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Karate
an interview with Geoff Farina by Martin Williams

If, as critic Robert Christgau recently asserted, conventional musicology still regards rock as a "crude, underdeveloped genre," then Geoff Farina is, if nothing else, a musicological anomaly. But, then, even a cursory ear lent to the jazz inflections of Farina's most recent releases (his second solo record 'Reverse Eclipse', and 'Unsolved', his latest as songwriter for Massachusetts 3-piece Karate) quickly reveals that, although he most conveniently slots into some kind of indie-rock milieu, such categorisation is as arbitrary as it is circumstantial. Not that any such semantic gerrymandering is of concern to Farina, of course. He is naturally more focussed on the dizzying number of pies into which he has stuck his fingers. There's Secret Stars, his musical project with Jodi Buonanno, with whom he has also renovated a listed building to become the Grange, a benevolent artistic living and working space. There's his own Heavy Cream studio, containing equipment of his own construction. There's the 'zine he published in the early '90s. There's his graduate studies, the thesis from which (Human's and Hardware: a History of Analog Music Synthesis) is posted online at secretstars.com. There's his web design work. And, of course there's Karate and his solo work. Not necessarily a dilettante, just your run-of-the-mill overachieving polymath.

Karate sounded great at the Bowery Ballroom a week or two ago. Was that a one-off show or one stop on a tour?
It was just a one-off. We've been trying to stay away from shows for a while and work on new music.

What are your thoughts about Karate's recent trip to Europe?
It was amazing. Every time we go back there we get a better reaction, and it was just awesome this spring. We're going back next spring and can't wait.

Is Karate typically a band that plays and rehearses regularly, regardless of any impending album or tour?
In an ideal world we'd play every day and not on a project basis. We try to play when we have time, but things are usually pretty busy, so we end up practicing a lot for a record or tour, and then taking time off in between.

Seeing Karate live recently underlined just how much of the performance (both live or on record) seems to rest on your shoulders. I know Karate used to have a second guitarist, but is there ever any thought of corralling another? Or is part of some unwritten remit for Karate to work within the parameters of a 3-piece?
There's something about a 3-piece that's really attractive to me. There's a certain sparseness and sense of control that I really like. I have nothing against other instrumentations of course, and enjoy playing in many situations, but I think it's become part of our identity to be a sparse-sounding 3-piece.

Both your solo work and Karate have evolved towards a similar place. Is it a fair conclusion to make that Karate's direction is formed primarily by yourself, that you possess something approaching a casting vote within the band?
If this is true, it's only because Gavin and Jeff have a lot of support for my writing. It's true that I write the "songs" first - guitar, vocals, and some ideas for arrangements - but we also spend a lot of time arranging the songs together, and Gavin and Jeff add ideas that I would have never come up with on my own. I think in the end, the line between arranging and writing gets blurry because a lot of our music depends on instrumental elements, and not just on the strength of the songwriting itself.

Does 'Reverse Eclipse' represent a larger disdain for the more conventional strumming acoustic singer/songwriter blueprint that your first solo album 'Usonian Dream Sequence' was closer to?
More boredom than disdain. I guess I've always thought that there is so much open territory there, and I get bored really fast singing the same melodies over the same five campfire chords. There are many people who do that well and who I have a lot of respect for, but when I do it it tends to get old relatively fast. Not to mention the fact that I have no vocal range or technique at all, so I need to find other ways to make songs move forward because I'm unable to sing with the same dynamics and melodic range that a lot of singer-songwriters have.

