INTERVIEW: Slow Thrills meets Geoff Farina

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“Even before I was in Karate or Secret Stars I used to play songs by this guy, Mississippi John Hurt, who recorded his music in the late 1920s, and that was some of the first music I learned on acoustic guitar”.
As I chat to Geoff Farina via the exciting modern technology of Skype, he spends several minutes telling me about the guitarists he admires and the legacy of the music they created during the 1920s and 30s. I caught up with him on the day of the release of his new solo album The Wishes of the Dead.
Before we delve into the distant past though, I should remind you of Geoff's own musical history. For twelve years he was simultaneously the leader of the Boston band Karate and one half of the Secret Stars. Karate released most of their music on Southern records and because of this were essentially labelled as an indie-rock act. Anyone who has heard any of Karate's albums will know that there are large doses of jazz, blues and classic rock in their mix as well. In recent years he has collaborated with the Boston musician Chris Brokaw on both original and traditional music.
This interest in older American folk and blues has been brought up to date on the Wishes of the Dead, a recording which works as both a fine collection of contemporary songs and a homage to legendary folk guitarists. He describes it as “Ten songs written along the Kenneback river in Maine”, and I can just imagine him sitting there, guitar in hand, working these with these tunes. So is this record a totally solo project?
“Yeah, it’s me on acoustic guitar with a few overdubs on electric but it’s mostly acoustic and the overdub parts are mostly just doubling up so it’s pretty stripped”, he says, “Ten years ago or so, I did a few limited EPs for some tours, I did one for a tour of Japan for example, but this is the first full-length for quite a while.”

A quick glance at Geoff's own website will underline his interest in music history. He currently teaches that subject at DePaul University in Chicago where his courses include That High Lonesome Sound: Bluegrass 1936-1972 and What Were The Blues? 1920-1960. He has also taught music history and music theory at Colby College and the University of Maine, and English composition at the University of Massachusetts. He is pretty modest about his expert knowledge.

“I teach and do a few different things and I've been doing it for 25 years or so, so it’s slowly grown and the resume gets bigger as I get older!” he laughs. “I teach half the year and then I usually tour the other half of the year. I moved to Chicago a year and a half ago. My wife and I both teach and she got a really great job, she teaches Italian literature and culture at De Paul and now I teach music history at De Paul but we kinda followed her job here. It’s a great place to live, for sure, and I’ve been playing locally which I love, it’s just a dream come true, I play gigs here every week, and people come and listen and it’s just a great music city. {If you are in the area he plays a two hour solo instrumental guitar set at The Whistler, Chicago) And I’m getting older I don’t want to go on tour all the time, I enjoy hanging out with my wife and hanging out in Chicago…."

Many years ago my old zine interviewed Karate, I think it was around the time of In Place of Real Insight, and their history as a band is well documented, so I don't want to dwell on that too much. Since then he has collaborated with Chris Brokaw. Chris is another musician with a long and varied history but is perhaps best known as the drummer from Codeine and guitarist from Come. So how did this come about?
“Well we both lived in Boston for a long time and it is a small city. We were fans of each others bands and we just knew each other through the small little scene. I used to go and watch Come play a lot and we just got to know each other and we were asked to do a collaboration for a label. We both showed up with guitars and it turns out we were both on a binge through all this old blues music. We were listening to players such as Blind Blake and Gary Davis but it was a coincidence. I saw some records on his shelf and I asked him if he was listening to a lot of Blind Blake because I’ve been playing his stuff a lot and we each knew some songs and we started doing it that way and that’s how it came about and we ended up doing a couple of records together, and one record of all those old tunes, The Angel's Message to Me

I test Geoff's credentials here by stating that I don't know the difference between Blind Blake and Norman Blake, and I ask him to fill me in. He does..
“Norman Blake is from Georgia and he was Johnny Cash’s guitar player for a long time, Blind Blake was from northern Florida and there’s not much known about his life, he disappeared in the late 1920s, early 1930s, but he was a recording star in the ‘20s and a really amazing guitar player.”
Are there any recordings of him?
“Yeah, there’s a lot, there’s about 115-120 songs that he has recorded. Before the depression hit there was a renaissance of this kind of ‘ragtime’ type guitar music in the south east of America and he was part of that so he did a lot of recordings, a few with a vocalist and a few on his own where he just sang and played guitar and he had a real strong piano influence on guitar and he sounds like a ragtime piano player when he plays guitar, very unique and to this day there aren’t many people who can play the music the way he played it.”
So is the music of that period an influence on what Geoff Farina is doing at the minute?
“I think so,” he pauses briefly. “ Even before I was in Karate or Secret Stars I used to play songs by this guy, Mississippi John Hurt who also recorded in the late ‘20s and that was some of the first music I learned on acoustic guitar. Since Karate broke up I have gotten more into that, so I like a lot of late ‘20s kind of urban, blues guitar players like Lonnie Johnson and Blind Blake, and then a little bit later after the depression hit there was the rural Mississippi thing started happening and there was a lot of guys from that that I really love, like Robert Wilkins and Frank Hutchinson, so yes, I've always really been into solo guitar of all kinds – I love solo jazz guitar and I love Mississippi style blues guitar and vocals, all those kind of things I’ve really been into all my life.”

