Saturday, June 13, 2015

FEATURE - Anchors Away: Karina Denike's New Life 'Under Glass'

Photo by Lauren Klein

For San Francisco Bay Area music mainstay Karina Denike, 2015 has been a time of new beginnings. Best known as the co-lead singer for '90s Ska/Punk outfit Dance Hall Crashers (DHC), the British-born songstress has finally stepped out on her own with Under Glass, her extraordinary debut solo album.

After more than two decades as a regularly performing and recording artist, Denike felt the time was right to experiment with writing songs on her own without outside comments or collaborative opinions.

“It took a long time, partly just because I wasn't feeling so desperately like I needed to do it,” she says of the experience. “But I'm really excited and thrilled to finally make it something that's come out as my own piece. It does feel like the right time.”

Fueled by Denike's soulful voice (which at times reminds one of the sorely missed Amy Winehouse), Under Glass showcases an exciting array of music created using the chord organ, vibraphone and bass clarinet alongside more traditional “Rock” instruments. The tracks soar thanks to the contributions of some of the Bay Area’s finest musicians and composers: Aaron Novik (Tzadik Records, PortoFranco Records), Michael McIntosh (Ralph Carney's Serious Jass Project, the Cottontails), James Frazier, Eric Garland (Mads Tolling, Donavon) and Lily Taylor (Pour Le Corps Records). The album also highlights guests including Deston Berry and Alex Dessert (Hepcat), Ralph Carney (Tom Waits/B-52's), Brigid Dawson (Thee Oh Sees), Ara Anderson (Tin Hat, OK Go) and Meric Long (The Dodos). According to Denike, the album's eclectic flavor developed organically as the record took shape.

“It wasn't like a very clear decision to make a specific kind of record; it just came from what was woking through me as a writer,” she explains. “Also, the ensemble that I work with has pretty specific instrumentation, so that kind of has some limitations within how I hear the band working those songs... All of those elements definitely shaped the sound a lot, but it wasn't a clear vision that this record had to sound a certain way or anything like that.

“I've been influenced by a lot of different kinds of music; I've obviously listened to a lot of different styles,” she continues. “Narrowing that down seemed a little bit daunting to me, like, 'Should I do a Soul record or a Jazz record or a Punk record?' I felt like maybe it wouldn't all work together. So in my writing process, I've been influenced by a lot of different things, and I thought that maybe it wouldn't really come together in a cohesive way, but as I did start writing and as we were performing these songs live, it seemed to work great – and then it worked as a record that way. You don't really know what you're going to write sometimes; it just happens and then you sort of sit back and go, 'Okay, well there it is! That's what I came up with, so let's see what we can do with it.'”

Under Glass' completion was made possible through a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $16,000.

“I had already started working on the record, and it was just taking a long time,” Denike recalls. “It became a bigger feat than I expected. We were doing it and it was great, but it was taking a while to fund it because I was doing it all myself, even though there's about 15 people on the record. Getting everything where I wanted was taking a little bit of time and it was costing a lot, so we did the Kickstarter to get to the end of the line and make the process come to fruition.”

Like a growing number of veteran artists, Denike sees the advantages of using crowdfunding to build an album.

“I got to make the record I wanted to make; I had no pressure from a label saying, 'This doesn't fit into a certain genre,'” she says. “That was definitely something that could be a drag, when you deal with certain labels that have a certain style. This allowed me a ton of freedom; in some ways, having no pressure to try to appease anybody was wonderful. But doing it on your own is a lot of fucking work. (laughs) It's not that fun all the time.”

Thankfully, the commitment paid off. An absolutely stunning record, Under Glass shines brightest on “Anchors Away,” a gorgeous ballad highlighted by the expert use of the chord organ and bass clarinet.

“I was going through a relationship breakup, so it was sort of this feeling of being let loose into the ocean,” Denike says with a laugh. “[It was like] these are the wonderful things that I was counting on, and now I'm lost a bit. Musically, I feel like [the song] is definitely influenced by San Francisco and by the ocean, the foghorns and the environment of being in an older city. It had a lot of visuals to me when I was writing it.

