by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2016 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
It's the first night of Bent Knee's 2016 tour in support of its new album Say So. It’s kicking off with a show two hours away from its Boston hometown in Northampton, Mass. at The One Bar. The 75 attendees, mostly in their twenties, are leaping up and down to the music. Many in the front know every lyric by heart and routinely join in on the choruses. The rest of the crowd is fully immersed in the band’s dynamic contrasts and passionate stage presence.
Lead singer Courtney Swain’s acrobatic, multi-octave vocals are immediately arresting. Guitarist Ben Levin morphs between spectral melodicism and extreme, dissonant sonics—sometimes within a single verse or passage. Bassist Jessica Kion and drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth deliver deep, thunderous grooves, full of engaging, intriguing ornamentation. Violinist Chris Baum’s driving overlays and atmospheres further take the band’s sound into wild territory. And all of it is processed in real-time to emphasize the right details at the right moment by sound designer and producer Vince Welch.
After two self-released recordings, Say So is Bent Knee’s label debut on Cuneiform Records, the venerable, uncompromising independent label. The world has started taking serious notice of the group’s seamless meshing of rock, pop and the avant-garde. It began gaining serious traction with its second album, 2014’s Shiny Eyed Babies. That release and Say So both find the band striking a rare balance between the adventurous and accessible.
Bent Knee’s music explores dark subject matter, focusing on the emergence of personal demons, unwanted situations and the difficulty of conquering them. Yet, when they perform the material live, the show is full of energy and humor. The band possesses a real physical presence, interacting with one another viscerally, creating a communal vibe that’s hard to resist.
One might think a newly-signed band with a record deal on a prestigious label means touring becomes a less challenging experience, but in actuality, that’s anything but the case. Everyone in Bent Knee lives lean as they travel across the U.S. and abroad. There’s no room for extravagance on the road. They travel in a Honda Odyssey mini-van, driving coast-to-coast without a crew, even as the gigs get progressively larger.
Living in each other’s pockets means tensions sometimes flare up, but they’re all close friends and fearless about calling each other out when attitudes get out of line. Each member has a zany streak and is fair game for gentle, and occasionally, brutal mockery. It’s how they process the absurdity of touring, including bad food, lack of sleep, shifty music business people, and endless hours driving packed together in close quarters.
Day two of the Say So tour took place at Ralph’s Rock Diner in Worcester, Mass. and was a significant contrast from the college crowd the night before. With a blue collar audience in attendance at a multi-band gig, including cover acts relying largely on Bowie, Stones and Prince material, Bent Knee had its work cut out for it. An initial air of ambivalence rapidly transformed into genuine engagement with the audience moving closer and closer to the stage as the set evolved. They voted with their dollars afterwards, buying more merchandise than those at the previous show. “You never know who’s out there listening,” said Kion. “We’re trying to win each and every person over. Sometimes shows that feel like the biggest struggle turn out to be the ones we sell the most stuff at.”
The final gig of Innerviews’ Bent Knee road trip was at the Hi-Hat in Lowell, Mass., located in a multimedia arts venue that used to be a textile mill. Ten minutes before the show, there were a handful of people in the audience. Everyone assumed the gig was a bust. Strangely, dozens started flowing through the doors five minutes before the band took the stage, transforming the concert into the biggest of the three. “Must be a Lowell thing,” quipped Baum afterwards.
The all-ages event brought out people from many demographics, including kids in their teens, right through baby boomers who have taken notice of the band as its media profile expands. The group was pleased, witnessing how the new material positively resonated across generations, signifying the potential for the journey ahead.
Over three packed nights on the road, Innerviews spoke to Bent Knee about its origins and current momentum.
Tell me how the band first came together.
Levin: Vince and I first met at the Berklee College of Music in 2005, where we were roommates. I also initially met Courtney at Berklee in 2009, where we started writing together. The three of us got together and recorded one of the songs Courtney and I had written titled “Styrofoam Heart.” We did it for one of Vince’s school projects. We liked the results so much that we decided to form a live band to play it. It was originally an electronic music collaboration along the lines of Portishead. After working with some other people, Chris, Gavin and Jessica joined the group between 2010 and 2011 and that’s when it became a band that mattered. It was clear pretty quickly that we had a special chemistry. We rapidly started touring as Bent Knee.