I wonder how many people will follow this connection through from Karate? Essentially this is about an evolution from an indie-rock band to an acoustic blues album.
“I think it depends on the person and what they have heard.” he says. “The first Karate single, ‘Death Kit’, has a big blues guitar solo in the middle of it so it’s not really a new thing for me. When I was in high school I loved Jimi Hendrix and I discovered his record that had all the blues tunes on it, all the Skip James tunes, and I went back and listened a lot to Skip James and some other guitar players like Otis Rush and more Chicago guys that had influenced Jimi Hendrix and I think to an extent it has always been a part of my playing and Karate had a strong blues or jazz influence on different records and different songs.”
He continues, “That record that you mentioned In Place of Real Insight I think that was the one that got around more than any other of our records so there’s a lot of people who have only heard that record and I think that, you know, that’s a rock record with 2 guitar players on it, it’s a loud rock record, so I think people who have only heard that might expect that but I have released over 40 records in the last 25 years and not all of them are as popular as that record, so…”

In terms of the new album, who or what have been the main influences?
“When I sit down to write I don’t listen to a lot of records and I very rarely think I want this to sound like a particular record, or have that kind of vibe, it’s more when I’m not writing music I’m usually learning to play a lot of different songs, anything I like, lots of solo guitar stuff, finger-picking, anything you can imagine, I’ll just learn it and I’ve always done that, I’ve always really enjoyed learning other people’s music, and that kind of creeps in, and you know what happened a lot with the new record I was listening to a lot of … I do this gig once a week here in Chicago where I play old finger picking guitar tunes from the 20s and 30s, a lot of old Piedmont stuff and Blind Blake and Lonnie Johnson, Elizabeth Cotton, Gary Davis, and I have two hours of that stuff that I just play every week, and I think when I was working on this record and recording it a lot of that came out, so the way that Elizabeth Cotton uses her thumb, or the way that there’s a double-thumbing bassline and playing a melody over the top of it with the fingers is something that really came out a lot with this record, it’s very much a Piedmont influenced record, but I didn’t set out to make it that way it just the music I was playing at the time when I was writing it.  But you know the chords and the harmonies are much more modern than that stuff but I think the rhythms are like that old music.”

It doesn’t sound like old music, it sounds contemporary...
“The idea of musical influence is really interesting to me because a lot of my music is influenced by old music , but in a musical way… there’s a lot of music these days that has this patina of old music, you see people dressing up like these old musicians or playing old instruments, if you listen to Arcade Fire or something they are playing rock music that sounds like U2 but they play these old instruments and sometimes they’ll add sounds or overdub sounds that sound old, but in terms of my music, actually what I’m doing with my right hand on the guitar is exactly what somebody like Gary Davis might do but my left hand is maybe making chords that are much more modern or jazz influenced or something like that. It depends on what you mean by musical influence I guess.”
You are blending the two together.
“I try to, I mean I love playing old songs, if I had my way I would just play old songs all the time, I love it there’s so much wonderful, the guitar player you mentioned Norman Blake, I’ve spent maybe five or six years learning everything he’s ever done, I love the way he plays guitar and he’s got five or six of his early records like Whisky before Breakfast, and Natasha’s Waltz that not too many people outside of that world know about those records but he is somebody who … I will always sound like him because I know about 32 of his songs and I spent so long learning his music if I had the chance I would just sit around in my studio and play Norman Blake songs for the rest of my life but it doesn’t really pay the bills!”

So are you touring this album? What are your plans for the future?
"Well I’m going to be touring, I’ll be coming over to the UK in the summer, then probably playing the rest of Europe in October and November.  I did a couple of tours with Chris Brokaw travelling all around the UK on trains, and it’s been a blast, and I’ve been touring a lot on a train just carrying a guitar and a little suitcase and I really enjoy the time, I just read a lot and relax and it’s a lot better than driving, so I think I’ll be alone this time, unless there is a band coming with me to open some of the shows.

I understand that you are still continuing with your other band Glorytellers. For those who haven't heard them, how would you describe the Glorytellers?
"They’re almost like a string band, it’s nearly always acoustic instruments and sometimes electric guitar, we did two records on Southern in the last 5 years and it’s kind of my project with revolving members, so it’s very much my songwriting so it sounds similar to the other things I do. I think the closest comparison is probably Karate, it’s like an acoustic Karate, the mellower Karate songs, it’s very similar to that. It’s just like my weird songwriting and weird ideas. It is my band outlet and it’s kind of on and off, we’re all in our 40s now and everybody is having babies and stuff so it’s hard to keep going but it’s been a lot of fun so far."

There is yet another project I've heard you are involved with called Ardecore, tell us a bit about that.
“In Italian it’s ard-ay-core-ay, it means ‘burning heart’ but I think it’s also a pun on hardcore.  It’s basically a Roman punk-folk band, we do old Roman songs, I only play with them once a year if I’m lucky, but they’ve become really popular in Italy now.
Is that a connection with your wife being Italian?
“No, its more the opposite (laughs) I met my wife in 1998 in Italy because I was playing music over there, but it’s a lot of friends from Rome who put together a band. It was originally me, and the band Zu and then the front man was John Paulo Felici, I guess you could compare it a little to Tom Waits or something but we would take these roman folk songs and play them in a weird punk twisted way. He has built it into a really great band with a lot of different members and I’ve made it onto all of their records to date! As for the next few years I have this Glorytellers record to finish, and I have been playing guitar in a rock band, and keeping up doing the solo instrumental shows every week, and I try to record something new every year, and I’m happy doing what I’m doing and if it continues then that’s a success for me."

Geoff Farina's new album The Wishes of the Dead is out now on Damnably.
Interview by Jonathan Greer

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