Battle-Scarred and Banged Up

Photo by Lara MontagneHelluva trooper, Chris Karn. Dude'll stay up till 5 a.m. working in his recording studio and still show up for an interview later in the day, being all apologetic if he seems a bit foofy-headed as he speaks.

Last month, his car was totaled in an accident on the 57, which leaves him tooling around in his dad's so-very-not-rock-&-roll Lincoln Town Car—Karn dubs it "the Republicanmobile." The air bags that face-punched him during the accident left him bruised with injuries from which he's still recovering. (Hey, Chris: just tell everyone you got hurt in the pit, maaan!) His dad got cancer this year; his wife lost her job; and his record label dropped him mostly because of weird, internal record-company politics—or maybe because Karn refused to lip-synch onstage during his dance moves.

"This has been the hardest year of my life," Karn says. Things got so bad for Karn he tragically wound up corrupting the innocent children to whom he had been giving guitar lessons, teaching at least one how to . . . play like Eddie Van Halen! But he quickly recognized his horrible mistake. "I had to step back and ask, 'What have I done?' I felt like I'd given the kid a beer or something."

Creatively, though, this may turn out to be one of Karn's best years. Atlantic Records not only spurned his band, Deccatree, but also handed him back the rights to his songs and the master recordings for the album they were supposed to put out—which never, ever happens, not even to much-bigger-named acts. Karn also got to keep the intended album's artwork and was free to put it out himself, which is just what he's done (samples from it can be heard at

Karn, you might recall, was once a part of Sonichrome and Standing Hawthorn, two OC bands that should've been mega. Sonichrome put out a brilliant pop/rock album on Capitol in 1998 called Breathe the Daylight, which unfortunately went nowhere (though it's absolutely worth hunting for in used-CD bins). We really do mean brilliant—every song, even the ballads and the untitled Crazy Horse-ish distortion orgy that closes it, was a stunning, ridiculously catchy, hook-rich piece of work. "Honey Please," the album's first single, got a tiny bit of radio airplay but nowhere near what it deserved. Six years later, it's still taking up a slot on our five-disc CD changer.

The Atlantic-spurned Deccatree album—Battle of Life, a title that by now has about as many meanings for Karn as notes that are played on it—is every bit as grand as the Sonichrome disc, soaked in Karn's brand of sinewy, Beatle-y pop; exquisitely layered arrangements; and succulent, stick-in-your-head riffs that much-larger, less-talented bands would pluck out their eyeballs for. It's gorgeous, uplifting music, an aural gumbo that often masks Karn's deeply personal lyrics about his wife, his dad and random bouts of inner turmoil—emotions that all gel together in the closing title track.

"The Battle of Life isn't just about my life—it's about my dad's life, my wife's life, about my artist friends and club-owner friends trying to keep their dreams alive," Karn explains. Cut in his Mission Viejo home studio just a couple of miles from where he grew up—a studio he built with his Sonichrome advance money—Karn and Deccatree will celebrate the album's long-percolating release Friday at the Gypsy Lounge, Lake Forest's home away from home for many local musicians.

Karn has also been using his studio to record other area talent such as Rocco DeLuca and Brett Bixby, who'll share the Friday bill. "It's a great place to record because nobody will bother you. I can stay up all night working and not have to worry about hourly studio fees. And now I also don't have to worry about battling a producer or an engineer or even a label—I can do anything."

A shitty year couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.



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