by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2020 Anil Prasad.
Kneebody’s version of jazz is a swirling, morphing one. Its members are well-versed in myriad genres and approaches that enable them to seamlessly and telepathically shift gears and directions. Kneebody is also a mercurial and provocative group to see perform. While its basis is meticulously-sculpted compositions, in a live context, those pieces are infused with improvisation and a constant desire to stretch boundaries as far as they can go.
The quartet, comprised of keyboardist Adam Benjamin, trumpeter Shane Endsley, saxophonist Ben Wendel, and drummer and bassist Nate Wood, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. The band originally included bassist Kaveh Rastegar, who amicably departed in 2019 to pursue a solo career. Instead of recruiting a new bass player, Wood took over both the drumming and bass roles. Wood performs on both instruments simultaneously—a thrilling, mind-bending experience to witness. He was already exploring that approach with his one-man-band project fOUR, prior to integrating it into Kneebody.
The band has released two recent recordings in its quartet incarnation, both featuring vocal pieces that signal a departure from its previously mostly-instrumental focus. The By Fire EP finds Kneebody working with longtime collaborators, including Gerald Clayton, Josh Dion, Michael Mayo, and Becca Stevens. The release focuses on reimagined covers of songs by The Band, Hiatus Kaiyote, John Legend, Wye Oak, and Soundgarden.
All four guests also appear on Chapters, Kneebody’s seventh studio album. It's a hybrid release with both instrumentals and original songs. The title reflects the closing of a chapter with Rastegar, who guests on the recording, and the beginning of a new one that embraces songwriting and integrating even more worlds into its music.
Kneebody’s members are also politically active and deeply concerned about the state of the world. Those perspectives find their way into both their vocal and instrumental music. They’re also reflected in their conversations.
Innerviews first met Endsley and Wood when they visited San Jose, California in October 2019 to perform at The Art Boutiki Music Hall. That dialog continued into late July 2020, taking place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, whose impact served as a springboard for these interviews.
How has COVID-19 affected you?
Well, in the most immediate sense, all foreseeable gigs have been canceled. We had gigs as far out as October 2020 that have been canceled with no option to reschedule. So, we have absolutely no idea when we'll gig again, like everyone else. Scary.
I was also set to go to Europe for a two-week fOUR tour in early May, which would have been my longest, most solidly-booked tour yet. Most of the dates were moved to December, but most of those gigs have now been cancelled. I have some gigs with the jazz-funk band Knower on the books for March 2021 that were rescheduled from September 2020, but I would be quite surprised if the world was back up and running by then.
What have you and Kneebody been up to since COVID-19 hit?
Shane, Ben and I just finished scoring a movie called The Reckoning. We were supposed to do it as a band in the same city, but of course that was impossible. So, we all collaborated via Dropbox and just shared Logic files. It was really fun. Kneebody is such a versatile group of musicians that I really feel like we could do anything. So that, plus the Zoom calls watching the movie together made it feel like we were on tour again.
Everyone I've talked to has said it's hard to be fully inspired right now. Given both the COVID-19 lockdown and the protests around the US, music feels less significant. I realized for myself how the social component of music is absolutely key. This should be blatantly obvious to everyone, but not to me as I've spent the last two or three years developing a solo career. But now that I’m not allowed to share that music with anyone in real-time, it feels like the value is sucked out of it. Also, you realize just how important health, family and friendship are and that really those are the only things that matter. Well, besides being able to pay rent and eat.
My wife and I moved a few months ago and I’ve been working on a better studio situation for myself. So, I think the ultimate result of quarantine for me will be higher-quality content for fOUR.
What advice do you have for musicians trying to figure out how to cope with this period?
Practice, learn new skills, diversify, wear a goddamn mask, stay healthy, exercise, and try to be productive. The world seems to be turning a large corner culturally and economically, and it would be good to look ahead and see where we will fit in it.
Tell me about your view on the importance of music connecting people during this ultra-polarized, difficult era.
I'm just doing what I do and we're just doing what we do. I try to see all sides all the time and understand why people are angry. People all want to have a good life. So, we should figure out a way for everybody to have a good life.