Your page of press quotes at secretstars.com brought a smile to my face. I was also interested to read about the 'zine you published, which, although self-consciously a punk 'zine, was music free. Would it be fair to conclude from this that you view music writing with some scorn?
Yes, and I have this opinion for a number of reasons. The first is that about 25% of music journalists apparently have a serious reading comprehension problem. Many writers can not comprehend the three-paragraph one-sheet that most record labels send out with recordings for review. Each time we release a record approximately one quarter of the reviewers are unable to understand what city we're from, who plays what instrument, or to otherwise correctly quote information that is presented to them verbatim. If writers pay that little attention to us, I wonder why they bother to review our record at all, and I wonder how much misinformation I get from other reviews I read. A bigger problem is that most contemporary rock music journalism usually isn't about music. Most record reviews usually present an unsubstantiated history of musicians and recordings, or an opinion of how the record fits into some vague genealogy of other recordings. Rarely is there text that formally addresses the dynamics, harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre, or anything else that's actually on the recording, as there is in writing about other genres. The fact that we have no developed language for our music as we do, for example, for Jazz or Western art music, is no excuse. In fact many great music writers have forged ahead in a similar environment, realising that it's their role to develop such a language. Michael Nyman's 'Experimental Music' and Ekkehard Jost's 'Free Jazz' are two great examples of people who formally addressed radical new music without a preexisting analytical language. There's a huge niche waiting for someone to do the same for new rock music. In fact there are so many recent examples of inspiring music writing. The "stories" of Lester Bangs and Aaron Cometbus are both great examples of how personal narratives can convey the same themes present in the music these writers love. John Zorn's Arcana/Musicians on Music is an awesome collection of musicians' essays about their own music that show how radically different their worlds of interests are from those imposed on them by music critics. (Zorn explains in the introduction to the collection that the catalyst for asking musicians to write about their own music was that "no single writer has ever come forward to champion or even to intelligently analyze exactly what it is that we have been doing.") Excellent articles even appear in non-music related forums, such as Alan Burdick's recent Harper's article, 'Now Hear This', in which he uses Proust and other non-musical sources to explore the value of Moses Asch's Folkways recordings. Also, I think a lot of smaller magazines such as Tape Op (and of course CwaS!) tend to be much more honest and connected to the music they address. If I were a music journalist, these writers would be my heroes, but apparently the writers of People somehow present stronger role models. Most of the bigger music magazines seem to address new recordings similarly, by way of vague metaphor, onomatopoeia, or by offering loose genealogies that are misleading or historically incorrect. I could provide many examples because I myself am repeatedly "influenced" by music I've never even heard, but I would rather use this opportunity to offer some positive alternatives.

In light of this, do you ever consider opting out of the media aspect of things (similar to the attempts of, say, godspeed you black emperor! or Fugazi.) Based on the notion that, if the responses are inadequate, it's valid to opt out of the dialogue
We tried this for a year or so and it failed. We pissed a lot of people off. People tended to think that we were being snobs or that we thought we were too good to do interviews. This was especially true in Europe where the media has higher expectations of us, and where it's more difficult for us to communicate in the first place. A band like Fugazi can pull it off because they have much stronger personalities and tend to be very social and conversational, plus they're famous. We're kind of three social misfits who tend to be shy and make people feel uncomfortable anyway, so refusing to do interviews kind of compounded the problem. Also, most of the offensive stuff that gets written about bands is usually in reviews and not so much in interviews, and musicians don't have the option to participate or not. In my case, I have no control over this because my record label has their own publicity ideas, and I can't tell them how to run their label any more than they can tell me how to play guitar. My feeling for the moment is that it's better for me to represent myself and my opinion in an interview than let others represent me, so I try to participate and use the opportunity positively. Also, over time I've learned not take it too seriously. Generally speaking, the people who are truly interested in new independent music and understand its social value aren't too interested in the music media, or they're out there redefining the media standards by way of 'zines, websites, and other more localised projects.

Would "opting out" of direct contact with the media in this way be counter to the "social interaction" advocated by the cultural theorists you namecheck on secretstars.com?
To clarify, Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Mikhail Bakhtin, and all the guys who wrote about art after Marx, don't necessarily "advocate" the social interaction as part of cultural production. Instead they consider it a necessary precondition of meaningful culture, or art. In other words, they would say that the cultural production (art) that we deem significant necessarily comes from real social worlds with real people interacting, rather than from the genius in the ivory tower imagined by most philosophers up until Marx and Freud. Great artists always realized this, like C├ęzanne, when he answered interviewers' high-brow inquiries by responding that his paintings were simply "pigment on canvas", and that it was the viewers that gave them meaning.
Bakhtin has a simple set of metaphors for these ideas: he talks about "decentralizing" and "centralizing" forces. "Decentralizing" forces are those that produce art that is truly meaningful to us, and that are usually counter-cultural and extra-systemic. "Centralizing" forces are those that create order, discipline, stability, and that often portray the drama of art but lack its substance. So, to be vulgar about it, we could say that Fugazi's music is a decentralizing force because it's meaning emerges from real social interaction of all-ages shows, benefits, and the values associated with DC underground rock music. Then we could say that the music of Rage Against the Machine is a centralizing force that reinforces social inequalities (between producer and consumer, etc.) and established power enclaves (media industries, etc.), wrapped in a commodified image of dissent that makes them appear to come from some genuine counter-cultural social world. (They don't of course. They were essentially a major-label concoction that were a band for a few weeks before they signed a multi-million dollar contract.)
To answer your question in these terms, I would say that the general independent music media often walks the line between being a centralizing and decentralizing force. I know personally that there are many smart and committed music writers around who genuinely provide insight and value to the music people are making. I also know personally that the music media in general is predicated on established power inequalities and is under tremendous pressure to propagate images that reinforce these inequalities. So my answer is that "opting out" is a good thing for art to the extent that it is a refusal to participate in proliferating these images.