Describe each of your perspectives on the band’s mission.
Welch: I think we’re about fusing the most extreme ends of pop and avant-garde music together. Those things aren’t nearly as mutually exclusive as most people think.
Baum: We make the inaccessible accessible. We engage in a compositional process using extended harmony and many musical concepts, yet the end result is digestible to a large part of the musical population. We’re about trying to get more people into a forward-thinking approach to music.
Swain: For me, the band’s mission is to be a thoughtful group that plays well. We also try to be good people. We do our best to be nice to everyone we meet. We’re also not content with stagnating. We want to keep creating good music that changes over time. That’s what drives us.
Wallace-Ailsworth: The music that’s always resonated with me is something that connects with the emotional side. It’s what we’re about in Bent Knee. We’re expressing who we are as people through the music. Our hope is listeners will say “I recognize myself in that music.”
Kion: We hope what we’re doing really touches people and brings something positive into their lives. It’s what music has always done for us.
Levin: We take the things that inspire us and transform them into music for other people to enjoy. We also write about things that bother or upset us. We sometimes turn those things into a fun listening experience and moment of connection. People jump around and have a good time at our shows even though some of the subject matter is dark. It’s definitely one of the things we’re about—taking negative things and expressing them in a nuanced way.
The band also has moments of humor and sarcasm.
Wallace-Ailsworth: I think all of us have a really healthy sense of the absurd. So, it’s inevitable the music is going to have that as well. It’s a very dry sense of humor. For instance, “Commercial” on Say So is about how commercials negatively influence people, but it’s done in a darkly funny way.
Kion: In general, there isn’t too much humor in the recordings. “Commercial” is an exception to that. A lot of the humor comes out when we play live. But most of the music is very serious—especially on our last album, Shiny Eyed Babies.
Levin: We’re naturally silly people and you see that at the shows. It’s also a self-defense mechanism. It’s much easier to be your happy, sillier self in a public setting than to be your other selves when everyone is looking at you. So, people see us leaping about and having a good time performing these dark songs. I think humor and sarcasm in a live context add an extra layer in that it shows we’re not permanently the characters that are depicted in the lyrics.
What progression do you feel Say So represents?
Wallace-Ailsworth: This is the first album in which everything isn’t totally dark. There’s more positive light shining through it.
Levin: The thing that stands out to me is there are more dynamics within the sections. On previous albums, there were huge differences in dynamics between different sections, but on Say So, within any given verse or chorus, there’s a lot more variety in terms of loudness, quietness, fullness, emptiness, dryness, timbre, length, and ambience. If you look at “Way Too Long” from Shiny Eyed Babies, the progression is quiet, explosions, groove, explosions, and long build. On Say So, we have songs like “Nakami” which builds up across all kinds of weird shapes. If you look at “Eve” and drew its dynamic arc, it would look like a Rorschach ink blot.
Kion: “The Things You Love” from Say So is the first time in which we’ve had a super-loud section and then repeated it softly. It’s a new thing. Previously, when we had a loud section that reemerged, it would come back loud again. It’s a new shape for us. We try not to repeat ourselves. If we find a pattern emerging, we always create a ramp into different territory. We try to break patterns as quickly as possible so we don’t bore ourselves.
Levin: Another thing is there are more vocal harmonies, performed by different band members.
Wallace-Ailsworth: Sometimes when I listen to Say So, I think “This is the most accessible thing Bent Knee has ever done.” Other times I listen to it and think “This is the strangest thing Bent Knee has ever done.” I think we’re exploring the extremes of accessibility and inaccessibility on this album. “Leak Water” is a relatively straight-ahead rock tune whereas “Eve” is a sprawling epic.
Baum: I think it’s a more cohesive album. If you listen to Say So and then Shiny Eyed Babies, I think Say So fits into its own world better. It’s a more mature, fermented version of Bent Knee. It’s had more time to age. The flavors have settled like chili that’s been in the fridge for a while.
Provide some insight into the band’s creative process.
