Ex-Secret Stars and Karate member Geoff Farina might be a recent transplant to Chicago, but he’s no stranger to the city’s music scene, having played here for years—though presumably at a volume level much louder than the one he’s rocking out at now. His new record, The Wishes Of The Dead, reflects the renaissance man’s turn toward even quieter, more introspective tunes, as well as his recent academic excursions into other musical eras and styles. The A.V. Club talked to Farina about that dive into new tunes, as well as his role as a DePaul professor and ex-road dog.
The A.V. Club: How long have you lived in Chicago?
Geoff Farina: About a year and a half, or two years.
AVC: And you moved here to work at DePaul?
GF: My wife is a more serious professor than I am. She got a good, tenure-track job there, and so we ended up here.
I’m happy to be here, though. I have to say, of any place outside Boston, this couldn’t be any better. We have friends here, and I was on a couple of labels here for many years. I’ve been coming here for 20 years to play, and it felt like home right away. There’s a big Chicago-Boston connection. I have Boston friends here, and I love it. It’s been a really fun time. There are lots of people to make music with.
AVC: What are your impressions of the Chicago music scene from actually living here?
GF: There are so many great players around that it’s very easy to go and play with people. I find myself doing that a lot more now than I did in 20 years in Boston. I’m playing a show, rehearsing, recording, or doing something else five nights a week. It’s really nice.
I’m actually involved in a lot of nascent projects here that haven’t really come to fruition, like one with Nate McBride. We’re both just super busy, so we’ve been practicing for like six months, but we haven’t played a gig yet.
I don’t mind, though. I had a crazy couple of years, so this last year and a half has been a lot more relaxed. I mean, in one year recently, I would do five or six different tours, so it’s such a different feeling getting things started.
AVC: You do play at The Whistler, though.
GF: I’m off right now, but at The Whistler I get to do two hours every Friday of whatever I want.
It’s actually like I’m in a fantasy land—like everything I do is a mile from my house. The year before we moved here, I was in Maine, and I had to drive three hours to find anyone to play music with just by virtue of numbers.
AVC: How do Chicago and Boston’s scenes compare?
GF: Chicago and Boston are opposites. Boston is my favorite place in the world, but it’s also very grumpy and backwards. The problem with Boston is that for a small city, there are too many musicians and great music schools. When I moved to Boston, in the ’80s, I didn’t psychologically recover from the move for two years. There were always 10 people on my block that I could hear practicing, and I knew how amazing they were. Also, in Boston nobody goes to shows. There’s no big constituency to go and see people play, so it’s just this storing house of bands and musicians with no audience.
In Chicago, though, everyone goes out. People get psyched for summer, and it’s so friendly, and there are so many festivals. It’s a gigantic small-town atmosphere, but with more venues. It feels so much more open and friendly than Boston or New York. I don’t really fit in, though, because I’m the grumpiest, most antisocial person, but it’s cool. It feels good to be here. Every time I play The Whistler, I end up getting in some conversation with someone who’s never heard of me and has been listening and just wants to talk about music. It feels like a lot of music fans here are seriously listening to the music.
AVC: One of the reasons you ended Karate was because of your hearing problems. Are you still dealing with those?
GF: I have tinnitus pretty heavy duty, but it’s something you get used to over the years. You try to teach people to avoid it. It’s my biggest regret that I didn’t wear earplugs when I should have. I mean, what do you say? It sucks.
AVC: Is that why your new album is mostly acoustic?
GF: I guess. I sort of left Karate in 2005, and then I don’t know what happened, really. I got into not being in a band and wanted to learn to play acoustic guitar as a guitar, not just as a vehicle for indie rock, so I spent a lot of time thinking about how I want to make it sound and learning a lot of old steel-string guitar music. I just got really into it, and that snowballed.
I mean, before I left Karate, for two or three years I’d come home from tours and stay home and just do that. Glorytellers, the project I did after that, is all acoustic. It’s just basically that most of the music I play now is steel-string guitar. This year I started playing electric again and enjoying it, but I’m seeking out different things to do with an electric guitar. I’m having fun with other projects. I don’t think there’s room in my life to be good at both acoustic and electric. I feel like I’m an acoustic musician now, and I’ll be doing that for a while. I collect old guitars and old, traditional guitar music.
AVC: Has technology changed how you make music?
GF: The things that have changed have been super geeky. I practice a lot every day, and I usually slow stuff down on the computer so I can stare at YouTube videos. I’m so into practicing with my iPhone, too. I slow things down to half speed so I can figure out what people are playing.
I guess with recording, I’ve always started in my bedroom, but now I have a studio. Growing up I always made cassette four-tracks, and really I still do that to some extent. It’s easier, and the quality is better. Everybody’s got a studio and it’s easy to make a record, at least for the kind of music that I make. My recording style is to capture what I’m playing and what the band is playing. I’m not a big record-making guy who sits and makes remixes. Producers can do that.
I think technology is great because it makes things convenient and you can work with people that are far away. I just try not to stare at the computer too often because it just kind of gets… I mean, that’s what I love about playing music, that it has nothing to do with technology. You’re either doing it or not doing it, and you can’t stare at the computer at the same time.
AVC: Has your recent interest in older music changed how you write songs? Has it changed what you’re into in your own music?
GF: It certainly has in a very literal way. I’ve always done that, though. The very first Karate single has this ripping Chicago blues guitar solo. I’ve always been into older guitar players, pre-rock ’n’ roll. Karate was a rock band, so that was a little different, but every year I’m into something new or get obsessed with some style of guitar player. On this new record, there’s a lot of traditional guitar instrumentals from the Piedmont region of the United States, like the Carolinas and Georgia. There’s a right-hand technique in that that’s most of what my right hand is doing on the record. My left hand is much more modern, though.
I think it’s a direct influence on what I do—but at the same time, it’s not. I love playing that old music, but I try to write my music and let it be what it is. It’s a balancing act.
AVC: Do your students ever come to see you play?
GF: Sometimes, yeah. Those two lives, I try to keep separate. I was teaching at the University Of Maine and Colby College, and there, it’s a very small world. In Maine everyone knows who you are and where you come from.
College kids are so… I mean, it blows my mind. I’m 42 years old, so everyone looks very young to me now. They weren’t around when Karate was playing, so they’re into something else.
AVC: So no one recognizes you from the ol’ days?
GF: It does happen. When I first started at DePaul, I taught this blues history course that I’m teaching again in the spring this year, and it was packed with 40 students. The first question I got in front of everyone was, “Are you Geoff Farina from Karate? I can’t forget to tell my roommates.”
That kind of stuff destroys your authority, though, so I do my best to keep it separate. You have to have your relationship with students be very calculated, especially now. A lot can go wrong, so you have to be really careful and keep a distance.
I’m usually very excited about the music that I’m teaching, and it’s my job to convey that and inspire them. I try to tell them what excites me about it while analyzing it and everything. I went to a music school, though, and had professors who were well-known and successful try to get up there and put on a show, to be a cool professor. I think five kids in a room are enamored with that, and the other 15 are like, “Who is this goofball? I’m paying good money to learn something.” I wouldn’t want to pay for a class and just have some personality to put on a show. You want someone to inspire you—at least, that’s how I interpret my job.
I’m currently teaching a bluegrass history course, and we have lots of guests come in because there are a few kind of old folky and bluegrass people around Chicago. They’re amazing people who are nice and willing to share experiences. Greg Cahill’s one who’s been doing it since 1975, and he’s so amazing. He came in and had the whole class singing along with him as he played Bill Monroe songs. I try to leave all that fanfare to people like that.