Chopping It Up With Karate

Chopping It Up With Karate

The beloved Boston indie band on their reunion tour, the struggle that led to reissuing their catalog, and their future as an active unit

For years, Karate’s music was banished to aftermarket obscurity and illicit YouTube streams. The Boston indie band cultivated a singular sound during its initial run from 1993-2005, evolving from smoothly snaking, intermittently explosive post-hardcore into something jazzier and jammier. After Southern Records went out of business in 2008, the group’s knotty and dynamic catalog was out of print and off streaming services for well over a decade. But since regaining control of their masters, Karate have spent the past few years reissuing their music via the Chicago-based archival label Numero Group, a project that culminates in this Friday’s box set Time Expired.

In the lead-up to Time Expired, which compiles Karate’s last three full-length albums and the first ever vinyl pressing of the Cancel/Sing EP, the band embarked on their first tour in 17 years. After reuniting in their hometown, they spent the remainder of July playing shows on both sides of the US, sandwiched around a stop at Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, where singer-guitarist Geoff Farina has lived for the past decade. Onstage at the Chicago club Sleeping Village for a festival aftershow, the band performed with the poise of seasoned veterans, unspooling a tangle of guitar melodies and basslines across shifting rhythms and time signatures, with occasional fiery outbursts that served as reminders of their punk origins. It was like they’d picked right back up where they left off.

The next afternoon, a few hours before their set in Union Park, I spoke with Farina, drummer Gavin McCarthy, and bassist Jeff Goddard about their decision to tour again, the struggle to regain control of their catalog, and what the future might hold for Karate. (They’ve since been announced as part of Numero Group’s 20th anniversary concert this February in Los Angeles along with contemporaries like Unwound, Codeine, Ida, and Chisel.) Read our conversation below.

You guys seem very loose and together and like one organism onstage. How quickly did that come back? Was it an instantaneous thing, or did you have to woodshed a little bit to get to that point?

GEOFF FARINA: We spent about 50 hours practicing, I think, over 10 days. It came back really quickly. We had toured a lot together for 12 years and always had a special musical connection. Within five minutes of getting together, it felt like we were at home again.

Did you have any expectations coming into the reunion tour? Has it met or defied your expectations in any way?

GAVIN MCCARTHY: I would say it’s met and or exceeded — I think it’s exceeded expectations for me personally. I didn’t really know what to think. It was hard to conceptualize the idea of playing together. And then over the period of months beforehand, it sort of became, “Oh, we’re actually going to really do this,” at which point you have to start thinking more in-depth about the actual music that we have to relearn. And then the practice process also sort of evolved as we relearned it and talked about it and thought about it in new ways, probably ways that we hadn’t when we first were putting it together. Anything from realizing, “Oh, well, this song changes, there’s a different time signature in the middle of the song.” I don’t think any of us thought about it like that back then. We just sort of learned it.

Did the songs change at all?

MCCARTHY: A little bit!

FARINA: Especially toward the end of our career, we’ve always tried to freshen up the songs before we play them live. So we’d take an instrumental part from the record and rearrange it to do something totally different. We have two or three songs on this tour [where] the record has one part, but we rewrote the middle and came up with new ideas. We’ve always tried to do that so that the live shows feel fresh and the music always feels like it’s growing. We’re all improvisers also, and there’s some improvisation involved in some of our songs. So yeah, that keeps it exciting for us also.

You started the tour in the Boston area. I imagine that was extra special. Was it weird? Cool? Did you see a bunch of new faces? Old faces?

FARINA: Both. We saw a lot of people that we grew up with, essentially. And then there was a lot of people that we didn’t know and younger people even.

JEFF GODDARD: That was a big surprise as far as the live shows. Obviously tickets were sold, you just don’t know who’s coming. But I thought everyone would be from the era when we were playing, so a little bit older, but there was a fair amount of younger people at the shows and just people saying, “Oh yeah, I got turned on to this from my brother or sister.” And they were, like, teeny kids when we stopped. It’s a good feeling to know that someone got into your stuff when you weren’t still playing. Like, they really looked forward to it. I didn’t think about that. That’s really great. I don’t that everyone gets that opportunity. We’re really fortunate that way. The crowd’s a total mix. It spans all these crazy ages. It just seems like people have been so thankful.