Wallace-Ailsworth: The genesis of the songs typically emerge from Ben, Courtney and Jessica. Chris, Vince and I get involved in the arranging and instrumentation stages.
Levin: With “Eve,” I was trying to write a new set opener for the band. But ultimately, that’s not what “Eve” became. Where the band took it was very far from what I initially thought it was going to be. I wrote an electronic music demo for it, which is typical for me. They’re usually synthetic sounding and then the band interprets the demo and finds all these places and spots where the demo fails to translate. The band tries to learn what’s on the demo and then we drop everything we learned and start from scratch. The demo becomes a shell we can rebuild in. With “Eve,” so much reconstruction occurred within all the little details of each section and how they relate to one another.
Kion: My demos are never as polished as Ben’s are. They usually have fewer lyrics. There will be a melody and a rough chord progression. Together, the band then comes up with the other sections for the song, which are always really different from where things started.
Levin: “Black Tar Water” from Say So is a song Jessica did for her RPM Challenge album. We all liked it and wanted to make it into a Bent Knee song. You can hear the original on Quone, an album from Jessica’s band Justice Cow. The RPM Challenge is a yearly event in which musicians are asked to write and record an entire album in a single month. Courtney, Jessica and I have all released albums from it. We’ve generated a lot of new material from this process.
Swain: We're driven by a desire to write new music. We’re all into a lot of styles of music. Once a member brings in a demo, it gets infused with ideas from everyone else. When I bring in a song, I might leave a verse empty to have the others contribute new lyrics or perspectives to it. Jessica and I write together fairly often. We rely on object writing, which means we’ll spill our brains out without a filter, and then choose what to formulate into a song.
It can either be an additive or subtractive process with the band. Sometimes parts are added to the demos. Sometimes they’re removed. With Shiny Eyed Babies, I remember we didn’t know when to stop discussing the music and move on. An entire rehearsal could be devoted to one section of a song. We’ve become a little smarter and more focused with the writing for Say So.
Another thing we did with this album is play it live to see how it went over with an audience before recording the material. We felt it was important to see how the motifs came across. We wanted to figure out where the adrenalin surges were in the music. With Shiny Eyed Babies, we had the songs 96-99 percent complete before playing them live. With the Say So material, it was at 70-80 percent when we first played it in front of people.
Welch: We made a lot more adjustments after playing the songs live with Say So than Shiny Eyed Babies. “Nakami” kept changing right until we went into the studio. We were making major changes to the form on the fly.
Baum: The last part of the writing process happens after we finish basic tracking. We’ll go through stuff and figure out what orchestration works. When we’re in the mixing process and doing overdubs, we’re still putting parts in or taking parts out.
Tell me about the “staycations” the band goes on together to further spur the creative process.
Wallace-Ailsworth: We’ve done three staycations to date. The first one was while we were all still in college, during spring break 2012 in Boston. It was almost a cultish thing. Over the course of the week, everyone would tell their life story to the rest of the band. We also engaged in a lot of writing exercises. The objective of one exercise was to write about a crumpled-up Kleenex tissue on the floor. [laughs] Courtney and Jessica went off and started writing about it and it eventually became “In God We Trust.”
Kion: We did another staycation in Georgia on our way down to SXSW in March 2014. At this one, we decided to either individually or collaboratively write 15 songs in 12 hours. There weren’t enough instruments in the house, so it was a challenge. But out of that, I wrote a rough version of “Leak Water.” We started around noon and burned out before the 12 hours were over because we were working so much faster than normal. We weren’t sure we could make it to the end, but Gavin and I wrote a duet that we finished at 2am and Ben wrote the first draft of “Counselor.”
Levin: The staycations are about being productive during the breaks between tours. Sometimes the writing process can be slow and the staycations force us out of our comfort zone. They’re typically well-planned out with strict schedules. But they’re fun, too. Each night, a member of the band would cook dinner and present a movie that he or she wanted to share. We’d watch it and then discuss it.
We’ve always been honest with one another about good and bad feelings. If you’re going to be a band that survives long-term, including all the unknown challenges that emerge, you have to do that. We feel these staycations are a way to be a more intense band and they help us understand each other more deeply.