From your Rage Against the Machine example, could we conclude that you consider it entirely incompatible to be a counter-cultural/dissenting/anti-corporate voice while employed by a major record label? (Or, to extrapolate, for Naomi Klein's book 'No Logo' to appear via a Murdoch-owned publisher, or even for a self-proclaimed Marxist, like Raymond Williams, to be a tutor at Cambridge University, a honey pot for the privileged?)
Also, it seems implicit in what you wrote that the "commodification" of RAtM devalues their music, to a greater or lesser extent. Can art not transcend these judgements? Do Pirandello's Nazi sympathies have any bearing on his overtly apolitical plays? I'm reminded of Radiohead, who have collectively made anti-corporate statements, yet are sold via EMI/Capitol. What if you're a person who's passionate about Radiohead's music, but an equally passionate anti-WTO activist, is there no way to reconcile this, to convince yourself that art transcends socio-political weights and measures?
I guess I was making abstractions for the sake of understanding, not making judgements on what people should and should not do to achieve some kind of political activity quota.  Obviously the Radiohead fan/anti-WTO activist is supporting the status quo when he/she purchases major label records, and chipping away at the status quo when he/she engages in anti-WTO activities. Although these two activities seem politically incompatible, real life allows for such complications, as I'm sure anyone will agree. If RAtM or Radiohead makes statements that cause some kid to go do something positive, more power to them. These are all activities with predictable results, so in that sense they're quite reconcilable.  
However, in my opinion, any insightful artist will experience these political contradictions, so if you are telling me RAtM and Radiohead can stand up there and say they're 100% anti-corporate rock as you say, I'd say they're not paying very close attention to their situation. If I were a fan I'd question their attentiveness rather than their integrity. (I don't know that the artists you mention made such a claim, or in what context. I'm just using your examples here.) I say this because I certainly don't feel comfortable making such claims myself, and I sell very few records for a relatively small indie label. I have moral dilemmas concerning Karate and my other projects all the time. I have to negotiate with five or ten other people with most decisions, and I end up compromising my ideals more than I would like to, so I can't imagine that a band like Radiohead is somehow immune to these contradictions.
As for Pirandello, I'm not sure about his Nazi leanings because he died in Rome in 1936. (I only know this because my girlfriend is an Italian grad. student and recently convinced me to purchase 6 Characters in Search of an Author. I'm really not that big a Lit geek!) But I believe you're asking if there is a relationship between someone's politics and their ability to create meaningful art, and I would say there certainly is, and that art is an inherently political activity. There are exceptions like Pirandello, or Wagner's anti-Semitism, but I still think there's a clear correlation between oppressive or inhuman politics and bad art. We look at entire periods of Soviet and Nazi state-sponsored art as historical mistakes. In America, with the exception of Robert Mapplethorpe and a few others, the NEA has funded a whole history of bad and even offensive cultural projects, such as the recent 'Ken Burns Jazz' debacle. In our context, it's easy to find examples of great music on major labels like PJ Harvey or Nick Cave, but clearly most of what the major labels put out on a yearly basis is garbage.  
To be clear, I believe the difference between "aesthetic" activity and "political" activity is artificial. If something is political it means it somehow changes people. Art does this, language does this, manipulating information does this, and clearly these are all material forces. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault famously writes, "There is a politics of the body that is something other than the science of its functions," or something to that extent. In other words, all these things like art, knowledge, and language exert real power just like a gun or a hammer, and are strong material and political forces.