I feel like a lot of the polarization is due to the Internet and social media. I feel like humans aren't smart enough for the Internet. I think we need a physical connection—we need to see somebody—in order to understand what their intentions are when they say something. They need to make eye contact and hear somebody laugh—things like that. And when you take that personal element away, you get the faceless thing that is the Internet. That's what escalated everything with people being so angry.
When we do play concerts, it’s great, because it's a bunch of people in a room together. It's an old school communal thing, like church. People come together for a certain purpose and enjoy each other's company and the music. It's a cathartic release that takes your mind off of the day-to-day.
Chapters reflects a new, hybrid vocal and instrumental shift for Kneebody. Tell me about the decision to change things up.
We did it to try something different and make music with our friends. Everybody on that record are people we admire and close friends. The thing about Kneebody is, it's a labor of love and we're all really great friends. We just want to expand that family and bring other people in we love and admire and have them feel like they can be part of the band.
Michael Mayo is technically one of the most incredible singers, maybe in history. He combines his technical abilities with real musicality and soul, in a way I've never heard before. It's kind of crazy astounding. He's a super sweetheart too. So, he’s the full package.
Josh Dion is a total beast of a musician and person, and one of my best friends. When his band Paris Monster opened for Kneebody, they blew us off the stage. I thought “I’m never letting that guy open for me ever again.” He’s a closer.
Gretchen Parlato I’ve known for a long time. I used to play with her when I lived in Los Angeles, 15-20 years ago. She's such a great person, and easy to be around and make music with. She can naturally make music in any situation.
Becca Stevens has a complete universe of music that she’s made. She has a sound in her head and she brings it to anything she does. When she sings on anything, she brings her world of influences to it. She’s a beautiful musician. I love all these people.
How did the creative process work with the vocalists?
It didn’t really change it that much. People brought in songs and snippets of things. Ben and Kaveh wrote the song for Josh. They said “This is a cool groove. Josh, why don’t you write words and a melody for this real quick?” And then we just did it. Becca and Gretchen both got together with the band and wrote songs with us. We did one of Michael’s songs that he brought to us.
Kneebody is capable of morphing forms and genres. A whole universe of possibilities exist for the band when working together. Do you ever face option paralysis or is it a case of intuitive forward momentum?
We’ve never had option paralysis. When Kneebody started, the other guys were going to school together. I met Adam Benjamin during the second half of his bachelor’s degree in California and then he introduced me to all of them. We started doing weekly gigs at USC at a coffee shop. We’d play jazz and it was the worst music I’ve ever been a part of. Everybody in Kneebody was like, "These are all my favorite musicians," but the music was terrible. Every week, it was just awful.
A summer went by, and Ben got a call to do a weekly series again, at a club with a big stage and sound system. He's like, "Let's write electric music for this." And then it was “boom!” Right from the first gig, it was amazing. It felt like, "Oh, I've never heard music like this before." And that was it. It felt natural, finally. We haven't questioned what we do since then. It just naturally evolved.
All of us have done jobs as other kinds of musicians. I've done tons of pop and rock gigs on every instrument. But when Kneebody gets together, it’s like when you get together with a certain friend and have a certain kind of conversation with a certain kind of sense of humor. That's what it is with these guys. And the conversation is super-fucking broad because everybody can do a lot of things, but it's a familial relationship, that's kind of evolving, but also cemented.
I was once rooming with this great drummer, Charlie Paxson. He was living in my house for a while. He was present for keyboard overdubs of the second record Low Electrical Worker. Adam came over and he would do one take on a song, and I'd be like, "That was great. Let's do the next one." That happened for the rest of the pieces. After we finished that recording session, Charlie was like, "You know what? You guys fucking piss me off. You're so agreeable and everything sounds so easy. What is this? How can you have a band like that?" But that's how our band is. We respect what each other does. It’s part of having a leaderless band. You're not following one person's vision. It makes it easier in a lot of ways. Kneebody is a real democracy. Nobody is power-hungry. In other instrumental bands, there’s usually a leader that has a thing that usually impedes the music-making in some kind of way. I hate to say it, but it's usually how it is. In this band, it's not like that.
What’s your perspective on Kaveh Rastegar’s departure?
