Experimental, song-focused, talented, modest, and confident are all adjectives that could easily be used to describe this week’s Band of the Week, Deccatree. Chris Karn (vocals, songwriter, guitar), Jesse Nason (keyboards, vocals), Luke Agajanian (bass, vocals), and Dicki Fliszar (drums, vocals) are the heart and soul behind this sonically intellectual experimental band.
Deccatree’s story starts with front man and founder Chris Karn, a visionary and deeply thoughtful man with a quiet, humble tranquility about him. Chris had formerly seen success playing guitar in General Public, but after trying and failing to put out a record at Capitol, he left, disillusioned. He put together a studio in a corner of his house, began teaching himself about engineering and production, and within a few months, part of what would become Deccatree’s debut album, Battle Of Life, was written. All Chris needed were some musicians to do live shows with. He began asking friends to play with him and eventually formed Deccatree.
With a sound that hovers somewhere between indie and orchestral rock, Deccatree’s sound is truly unique. Although they had managed to land a record deal with Atlantic – going so far as to cut a record and even develop cover art – that soon turned sour. Luckily, possibly due to Chris Karn’s laid-back, easy-going geniality, Atlantic allowed him to retain all rights – and even the master tapes – to Battle Of Life, meaning they could put it out themselves. And that is just what they have done.
And now two years on, they are working on a new album and still supporting Battle of Life, an album written under the most difficult of circumstances. Chris’s father was battling with cancer — and losing — his first child was about to be born, and his deal with Capitol was going south, hence the name Battle Of Life. But although his father didn’t win, Chris did. He is now a father of two, a successful producer of many other musical artists (including former Band of the Week, The Ruse – whose front man John Dauer made the introduction), and working on a new album with Deccatree. Chris was nice enough to give me a few minutes for an interview recently.
Tell me the Deccatree story.
Well, it started when I left Capitol records, after a failed attempt to get a record put out there. They owed me some money, so I put together a studio in one corner of my home. I just started working away and learning about engineering and production. After a few months, a quarter of the record (Battle Of Life) was written and recorded and I needed to find some players to do shows, so I asked some friends. The list of guest players both live and on the record started to grow and I liked it. I had my pick of the best in the area and everyone was happy to come in and record or play a show.
After the first show, people started to call. A reputation spread pretty fast. I guess it spread faster than usual because, at the time, what we were doing was quite different and honest. Still is honest. And we even held ourselves differently, kindly. Today we still are the same, kind and humble. It only took a few shows and then we had some record offers.
How did you settle on a static line-up?
It was whoever stuck around and enjoyed the songs the most. I kept the best players.
Who is the current and, I assume, permanent line-up?
Jesse Nason is my right hand. He plays keys and other noises as well as some background vocals — I met him through a local band. Jesse and I also work together on outside productions as well as doing acoustic shows together.
Luke Agajanian plays bass and has ADD, which is perfect for our music (laughs). Seriously, he does have a wandering mind — nothing medical though — and it works out perfectly for coming up with ideas. Luke is very passionate about playing. I met him while he was playing with Rocco Deluca. He's an amazing player.
Dicki Fliszar plays drums and, like Luke and Jesse, he sings background. Everyone in the band has gotten very good at singing (laughing); I'm still trying to figure it out – and I believe there will be more vocal pieces on the next record. Not like the Eagles… or maybe like the Eagles, we'll see. Back on point, Dicki came from Jesse's old band and is always on. It's weird. I've been playing with him for four or five years now and I've only noticed two mistakes!
Is that impressive? Only two mistakes. I don't know much about the drums.
Yes, that is scary impressive!
There have also been other players floating in and out. Scott Reeder, who I've known forever, and plays drums with Fu Manchu. Wayne Lothian — who I've known since my ska days — he's played with the Pouges, the Specials, and currently Dave Wakeling of The Beat. [Wiki entry for Dave Wakleing: “a rock singer and guitarist from Birmingham, most famous for singing in the '80s ska bands The Beat (known as The English Beat in the USA) and General Public.”]
What is your history? Band-wise and musically.
I started playing in bands when I was 14. I had a friend who had brother in college who would turn us on to all the new stuff. So here we were, 14, in a band, playing the Stiff Little Fingers, Buzzcocks, the Clash, the Dammed, The Replacements — my personal favourite — and some other cool stuff. From there, it's just been a part of my life. That band stayed together, in some form, throughout high school. Right out of college, I got my first touring gig. A guy I already mentioned, named Dave Wakeling, came by the local club a couple times — he had just moved to this beach town called Dana Point and I was there every other night playing.
He liked what I was doing and kept mentioning that he was about to make another General Public record for Epic Records with the producer Jerry Harrison, — the Talking Heads' keyboardist. Finally, after so much talk, he invited me up to a writing session with him, the other vocalist Ranking Roger, and a keyboardist. My job was to come up with guitar ideas and it was also sort of an audition. I played and they recorded it with the intention of replacing my parts. Well, my parts stayed on the record; they couldn’t replace them.
I'm kind of an unconventional player; sometimes I push ahead of the beat and other times I lay back. Basically what happened is no one could copy my weird feel, so I stayed on the record. After that, they needed someone to fill in for the keyboardist for radio dates. Then they got to know me and offered me a job doing guitar for the tour.
We did Conan O’Brien, The Big Breakfast in London – is that still on(?) — RFK Stadium (biggest show of 80,000) and various other big shows. It was cool. On that tour, I noticed that if you stood on the side of the stage during other artists' performances, you could see what it would be like to be a lead singer.
After seeing a band called Better Than Ezra, I thought, “This is cool, I could do this! Be a lead singer.” So I got a book in the mail on how to sing and, three years later, I had a deal with Capitol. Which is kind of a retarded statement.
Because there is no way to punctuate how surprised I was. I have a photograph of myself with my wife right after I signed the Capitol deal. At that moment, I was just happy that I could write and record things and have it come back through the speakers. So in that photo, I really look like the cat who swallowed the canary. “I can’t believe no one has caught me!”
One thing I would like to say is — the deal really isn’t worth anything. The thing that carries you on in your career, your motivation, is your art and interacting with the people who you meet with your art. And it really has nothing to do with the company's marketing campaign. If you show up and you haven’t taken care of your art and you haven't taken care of your relationship, your interacting with people with your art, you could take the marketing geniuses at McDonalds or Pepsi or Coke and they still couldn’t crack you. You really need to take care of your own camp.
A record deal really isn’t the be all, end all. Really the be all, end all is just being at peace with yourself and your art.