Beloved local musician and coffee shop owner steps out from behind the kit and the counter on divinely driven '2015'
Columbus ex-pat Tim Easton once fronted the Haynes Boys, a band that dropped a self-titled alt-country classic in 1996 and then never released another album. In the years since, Easton pursued a solo career, and Haynes Boys drummer Jovan Karcic went on to play in a string of revered Columbus bands: Gaunt, Burn Barrel, Scrawl, the Black Swans and more.
In 2015, the Haynes Boys re-released its sole album on vinyl, and in the months leading up to the release there was talk of a band reunion to celebrate the reissue. Karcic, though, wasn't convinced. He didn't want to live in the past. If the band wanted to write and play something new, then sure. But a reunion that only rehashed old material? It wasn't appealing.
Still, Karcic didn't want to let down his bandmates and friends, especially those who were traveling long distances to make the reunion happen. Eventually he relented. And so, on the last weekend of June in 2015, the Haynes Boys reunited for two Columbus shows — one at Ace of Cups, one at ComFest.
“I had a bad feeling about it beforehand. I called it a Civil War reenactment,” Karcic said on a recent evening at his cozy Clintonville coffee shop, Yeah, Me Too. “The shows and the actual playing were fine. Music is awesome, and it heals. But then afterward I felt dirty: Am I just a nostalgia act now? Is this who I am?”
On July 23, 2015, he decided to channel his anger and frustration into something creative. “With the money that I made from [the reissue], I went to the music store with my kid, who was 2 years old at the time, and bought a MIDI controller,” Karcic said, pulling out an instrument that looks like a squat keyboard with extra knobs and buttons. “You press on the keys, and it sends this information out of this cable into that computer and triggers a flipping multitude of sounds. It's without limits.”
The idea of unlimited sounds was a head-exploding thought for someone who, as a kid, used to attempt multitrack recording with two cassette decks. Later, he graduated to a four-track recorder. In the '90s, Karcic's buddies jokingly dubbed their cheaply recorded, lo-fi songs “the sound of poverty.” In fact, a 1994 compilation of singles by local Anyway Records bands (Gaunt, Greenhorn, New Bomb Turks) was titled The Sound of Poverty.
But this new piece of gear was different. “I called it the sound of freedom,” Karcic said. “It was really exciting. I had never used MIDI. I'm from rock and roll. I'm used to playing guitars and drums. When this technology first started coming around in the '80s, I totally didn't like it.”
Years removed from his punk-rock days in Gaunt, Karcic heard these synthesized sounds in a new light, and he liked it. On July 24 he began writing and recording music for a solo album, 2015, out now on Scioto Records.
“The project had, and still has, this momentum. From the beginning until now there's been this pull. I always say stuff like, ‘the universe,' but you can call it whatever you want. You can call it God, providence. I truly feel like there's been a hand,” he said. “It was, for some reason, meant to be.”***
Yeah, Me Too is a tiny, unassuming coffee shop on Indianola Avenue, tucked into a strip of retailers bookended by movie house Studio 35 to the north and beer shop Savor Growl to the south. Even with “COFFEE” spelled out across the top windows, it's easy to miss at first glance. You can't call to check on the shop's hours because there's no phone, and you can't look it up online because there's no website. There's a coffee roaster to the left and a small ledge mounted on a brightly colored wall to the right, but no seats. It's the definition of a no-frills, DIY shop.
For the last 10 years, I've stopped in semi-regularly for coffee at Yeah, Me Too, which gets its moniker from the 1995 Gaunt album of the same name. There's a simple, predictable cadence to the experience. Ever since Karcic's former business partner, Sam Brown, bowed out about six years ago, it's just Karcic behind the counter (Brown also played in Gaunt and has kept busy gigging in bands like Operators and Divine Fits). Usually I'd order a cup of French-press coffee in one of two sizes, maybe a bag of freshly roasted, aromatic beans to go with it, and I'd ask Karcic how his day was going, knowing exactly how he'd answer.
“I accept it,” he'd say, sounding Zen because he'd thought about it and meant it, not because a yoga teacher told him to. Karcic is purposeful in his actions and choices. If you catch a smile and a glint in his eye, it's the real thing, not a forced attempt at customer service.
Karcic is inordinately good at gratefully accepting his circumstances while also looking forward with creative restlessness. In July of 2015, he often had his then-2-year-old daughter with him in the shop, but for three days a week his mother-in-law watched her, and on those days Karcic would sit in a chair behind the coffee shop counter and work on music.
“When you walk in the door, you can't see me, or maybe you saw my head, but then the door opens and I pop up,” Karcic said. “There were a few people that knew what I was doing, but for the most part it was in secret. I tried to keep it all out of view, but sometimes a cord would be out. There was a lady that lived [nearby] who definitely busted me a couple times.”
