For more than a decade, it was hard to be a fan of the rock band Karate. Over their 12-year career, the band — an amalgamation of slow-tempo post-hardcore and jazz — developed a devoted fan base through a near-constant schedule of releasing new music and touring.
Formed in Boston in 1993, Karate released six studio albums, a live record and several EPs before disbanding in 2005. Within a few years, those records were all out of print. For fans wishing they could experience the band in the flesh, tracking down their impeccable live album 595 was the closest they could get — until now.
This summer, for the first time since 2005, Karate is reuniting to play a smattering of shows, including an appearance at the Pitchfork Music Festival. It’s a fitting location, as Chicago has been central to the band’s reunification story.
The tour follows last year’s announcement that Chicago archival label Numero Group would be reissuing Karate’s catalog. Karate’s vocalist and guitarist Geoff Farina has also set up a creative base here after moving to the city about a decade ago. He teaches in the music department of DePaul University and plays the occasional solo gig around town.
The reissues and reunion tour not only let Karate reach a new audience; they have allowed the band to reconnect with their music and each other.
“It is so much fun to be with these guys again,” said Farina. “Our musical sense, musical values are really very compatible in ways that I’ve never found with other people. It just all falls into place really easily.”
Karate was founded by Farina, drummer Gavin McCarthy, and bassist Eamonn Vitt. The band was briefly a quartet when Jeff Goddard joined in 1995 but became a trio again when Vitt departed in 1997. From the very beginning, the group was interested in incorporating a broad range of musical tastes and styles. Though Karate has strong roots in the independent punk scene, Farina, McCarthy, and Goddard also studied jazz at Berklee College of Music. The influence of D.C. post-hardcore is apparent in their early songs, which are laced with start-stop rhythms and loud-quiet juxtapositions. But slow, bluesy riffs and experimental jazzy interludes were always present.
“We discovered pretty early on, I think, that we had broader musical tastes,” Farina said. “Those took a while to get into our sound, to really relax enough to sit down and say, ‘Hey, we’re interested in some music that’s not punk-oriented.’”
Farina grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Like many punk fans in the 80s, he was enamored with the hardcore bands on Dischord Records, as well as more eclectic punk like California’s Minutemen. “I really gravitated towards punk bands that had influences from other styles of music,” he said. “I was really into these hybrid sounds and Karate eventually became a band like that.”
The band cited Farina’s worsening tinnitus – a condition in the ears often associated with hearing loss – as the main reason for their breakup. “At the time, that’s why I believed I was leaving the band,” Farina said. “But we’d gone for 12 years and were touring a lot. Bands have lifespans and no matter how much you love the people in your band, you need a break.”
Since then, he’s learned to play music wearing a filtered earplug that allows him to hear the music while protecting his hearing.
Karate’s demise coincided with the death of John Loder, the label chief of Southern Records, the band’s London-based independent label. Over the course of the next few years, Southern closed its satellite offices, eventually going out of business. For Karate, this was a problem. Southern still owned the group’s masters, which meant the label held the rights to reprint. When Karate’s records went out of print, fans had to pray that they’d come across a CD or LP at a record store, or else cough up hundreds of dollars to get a release on eBay.
The adoption by Chicago’s Numero Group has meant fresh access to record reprints and, for the first time, publication of Karate’s music on streaming sites. “I worked at Southern Records when the Karate records were released, so I had a pretty intimate amount of knowledge about these records,” said Ken Shipley, Numero co-founder. “It was a really natural fit.”
The response to the reissues has been overwhelmingly positive, with several of the LP releases quickly selling out. The band’s first three records are available now, and a box set of music from the second half of the band’s career, Time Expired, has been announced. Shipley chalks up some of that interest to the current surge of ‘90s nostalgia, though some of it surely comes from the discoverability of the internet; Karate is finally connecting with a wider fanbase.
“Most music is unheard,” Shipley says. “So that they’re getting this second chance is the power of the greatness of their music, but also the power of discovery and the flattening of distribution via the internet.”
The Pitchfork gig is sure to bring in more new fans. With a prime Saturday evening slot, the band will be playing a mix of songs from throughout their career; Vitt will join the trio for a chunk of the set. When I spoke with Farina, the band had been putting in eight-hour days in preparation for the tour. Does this reunion mean that new Karate music might be on the horizon?
“We would love to,” Farina said, but with the band members living in different cities, and with families and jobs — the logistics pose a challenge.
For now, Karate is content that their music is available and that they have a chance to play together again. “It’s cathartic,” Farina said. “I feel so lucky that we can do it again.”
If you go: The band Karate plays Sleeping Village (3734 W. Belmont Ave.) on Friday, July 15 and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park (1501 W. Randolph Ave.) on Saturday, July 16. Recommended tracks to sample before you go are “Gasoline” and “There Are Ghosts.”
Kerry Cardoza is a freelance writer based in Chicago.