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Karate’s Geoff Farina: "I have an ongoing identity crisis – every six months I’m enamored with some other style of guitar playing"

Karate
(Image credit: Numero Group/Karate)

Outside of chance used bin scores, exceptionally inflated vinyl listings on Discogs, and the occasional unsanctioned YouTube rip, it’s been tough for people to find the collected works of Allston, MA-formed emo-jazz explorers Karate since the band broke up in 2005.

Earlier this year, however, the cult act announced a full-on digital and vinyl reissue campaign through vaunted archival hub, The Numero Group. While the Chicago label made its name by unearthing rare R&B recordings through its legendary Eccentric Soul series, the Karate re-releases follow a similar tack as Numero’s ‘90s-minded overviews of underground indie groups like Unwound, Bedhead, and Blonde Redhead. 

Founded in 1993, Karate first hovered around an overdriven crunch partly inspired by D.C. post-hardcore – evidenced by introductory digital reissues of 1995’s Death Kit 7-inch and the act’s self-titled debut LP from the same year, as well as through opening slots for groups like Fugazi – but when guitarist Eamonn Vitt left the band in 1997, remaining members Geoff Farina (guitar, vocals), Jeff Goddard (bass) and Gavin McCarthy (drums) honed in on their collective music school training, refining those punk roots with jazz theory, blues work, and improv chops.

Throughout Karate’s six studio full-lengths, Farina’s lead work could pivot from understated-but-soulful bends, towards sophisticated jazz-house fluidity, and onto Klon Centaur-crushing freakouts (as Farina reveals, he even worked under pedalmaker Bill Finnegan for a time). 

While the details have yet to be unveiled in full, proper vinyl pressings of Karate’s albums are impending, and Farina also tells Guitar World that the band have been poring through countless live recordings they could pull out of the archive in the future.

Ahead of all that, Farina dug into his punky beginnings, modding Twin’s on the cheap, and kicking off the long-awaited Karate reissue campaign.

In comparison to some of the Numero Group’s reissues – these stories of finding abandoned masters at estate sales, or damaged tapes sitting in basements since the ‘60s – it’s kind of funny to think about Karate as being a lost band, in that a lot of this is 21st century media. While you’re just beginning to reissue the discography digitally, you can still find some of these albums on YouTube, for instance. How big of an undertaking was it, though, to track down everything in the archive?

“The issue was that our old record label, Southern Records, had essentially been holding our records hostage. We’ve been trying for about 10 years to get them to reissue our vinyl, or to allow somebody else to do it. We fought with them for quite a while. Ken [Shipley, Numero Group co-founder] contacted me right around the time we had succeeded in making a deal [last year].

“The other thing I should say is that Numero has done and is pivoting towards doing ‘90s music – they want to include some seminal indie-rock as part as what they do. They’ve reissued Unwound, Blonde Redhead, and a few other bands that were our peers in the ‘90s and early ‘00s.“

I guess Ken also has that history through his older [emo and indie] imprint, Tree Records. It all comes full circle, in a sense...

“It’s funny – I guess he had asked me many years ago if we would put something out on Tree Records. Somehow it slipped through the cracks and I never answered him. We were laughing about that recently.“

Karate

(Image credit: Numero Group/Karate)

What can you say about the arc of the band, and your evolution as a guitarist, as you head from this distorted, somewhat post-hardcore-informed early material through to the more focused, theory-backed jazz style of later-period Karate?

“I’ve come to terms with the fact that I just have an ongoing identity crisis. Every six months I’m enamored with some other guitar player, or some other style of music or guitar playing. I just bounce around, and I will never settle down. I’ve basically spent the pandemic shedding Real Book tunes [jazz standards], or I get on my Strat and play a lot of Hendrix in the afternoons. There are too many bands that I like, and too many styles of music that I’ve liked. It’s always been that way.

“When Karate started, I think we had less confidence. We were really trying to be an indie band, a post-punk band or something. After we made the second record [1997’s In Place of Real Insight] and Eamonn went on to pursue his career as a doctor, we opened up. Gavin, Jeff and I were music students – we studied jazz; we’re formally trained musicians.

“As Karate went on, we were less afraid to experiment. Early on, we were part of a variation of indie-rock, but we’d always been the nerdy band. People had an excuse to dislike us [laughs].“

You studied at Berklee, transcribing Coltrane, but also came up through the punk and indie scene. Where do those styles intersect, in terms of your playing?

We were influenced by a lot of improvised music, but on the other hand, we would always go back to something loud

“The Minutemen were a huge influence on me when I was young; I still love those records. Punk wasn’t a distinct style [to me]; it was more people who didn’t fit in anywhere because they mixed styles... the Minutemen really embodied that.

“There was also a band from D.C. called Beefeater that was very strange – they had a heavy metal guitar player, [and] one of my favorite bass players from D.C., Dug Birdzell, who played slap bass. 

“With Karate, I think Gavin and I were interested in different styles of music and tried to bring that into [the band]. We were influenced by a lot of improvised music, but on the other hand, we would always go back to something loud. [2000’s] Unsolved has all these jazz influences, but it also has some songs that, for us, rocked.“

[1998’s] The Bed is in the Ocean is a pivotal album, being both Karate’s first album as a trio, and the first to really dive into those jazz influences – I’m thinking on the phrasing of your solo in There are Ghosts, or the chord texturing of The Same Stars...  

