Geoff Farina is the man behind Karate and the Secret Stars. The 27 year old songwriter/singer/guitarist/bassist travels the U.S. constantly to bring you the latest and greatest. His two bands have incredibly different sounds, yet they both share certain things at the center of it all. Karate is a noise-rock boy band; the Secret Stars are Geoff and Jodi, singing and playing the most beautiful, emotional, powerful songs and bringing them to you with simplicity and clarity.
Geoff is a man with integrity, wit, and one hell of a sound. Since things are just a little nicer over some coffee, Geoff told me all about his day as we sipped our caffeinated beverages near Tramps before his show.
J: Why two bands and not one?
G: Karate is just the rock band, the loud band. And Secret
Stars was never intended to be a band. It was just a project between
Jodi and I, but it was just so fun that we started doing shows
and then we did a tour. And then I did a tour this summer just
as Geoff Farina which was really fun. I have one show tomorrow
with Rebecca Gates (of the Spinanes). I'm eventually going to
record all these songs that I wrote that aren't Secret Stars or
J: How did your musical career get started?
G: I've been playing in punk rock bands since I was really
young, 14 or 15 and just playing shows. I went to music school
and I studied bass and played jazz through college and I kept
being in bands and playing rock. I've always played guitar, and
I never really practiced playing guitar or anything like that.
I just wrote songs since I was young and I was always the person
in the band who wrote the song. I could just never keep it together,
when I had bands I would just be too impatient and it wouldn't
work out the way I wanted it to so I would just quit. And then
I started doing this zine called No Duh about 8 years ago and
I traveled a lot during that time period and I would travel a
lot with bands. I just started hooking up with these different
bands and I went on this really long trip and when I got back
to Boston I decided that I really wanted to be serious about music.
I got together with Eamunn and Gavin and started Karate.
J: Do you write all the songs for both Karate and the Secret Stars?
G: Jodi writes her songs. In Karate, I write the guitar parts
and the lyrics. I write all the songs so to speak, the melody
and the lyrics, and I have ideas about what the songs are going
to be like, but they all do their parts. Karate has this system
where somebody brings in a song or an idea - which is usually
me. It's rarely a struggle because if they don't like my idea
usually they'll come up with something a lot better. Sometimes
I hear a drum part and if the drummer likes it he'll play it,
if not he'll come up with somthing just as good. With the Secret
Stars, Jodi just learned to play guitar for the Secret Stars,
so I would just show her exactly what to play.
J: Karate seems more guitar driven, and The Secret Stars seems more lyrically driven. When you're writing songs, do you say this one's a Karate song and this one's a Secret Stars song, or what?
G: On the new Karate record, some of the songs are really loud and fast and guitar-driven, but it's also going to have some really slow, mellow songs that we hardly play out at all. I usually write the songs first and sort them out later. Sometimes I'll write something and know from the beginning that it sounds like a Secret Stars song, plus Jodi comes over and hears it and really likes it and wants to play it. Usually the song is written and then I try to flesh it out and see if it'll be a Karate song or a Secret Stars song or what. Of course Karate plays the punk rock songs. I just sort of have an idea and I'll write one or two lines to a song and then when I get those two lines I know how I want the song to be. I'll go thruogh a period of six months where I never write a Secret Stars song, but I'll write three or four Karate songs. I'll be really bummed out and I'll write all these Secret Stars songs. They start out with some kind of melody. I'll just sit down and start banging away at the guitar and then I'll put words to it. And then it'll start to sound like something and I'll try to work it out from there. But I always have some kind of image of how I want it to sound. Jodi starts out with lyrics first. She'll write a whole set of lyrics and then she'll be like, can we make a song out of this? And I'm like, I don't know how to do it that way. But she works the opposite way
J: Tell me more about Jodi. I really identify with a lot in her songs, her lyrics. She definitley seems to have a strong scientific theme in her songs, a lot of stuff about chromosomes and cardiology and such. Is she a biologist or something?
G: She was a science geek. She went to Georgetown and minored in Science but Fine Arts was her major. She's got this weird dialogue between this real hardcore science stuff and art - she's totally a painter. She uses science metaphorically a lot. When I first heard that song that goes, "Hearts don't break," I was like, I don't really like this song very much, I don't understand it. It was just so alien to me. But then I listened to it and played it, and within a week, I was like, it's the greatest lyrics that we have on the whole record.
J: I love the bass line on that song. Who came up with that?
G: Me. Jodi came in and sang the song, the melody and the lyrics. She never played the guitar, but she implies the chords. They're there, and I just pull them out and play them on bass. So we just did that. She tried to record the song a whole bunch of times and it just didn't work out, and I said, let's try it this way and it worked out. I used to be scared because we're so different. But the charisma of the whole thing is really her - we play shows and she talks to the everyone the whole time, she's such a huge presence. She's very charismatic. Always talking and always drawing people out. Everybody loves her, she's just the most loved person in Boston. She's a total genius. She comes up with all these ideas for the Secret Stars that are so great.
J: What's going on, both for Karate and the Secret Stars, in terms of albums and tour dates and stuff?
G: Well, the Secret Stars record came out in August and we did a tour in October, which was fun. Jodi's in England right now, actually, so we haven't been able to do much. But Karate is practicing and recording in December. And we're going to be on tour from about January 25th until the middle of March. Mostly in the South. When we get back, hopefully Jodi and I are going to record more. We played a whole lot, and we're just so slow at recording. It's so easy to play and have fun and just get lost in that, but we've already started thinking about recording. Jodi actually has a bunch of new songs, and then the Karate record will be out in April. Then Karate will tour May and June. Hopefully there will be a new Secret Stars record after that.
