After 12 years, 700 performances worldwide, seven full-lengths and four vans (well, one was actually a short bus), Karate—one of the most aggressively creative, wildly prolific and squabbled-over indie acts in Boston history—has called it a very long day.
Comprised of guitarist/vocalist Geoff Farina, bassist Jeff Goddard (after Eamonn Vitt departed in ’95) and drummer Gavin McCarthy, the trio moved from the Codeine-laced slowcore of their 1993 7” “Death Kit” debut to the sprawling collisions of free jazz, classic rock and, well, Steely Dan that characterized the sound of their last few records (an approach that seems nearly perfected on their most recent Pockets LP)—and they managed to make this long journey without any jarring hairpin turns.
“With each record were always challenging ourselves, trying to do something slightly new,” McCarthy tells me, “and that contributed to our longevity—that and gluttony for punishment.” With 50 or so yearly gigs in Europe, fall tours in the States and some Japan tossed in for good measure, the punishment of relentless travel was pure pleasure for their increasingly swelling pockets of devotees around the world.
“We’re the kind of guys who are into music, and that’s what we want to do,” McCarthy says, “Growth or change like this has to happen if we want to keep doing it. Everyone is stoked that it was what it was—and that it’s done without any strife or bitterness.”
While they were known and well-received among attentive clusters of the US indie scene, the boys achieved a level of notoriety in Europe that was, well, a bit freaky (“We could play for 500 people in Rome and then play for 50 in Cleveland,” says McCarthy). Tina Helms, bassist for Helms and longtime friend of the group, recalls touring Europe with Goddard as their driver and navigator: “People were freaking out when they found out who he was. It was so funny. In Karlsruhe, Germany, as soon as they found out he was there, they put on some Karate album and Jeff was kind of embarrassed—so he sat outside and ‘tended to the van.’”
Putting the rest of the world aside for a moment, it’s hard to imagine quite a bit of the better indie-rock that Boston has produced over the past decade without figuring in Karate. Through member crossovers and collaborations, they have been central to a lineage of Boston bands that includes (to name a handful) Milk Money, The Lune, Swirlies, Come and the Secret Stars. Despite their deep roots and long history, for many the true impact of Karate was felt through the immediacy of their music.
“I’ll never forget my first summer living in Boston,” Kristina Johnson of Roh Delikat recalls. “I heard the sounds of a Karate practice coming out of a second story window above the ball-bearing company. I stood there and listened for a long while in disbelief and excitement at what I was hearing—and it was awesome.”