The Six Parts Seven:

A Conversation with Allen Karpinski

Words: Zach Braner
November 6, 2022

When The Six Parts Seven recorded their first album in 1997, lead songwriter Allen Karpinski had only been playing guitar for six months. The resulting album …In Lines and Patterns was a delicate, midtempo meditation on what rock could say without raising its voice.

Allen’s lead guitar draws wistful fingerpicked melodies filled in across several others: rhythm guitar, bass, viola, lap-steel, and his brother Jay on drums. Though individually simple, these chords mounted to subdued, lingering emotions, like an old keepsake that’s been with you through rough times. In fact, the album had no vocals at all—a decision that would define the band’s place in indie rock for the next decade.

The Six Parts Seven emerged, worked, and toured with bands who became the era’s indie/alt rock flag-bearers—Clarissa’s Wierd (now Band of Horses), Modest Mouse, The Black Keys, and Iron & Wine—but never strayed from their own quest for perfection. Across twelve years and five albums, they honed their intricate compositions into ever more precise shades of melancholy, reaching a critical and commercial peak with 2004’s Everything and Right Here. After releasing Casually Smashed to Pieces in 2007, the band quietly went on permanent hiatus. Their debut album, which originally came out in 1998 on hardcore independent label Donut Friends, was first made available to stream in September of this year as part of an ongoing re-release of early material by their current label Suicide Squeeze.

I spoke to Allen over the phone about the making of the first record and the band’s early days, his response bearing a preliminary mission statement:

“I can say this about 6p7: those songs were written for a person, whomever, just laying on their bed with the lights off, just fucking thinking about shit and trying to make sense out of shit.”

The small town surrounding Kent State University, where all the members of 6p7 met, was a sleeper cell for the 90s underground rock boom, and Donut Friends (run by Jamie Stillman of Party of Helicopters) was its center. Nirvana and My Bloody Valentine had broken through worldwide, and Donut Friends was unleashing upon the world a Kent-grown response fashioned from punk, metal, and shoegaze—and the Six Parts Seven. “It was all bands with Marshall stacks playing super loud,” Allen says of the concert scene, relegated to union halls and broken-down houses. “No PAs, or maybe a PA where you could barely hear the vocals. That’s where Six Parts Seven started, in kind of a punk rock scene, and as a band that was a reaction to punk rock: We had friends in that scene, and we just decided that the most punk rock thing to do was play quiet music.”

It was a ricochet bubbling up throughout the country, part of a movement critic Simon Reynolds in 1995 deemed “post-rock,” which meant, to him “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and power chords.”

The Chicago jazz-inflected sojourns of Tortoise and hymnal riffs of Louisville’s Slint marked a third way for American guitar music in the early 90s, rejecting the back-to-basics ferocity of punk or grunge as well as the nervy New Wave sound of ‘art rock’. Drawing from the Velvet Underground’s droning chords and Brian Eno’s ambient mindscapes, American bands—in line with British groups like Talk Talk, Stereolab, and Seefeel—were using rock to explore vast new terrains of musical possibility.

“Of course we’d heard Slint, we’d heard the first Tortoise record. Those things were influences, but we just tried to do it in our own way. The idea was to do less. The scene we were coming from, like I said, there was a lot of sound, a lot of loud sound—our thought was to quiet that sound, to let the spaces breathe.”

      On …In Lines and Patterns, The Six Parts Seven stake out their vision for one of rock’s afterlives: impersonal, daunting abstraction combined with yearning Americana. The record’s title and cover set the tone for a scholastic or Talmudic song cycle (though the band cites the ancient Chinese poet Li Bai and philosopher Zhuang Zho as influences). The heady song titles, like “There is No There,” “(The Nature of) Any Real Moment,” and “Simplicity is Almost Enough” explicitly outline the metaphysical ambitions of the music, and the songs move with a certain classical poise that echoes the pure complexity worship of other post-rock strains. But the texture of the music itself is warm and familiar—the lap-steel whines sweet, mournful notes and the viola lends the image of a folksy gathering to the pristine recording. The songs build and gently break, but stop short of ever declaring their emotional subtext outright. They hint at sentiments and dwell in the suggestion—not trying to make you cry, for instance, but giving you sufficient runway to get there on your own. The intricate interplay of the guitar and drums architect a rich, deep space for feeling and the homely touches invite the listener in.

      In a 2003 interview Allen fielded a question about not having vocals by answering, “Lyrics are kinda fascist.” Now, he revisits this with a less adamant stance, though remains committed to ‘listener freedom.’

“I think that was maybe my punk rock phase. I’d say anything to get a reaction. The fascists I grew up with were the buddhist skinheads at shows in the 80s, who fucking tried to kick people’s asses.

The only indication in any of our songs as to where they go is the song title, and the song titles aren’t always accurate or easily defined as one thing. It is open to interpretation, it is meant to guide the listener, so that the listener creates the music. The listener always finishes the music. No matter what the musician’s intention is, it’s always up to the listener in the end.”

      …In Lines and Patterns established The Six Parts Seven’s open-ended sound, but also set the precedent for how the band were to operate. This included a core pair of guitars (usually Tim Gerak and Allen himself), drums (Allen’s brother Jay), and bass, supplemented usually by way of viola or lap-steel. Allen’s always been at the center of the shifting lineup, and his guitar melodies form the nucleus of each song, telling me that

“That core group has kind of moved through the time of the albums and added other players to it, and those players kind of bring out the whole sound of the band.

