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Geoff Farina's Exit Verse

Exit Verse : Change is good - a conversation with Geoff Farina

pic In the ten years since the break-up of the seminal Boston band Karate, singer/guitarist/songwriter Geoff Farina has kept himself busy making mostly acoustic based music in various shapes and forms under his own name, with Glorytellers or in tandem with Chris Brokaw, to name just a few. Now, he surprises us with a very welcome sonic u-turn. With his new band Exit Verse, Geoff is returning to loud rock music for the first time in almost a decade - and is sounding more determined than ever before. Together with Pete Croke (Brokeback, Tight Phantoms) on bass, John Dugan (Chisel, Edsel) on drums and Come's Thalia Zedek guest-starring on backing vocals, he has recorded an excellent self titled debut album with short, urgent songs, sharp riffs, and a major 1970s rock vibe, that will be echoing in your ears for days and months. Sure, there are flashes of Karate circa In Place Of Real Insight on the record - it's the same guy writing all the songs after all! - but Exit Verse definitely has a life of its own. With new drummer Chris Dye (Speck Mountain, Chin Up Chin Up) in tow, Exit Verse will start touring in December, but before they head out, Geoff was kind enough to answer some of Luna Kafe's questions.

Luna Kafé: With your solo records and shows, Glorytellers, various collaborations and now Exit Verse you have covered quite a bit of ground in recent years. So maybe a good first question would be: What is making you the happiest as a musician right now?
Geoff Farina: "I think the variation itself is satisfying. I've been living in Chicago for five years now and I kind of feel like a kid in a candy store. Most nights I'm either playing a gig or rehearsing. Exit Verse rehearses every Wednesday, Fridays I have my solo/duo series at the Whistler, and there are various other folks I play with in town, so there are always gigs and rehearsals. I really enjoy playing different kinds of music and I would never want to be tied down to one thing."

LK: Exit Verse is quite a departure from your recent (mostly) solo acoustic records and shows. Seeing you at your shows, I always thought that rocking out with a band was the last thing on your mind. I guess I was wrong. What happened?
GF: "The first year I was in Chicago Nathan McBride asked me to play guitar in Bando with drummer Frank Rosaly. Bando centered on the angular, punky songs that Nate had been writing for years. Originally I wasn't really looking to play electric guitar in a loud band, but they are two of my favorite musicians in Chicago, and they're also improvising musicians, so I thought it might be something interesting. I felt a bit awkward at first but quickly realized how much I had missed it, and the rehearsals and the few gigs we played were a total blast. When Nate decided to move back to Boston and the band dissolved, I was determined to keep playing rock music, so I started writing songs for Exit Verse."

LK: Obviously you've been in loud rock bands before, yet at least to my ears, Exit Verse seems to be a different kind of beast. From Karate through to Bando, most of your band stuff seemed to have had an experimental edge, while Exit Verse seems to focus more on punky, sharp riffs, and an obvious 70s Rolling Stones influence. Did you wake up one day and suddenly decided it's time to channel your inner Keith Richards?
GF: "Well, you could put it that way I guess. I've been a Keith fan since I was young, and I grew up on classic rock and 70s and 80s punk, and all of that comes out a lot more in this band. I think part of it is that I'm older and have spent a lot of time with Karate and other bands "experimenting" with rock music. Karate did our thing for 12 years and I have no interest in trying to recapture that sound. That's not to say I wouldn't like to play that kind of music again, but Exit Verse doesn't seem to be the proper forum. Another part of the sound of Exit Verse comes from my bandmates. Jeff and Gavin from Karate are deep musicians who have broad musical experiences, can read music, understand theory, etc. They are chameleons who sound good playing any kind of music. Nate and Frank from Bando were primarily improvising musicians, and that sound was really defined by Nate's songs and from their background in experimental and improvised music. Pete and Chris, my band mates in Exit Verse (and John Dugan who plays drums on the record) are rock guys with completely different sets of skills. They are loud and precise and really fill up the room with their sound, so it's a completely different situation."

