In the High Middle Ages, the misericorde – a long, slim blade that looks like a fancy icepick – was used to dole death blows to knights who’d gravely injured themselves in battle. It sounds like a morbid and brutish way to end someone’s suffering, but in its context, the misericorde was arguably a tool of compassion: it offered resoundingly fast relief from pain, even mercy.
When Caleb Karvountzis, frontman of Melbourne-based emo outfit Tiny Little Houses, first learned of the weapon, it became for him the final piece of a creative puzzle. The concept perfectly fit the band’s second album, unsurprisingly titled ‘Misericorde’, an exploration of the notion that “the only way to save yourself is through suffering”.
Rather than run from his depression or medicate it into subservience, Karvountzis reckons with sadness by dissecting it in song with love. He appreciates “the catharsis of expressing yourself through art”, he tells NME, because “when you write things down, it becomes clear how you can address what you’re going through”.
“If you’re denying yourself on a daily basis, then when someone else denies [you something], it’s not as much of a shock”
This process of reckoning with depression through art is what built the foundation of Tiny Little Houses’ full-length debut, ‘Idiot Proverbs’. The months following its January 2018 release saw Karvountzis experiment with his process, trying new ways to tackle his troubled headspace: he’d test himself with icy cold showers and lengthy periods of fasting, trying to appreciate life’s subtle joys by throwing himself headfirst into anguish.
He ultimately found the experiences beneficial, as he muses: “We all have to become more uncomfortable, I think, as we become overly reliant on our comforts. When our comforts become necessities, we become more and more enslaved by them.
“Fasting, cold showers, self-denial of the little things – they really do change your mindset from day to day, and how you react to any challenge that comes up. If you’re denying yourself on a daily basis, then when someone else denies [you something], it’s not as much of a shock.”
Karvountzis recounts his ascetic experience on the opening track of ‘Misericorde’, which is straightforwardly titled ‘Cold Showers’. Over a bed of grungy guitars and a pared-back beat, he sings: “No more games / Ditching fantasy, abstaining from all pleasure / ’Cause I’d rather be a servant than a slave.”
“I deserve everything that I get,” Karvountzis declares on the chorus, which sounds like a direct response to the paint-by-numbers ‘woe is me’ slant of ‘Idiot Proverbs’. And indeed, he hopes fans will take ‘Misericorde’ as a new start – and that listeners will see he’s no longer who he was on that first album. “At the end of the day, I am my own person,” he says. “I have to take responsibility for how I react to everything, and I think that’s probably reflected more in these songs.”
“All of our sufferings in life, they’re lessons”
There’s a religious context for ‘Misericorde’, one that’s most transparent on the grandiose and poignant ‘Holy Water’ – an almost six-minute epic with a cinematic soundscape that peaks when church bells ring out over a wailing swell of distortion, Karvountzis’ gut-wrenching howl soaring over them. The track reflects the singer and guitarist’s relationship with Christianity: he’s a devout believer, but not an unthinking zealot nor faultless follower.
“There’s always struggle,” he says candidly. “You struggle with faith, and you struggle with your ability to control yourself or your life, or do what you think is right. And that’s what I tried to write about with ‘Holy Water’.
“It’s about a girl that represents everything holy and good in [the protagonist’s] life, and there’s a connection to a time in his life where he felt like he was being cleansed when he was with her. And then when she left and that relationship disintegrated, all the control he had and all the good in his life kind of went away. He was nostalgic [for] that peace again, that he had in his youth and in his innocence.”
That journey towards peace lies at the foundation of ‘Misericorde’, press materials touting that it follows Karvountzis’ “search for salvation through suffering”. Asked if he has ultimately found his salvation, he ponders: “Well, I think it’s a lifelong process. Christ said to pick up your cross and follow Him, and that means to acknowledge your suffering and learn to live with it.
“All of our sufferings in life, they’re lessons. I don’t know if you could really look at it any other way – if you did, you’d just become bitter about things.”
Karvountzis – and indeed, his bandmates Sean Mullins (guitar), Al Yamin (bass) and Clancy Bond (drums) – have learned a lot in the years since Tiny Little Houses broke out. When he wrote ‘Idiot Proverbs’, Karvountzis was barely an adult, his biggest worries being whether his crush-of-the-month would text him back. Today, though, he’s married and planning for a family, has a full-time job inspecting properties for prospective homebuyers, and barely touches social media (or modern technology in general).
But Tiny Little Houses built their fanbase on the basis of dour, mosh-primed pop anthems inflected with teen angst. Is it difficult to write a punchy emo song when you don’t have punchy emo problems?
“Totally,” Karvountzis laughs. “It feels so much harder, which I think is why some of the songs on this record are a little broader in scope – they’re not all just angsty love songs. There’s a couple in there, but there’s a few more songs where I tried to… take more from other people’s stories.”
The literary influence on ‘Misericorde’ run deep, from references to East Of Eden on ‘Golden Boy’ – one of Karvountzis’ favourite tracks, the John Steinbeck novel in question having “really, really cut [him] deep to the core” – and nods to The Unabomber Manifesto on ‘Emperor’ (“it was very telling that [Ted Kaczynski] saw where modernity was going to take us,” Karvountzis says, “in terms of people feeling more and more isolated and controlled”) to album highlight ‘Richard Cory’, which is a personalised retelling of Edwin Robinson’s titular poem.
With a new outlook on life, too, Karvountzis grew warmer to the prospect of opening up his creative process. He concedes that “with the last couple of records, [he] may have been more controlling of everything,” but this time round made a conscious effort to be “a bit more trusting in the other guys’ capabilities”. “I think the songwriting is more interesting as result of that,” he reflects, proudly declaring ‘Misericorde’ “our most collaborative effort yet”.
There’s no telling where Tiny Little Houses might head from here, both creatively and logistically – “we’re always flying by the seat of our pants,” Karvountzis chuckles – but if the frontman had his way, he’d rather tend to grassy knolls and rowdy kids than tour vans and publicists. “This is such a pipe dream,” he ventures, “but if I could, I would go back to some form of subsistence living – own some land and try to be contented with that… I’ve kind of romanticised the notion that I would be happy there.”
Karvountzis may be on a lifelong search for salvation, but after the journey he’s been on recording ‘Misericorde’, it seems he’s found some semblance of serenity. And for now, at least, that’s good enough.
Tiny Little Houses’ ‘Misericorde’ is out November 19 via Ivy League Records