The process for 2015 was distinctly different from his first two solo albums, 2010 and 2011, which he made at home with an eight-track recorder. For this one, Karcic used the MIDI keyboard and a laptop to make 55 musical beds between July and December of 2015, then switched gears to lyrics, working to get a direct stream of thoughts from his head to his notebook.
Next, Karcic listened to the music he recorded while looking through his notebook, and he started to notice certain words lining up with certain recordings. “When you get your microphone out and start singing the lyrics over the music, suddenly the skeleton of the song has muscles on it,” he said. “It starts to feel more of a piece.”
The process wasn't without hiccups. Sometimes the noisy refrigerator would sully a vocal take or a customer would come in at just the wrong time. “I kind of learned to love it, just because there was so much positive happening that anything that distracted from it, it wasn't enough to kill the buzz,” Karcic said. “It was a joy to wake up in the morning because I wanted to come to work, and also I got to do this in between customers.”
Along the way, some of those customers, like Sharon Udoh, became integral parts of the album. “I was trying to find a morning coffee routine on my way to work, and I remembered Yeah, Me Too and stopped in,” said Udoh, who performs as Counterfeit Madison. “I kept coming in. This dude with the most beautiful hair and wildest eyes became part of my regular morning routine. ... It's also some of the best coffee I've ever tasted in my life.”
Udoh knew Karcic from his drumming in Alwood Sisters, a band he shares with his wife (Amy Alwood), brother (Milan Karcic) and sister-in-law (Meagan Alwood-Karcic). But as she continued to pop into the shop she saw musicians like multi-instrumentalist Lisa Bella Donna and drummer Keith Hanlon, the house engineer at Musicol Recording and force behind Scioto Records.
“I began to understand that this man had this beautiful power and network of people drawn to his beauty,” Udoh said. “This dude is magic!”
Karcic, in turn, believed these talented musicians were in his life for a reason. Soon enough, Hanlon was recording Karcic's vocals and other tracks at Musicol and releasing 2015 on Scioto Records. Udoh signed on to contribute vocals (along with the Alwood Sisters) and Lisa Bella Donna lent her talents on Mellotron, Polymoog, guitar and more. Karcic's brother Milan also plays guitar, and nationally renowned harpist Mary Lattimore recorded parts for the song “Gambler's Dream.”
Looking back, Karcic also sees the hand of the universe at work in a mundane trip to the library. “I went looking for Piano for Dummies and ended up finding it, but alongside it in the music section there was a biography on Prince I'd never read,” said Karcic, who grabbed the book by Matt Thorne. “I start reading the book on Prince, and Brent Fischer's name keeps coming up, and I'm like, ‘Let's try to get him.'”
Hanlon reached out to Fischer, a composer and arranger, who agreed to write an arrangement for closing track “Shadow and Echo.” Fischer then recorded a 14-piece orchestra in Hollywood. When he sent the tracks, it was a pinch-me moment for both Hanlon and Karcic.
Hanlon helped Karcic whittle 2015 down to 11 songs that tell a story. “I felt like he wanted something more personal,” Hanlon said. “He seemed to be writing about himself more.”
“There's an arc to 2015,” Karcic said. “There's a hill right in the middle of the album — the long song [‘Feet on the Ground'] with all the classical instruments on it. The past is side A, and Side B is the crest of the hill. … Once you're over the hill, which I am, you can't see what's behind you.”
Still, Karcic is sometimes wistful about the past. On side A track “Larry's,” he recalls the quirky campus bar. “There was pinball and pool and poetry … The tabletops are carved with history's initials,” he sings amid a wash of electronic beats and synthesized strings, concluding: “This crazy place changed so many lives.”
Karcic similarly acknowledges how his musical past is inseparable from this record, even if it sounds nothing like those projects. “No one would care about this album except for the fact that I played with these amazing songwriters like Marcy Mays and Sue Harshe [of Scrawl], Jerry [Wick of Gaunt], Jerry DeCicca [of the Black Swans],” he said. “I wouldn't be the same person. I wouldn't have the same skills. I've learned so much over the years just being in the same room as those people.”
On side B track “Deal an Ace,” Karcic takes a less-nostalgic approach to the past, singing, “Damn the dark days of my youth.”
“It's my first being-a-dad song,” Karcic said. “It's like, oh, this is what life is like when you have a kid? This is pretty awesome. If I could contrast this with back then, that doesn't even compare.”
Karcic's current life also looks quite different from his 2015 existence. He now has two kids, and at least one of them is always in the shop. It's tougher to find time to write and record. But Karcic is chipping away at the next album, 2016. “If I reach my goal before I die, I'll have 10 solo albums,” he said.
Chances are 2016 won't closely resemble 2015. Karcic's aim is to continually grow and change, and making 2015 has helped him do just that. “As a result of this album, I feel like I'm slightly more opened up than I was,” he said. “I'm starting to recognize that I was born shy. I was born introverted. I was born the way that I am. But I feel like there are some cracks now.”***
As a bonus, Alive is also premiering Jovan Karcic's video for “King,” the first track off 2015.