Geoff Farina is a thinking man with one big problem to solve — and he’s been at it for more than half a decade. The problem isn’t figuring out how to amass throngs of fans, become a household name or even achieve whopping Soundscan numbers through his much-beloved work in Karate or as a solo artist. (He’s going to Italy in order to record electronica with noted producer Tejo Tehardo early next year.) Instead, the Berklee School of Music graduate bridges the gap between rock music’s inherently organic, guttural nature and the idea that compositions can be formed within the boundaries of clear theoretical articulation — and still fit within the genre’s framework.
Confused? Don’t be. Don’t pass Karate off as just another math-rock band, either — there’s more here than meets the eye.
Farina explains his outfit’s quest: “Part of it is trying to have an identity musically. We’ve all had formal music training and a lot of experience in the rock world where there’s a whole other language of playing; I don’t think either language is sufficient.”
While the majority of rock bands jump into songwriting without being able to differentiate between an arpeggio and an apple, Karate formed in 1993 while each member was busy developing their individual musical vocabularies. Original bassist and current guitarist Eamonn Vitt studied at Boston University, as did drummer Gavin McCarthy. Current bassist Jeff Goddard joined the band in 1995 after having moved to the area in 1987 to pursue classical music studies at Berklee and the New England Conservatory. Now, he’s one of the most in-demand session bass and trumpet players in the country. Hardly your typical college-rawk dudes.
“We want to use the language available to formally address the music to each other. But, on the other hand, we don’t just want to work within those stringent boundaries. We don’t want to be a rock or fusion group that pushes clichés. I discover elements that I want, and add them to my acumen, then disregard the rest,” muses Farina, who spends much of his non-studio time fixing broken amplifiers for giggles.
Pushing clichés is the last thing that Karate does, and it is apparent in the proliferation of their historically hit-or-miss work. For instance, the lengthy “Same Stars” and “Up Nights” from the band’s 1998 Southern release, The Bed is in The Ocean, sounds too masturbatory for its own good; although much of the release (like “There are Ghosts”) approaches rock in a way that works beautifully. If nothing else, such mixed releases are interesting for their ability to allow listeners insight into Karate’s growth.
And they have grown. “We’ve learned in the last few years that we love songs; not everything has to be this big, long piece.”
For the last four years, Karate has steadily moved away from the herky-jerky guitar discordance that initially popularized early singles in the mid-’90s, instead exploring more jazzy, spacious arrangements rife with organized improvisation. Such planned improv is based on “praxis. It’s a Marxist idea that explains that there’s not a difference between the theory and the practice; it’s just called praxis. It’s important to have an idea of how to articulate what you do, and one thing that rock music lacks is having a formal explanatory language, even though there’s a ton of formality to it. When we’re making a record now, we want to use that methodological theory as part of our palette.”
Very academic, indeed. It wasn’t until the band released their self-titled full-length in 1996 that lovers of the slightly off began flocking to their side en masse, even though Karate was still very much young and changeable. Farina happily recalls: “There was a point before releasing Unsolved (Southern, 2000) when we started coming into our sound. There are a lot of new and interesting things we’ve done in the past few years. We have so many ideas every time we make a record now.”
All of Farina’s experimentation has proved incredibly rewarding, but the difficult task of performing their complex songs live is a problem. Some work, like what Farina refers to as the “thematic epics” featured on their latest EP, Cancel/Sing, never gets reproduced in front of people, and that’s that. Karate’s greatest challenge has been “learning to play the songs in such a way that they feel good live,” he admits. “With so many different tempos and interpretations, it’s hard to get all the elements to work together onstage. I remember that when we first started playing songs from Unsolved, it was horrible. Then, at one show in Florida, it all came together. We implicitly enjoyed what was happening onstage.”
It’s taken a lot of hard work to reach a serendipitous union, but reaching that union is of the utmost importance, according to Farina. “The whole meaning of music is the social thing. Until you go play for people and have that kind of dialogue or communicative endeavor, it’s not it. It’s a mistake to think of music as something decontextualized, like the romantic notion of someone playing songs in their bedroom."
Karate will speak-ah their language at The Shelter (431 E. Congress, Detroit; call 313-961-MELT) on Monday Oct. 7.E-mail Joan Hiller at email@example.com