I had more expectations from us as a group. Can we still pull this off? Will it still sound the same? Or how can we make it different with the limited time that we have, like Geoff just said. We’re always trying to change things a little bit. We brought Eamonn [Vitt] back in for a bunch of songs, which was really fun ‘cause Eamonn was there at the beginning. I wasn’t there. It was originally these three guys. That’s been really fun and also unexpected for people and also for us. There’ve been lots of careful but positive and good decisions made.

Geoff, you live in Chicago now and have for a while now. In parallel to the question about going back to Boston, it must be cool to be able to show this former part of your life to everyone you know here in Chicago.

FARINA: It’s funny, my wife and I were talking last night, and she asked me if I felt like this was my hometown crowd. I’ve been here for a decade. I’ve made some really great friends here, and a lot of people knew me from Karate because Southern, our old record label, had an office out here. But weirdly, Boston was even more pressure. Just ‘cause we started there. We were all together there. And my mentality is really an East Coast mentality, I think, in a lot of ways. People are too friendly for me here. Boston’s a little tougher, a little more stoic. We really had to bring it. And we did. We had incredible shows there. But last night was also amazing. I got all these texts this morning from people I didn’t even know were there last night who are friends from here. I’m lucky to have friends in both cities.

Why did you guys initially break up?

FARINA: At the time I had gotten tinnitus and had some problems with my ears. That scared me. And I didn’t really know what I was doing in terms of mitigating that. But in reality, you know, it’s funny, I’ve never talked to these guys that much about it. I kind of feel like it did run its course. There’s a lot of pressure. No matter how much you love your bandmates, being in a band is tough. As a social situation it’s real tough. We had played so much together, and I think it did in some sense feel, at least to me, that it had kind of run its course. I was panicking a bit about my ears at the time. But I think Gavin and Jeff probably have completely different ideas about that. I have no idea. I’ve never really talked about it.

GODDARD: Not really. [Laughs.] One thing that made it really easy for us in some ways — and also maybe difficult — we would always sort of check in. We never had this sort of thing like, “We’ll do this for like 12 years or 15 years or one year. We’d sort of plan six or eight months ahead and do that, and then we kind of got together and it’s like, “Is everyone still into doing this more?” And it just went on and on and on. And I think we made some music that we were really proud of. We were playing a lot live. We were away a lot. And I think, like Geoff said, it’s not always easy.

But I think we were all musicians. You get to where you want to try to maybe do something else. You can’t do everything with the same people if you want to explore interests. It’s kind of normal. At the time, of course, with Geoff’s hearing issues and also maybe not wanting to tour anymore — it affects people. And it’s understandable. There was no, “Alright, we’re going to sit down and we’re going to discuss this and we’re going to break up,” or there was a problem in the studio or you couldn’t get your shit together or you couldn’t get along. It’s none of that. It’s sort of just life stuff, you know?

So was the reunion sparked by Numero? Was it a chicken-egg thing where you were thinking about getting back together anyway?

FARINA: We had, after 10 years, wrestled our masters back. Our old label held us hostage. They wouldn’t re-release our records, and we had no access to our own music. And when we got through that, Ken from Numero contacted me. I think he knew about that. And this journalist had written an article in the Reader with the title of, “Why aren’t people reissuing Karate records?” It all kind of happened at once. I think we all realized — I mean, we never would have done it if we didn’t realize that people are still listening to our music. And we were putting out records and people were psyched about it and people were writing about it, and that was a huge boon for us. We were so excited.

I felt like the next logical question was, “Are we gonna do this?” And I don’t know who brought it up. One of us brought it up, and we’re all like, yeah. Seems like the right time and the right situation. Everything is right about it. We were proud of what we did, and the fact that people wanted to hear and see it again — it’s what I tell the audience every night. I’m like, “We’re here because of you. You guys listened to our music, you gave our songs meaning, and that’s why we’re back doing this.” And also for each other to be together to do it again. But it’s really the people who buy our records and listen to our music. I mean, it’s amazing. We’re all into our 50s, and people are buying music that we made 30 years ago. What’s better than that? It’s great. So how could we not have come back and done it?