“I wanted to make a sort of sea shanty/drunken sailor-type of song, influenced by Jacques Brel's 'Port of Amsterdam' and the like,” she adds. “I start 'Anchors Away' with the fog horn-sounding bass clarinet parts, but also the chord organ, which to me has a sort of messed-up drunken sound. It's a little out of tune and quirky. It reminds me of French cafe music, Edith Piaf, torch songs or sea shanties. There are some references to drinking in the song – among other things – and they all sort of tie together to me to create a picture in my mind of this ocean tale.”

The album's somber closing number, “Až Budeš Velký,” finds Denike singing a lullaby in her first language, Czech. It also serves as a tribute to her parents' roots in the Czech Republic. 

“That's a song that my mom used to sing to me when I was little,” she explains. “The melody is just so beautiful... I think it really inspired me as a musician just hearing these kind of dark and beautiful melodies, and it changes keys in this really beautiful way. Because there are a lot of ocean themes on this record, it felt like a really perfect part of it. The lyrics are about a woman singing to her child, saying, 'Your father's away on a boat. One day, when you grow up, you will be sailor and you will follow his path.' It's actually really kind of depressing, sad and dark. I just felt [it] was musically and lyrically cohesive with the album, and I just love that piece.

“The Czech lullaby is also funny to me, as the lyrics are so much about the ocean and sailors leaving home, yet the Czech Republic is surrounded by land,” she adds. “It's all fantasy, and I have no idea where the sailors in the story come from since they really have no sailors in the Czech Republic! (laughs)”

Born in Cambridge, England, Denike spent her early life performing street theatre throughout Europe, Northern Africa and India alongside her mother and siblings.

“My mom is kind of an insanely independent, crazy woman,” she recalls. “Not bad crazy – she just had a lot of really creative ideas. We were living in England, and she was a single mom with three kids. She just decided that she didn't want to be a boring housewife, so she bought a van and built beds in the back, and we got some crazy outfits...We'd travel through Europe playing street theatre to make money. We ended up in Morocco for a while, and North Africa. We moved to India for a while. We just had a couple of crazy years within my childhood where we just did a lot of exploring and [had] a lot of adventures. She didn't want to be sitting [and] watching TV every night in Cambridge and being bored, so that was her way of doing that. It was amazing; we learned lots of different languages and amazing cultures. We explored so many fascinating parts of life that I would have never experienced or known anything about. It made such an impact on my life.”

Naturally, Denike's early experience on the road proved to be great training for when she toured with Dance Hall Crashers years later.

“It was not very difficult for me to tour, and it was very difficult for a lot of people,” she offers. “I didn't get it; I thought, 'Why is everybody whining so much? So you were up late? So you're driving? So it's hard that you're not sleeping in your bed? Shut up!' (laughs) It felt very easy for me to just travel like that. In some ways, it was a little more glamorous than what I had done as a kid. We had been in India and Morocco, which is pretty brutal. You see poverty on a level that you... It's quite a shock when you're a Westerner to see that. It really prepared me for touring in a way that made it easy for me. Over long periods of time, it does get exhausting in other ways. You miss your loved ones at home, your pets and a million other things, but it didn't feel uncomfortable for me.”

Photo by Faye Chao

When Denike was 12, her family settled in Oakland, California. For the first time in her whirlwind early life, she felt at home.

“I always felt a little bit like an outsider [in Cambridge], even though it was my home and I identified with being English,” she admits. “But when we moved to the Bay Area, there were so many different cultures and different kinds of people here. I was getting schooled by these amazing Oakley musicians like Jon Hendricks and Sugar Pie DeSanto and these amazing Soul musicians from the Bay Area. We felt really at home; we were just in the middle of a bunch of really interesting people. I didn't feel like I stood out, so it felt really comfortable. There's some history here with San Francisco; as a European, it feels more comfortable [to me] than being in a very modern city.”

Denike was also fortunate to live in the area during the heyday of legendary Punk venue 924 Gilman St.