Do you consider Bent Knee a family as well as a band?
Levin: I think so.
Swain: I think it’s a very accurate observation. I talk about personal issues with the band more than I do with my family. I came from a family in which we kept our feelings under wraps. I’ve had to rethink how I deal with personal issues, joy, grief, encouragement, and criticism, because of how we interact with each other. I also feel a deep love and closeness in the group. When I’m teaching students or just when I’m in daily life, I sometimes expect to have that type of relationship with other people and I realize I don’t and it surprises me.
Welch: It’s probably our biggest distinguishing feature and the driving force of what really makes our music—if I may be so presumptuous—unique. The dynamics in the band are really special. All six of us are phenomenally different from one another. There are two couples in the band: Ben and Jessica, and Courtney and I. We’re all quirky. We also complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses, both musically and on a personal level, very well.
Baum: We’re such a tightly-knit group that I started to assume most bands work more like families and realized that’s a silly assumption. We’re really close friends. We’ve all put so many of our eggs in the Bent Knee basket. This is what everyone wants to succeed. It’s something we’re all 100-percent committed to. We’ve been through so much together because of that fact. We’re in close quarters and uncomfortable situations that, as Gavin mentioned, could cause us to totally crack. But we’ve made it this far and we haven’t. Instead, it’s drawn us closer together.
Wallace-Ailsworth: The combination of the staycations and touring together, spending hours a day in a mini-van with the same six people, means you either become family or you break apart like an asteroid hitting the atmosphere.
Levin: The staycations enable us to understand each other’s vulnerabilities. On tour, you can fall apart in such a huge way. When you get to those moments—when people’s vulnerabilities are exposed—how the rest of the group deals with them determines the survival of the band. So, these staycations have been really important for us. We’ve had a lot of good luck to enable us to end up where we are now. But there have been times when the band could have folded. We’ve always chosen to have faith in each other and our abilities to get better and push forward.
Swain: We’ve also become damn good at conflict resolution.
Baum: If we didn’t become good at figuring out each other’s shit and calling each other out on it, I don’t think we’d be a band anymore.
Vince, the production caliber of the albums is extremely high. Tell me about your background and drive for getting the recordings to the level they’re at.
Welch: I have a degree in production and engineering from Berklee. I’ve produced several Boston acts in addition to Bent Knee, including The Ben Levin Group, Bright and Loud, Astronauts of Albania, Mammox, That One Eyed Kid, and Justice Cow. You learn how to do this by doing it. [laughs] Every project I do, I’m always just trying to do a lot better than what I’ve done in the past. When I was doing mixes for Say So, I was using Shiny Eyed Babies as a reference. I wanted to ensure the Say So mixes were killing everything I’ve done before. I’ll do the same for the album after this one, which we’re already working on.
In terms of my role, in the studio, I’m trying to function in a traditional production role. I’m overseeing the project and responsible for the ultimate quality of it in the end. It’s similar to being the director of a film but the added complexity is that I’m an actual member of the band, too. But when we’re tracking basics, I’m not out with the band. I’m in the control room listening.
I take the recording process very seriously. I’m often fighting demons when I’m working on something I feel isn’t coming together. This happens on pretty much every project.
“Nakami” was the most problematic song to work on. We created several versions of it during the mixing process. I’d spend awhile on it, listen to it a day later, and it would sound awful to me. After that happens a few times, I’d think “Is this ever going to come together? Is there something wrong with the arrangement? Is it the takes themselves?” Eventually, I got through it.
Swain: Vince is really hard on himself. He’s an extreme perfectionist. It’s something I talk to Vince a lot about. We used to argue about how dismissive he is of work in progress. He’s very honest, so if something is good and Vince says it’s good, I completely believe it. He doesn’t abuse that term. But when something is in process or doesn’t come out as expected, Vince refers to it as shit. Our process is akin to popping popcorn. It takes a long time to get going, but eventually everything does pop and you realize the song is going to come out fine.
Baum: The whole process of making Say So was far easier than Shiny Eyed Babies. I think that’s because of the trust we developed through that process. Vince went through hell with Shiny Eyed Babies. With Say So, I feel there was a slightly bigger glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel because of the journey we went on last time.