What was it like during that dead space where the music was out of print and not on streaming? I’ve heard people say, “If it’s not on streaming, it basically doesn’t exist.”

FARINA: It was awful. It was an awful feeling to every year have to fight with our old label and say, “Please. Like, please. Please, just, why are you doing this to us? Why are you doing this?” It was an awful feeling. And I was quite depressed about it for a long time.

MCCARTHY: And not only that — it was worse than that. Because occasionally they would press something and we wouldn’t even know about it. Like, there’s a green vinyl copy of our first record that somebody pressed and we didn’t know anything about it. Somebody pressed a 7” and never told us. So with regards to Karate material it was definitely a void, an abyss when trying to get any information.

FARINA: It was a great cause of depression. I had kind of given up on the whole thing, like, “Karate’s dead.” It just felt that way, and it was a bummer.

GODDARD: It was just sort of weird. I don’t know. I still haven’t fully embraced the Spotify streaming world thing. I’ve got my opinions about it. But the reality is, you’ve got to kind of be there. And it was hard to know that people were asking, “Where can we find the record? Is there still someone out there that has a copy?” At the very least it would have been nice that people repressed records and got them into stores [when] people want them, but that was never happening. And then the landscape of how music is listened to and bought and everything is just totally different now. It felt really lame that you have this massive amount of music that was pressed two or three times 15 or 20 years ago that’s just sitting there.

It felt sort of like it was getting even further away, like it was more and more impossible to catch up or to make something available to everyone. So when Geoff had told me that they were interested, I was like, “Oh!” I didn’t even think something like that was possible, that Numero would ever take interest in something like that. My experience with them is as an archival sort of record label and reissue label as far as older music is concerned, and more obscure. I don’t even live in the country, so Geoff and Gavin were relaying messages, and it sounds really honest. It seemed like, why not give this a try? This might be the way to get stuff out to people and let people experience it again or for the first time.

MCCARTHY: For me it was really interesting in this whole process of a year or so where Numero was going to reissue the records and they made us an Instagram page, I’d read the comments and be like, “Wow, people are still saying a lot of really nice things about our band.” Which, in all honesty, I hadn’t really thought about the band too much in a musical context. There’s still a lot of people that like this stuff. And as that went on, that became sort of why getting back together seemed relevant or seemed like an idea that made sense.

You guys have alluded to it, but it seemed like a lot of the infrastructure that was there during your original run — not just the label going out of business, but the whole culture surrounding independent music has changed so much, and so many of the entities that were there in the Y2K era just don’t exist anymore. So it’s interesting to see you have to kind of build up a whole new operation, have a social media presence and all that.

FARINA: We’re fortunate to have Numero because none of us do social media. None of us do any of that shit. [Laughs] I just don’t understand it. Who wants to listen to music on their computer? I have no idea. Or on their phone?

GODDARD: [Laughs] Apparently everybody. Right?

MCCARTHY: I think we’ve also been very lucky and also very choosy in a way. When we were a lot younger, it was like we only worked with our friends. Like Mahmoud, our booking agent, we were like the first band he booked. We never worked with middlemen. We were just sort of like, if we can make it happen with the people that we know, the people that we trust, who sort of have similar values about how we work and how the music world at the time worked… In a certain way, Numero has their values there that I think speak to us. I can only speak for myself, but it feels like a really modern version, a very up-to-date version [of what we were doing back then]. They just do quality stuff, and I like to be part of somebody who’s doing quality stuff. It’s a way better place than other places. In that sense it still feels like, alright, you’re being careful about opening up about where do you want to go with this, who’s gonna handle this, and what does that mean? So I think up until now it seems like it’s been really positive.

What’s the future of Karate after this month of shows?

FARINA: We have to talk about this.

MCCARTHY: I think we’ll sit down after this is over and assess the damage. [Laughs]

FARINA: We have a lot of people who are trying to get us to go different places to play, and we’d love to. We would love to do everything. It’s just so hard logistically, and we’re all a little older. Everything seems a bit more tricky. There’s a lot of kids involved, a lot of families involved. It’s really hard to get together. But we’re going to talk.

Time Expired is out 11/25 on Numero Group.

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