LK: This may sound like a silly question, but were you surprised by the direction the band/album has been taking? You have been listening to the 70s rock that has left its mark on the album all along, so in a way you could have made this kind of album ages ago? Or do you think you had to get all the things you did before out of your system first to get to this point?
pic GF: "I wouldn't say I'm surprised by it and it is certainly calculated to a certain extent, but there was some trial and error at the beginning. Some of the first songs I wrote (none of which made it to the record) were a bit like the more upbeat, vibey Karate songs. They sounded OK, but at some point I started to hear a budget version of Karate and this just sounded like an error. Ultimately I tried to write songs that felt natural and came from the heart, but that also catered to the strengths of the band. I think when we did "Perfect Hair" and "Under the Satellite" something really clicked, and we ran with that. To answer your other question, I don't think I could have made the album years ago, and I do feel like Karate and some of the more improvisational music that I've made has satisfied something in me. I also play more complex music (particularly my solo guitar repertoire, the fiddle/string band repertoire of the Last Kind Words, and the Joplin tunes I play with The Great Crush) that requires a certain amount of concentration and more traditional musical skills, so I don't feel the need to impose that sort of thing on my rock band."

LK: Recently I talked to Mary Timony, who has been taking a similar route with her new band Ex Hex. She implied she was kind of tired of making grand statements and now it was all about having fun and kicking out the jams. Would something similar be true for you as well?
GF: "I wouldn't say that Exit Verse is all about having fun and kicking out the jams. I think my songs still have a particular urgency to them that was there with Karate, and that will probably always be there. The music is still calculated, it's just not so Baroque and complicated for the sake of exploring musical ideas. Ex Hex are definitely more of a fun, charismatic band than Exit Verse will ever be."

LK: I always think of you as a very thoughtful person and musician. Yet the new album sounds pretty spontaneous and carefree. Is that what it is, or did you invest a lot of time and effort to make it sound that way?
GF: "It's definitely not spontaneous, as much as I would like it to be. But I'm glad you say it sounds that way. We rehearsed a lot and knew what we were going play before going into the studio. On the other hand, John's schedule was pretty tight and it felt like we did the record fairly quickly without many takes, so in that sense it was spontaneous. I think we only did a total of two full days with the whole band (I spent many more days on vocals and guitar overdubs), and we only did a few takes of each song."

LK: I suppose on solo(ish) acoustic records, the lyrics are much more of a focal point than on a loud band record. Did that influence you while you were writing the lyrics?
GF: "I think I wrote the lyrics the same way I always do, mostly bit by bit over a long period of time. I remember the day I finished the lyrics to "Chrome", which was the last song I wrote for the record. My wife and I were alone on an abandon beach on Lake Michigan and it was a beautiful late summer afternoon. I came up with the last few lines to the song on that beach... finished! But I didn't do anything different with the Exit Verse songs than I've done in the past, although they do draw on a particular set of subjects and images that seem appropriate for the band."

LK: To invite Thalia Zedek to sing on some songs seems like a very inspired choice. Did you plan to include her / a female voice all along or how did that come about?
GF: "No, it was just something that happened. I flew to Boston to record some overdubs for the record with Andy Hong, and also to attend Chris Brokaw's wedding party. Thalia and I were watching Mission of Burma together and she asked me what I was up to. I told her I was working on Exit Verse at Andy's, and she said, "Let me know if you need any backup vox." I said, "Are you kidding?" The next day I called her and she came by the studio. I showed her the lyrics to each song and told her what they were about, just to give her something to think about, and she was very spontaneous and did a fantastic job. She came up with all the melodies on the spot without ever having heard the songs. I'm really proud to have her on the record. I used to see Come in Boston all the time and they were always a big influence on me."