What other considerations informed the production side of the album?
Swain: One thing we did differently with Say So is engage in group overdubs. It meant we would all go in at once and try out every single idea and possibility available to us. We got basic tracking done really fast in just one day. With Shiny Eyed Babies that stretched across two days.
Baum: The reason we knocked basics out so fast is we toured the material for over 50 dates. It’s by far the longest tour we’ve done road-testing material. After those concerts, we immediately went into the studio.
Swain: We did spend ages mixing the album, though, figuring out the best combination of elements.
Baum: The production of Say So was like carving out a statue, rather than building a statue from the ground up. There was such a ridiculous amount of orchestration on everything. We recorded basics, then group overdubs and unison stuff, and then brass, strings and winds. We recorded way too much. So, Vince’s job was carving away at this giant hunk of too much stuff to come up with something that works well.
Welch: It was the production equivalent of subtractive synthesis in which you’re trying to find a really interesting arrangement and sound. I was removing things until we arrived at the right combination. This was also a cost-effective strategy. When you’re in a studio, you can take two approaches. The first one is record as much as possible and go through it later and separate the diamonds from the shit, which is what we did. The other way is figuring out if you have a keeper take right then and there. The latter approach takes a lot of time and we don’t have the budget to spend weeks in nice studios. So, we have to be very efficient.
Vince, describe your role on stage with the band.
Welch: Live, things get a lot more non-traditional than in the studio. At a simple level, what I’m doing live is I’ve got Courtney’s vocals coming into my laptop and I’m putting effects on them and outputting the signal to the audience. I’m using Ableton Live to do this. What I do to her vocals changes quite a lot night to night—more than a lot of people might suspect. I’m almost improvising with how I process her vocals. That can mean invoking subtle things like saturation, delay and reverb, to things people wouldn’t recognize as a vocal. For instance, I might use a reverb with a long decay and the vocal then becomes a pad or a tone.
One of the interesting things you did while making Say So was record for a day in a giant, abandoned warehouse. What did that enable you to capture?
Baum: We recorded a show captured for YouTube at Hand Forged Works, which is an iron forge near Boston. We went back with the idea of recording some stuff in there. When we showed up, the guy who owned the place said “Across the street, there’s a completely empty million-square-foot warehouse and the doors are unlocked.” So, we trucked a bunch of equipment into this really creepy place. It felt like zombies were going to jump out at any time. It was a foreboding place to record. We ran some extension cords and recorded Courtney’s vocals in the middle of the warehouse. It was pretty amazing.
Welch: The big problem is it wasn’t a recording studio. It was a warehouse, so there were lots of noises in the background. The noise-to-reverb ratio was poor. But what we got were a lot of cool background vocals.
One of the most distinctive elements of the band is the intersection between songcraft and mercurial arrangements. You hear that particularly on pieces like “Eve” and “Counselor.” Describe how those pieces evolved during the creative process.
Welch: Those two tracks are examples of pieces in which we created and arranged them from a recording perspective. Both of those songs were recorded in multiple sections, not out of any performance issue, but because we wanted to create particular effects and atmospheres throughout the tracks.
Baum: The original forms of those songs had nothing to do with those very sectioned-off elements. On “Counselor,” the chant section and its metric modulation was something we came up with much later on.
Swain: “Counselor” involved a really long process. We couldn’t finish it initially. We were jamming out to it to see if we could come up with new parts. Eventually, we arrived at that metric modulation section. It’s something that just happened. The arrangement came out of the story behind the song. It presents different portraits of a boy’s life in Chicago. He’s frightened by what’s happening outside of his house. The arrangement serves the story. “Eve” has a similar form to “Skin” from Shiny Eyed Babies. It’s bliss on both ends, but the middle part is about daydreaming, lusting, obsession, joy, and torture. The song reflects the dualities inherent in the lyrics. They needed to be starkly different.
Bent Knee’s lyrics explore some dark territory. Courtney, how do you internalize that subject matter to create an emotional delivery for something you didn’t necessarily experience personally?
