in a different light. “I thought I was going to make it as a rock star…didn’t happen,” he said. After leaving high school early to pursue a formal education in guitar building, Carter saw an opportunity to remain involved in music without chasing unrealistic aspirations.
“The idea that I’m gonna be famous ‘because my songs rock so hard’ is ridiculous. Go down to Art Bar and you’ll meet 45 people who say the same thing,” Carter said. Like Michelangelo, whose wet-nurse was from a family of stone-cutters, Carter, the son of an architect, was born to create
A Columbia native, Carter spent five months at the Totnes School of Guitar Making in Devon, England, where his brother Jeff had previously trained in the art of instrument construction. The Carters’ education was focused on a classical and organic approach to building instruments with no power tools, which would prove integral to Jeremy’s matured artistic philosophy. “This is what it takes to be a guitar builder,” holding an entirely handmade guitar, “and it broke,” Carter said.
“The thing in England was hardcore for sure.” Upon his return to the states, Carter’s academics continued at the College of Charleston and later the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
Carter then relocated to Seattle with his brother Tim. In the Northwest he further pursued a career in instrument making – a craftsman at heart now forging a new methodology. Carter took a job at a local luthier factory, “Dusty Strings”, where he contributed to the production of more than 45 harps a month; in the meantime constructing a guitar solely out of the factory’s scrap material. “It was like following a recipe list,” Carter said. “I learned more there than I did in college.” In addition to his unvarnished training at the factory, Carter furthered his unofficial artistic education at a local art store. “I learned so much more about art working in an art supply store in Seattle,” Carter said. “In art school they don’t teach you anything technical – they teach you how to conceptualize and bullshit about ‘Art’.”
After more than a year at the factory, Carter left with a creative theory now based in classical and utilitarian concepts, which he would bring home with him to Columbia.
Carter’s workshop sits in the backyard of his blue-brick house, which is surprisingly neat for two male occupants. The workshop is clean, orderly, and smells fresh, like the air is cleaner inside.
Here, Carter crafts his instruments (with power tools), including those he sent to American Chopper, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Cure. Instruments in progress adorn the counters. Pieces fashioned from rosewood are stunning and, like all of Carter’s instruments, are handmade, limited editions. The only (analog) clock in the shop is neglectful of daylight-saving’s time, and classical music courtesy of NPR fills the silence between red-brick walls. Like a perfect symmetrical equation, Carter’s pieces are visibly inspired and therefore visually inspiring.
He custom-builds acoustic, electric, and hybrid instruments with a style and inherent philosophy that keeps the wood center-stage. Carter believes in, and depends on, the natural beauty of the woods he uses to speak for itself. Unlike some of the “flashier” guitars mass-produced by larger manufacturers, Carter’s instruments maintain an organic presence. “I’m trying to show off the wood,” he said. With his perfectly-balanced Yin-and-Yang of classical education and real-world training, Carter manages to craft pieces that command attention. “I ultimately want to create people’s dream instruments,” Carter said. Both style and substance meet harmoniously in Carter’s instruments; awe-inspiring aesthetics and intricate engineering blend to materialize intercessory works of art that occupy the threshold of beauty and intellect – that of the Ideal and the Real.
Although Carter’s instruments are first priority, he finds time to return to his musical roots: the local band scene. Why Johnny Kills, formed in 1995 and since reorganized, remains a project that captures Carter’s affections. “Five Points taught me how to ‘rock’, back in the day,” Carter said. The band took its name from an after-school-special-like psychology class video about schizophrenia, and is releasing a new album, “SEX”, in 2008. As the band’s bassist, Carter said, “I love music. I’ll always play music,” but added that he “get(s) really turned off by the competition in the industry, especially on the local level.”
Locally, Carter also manages a music studio. There, scratched-out song titles garnish the doorway to organized chaos – a familiar mark of the artist at work. A crossed-out “Sober is the New High” marks the threshold of what Jeremy describes as “the classic rock-and-roll-boy’s clubhouse dream”: a reminder of the realism that is acquiescence. That which has been discarded is not forgotten – much like Carter’s rock ‘n’ roll dreams. The trash-can full of PBR cans and beer boxes is shadowed by a looming dirty coffee-pot and a prominent “No Smoking” sign. Once used to pursue ideals of fame and fortune, the WJK Studio now manifests the pragmatics of adult life.
Carter’s disappointment with the music industry was a blessing in disguise. He eventually realized that the rock-star dream is virtually unattainable, and used this knowledge to build a business that would cater to the chosen-few who did attain it: “I’d still be falling for that white-boy dream of ‘I wanna be a rock star’,” Carter said.
The local luthier also feels strongly about music education. His girlfriend, who teaches at a local elementary school, is dedicated to the Save the Music Foundation, of which Carter is a proponent. “It’s sad. I think that’s just America. These kids don’t even know what a piano is,” he said. “Music kept me from becoming a drug addict or a dumb ass.”
Meanwhile, Carter confuses his neighbors by cutting down trees on his lunch break and building giant teepees in the backyard for wood-drying. “My neighbors all think I’m insane,” he said, laughing, and declared that the teepee “is the best piece of incidental art I’ve created all year.”
The painter, writer, luthier, musician, and artist in many other rights has shifted his focus to musical arts. A liaison to the organic and man-made realms of artistic creation, Carter’s talents are at times intangible and extend far beyond mechanics