Black Onassis - the Chris Karloff interview
I am following tour manager Chris Turner through the backstage labyrinths of the Academy 3 on my way to meet with Chris Karloff, one of the original members of Leicester heroes Kasabian, who left the band (or was fired, depending on the versions) in 2006, right before the band catapulted to stardom with their second album Empire.
Moving to New York, Karloff subsequently kept a low profile. Aside from a few low-key gigs in New York, as well as SXSW in 2012, not much has been heard from him. Until now. Recording under the moniker of Black Onassis, Karloff and fellow New Yorker Nick Forde, released Desensitized late last year, a wonderful collection of trippy, electro-infused tunes featuring a bevy of guest vocalists. Ironically, given that 2014 is the anniversary of his old band's eponymous debut, he's returned to the UK for a short string of dates, including playing London's Koko, and a hometown show in Leicester.
As we wind our way down hallways, up stairs, down stairs, we at last reach the right dressing room. The door opens and I find Karloff, soft-spoken, almost shy, yet friendly and relaxed. Though still slightly reticent about some subjects (namely the aforementioned former band) he is none-the-less open and forthcoming. Despite arriving woefully late to Manchester and running behind schedule, he is at ease and more than ready for a long talk.
How does it feel to be back in the UK? Has it been a while since you’ve been back?
[In terms of] playing music, it’s been a while. It feels amazing, actually. It’s an instant buzz.
When was the last time you were here?
Last time I played here was about 8 or 9 years ago.
Was that with your old band?
That’s right, yes! It’s been a long time!
Have things changed a lot? I went back to the States after being away a long time and so much had changed I almost felt like a foreigner in my own country.
When I first started getting back here, I didn’t get that so much cos it’s really horrible!
Even though you’ve lived in a country a long time, knowing where you're from can be hard.
I think you adopt a lot of the things from the new place, which is understandable, but you keep a lot from...I think the weirdest part is, when you’re taken out of it, and I’m sure you’re the same, you’re seeing it in a completely different way. I think that's what messes you up! (laughs) Even more then the actual leaving it behind and going somewhere new.
Do you feel a bit more protective about it? When you’re living there it’s easier to dis your own country, but when you hear someone else’s views you’re like “whoa whoa whoa!"
It’s that ex-pat syndrome.
Black Onassis you formed with Nick Forde, who I found out is actually from my hometown of Portland...
Oh, you’re from Portland? Yeah, yeah!
And he lives in Brooklyn now. How did you two meet?
We met through a mutual friend who I’ve known for a while, Dave Wilson, who’s a photographer, he does a lot of music stuff. Yeah, so basically I just needed a bass player and he was in the studio the next day, and that was it. It was pretty instant. I’d done a lot of the music, made it myself, then put a band together around it and started playing.
And how did you hook up with Danny Greet? I remember Danny, I saw him in Leicester in a band in called The Vanishing Point. Great band. Now, he’s performing with you on this tour.
Again it was through mutual friends. It was pretty instant, I spoke to him a few times, he’s a good lad. We’d literally started playing with each other a few weeks ago. This is only the fourth show together. It seems to gel really well. We’ve both got a similar sense of humour, so all the basic personal things are sort of covered. And musically as well. We’re interested in similar things and he’s really open minded. So we just found it really easy.
You live in New York these days - what prompted the move there?
A lot of it was going out to the States; [Kasabian] had spent a lot of time out there which I enjoyed. And also personal reasons as well. It was a place that was kind of like the world in one place. When you travel sometimes you get that bug, and it’s hard to get settled in one place. New York has a strange kind of unsettled feeling about it where as at the same time you kind of just settle in...
There are these real distinct neighborhoods in New York but at the same time it is this mad place that seems always buzzing...
It’s always changing as well.
But you’re settled there now? You’re going to stay there?
Yeah yeah, for the foreseeable future.
How did you approach writing this music? Did you write a lot of it with Nick Forde, or did you already have the music ready?
I did a lot of it at home. It’s just kind of like, extreme passion, just sitting down and wanting to do it. And it’s always something you can switch on at any time because it’s something you love doing. A very similar way, methods and stuff, to what I’ve always done, which is try to get a bit of an idea or something and just keep building, keep building. Then, you walk away for a little bit and then you go back to it and finish it up. But you always have to step back.
Has relocating to the States impacted on how you create music now to what you did before?
I think it’s opened my mind a lot to a lot of things. America is such a diverse country. You go through the radio stations, which I do like to do, no matter what it is I try to listen to everything that’s going on. And I think being in New York obviously. A lot of Hip Hop influence gets into you, which I love. I think it has changed the way you look at music. I think it would if you moved almost anywhere. There’s always the things that you have that you keep from here, you know the sort of English style, or whatever that is. But yeah, it’s definitely enhanced it.
Your music is influenced by electro, a bit of a departure from what you created with Kasabian. Was that a direction you would have liked the band to go in? I mean, on the first album there is that electro element there, but there’s also that raw...
Yeah, that raw sort of...it was a bit of a hybrid, wasn’t it? I think so. I mean, I like to try and keep the traditional methods in it but I also like to keep things that are going on in contemporary times, and also try like to look a few weeks into the future too. So you got to mix all that in. In terms of electronic music I’ve always had a bit of a passion for it. There’s something about it; I’ll always go from that angle I think. It’s something that would have been nice to pursue, but, you know...*shrugs*
Your new album Desensitized was a long time coming. Why the wait?
I think, when I first got out there, I was experimenting quite a lot. I also decompressed a little bit. And I think, with any new band, you need some time to develop naturally. It’s something a lot of bands do not get. I’ve said this before in interviews but it’s something I feel strongly about.
You think they go too quickly?