The tunes were basically written in private places, I’d just pick up the guitar and I’d work on things. We got together on the weekend, and whatever shit I had together I’d present it to the other dudes and we’d just hash through it, try to make a song out of it. And then the next week I’d spend all week refining the parts that I wrote and then I’d bring it back to them again and then we’d have a song eventually. It’s a simple matter of trying, trying, and trying again.”

This dedication and endless craft of refinement became the band’s guiding force. As Allen puts it, the music bore witness to their journey from “amateurs to… informed amateurs.” No matter how complex their music became, The Six Parts Seven proudly upheld the DIY ethos of the punk scene they came from—and this, to Allen, is their worthiest legacy.

“On that album you can hear us learning how to play together, you can hear the stuff that’s out of tune, you can hear the hits that are missed. We could’ve corrected all that stuff of course, because the technology exists now, but we didn’t want to. We just wanted to leave it that way so people could hear how we moved from that album to our last album, and maybe take a cue from it, you know, like: this isn’t that hard to do. Music, you know, you can do it, anybody can do it. But you have to be committed to your idea.”

         On cross-country tours where they played fewer clubs than art galleries, The Six Parts Seven deepened their commitment to authenticity. While recording …In Lines and Patterns, the band was selected to open for Modest Mouse in Cleveland: “That was monumental for us, and one of the things that kept the band going throughout the years,” Allen says. “It’s an interesting thing about music, and with writing or any other creative pursuit—when you run into like-minded people, your fuel just gets ignited to another level, and sometimes that can continue on for years and years as inspiration.” The band would work with Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse on a track for 2003 remix album Lost Notes from Forgotten Songs, which paired Six Parts Seven instrumentals with vocals from indie luminaries. But to get there the band still had to find their rhythm.

“On …In Lines and Patterns we were still just striving; in the second album still just striving: the whole thing is just striving,” Allen says. “But Things Shaped in Passing is where we start to get that classical feel right.” Songs from that 2002 record were used as transition music for NPR’s All Things Considered, which called it “a great dreamy guitar record” and attributed it to “an unknown group from Ohio.”  Pitchfork gave the album a 7.8, saying “There's something very personal about the music, something evocative in the simplicity that invites closeness. It's really quite stunning.” The sound is immediately recognizable as The Six Parts Seven, but the songs manage to seal themselves off from the world and fully create their own, traced by the water-droplet clarity of Allen’s guitar through a web of electronic textures.

“The thing that’s different is the tempo is always in flux. If you listen to the Six Parts Seven, part of it, what gives the feeling, even though there’s a lot of spareness, is there are weird energy builds. Each measure, the count from 1 to 4, it kind of builds up and then it drops down, and it kind of builds up, and it always has its ebb and flow. Nothing is perfectly fitting, like on a click track. The whole thing--I can’t explain--it’s more oceanic. It’s more like you’re sitting in a boat when you’re listening to this music by yourself, and just floating around.”

      As The Six Parts Seven were achieving new creative heights, though, the genre they were associated with became a burden: post-rock, far from Simon Reynold’s expansive definition, had come to mean primarily grand, operatic rock such as Mogwai, Godspeeed You! Black Emperor, and Explosions in the Sky. Impressive as it was, their theatrics soon became unbearably pompous to critics and audiences; by the early 2000s, categorizing a band as post-rock was an insult. The Six Parts Seven were stuck with it. “I used to have strong feelings about it; I guess I don’t anymore. I mean, it is what it is, you get labeled whatever you’re labeled,” Allen says. But at the time, being lumped in with every rock group that had no vocals grated.

“I hated being compared to that stuff because we were about playing the note and leaving the space in between so you can put your own sense into it. That is not what those bands were about; they’re about their own thing and I’m not trying to take away from them, but this is a different thing.”

Simon Reynolds himself agreed—he doesn’t consider those groups post-rock in its original sense, as the field of non-conventional sound produced with rock instruments. He calls them “high-drama instrumental rock.” It’s a distinction that, while worth making, makes Allen’s current agnosticism out as the wisest perspective on labels in the roiling bog of commercial music. But something post-rock certainly does share with the conventional rock protest genres like punk, grunge, and metal is its appeal to outsiders. Like anyone who has ever pushed music’s boundaries, Allen found his own way to the fringes.

“I’ve just always been sort of an outcast, and a person that other people didn’t necessarily talk to because I was seen as different, and I think a lot of the music came from the isolation that I faced throughout most of the beginnings of my life. I only pushed through that by finding scenes like music, and before that the skateboarding scene, which has always been a life’s blood. Those have always been the places that I found co-conspirators.

I liked books first, then I liked skateboards, then I liked music. That’s the story of my life, and I like all three now.”

The band made a lot of music—five full length albums, a remix album, and a split EP with the Black Keys—but to Allen, they never quite fulfilled their mandate. “It is a proper trajectory, but there should have been another album at least or another two to complete the process. I don’t think it’s finished; I don’t think it’ll ever be finished, but that’s okay.” It’s okay because this is a band about becoming rather than being. “Look at the song titles, they’re all about understanding how to be on your own and be okay,” Allen says. Try “Seems Like Most Everything Used to Be Something Else,” from Things Shaped in Passing. Or “What You Love You Must Love Now,” from Everywhere and Right Here. “Hasn’t COVID given us a chance to try that and maybe fail and try it again?”, Allen says. Fourteen years after the Six Parts Seven’s last album, Allen Karpinski is still striving.

He and most of the old band members are working on new material, and he has a new project—Time Pieces—that released their first album, Boundary Problems, in September.






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