“Gilman is such a unique place; it started so many bands with people who I'm still friends with and are still performing and successful,” she says. “They've taken this kind of kids' DIY, Punk Rock ethic out to the larger world. It was really fun. It was an amazing time. In some ways, we felt like we were experiencing this new incredible thing, but I don't think many people would have expected that it would have this kind of longterm legacy. It just felt like a fantastically cool Punk Rock club. We all got to go there, and it was all ages and you got to be yourself, experience amazing music and be part of this fantastic scene. But I don't think people realized quite how much of a legacy it would end up being.”

It was during Denike's days at Gilman that she hooked up with Dance Hall Crashers, a band initially formed in 1989 by future Rancid members singer/guitarist Tim Armstrong and bassist Matt Freeman following the breakup of their previous band, Operation Ivy. Although the pair's involvement in the group was brief, the band eventually settled on a lineup fronted by Denike and singer Elyse Rogers. In 1995, the band's popularity in the burgeoning scene led to a deal with (510) Records, an imprint of major label MCA. While the deal resulted in greater exposure for the group, Denike says that the move wasn't without controversy. Like many former indie acts who signed on the dotted line with a major, Dance Hall Crashers met their fair share of pushback from certain factions of their audience. Looking back at the situation (especially now, a time when labels – both indie and major – barely exist), the singer still wonders what all the fuss was about.

“There was definitely some backlash by certain groups of people that felt like we were selling out,” she remembers. “I always felt that was really stupid for a bunch of reasons. First of all, we didn't get some huge advance. Some people did, but we didn't. But the bigger reason I thought that was so stupid was because so many of the bands that people absolutely loves and looked up to – from The Ramones to The Specials, from New Wave to Punk Rock – were on major labels. How else would [people] have heard them? It was such a ridiculous thing to me. Also, I actually grew up around the Punk scene in England before I moved to the States. I always thought American Punk Rock was a little bit silly for a little while. I felt like, 'Wow! You guys have it really nice here! I lived in a housing estate in England with people who were squatting, and you guys are from nice families and wear Gap clothing. You eat at McDonald's and drink Coca-Cola, and these are much worse corporations than a major label that's just trying to create records and sell them to the public. Yeah, they're making some money off of it, but it's a lot better than making money off of killing rainforests and [having] child labor.'”

Despite Dance Hall Crashers' success, nothing has been seen or heard from the group since the 2005 Live at the House of Blues DVD. Will fans ever experience the band on stage or on record again?

“We probably won't do anything else, but we're not going to say that that's definitely the case,” Denike reveals. “You never know; we may decide to do things. There's a few things that we never quite finished that we may get back to at one point or another. At the moment, everybody's mostly involved in their own things; everybody's doing cool things on their own. I kind of doubt something will happen anytime soon, but it may.”

Away from her solo endeavors, Denike regularly devotes herself to assisting friends with their creative endeavors. She contributed vocals and vocal production to Home Street Home, the “sHit Musical” written by Fat Mike of NOFX, while also finding time to serve as guest music director for Undercover Presents' 2013 rendition of Bob Dylan's Highway '61 Revisited. The five-year-old Undercover Presents is a Bay Area-based collective of artists carrying out the incredibly exciting mission of reinterpreting various classic albums from start to finish. In addition to overseeing the project, Denike delivered her own fascinating take on “Ballad Of A Thin Man.”

“I just love that song; it's so good,” she says. “It was such a fun thing to do. Also, it fit in with having been in a situation where I had been misquoted many times in the press in my Dance Hall Crashers days. You just always feel like maybe someone didn't get what you were trying to say, so that particular song was really fun!”

Denike's long-running association with Underground Presents will continue on August 13 and 16 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, where she will be among the artists performing reinterpretations of Amy Winehouse music. More information on these can't-miss events is available here. Beyond that, Denike is planning an east coast tour for late August/early September.

Twenty-five years after her first album with Dance Hall Crashers, Karina Denike is creating exhilarating music close to her heart, longtime home and family history. If you're a longtime DHC fans or simply want to experience one of the most sophisticated songwriters performing today, order Under Glass here.

Photo by Joe Pichard


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