Swain: During the process of writing the songs, everyone in the band has such a clear idea of what the experience is that’s being relayed. We’re all close as bandmates and friends. We know what each one of us is living through at any given moment. There are a lot more lyrics from Jessica and Ben on this album, too. Because I know them so well, living vicariously through their lyrics is something that comes naturally to me.
Baum: One of the reasons it’s easy for you is because people in this band are extremely empathetic to the point at which it’s a character flaw. [laughs] We drastically affect each other’s moods. So, it’s easy to put ourselves in the place of someone else’s lyrics. We’re able to feel the themes even if we’re not living them.
Swain: Another thing to consider is that while we think the songs mean one thing, there are some like “Good Girl” in which people come up with their own interpretation. I’ve had people tell me it’s a song about women being patronized or dealing with systemic oppression. I thought “I guess you could take the song in that way.” It helped me connect with the audience more in terms of understanding their perceptions. Sometimes how they see the songs helps enrich me and refresh what the song is about. “Battle Creek” is another song people read different things into. When the Bataclan shootings happened and after the tsunami hit Japan, people assumed it was related to those events. So, the songs keep coming back to me and their meaning gets reinvented sometimes, which means the way I perform them might change too.
Baum: I think mutation of interpretation is one of the best things about being part of this art form. The songs are malleable. The songs on Say So mean something different to me now than they did just three months ago based on talking with people in the audience, as well as just where I’m at in my life. But in general, the subject matter revolves around growth and contrast. It’s also about reflecting on those things to evolve and change. The album art reflects that too, with a figure lost in the woods, surrounded by massive trees. The concept is figuring out where each of us actually stands in this giant universe.
Jessica and Gavin, you share intense eye contact throughout Bent Knee gigs. Describe how you work together as a rhythm section.
Wallace-Ailsworth: I really love playing drums behind Jessica’s bass. She’s got an incredible rhythmic sense and it allows me as a drummer to operate outside of a standard box. The way the songs are constructed forces me to operate differently from a Charlie Watts or Ringo Starr. You can’t be a straight-ahead drummer in this band. I’m also a player immersed in many influences such as Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Jerry Marotta, Jimmy Chamberlain, and Tim Alexander. It’s where I got my vocabulary, so my conventional is the unconventional. Jessica’s bass parts are incredibly fresh and we work very well together. We’re a very unified rhythm section. We’re both listening and watching each other to ensure we’re in sync as much as possible given the fact that some of the songs have a lot of changes.
Kion: My first experience with Bent Knee was filling in for their previous bass player, who was out of town. It was a big show for a few hundred people. The songs from the first album were really hard to play. They didn’t have typical chord progressions and I couldn’t do my normal bass thing. On the surface, the music is pretty crazy. I remember “Urban Circus” from the first album being really tough. It has to be played a lot in order to get it. I felt like I was barely holding on during that first show. Watching Gavin really closely really helped me through a lot of those complex rhythmic movements. Our musical relationship developed from there. Initially, Gavin and I always made eye contact so I could catch the cues. We’ve worked out a unique way of performing together which still continues. I think I do my best playing in Bent Knee. It really pulled me up in a lot of positive ways.
Ben, describe the guitar philosophy you bring to the band.
Levin: We go to a lot of shows and we play a lot of shows. I see a lot of bands in small rooms and I’ve noticed it is incredibly common to have the guitar too loud or crash cymbals too high in the mix. I’ve heard so many guitarists and drummers take up too much space, so my original philosophy was “Don’t fill up all the space.” I try not to cover up anything else in the band. I’m pretty paranoid about my levels and ensuring what I do complements the rest of the group.
In recent times, my guitar philosophy has evolved into “Vince sure knows how to make me sound good on the albums. I should try to sound like he makes me sound, live.” [laughs] On Shiny Eyed Babies, I thought I sounded much cooler on the final album than I did when I recorded the parts. Hearing how Vince processed my work actually helped me understand what my role is in the band and how I can be the best guitarist possible for it.
Wallace-Ailsworth: I feel the same way about how Vince mixes drums as well. I feel he makes me sound a lot better as a player.
Ben and Chris, how do you two navigate the intersection between guitar and violin in terms of roles and frequencies?
