Comes with a Smile # interviews
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Geoff Farina
 by Matt Dornan

You didn't play London on your recent European dates. I saw the Karate show in Bergen, and wondered if the problems with the UK were purely financial or if you feel your music isn't appreciated here.
We really didn't have any "problems" in England per se, it just wasn't as good as the continent. It was like playing in the Midwest in America. Good shows, nice people, but it wasn't 1,ooo people in Rome or whatever. We didn't go back because we had so many great opportunities on the continent that we couldn't pass up. When it came down to it, we couldn't pass up bigger shows in Europe, plus we get fed, places to stay, etc., and in England it's kind of like here. You fend for yourself after the show.

You told UK zine Step Right Up 'That was crazy...too many [people]for me. There's no individuals, I can't pick anyone out... the optimum for me is 200.' Two things stand out here, one is the idea that you might 'pick someone out' - is this just a reference to an audience being made up of individuals as opposed to an indistinct mass, or do you literally pick out faces to help you 'connect'? Secondly, have you had a change of heart regarding bigger crowds?
Well, if you catch me when I'm coming off the plane back from Europe I'm sure I'll be pretty surly about big crowds, and if you ask me now that I've been sitting on my ass at home for two months I look at things a little differently. There's really good and bad to any situation. Playing for 1K people is certainly exciting and it certainly pays well, but it can be an organizational nightmare and can also be an engineering feat to get things to sound the way they should. I would say that a 200 person show is a nice-sized show and I really do like those the best all around, but we're lucky enough to get to play in different situations and we are thankful for the diversity.About picking out faces, I think I was just speaking metaphorically. I just mean when you see someone a few times over the course of the night you might feel a bit more comfortable than you would in a huge crowd.

As 'an anti-social homebody' what personal battles do you have to deal with on the road?
I wouldn't say there's anything that can be classified as a battle any more, but I just try and stay busy to keep me sane. I need to feel like I'm doing something productive all the time and that's what makes touring hard for me. I try to read and write a lot on tour so that helps.

The Bergen show was amazing, do you view your own shows as good or bad or are the criteria different for the performer than for the audience?
Thanks. We had a good show that night. We're very sensitive these days to our live performances. I'd say about 1/3rd of the time we're satisfied, and about 1 show in 10 is really great. I'd say it's definately different for the audience. Sometimes we think we played great and people react negatively, and other times we play poorly and people dig it. Ultimately we need to please ourselves and reach the goals we set for ourselves, and we think in the end that's how we can give people the most.

Can you outline what these goals might be?
Generally, to play as well as we can, to be pushing to write more interesting songs, and to give the material the time and space it needs to become good. So, to speak to your original question, we just played a show locally and pissed some people off because we played all new material, but we knew we had to play the stuff live to see how it felt before we decided to record it, so we think that was the right decision in the end. That type of thing comes up a lot.

Musically and lyrically how do you determine which of your bands gets a particular song? Do you set out to write a Karate song, a Secret Stars song or a Geoff Farina song? Or does the song determine which vehicle is best for it?
I'm really not very prolific, and I usually work on one project at a time. I'll spend about six months working on one group of songs for a record, and then the next six I'll get in a vibe for something else. There's really not a lot of overlap.

There a new solo album released one month before the new Karate. Why the sudden surge of Geoff Farina work? Is it simply record co. schedules or have you had an intensive period of writing?
It'll be two years since I put something out, not counting the Steely Dan single. I've pretty much just been working on songs for the past couple years for both projects and I think I spent a lot more time and energy on these two records than I have in the past. We recorded this entire spring, and things just fell into place that way. Southern only has a few release dates a year, so things kind of get shuffled around a bit.

What's the latest from the Secret Stars camp?
Jodi and I just purchased a building together that we've been working on renovating, and that's keeping us really busy, so we haven't had time to make music lately.

Do you guys ever 'duet' on stuff, it always seems so separate...
I guess that's just the way we did things. TSS was always just a project for me and jodi and we never really made rules about how things would be. I guess we considered singing together but just never got around to it.

Many Secret Stars tracks sound, to me, like Geoff Farina solo songs. What sets them apart for you?
Well, nothing, I guess. We were doing TSS for a while and then when things shifted around and Jodi and I started doing other projects together, I kept writing songs for voice and guitar and just put out Usonian under my own name.

"this time around we have the man playing wandering troubadour to the stationary under 18 crowd. The Nick Drake for a generation of non drinkers? An oxymoron as well as too much credit, however, Usonian Dream Sequence is a hell of a lot more listenable than the last Karate record, but I really don't have the time, let alone the patience, for someone else's poor sentence structure." This made me smile. It's one of the few negative pieces I've found. In fact the only other one was written by the same guy! Do you feel reviewers generally get it right with your records?
No, actually, I feel that it's rare that someone says something insightful about anybody's records in magazines, and I also don't feel like there's any "right" to get, and that different music means different things in different social situations. I'm not sure what motivates someone like this to act so pissed off about my record. You get this interesting mental picture of this guy in his room alone slowly torturing himself playing different karate records..."Damn, this one sucks too!!" That type of thing. If he doesn't have the time or patience, why listen? Why write about it twice? There's plenty of other music out there to listen to. I think the negativity I see in a lot of reviews is a real problem, actually. I come in contact with many many bands, some great, some not-so-great, some famous, some unknown, and I've never found a reason to publicly humiliate any of them for any reason, yet I see that happen all the time in music magazines. In fact I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by a community of supportive bands and musicians that are really diverse and in different stages in development, and I learn something from most of them. I think there are a lot of bands around that are really bewildered about how music writers can publish things about musicians that they wouldn't even say to them in person. I guess I should feel lucky that 99% of the bands I come in contact with are not so childish.

One review/feature that I found particularly accurate said 'Apply your own emotions and experiences to a song, and the results are rewarding; don?t, and you?ll fall into a cycle of endless (and often pointless) comparisons.' Your music has always stood alone for me, it's not something I want to or am capable of comparing with others. No-one among the so-called'emo' scene has caught my attention and comparisons to Fugazi, Sunny Day Real Estate etc don't really work for me. I just instinctively connect with the sound of the band (particularly Bed Is In The Ocean's sound and structures, and the live show captured that same feeling), and your singing style. Even lyrically I don't always know where you're 'coming from' but criticism of 'poor sentence structure' seems to be missing the point by a very wide margin. For me, your lyrics are very evocative, often very beautiful. You said in Step Right Up that 'there's a reason why those songs are songs and not conversations I had with my friends...they're songs because they're abstract.' This probably summarises my view on your lyrics, they stand alone phonetically and as prose. Yet their meaning is open to interpretation, whether there is intended meaning there or not. Sorry, I haven't really asked a question. Any thoughts on any of that stuff?
Sure. If I had something totally literal to say, boycott Exxon, or whatever, I'd write a pamphlet or make a bumper sticker. I think my songs are songs for a reason, because I'm trying to get at something a bit more abstract. My personal favorite songs might give me enough of the so-called objective world to draw me in, but leave enough space for me to add my own interpretations.

What and where did/do you teach?
English at the University of Mass.

I usually ask musicians to recommend me books. I guess that could be a challenge for you, limiting it to one or two titles. Duchamp and Raymond Williams?
Sure, but Duchamp didn't really publish much to my knowledge. Let's say Matisse and Williams! Some collection of Matisse's hyperbolic and didactic commentary on modern sculpture, and Williams' "Marxism and Literature". That'll keep you busy.

CWAS #5 - Summer 2000