“With The Same Stars, I remember writing that and thinking about these kinds of slow, 12/8 soul-blues songs, maybe like Elmore James’ version of It Hurts Me Too. These really painful blues shuffles. The basis of [The Same Stars] is old blues, but it kind of evolved over the course of the song with crescendos.

“I did that a lot with Karate. I would have older American music in mind – something from the ‘40s or ‘50s – but then we would punk-ify it, or make it experimental in some way. The Bed is in the Ocean is definitely the start of that.“

In terms of your leads, the playing gets more complex as Karate goes on. Do you see a fundamental change, however, between the sustained, one-note pressure of an early solo like on Cherry Coke, the pep-heavy jazz runs on Unsolved’s The Roots and the Ruins, or even something like Some BootsIn Hundreds, which has this wild, almost Sonny Sharrock-like dissonance to it?

“It’s wonderful to hear you say Sonny Sharrock as a reference, because Sonny Sharrock records were definitely played in the Karate van. Just being a guitar nerd, I would see how far I could go.

When I look back at Karate, I don’t see it all as being successful – especially in terms of guitar solos – but we tried

“On The Roots and the Ruins, it’s like an 8-bar blues with some passing chords in it, with Gavin’s detailed, funky drumming and me improvising a solo over that. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t. When I think about Unsolved, in particular, we really went out on a limb. There’s that song Number Six, this slow blues song, and I remember playing that live, and a lot of people weren’t having it. People thought we went too far; it wasn’t what they liked about the band. 

“I’ve always challenged myself to try these different kinds of guitar solos. I would be really influenced by something I was listening to, and I would want to stick it in a Karate song. I mean, Sonny Sharrock is a great example. I [also] remember seeing Nels Cline, and he just blew my mind when he was doing that Coltrane Interstellar Space thing with Gregg Bendian. I’d never seen anyone play guitar that way, the way they took these improvised ‘60s tunes and put them on guitar and drums. It was fascinating. 

“I’m always obsessed with some style of guitar playing and I spend a lot of time learning those styles. I’ll never be a jazz guitar player or a blues player – I don’t fool myself – but I’ll play along with a BB King solo, because I love the music.

“When I look back at Karate, I don’t see it all as being successful – especially in terms of guitar solos – but we tried. To get to the stuff that works you have to write and record songs, go out on a limb and try. Not everything works, but when it does it’s a great feeling.“

Karate

(Image credit: Numero Group/Karate)

What’s something that didn’t quite work, then?

“One I can think of is the song Ice or Ground? from Some Boots. It’s not dynamic; it’s twice as long as it should be; it’s just this space for me to play these blues riffs that I was fooling around with. When I listen back to it now, I wish I would’ve done that for 30 seconds, not a minute. 

“When we played live, all the solos were different. I always tried to improvise. There are some live versions of our songs that are better than the recorded versions, but some [live performances] are train wrecks.“

In terms of gear, did you likewise experiment with your tone over the years?

I was really lucky to meet Bill Finnegan early on. I worked for him, helping him with the Klon Centaur

“Karate didn’t have money, so I spent a lot of time fooling around with tube amps that I could afford, and buying used guitars and trying to fix them up. The first Karate rig was [bought] for 400 dollars – I bought a ‘68 Twin and a ‘70s Mustang at Mr. Music in Allston. I did everything to that Twin that you could – at first I 'blackfaced' it, but then I would make one channel more gain-y.

“Actually, when I bought that Twin, [I read] [tube amp expert] Gerald Weber’s first book... there were very few books about modifying tube amplifiers at the time. I read his book cover to cover and got into that aspect of it. I’ve always had Fenders, mostly 'blackface' and silverface amps that I would modify. Later on, I spent a lot of time playing through a 'blackface' Deluxe.

“The other thing is I was really lucky to meet Bill Finnegan early on. I worked for him, helping him with the Klon Centaur. There was another friend of ours – the three of us worked together – and he gave me a Klon Centaur really early on in the career of Karate. I still have it, and I used it on just about every record. I used it on tour a lot, but I retired it because it’s too valuable to take out of my house anymore [laughs].

“I’ve gone through a lot of guitars, [but] I’ve always been Strat-y. The most un-punk guitar that everybody hates, but I think a Strat can be really expressive. I still have a G&L Strat – it’s actually in Italy at my mother-in-law’s house, but I played that guitar for a long time. It always stayed in tune, it sounded good. You could do anything with it.“

It’s been 15 years since Karate wrapped, and your guitar journey since then has led you towards solo albums with these pastoral, acoustic folk touches, to the almost '70s rock lean of your Exit Verse project. Has going through all of this old Karate material had you re-evaluating your playing style today?

“My playing is more subtle than it used to be, so when I look back [at Karate], I hear it as precocious. But at the same time, there’s earnestness and sincerity to it. It’s what we did as a band.

“When I put those records on, the first thing I hear is Gavin and Jeff. Gavin is just a singular drummer, and the way he and Jeff played together made everything I did sound good. I think about how lucky I was. I took it for granted at the time; I thought every drummer sounded like Gavin, I guess [laughs]. 

“With my own playing, I laugh at some stuff that I did on those records....[but] I’m proud of it. I spent many years just not ever wanting to hear those records. For the first decade after we broke up I just wanted to forget about them, but as you age you accept the way you were when you were young.“

Gregory Adams

Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling. This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.