Levin: Chris’ violin sound is very unique and optimized for working with this band. When I’m working with Chris, there are a couple of rules I have in my head. First, he’s the ambient boss. He has the potential to make sounds with reverb that make your nipples hard. [laughs] And if there’s a quiet section, he can play a soaring melody that swells in and is so pretty and creamy. If I’m also doing ambient stuff, I’m ensuring it’s far away from what Chris is doing. I’ll also do the extreme opposite or double what he does, otherwise things will get too muddy. You also have to remember that Vince does a lot of things with ambience to Courtney’s vocals, too.
When it’s time for choppy rhythm stuff, I get my tone really dry and get much louder than any other parts that I play. I’ll take control during those sections. That’s the closest I get to being in the way of other people’s stuff. It works when the time is appropriate. Sometimes it’s better for the guitar to be more present during the big rhythm sections, like at the end of “Being Human” or “In God We Trust.” That’s when I don’t think about Chris anymore. [laughs]
Baum: I think my role in the band is to offer a certain level of depth that’s unique to the violin. I do a lot of soundscape stuff. The thing that drives me crazy about a lot of bands that have a bowed string player in them is that it often feels like a gimmick. My quest is to avoid that. So, I really think about sound design. Ben and I have also written a lot of lines that are either in unison or we’re harmonizing together. I’m treated similarly to being another guitarist in the band. I’m not playing chords, but Ben and I each carve out sonic space for each other.
Tell me about the band’s decision-making process.
Wallace-Ailsworth: There are certain things in which we go with majority rule. Sometimes we get to a point at which almost everyone likes an idea, but one person is still fighting tooth and nail for something else. It’s just the reality of moving on with things. For instance, the end of “Being Human” was something we all agreed on, except one person. There was a big disagreement in terms of the role the drums should be playing at the end. We spent half a rehearsal on just that section. We got back together a few days later and chose to go with the song structure you hear on the album.
Kion: When we spend a big part of a rehearsal working on a section and not agreeing on a direction, we’ll record different ideas, listen to them, and come back to the song. Usually, we come back in a better mood and the problem gets solved easily. It takes stepping back for a minute from your emotional involvement to realize what is best for the song and for the band. If the conflict is between two people in the band, we usually wait it out for those members to get it straightened out and it gets resolved.
A lesser-known Bent Knee effort is the 2015 score you created for From a Black Egg, a silent play that’s been performed in Baltimore. Tell me about the project and process behind it.
Baum: We performed in Baltimore for the first time two years ago at a venue called Club K. The bartender also worked at the Yellow Sign Theater, which shows old silent movies. We spoke with her about the fact that Bent Knee has done silent film scores in Portland and Boston. We’ve scored the early silent versions of Phantom of the Opera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Peter Pan, Un Chien Andalou, as well as a few Buster Keaton shorts.
So, they chose to have us get involved with From a Black Egg. The writer Aaron Travis wanted to create a stage play that replicated a silent movie experience. We liked the process and the script. We got rough timing notes for every scene of the play, which typically were just a few minutes long. We plotted out the music scene by scene, using an iPad and a big clock to ensure we hit the timing correctly. We’d improvise cues for the whole thing and record a couple of different takes for everything. We pared it all down, finished the thing and sent it to them. The reaction was great. We also came back to Baltimore to perform it live with the play a few times.
Tell me about your interest in pursuing this type of work.
Baum: I studied film scoring, so I have an affinity for this universe. I think it goes together well with the band’s interests in improvising. It also relates to the “improv potlucks” Bent Knee hosts occasionally in Boston. Musicians show up, write their names down on a slip of paper, throw them in a hat, and then we pick names out and create ensembles at random. The ensemble gets five minutes to make something up and perform it. The whole evening unfolds with those performances.
Film is a very cool medium to create music in which we have to react to one another in real time. It’s really focused improvisation. It’s also fascinating to see how music can affect the drama on screen. The music can transform any scene into feeling completely different.
What did it mean for Bent Knee to sign with Cuneiform after years spent independently releasing music?
Swain: It’s interesting that since we’ve been signed, we’ve seen so many people emerge at gigs and online that we’ve never seen before. Cuneiform’s history and reputation has provided a big thumbs-up that’s increased our reach. A lot more people know about us now. It’s cool to see all these new people getting excited about our music. It’s also a relief to be able to focus more on moving the band forward.