LK: Obviously you have been in bands before, so you know about the do's and don'ts. At this point of your career: What do your band mates need to bring to the table to make you happy (and how does it differ to your expectations of your band mates, say, 20 years ago?)
GF: "I try to be in bands with people who play what I like to hear, and who take a certain amount of pride in their playing and their sound. Gavin and Jeff always played things that I liked, and I never had to tell them what to play on the songs I wrote, although sometimes I did anyway. But they always wrote better parts for their instruments than I ever could have, and Pete and Chris are the same way. I trust their playing, and they always come up with parts that are appropriate for the song. They also both play with pride and are serious about their sound; I think this is very important, and it's what sets a good band apart from a bullshit band. So there is some preliminary discussion about the vibe of the song and the kind of feel that I'm after, but Chris and Pete can usually run with that and will come up with good parts that I never would have thought of. Once it starts coming together, I just try to make sure that all the parts fit together like a puzzle (taking another lesson from Keith). In fact the most difficult part of the process for me is always getting the guitar and vocals right."

LK: Is starting a new band with a couple of decades of experience only a blessing or can it be a (for a lack of a better word) curse as well in a "This amp I'm carrying down two flights of stairs didn't seem to be so heavy when I was 22?" kind of way?
pic GF: "Well, at 45, those amps are feeling quite heavy, but fortunately Chris and Pete are a bit younger than me and have strong backs! Honestly the biggest curse is just how our lifestyles have changed. Everyone is too busy, has too much responsibility, plays in too many bands, works too many hours, etc., and being in a band just doesn't feel like it used to. I think it really puts a damper on the music when you get the sense that your band mates are thinking about other things when they're rehearsing, looking at cell phones, showing up late, etc., but it's nobody's fault and this is the world that we live in. I remember Karate would rehearse two or three times a week and one rehearsal would take up an entire afternoon, and then we'd go hang out and have some beers and talk about the songs. This was before we all had email and cell phones, and part of me really misses that lifestyle. With Exit Verse we've recaptured at least some of that vibe... we all love the routine of practicing once a week not just because we have gigs or recording coming up, but for the fun of playing and the camaraderie of being in a band. It really feels like everyone wants to be there, and we can lose ourselves in it for a few hours each week, and that's a great feeling."

LK: You balance your life in bands and on the road with teaching work. Is that something you got into because of the financial insecurities in the music industry or was it first and foremost the challenge to use a different part of your brain for your teaching work?
GF: "I pursued university teaching partly because I wanted to diversify my career, and also because it makes different demands on me than performing music. Although I'm much busier than I'd like to be, my life is nicely balanced. I also write professionally on occasion (my wife and I just translated a book from Italian to English last year), so my career has a lot of variation. Change is good."

LK: I used to teach myself, so I was wondering: What do you enjoy most about it?
GF: "For one thing, I teach what I want and I'm very spoiled that way. Most of the courses I've taught at DePaul, UMaine, and Colby College are on topics that I love (American music, songwriting, music theory), so I really enjoy the topics themselves and also the research that teaching requires. And of course I love connecting with curious students. A lot of the music I teach has inspired me, and it feels great when I can share that inspiration and excitement with my students."

LK: Sorry for sneaking in a Karate-related question, but with the 90s revival in full swing and several reunions of bands from that decade making big waves: In what kind of hypothetical scenario would you consider a Karate comeback?
GF: "We've never talked about it, but I'm guessing it would have to be a situation in which we all made some money."

LK: The Exit Verse album is coming out in mid-November, you play the US before the year is over and have plans to come to Europe next Spring - and then?
GF: "We're touring the northeast US in December, and then probably coming to Northern Europe in May, and southern Europe in the fall of next year. Some of the May shows are being booked already, so it's shaping up. We'll know more in the coming months."

LK: The usual last question: Any famous last words? Anything that needs to be mentioned?
GF: "Please buy our record. The BEST way you can support Exit Verse is to buy a CD or LP!"

LK: Thanks so much for your time!
GF: "My pleasure."

Photo credits © Damnably (Exit Verse band pics).

Copyright © 2014 Carsten Wohlfeld e-mail address

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