J: Where are you recording the new Karate album?
G: At Fort Apache, in Boston, where we recorded the other one. Lots of classic hardcore records in Boston were recorded there.
J: You're into hardcore?
G: Well, I used to be. I'm not really up on it. I grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I grew up listening to like, Crass and lots of punk rock bands and in the '80's I lived near D.C. and there were a lot of great D.C. bands. And I liked the Smiths and stuff. All the teenage love songs. And Jodi was really into Conflict and Crass and a lot of British Anarchist stuff. Very old-school. Actually, I got to see SNFU play. They were a sort of new school band when I was like, 16 or 15, from Edmington, Alberta. They were this great hardcore band. The record came out on BYO. They were my favorite band and just the greatest live band, and then they did a couple of records and sort of disappeared. Then they popped up again and started playing shows and released a record on Epitaph, of all labels. I saw them play the other day and they were exactly the same as they were eleven years ago. They played all these songs off their first record, and it was so great. It was me and fifteen other people, there was nobody there, but it was so great to see them. They were one of my favorite bands, about ten years ago.
J: So, what are some of your favorite bands now?
G: I actually haven't bought indie rock records in years and
years. I usually end up liking a lot of the bands that we play
with. I love my sister's band, the Warmers. They have a record
out on Dischord. I love the Sorts from D.C. who we play with all
the time. From New York, I love Cat Power. I love Chisel. We did
a bunch of shows with them and it was so great to play with them
every night. The last indie rock record I really listened to was
the Come record, I was really into them for a while. I don't know,
I listen to a lot of old music, a lot of jazz. I listen to Francois
Hardy, this French pop singer that I like. I love Stevie Wonder.
I listen to a lot of hip-hop, too. I love the Gifted One. I listen
to the radio when I drive.
J: Tell me about Shrimper records and your relationship with them.
G: Dennis, who runs Shrimper, is the greatest guy you ever want to meet. He's so cool. He's this really quiet, nice guy from Southern California. The way that I met him is that he used to put ads in the zine I used to do. He would send me really nice notes about liking the zine and we would write back and forth. Then I sent him a Secret Stars tape and he really liked it. He called and said he wanted to do a tape and we did it. His label started as a cassette label. He put out all this Lou Barlow stuff and John Davis' record. People buy his records just when they see Shrimper on it. He does all these cool little tapes and compilations with weird bands on them that you've never heard of. After the tape he asked us to do the record and we were really excited. We also did the single on Simple Machines. We found out later that they also wanted to do the record, but didn't ask us before Dennis did.
J: Tell me about how you started your zine and what that was like
G: I started it when I was living in D.C. Everybody was doing stuff, it was such a productive time. It was around '89 - '91, and all these people were moving to D.C. I was in a band with a couple of guys from the band Goober, right before they got started. Simple Machines had just put out a couple of singles. There were all these great shows and zines and you just got sucked up in it, it was really supportive. I just had so much energy that I started doing it. I never did it on music, I always wrote stories and had stuff on traveling and weird little research pieces. I did six or seven issues, and people started putting ads in, and then it got picked up by Tower distribution and a bunch of other distributors, like Frying Pan and Smother. Then I started traveling a lot and writing about places I went. Before the last issue, I traveled for four months to twenty different cities and wrote something from each city.
J: So, how long have you been on the road, between your zine and your bands?
G: When I first started doing No Duh, I got really into traveling. I would just hop on a bus and go all over the country. Then, when we started doing Karate, we were very gung ho about touring. We wanted to jump in the van and go. We were out for a year, we played everywhere. Nobody knows who you are and you have to sleep in the van, etc. But now we've been on maybe five tours. Secret Stars have been on tours a bunch too. I read an interview with Beck recently and he said touring is all about eating and sleeping. I definitely can't agree more. It reduces your life to basic biological funtions. You don't think about anything except where you're going to eat and sleep next. The Karate tour this summer, we played 27 shows in a row. They're very physical shows, everybody is crowded together and sweating. I guess we had one day off somewhere in there. We were so worn out and tired. You're only sleeping five hours a night and driving overnight. The Karate tours are notoriously ridiculous, we'd book these extra-long drives, like let's go play in Farmington, New Mexico. Let's play the most ridiculous out-of-the-way place that you can get a show. Jodi and I have been much more conservative about it. Both the Secret Stars and the Karate tours were so great because people were coming out to the shows everywhere we played. Places where we played two years ago nobody came, but all these people came. Karate loves to tour and travel, and Jodi really likes it too.
J: I'd be afraid to go on tour. I can drive if forced to, I have a license, but I'm not very good at it.
G: Both Karate and Secret Stars have had really bad near-death driving experiences. About a year ago, Jodi and I were driving to this show in D.C. and we hit a deer and smashed up my car. About three weeks later, Karate was on tour for a few weeks. It was after our last show at Brownies in N.Y., and we were driving up 91 and there was ice, and we couldn't see it. A truck right in front of us flipped right over. We pulled over and ran out of the van, Amon pulled the guy out of the truck, its engine was still running. Cars were coming over the hill and sliding into the truck. It was so crazy, one of the scariest things in the world. After that, we've been so careful about driving. We've tried to decrease the amount of driving at night.
J: What was it like recording the Secret Stars album?
G: I don't like recording but I do it. It frustrates me. I mean, I do record a lot, but I like it when it's done, when it's on the tape. I don't have the patience for it. When something sounds ok, I just stick with it. The Secret Stars album was all done in our bedroom. On four track... Or less, actually. Four track or three track or two track depending on what we're using.
J: Is there anything else we should talk about? Anything else
you want to say?
G: No, I'm not very insightful today, unfortunately.