Baum: It’s great to have our team expanding. Say So is already accomplishing a lot more from the business end of things. It surprised me that being signed made tons of people automatically assume we’re legitimate now. There are lots of great bands that aren’t signed that are just as legitimate.
Levin: It means a lot to me, because I’ve listened to a lot of Cuneiform’s music and it’s great. I’ve always wanted my music to be as good as it can be and reach as many people as it can reach. Cuneiform is really focused on getting quality, important music to people. They’re totally uncompromising. It’s cool to be in such good company.
Kion: I was surprised to see what it means to other people for us to be signed. Before we were signed, people would say to me “Oh, it must be so much fun to be in a band.” Now that we’re signed to Cuneiform, we’re taken much more seriously. The great thing about Cuneiform is they still treat music as art. We’re really lucky to be working with them. It creates a tangible aura for what we do.
What advice do you have for other bands at this point in your trajectory?
Swain: I think social media can be overrated. Hyping your band over and over again on social media isn’t something that will necessarily support your growth in a significant way. It’s important to communicate on those channels, but the way you build an audience is playing in as many different places as often as possible. Even if the audiences are small, it makes you so much better at playing your own songs. It’s also about creating audiences in different cities. I hear bands say things like “We’ve hit a ceiling in this city because we can’t get more than 50 people to come to our show.” You have to keep doing it. You have to build up a network of different people in different cities in order to get to the next level. Also, the way the world works now, creating fans in one city can result in more fans in others. That’s where social media really plays into it—what other people say about your band, not what you say about it yourself.
Also, one of the reasons Steve Feigenbaum, who runs Cuneiform, signed us is because he knows it’s not good enough to make great music. That doesn’t sell albums in 2016. Where you sell them is off the merchandise table at gigs. The bottom line is there are no shortcuts. You have to work hard. And ultimately, it’s the quality of the music that speaks for itself.
Welch: Quality is definitely the most important thing. We live in a time in which the vast majority of music ever made in the Western world is immediately accessible to everyone. That means your competition isn’t just the band down the street anymore. Your competition is Radiohead. You have to aim to be that good if you want a shot at success.
Kion: When you’re in a band, there are different ways of thinking about success. We’ve had incredible reactions from people and we value them. People say they’ve been touched by our music and that has helped keep us going. That feedback isn’t just a nice platitude. It’s a real clue about how people are receiving your music. It means something is happening. The other thing I’d say is you need to create a plan for your band. We discuss five-year plans for Bent Knee and check in on where we are with those goals. It’s important to have a sense of organization about that and be collectively working to do our best to hit them.
Wallace-Ailsworth: Doing as many shows as you can is key. We started out in the house party scene. It wasn’t my favorite thing to do, but through those shows, we made a lot of fans who genuinely love the band. They told their friends and they remain fans. A gig is a gig. When you’re starting, there’s no such thing as a bad gig. You have to play every environment available to you, even if you’re uncomfortable.
Baum: I agree with all of that. Play lots of shows. Don’t expect to get famous. Be realistic. You have to really want to do this. Bent Knee is something everyone wants to do more than anything else. We still have a really intense love of the music after all this time and we want to take that music as far as it can go. It would be impossible for us to stop making Bent Knee music. We’ve invested too much of ourselves into it.
Levin: So many people are looking for a quick workaround—a way to get a huge press hit or how to get big really fast. The truth is, bands at our level don’t really make much money. It almost seems like an impossible thing to make happen, but we’ve been really diligent. We understand the challenges. We’re doing the work. We’re on the road constantly. We play tiny places and now we play some really large festivals, and everything in between. You have to be open to every opportunity.
It’s so important that everyone in the band agrees on the vision. The fact that everyone wants Bent Knee to be their main thing is critical. You can’t do this with a partial commitment. It’s like partially committing to a marriage. You have to stick with each other and not expect to become an astronaut that climbs onto a rocket ship and flies.
Swain: As our mentor, the producer Susan Rogers told us, “Slow growth is real growth.”