The Grange seems like a really admirable endeavor. Can you tell me about it, its evolution and where it's at right now - is it functioning in the way you and Jodi idealised yet?
It's an old community building that Jodi and I bought for dirt cheap, and renovated into studio and living space. Our goal is to support an 'artist-in-residence' who needs living and studio space to work, and who can't find these resources elsewhere. So far we've hosted a few: Ida Pearle, an artist who plays violin in Ida and other bands, lived with us for a year and has been able to live off the art she's produced here. Currently we're hosting two architecture students who are designing new structures for the Grange. They will use the designs as part of their portfolios. As far as it's current state, things are a lot better this year than a couple years ago. We've done most of the major work-installing a septic system, a new roof, and a third floor-and this year we've been able to concentrate on more fun stuff like gardening and painting. We're both ecstatic about living here, and I have to say it's the best place I've ever lived.

You changed 'Raymond Williams' to 'Eric Dolphy' in the version of Sever that I saw you play recently. Is there anything to be read into this?
Nope. I change the name all the time, and it just happened to be "Raymond Williams" the day we recorded it. The only requirement is that the name consist of four syllables, and that the named produced some form of media coveted by the narrator (Raymond Williams books, Eric Dolphy LPs, etc.).

Bearing in mind this reference to Williams, and the little bit of your thesis that I was able to get through, can you say a little about where your interest in Williams lies or where it springs from?
The annotated bibliography that's posted with my thesis explains in detail why I think Williams and the other writers I quoted are important. Generally, a lot of those guys really speak to the current context of music, and they offer a way to see and talk about what's actually going on. The great thing about guys like Williams, Bakhtin, Terry Eagleton, and to a lesser extent, Louis Althusser, Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Michelle Foucault, Gilles Delueze, Felix Guatari, and others, is that that they were/are just very perceptive art lovers just like a lot of the music fans I know today. The only difference is that their art was usually part of a more institutionalized environment that had certain standards, and that required them to participate in certain social mores (publishing, teaching, standardized research methods, etc.). But the substance of the ideas is very similar to ours, although we can't articulate ours as well. The reason these guys are famous is because they all helped develop a language to address new art that couldn't be addressed by old language. We live in a similar situation today, in which we are hearing new, complex, wonderful sounds that we don't really know how to talk about in detail.

Do you ever work with purely synthetic music?
Yeah, all the time. I've been tinkering with drum machines, analog synths, and other gear since I was 14 or so, and have a whole studio full of old analog junk. I love electronic music but I've never produced anything that I like, so at this point it's more of a way to relax and have fun for me than anything.

Who do you think your audience is? Who do you hope you appeal to?
A nice surprise when Karate travels is the diversity of the people who come to see us. It's true that in particular areas the crowds are homogeneous, for example, in a small college town where 99% of the people that would ever even have heard of us are between the ages of 18 and 22. But the bigger picture is all kinds of different people come to see us, which we love. Generally, in Europe the crowds are older, but I think this is true for most bands because music (and culture in general seems to be more of a serious matter to Europeans, somethng they don't drop when they leave college. As far as who we hope to appeal to, I guess I would hate to appeal to one niche or one scene, and I don't think we've ever been a cool enough band to be part of any established scene. Also, I know this is a pretentious thing to say, but I think we simply don't sound like many other bands, so people don't know what to make of us or where to pigeonhole us.

What's filling your day-to-day time at the moment?
Friday I give my notice after a year as a 'User Experience Designer,' which is a fancy word for a Web application designer. I'm back to my decadent life as a full-time musician after that.

What's next for you in terms of music?
I'm basically writing and rehearsing till December. Karate will most likely record an EP around then, and I'll probably record some of my own music as well, and all this will be out in the spring. Karate has two European tours scheduled for next Spring. Also, all of us are playing in a lot of different situations here at home now that we have some time. Gavin and I have been playing straight-ahead jazz and other kinds of improvised-music sessions a lot lately, and there's a lot going on there, so we'll see if anything serious comes of it. Jeff's been playing with Mary Timony and other locals, and he's always keeping busy himself.

CWAS #9 - Winter 2002

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