Yeah. They sign, they’ll put a song out, it’ll be successful and then that’s it. And to get any band, whether it’s a pop band, whatever it is, it needs time to develop naturally, because if it doesn’t and it’s put out at the wrong time that’s it you know. You jump through the window, you fall to the floor and die, and that’s it.
That seems to be really common now. You have these bands that have a hit album, sells millions, and then they can’t sustain it. They’re dropped after like two albums. Do you think that’s a recent phenomenon? Is that something you’ve seen change from when you first started?
I’m sure it’s something that’s always existed. I think it’s something in the way we consume music as well. It’s probably gone towards that.
Everything is so instantaneous and disposable.
It’s instant gratification isn’t it? Like a disposable camera, you just throw it away. In some ways it’s kind of cool because it gives bands who never had that chance before to do that. But at the same time there are probably a lot of bands out there that may have shot way too early, that needed that time to develop. And even with Kasabian at that time, to develop naturally, I think that was a massive reason why it did as well as it did.
It’s true, even if the first album was quite successful, it wasn't like this...
It looks like it happens over night but it doesn’t.
You guys pounded the pavement for years, opening slots, not like this instantaneous kind of thing.
It’s the same that I want to do with this to be honest. Didn’t want to do anything or do whatever until it felt right.
Were you worried when this album came out that it would be compared with Kasabian?
I think it’s natural, you know? I’ve been asked this question a few times. I think it’s perfectly natural. A lot of people who have been exposed to what I’ve done, that’s all they’ve really been exposed to. So it’s quite natural that they’re going to be. And I did quite a lot of the music in the band, so a lot of the method and processes are going to be similar. I think it’s inevitable really and it doesn’t bother me.
What are the influences that went into the album? Was there a sort of message you wanted to put out, or a certain kind of tone you wanted to express? Did you have a coherent idea?
A theme? Yeah, there was a little bit. There’s sort of a dystopian soundtrack theme to it. It’s something that’s always interested me and I wanted to do. But I think because it was written over a period of years certain things would change. Sometimes certain moods, cultural changes and stuff like that. Just trying to be reflective of things going on in real life. Not always in the most obvious of ways. But living in the city, like ‘Adhd’, that's what goes through your head when you’re in the city sometimes. It’s just manic, it’s just everything going on. A lot of it was just sonic representation of what you’re seeing all around.
Was it a conscious decision on your part not to have a lead vocalist? Did you want to get away from the standard band format?
I did experiment in doing it in a conventional kind of way but I found it quite restrictive. I think, again with the development process of it, I think it developed into this kind of naturally, and also quite a certain necessity as well. I’m sort of really glad it did. To me especially, working with other people you learn a lot from those people. I think that will always stick with me.
So it’s a format you think you’ll stick with in the future?
I’d like to, yeah. It’s something I’d like to do, if the opportunity, or if it works, only if it works you know? If it’s not working out then...but fingers crossed.
Are you pleased with the response to the gig so far?
London was really quick. It was a bit of a drive by that one!
I like how it kind of started. The screen went up, and there you were. It’s such a beautiful venue too.
It’s fantastic. We got in there and it was such a rush, it was such a flash and before we knew it we were back on the road to Leicester. But the response was amazing, and the sound, and even on stage, I don’t think my feet ever touched the ground. It was amazing. Fantastic experience.
And you were in Leicester last night. Were you nervous about that?
Yeah, I was a bit nervous. Just that extra buzz, you know, when it’s your hometown. Definitely was an extra buzz. It just felt amazing to do it. Just when I came off just that, almost a sigh of relief because I’ve waited to do it for so long. So, just really happy with it. Couldn’t be happier.
Family in the audience?
Yeah, friends and family and a lot of faces I didn’t know, which is exactly what you want.
Is you family still in Leicester?
I got a lot of family there. I sort of have family kind of spread around the country, but most of them are from Leicester, so it’s a special place.
Speaking of Leicester, were you keeping up with their bid for the City of Culture? They lost to Hull!
Leicester’s turning it around I’m telling you! Every time I come back to it, it changes more and more. It’s a really nice...I mean it always was a nice place but it has that mixture of so many amazing old parts of it. And people under-credit it sometimes I find. It annoys me. It is a great place and the modern parts of it now are really cool.
It’s also got loads of post-industrial parts of it, it’s almost reminiscent of New York. Where we’ve been rehearsing, like the industrial bits, they’re kind of shit-holes in some ways (laughs). But in many ways it’s got colour and character. It is a city of culture.
It’s the 10th anniversary of the first album that you played a key role in...
Is it? (incredulous) 2014 yeah, it is!
It’s an album that hasn’t aged.
Yeah, that’s good, that’s good...
Is it a body of work you are still proud of?
Massively, yeah. Of course. I wouldn’t put anything out I wasn’t 100% confident or proud of. That’s really an important thing to me that. So, yeah, massively, massively proud of it. I think I always will be.
It’s the 10th anniversary, there’s the big homecoming gig at Victoria Park in June. Is that something you would have like to have been a part of? Or is that the past?
Yeah, I think it is you know? I don’t think they’d ever ask me to be involved again (laughs).
So you don’t keep in touch? Is it still a bit kind of...
No, it’s all water under the bridge. I don’t have no voodoo dolls or anything. It’s life, it happens, it happened. Fuck it, you do what you’re going to do now. That’s all that matters.
Where would you like to go with Black Onassis? What are your plans after the tour? Is it back to the States?
Back to the States! Yeah, back to the drawing board with like some more shows. Would love to get back over here again. Or even Europe. And I’ve sort of started writing a second record, so really want to get onto that. Once you’ve found your feet of what you’re doing and you really love it, I think it’s a good time to get on it and keep writing when the passion is high.
And you’re not going to wait another six years?
Nah, I don’t think so!
Desensitized is available to download from i-Tunes now