I think it's a good thing for him. He really couldn’t get any more successful as a bass player. He’s played with Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr now. So, you can’t do better than that. I’m really happy for him. He’s doing what he should be doing. We still love him and he still loves us. I now play both bass and drums at the same time, but if Kaveh ever wants to come back, he can come back. We want to keep the Kneebody family a family and not bring in a new person.
Describe how you play drums and bass simultaneously.
It’s a really new thing. We’ve done a few tours using this approach. I’m playing drums mostly with my right hand and bass completely with my left hand. Sometimes, I put the bass down and play drums with both hands. One of the horn players or the keyboard player plays synth bass, but that happens about five percent of the time. Ninety-five percent of the time, I’m playing drums and bass at the same time.
The challenge is, of course, that I don’t have a left hand to play drums. So, I had to figure out a way to make it sound like a lot of music is happening, when it isn’t. But I actually like it, because I’m an overly-complicated drummer and this makes me simplify. When I go back to playing with two hands, I’m like, “Oh, I can just play more like I do with one hand.” I’ve learned from doing this.
There are certain tricks I have to do to make it sound like I’m playing both instruments with two hands. I have to build dynamics and shape the song. The other great thing about playing two instruments at once is I can completely change shit. For instance, I have the power to change tempos when I feel like doing it. There haven’t been many—or any people that have played drums and bass at the same time in this kind of context. That’s what I enjoy about it. It’s fresh. Drummers are so good now. It’s exciting to be doing something not everybody else is doing.
I have friends who are virtuoso fingerstyle guitarists. They take the approach of starting a rhythm and temporarily stopping it. Once they stop, they switch over to something else, and then rapidly come back to the rhythm. The idea is to play with the audience’s heads so they still think they’re hearing something they’re no longer actually hearing. My sense is that’s part of your approach as well.
Yes. That’s right. One of my favorite drummers is Paul Motian. I feel like Paul says a lot in the space that he leaves. He leaves space for people—including the audience. The listeners themselves fill the space. He's playing impressionistic melodic stuff, but it's so naked and stripped-down, that people can kind of choose their own adventure. I would like to get to that point with what I'm doing with the two instruments, where it's like there's a lot of density, but then there's space for people to kind of come to their own conclusions.
One of the approaches is to give those spaces the universal language of music. People know that four-bar phrases work in a certain way. If you drop a couple of bars, people know what’s going to come next and that anticipation is weighty. It’s an example of a tool I use because I usually only have one hand to play drums. You have to use a lot of these types of tools to make more musical events happen.
I super enjoy doing this. I love controlling harmony and dynamics. There are unison things I can do that aren’t possible with two people. I’m able to create really choreographed interludes.
Your last solo album, fOUR’s X.IT from 2018, is an ambitious audio-visual one-man band effort, involving you playing keyboards and singing, in addition to bass and drums. Provide some insight into making it.
I wanted to make a record in which all the songs were done in one take, with no overdubs or play-alongs. It's anti-electronic music, because electronic music is somebody tweaking the bass drum sample for like a year, or tuning one note, or all aspects of the MIDI file. With Pro Tools, you can fix everything. I wanted to circumvent all of that and make it old school. I wanted to make it in one pass, kind of like jazz. It’s like a jazz version of electronic music.
I also wanted to dip my toes into making it visual. Because I'm a little bit older—you know, the pre-YouTube generation—I realized that humans have evolved to the point where audio isn’t enough anymore. It’s because of our smartphones and the visual stimuli all around us. It’s like you have to stimulate all senses to get your music across. So, there are videos you can see for everything on YouTube. In that way it’s old school plus new school.
Clearly, your work as fOUR has significantly influenced the current incarnation of Kneebody.
Totally, yeah. It’s definitely informed what I do now with Kneebody and it’s much deeper than ever, because I’ve spent many, many hours working on it. I wanted to take this approach with a quartet like Kneebody. It also helps the fOUR project.
When Kneebody goes on tour for two weeks, I’m interacting with improvising musicians. I bring that back to fOUR, in which I’m interacting only with myself. And then after I work as fOUR a bunch, playing three or four instruments at once, I come back to Kneebody and have more to work with in that context, too. They keep informing each other.
You're part of another Kneebody-related band called ACT with Ben Wendel and bassist Harish Raghavan that’s released two albums to date. Tell me how it emerged and about its internal dynamics.
ACT was borne out of sessions we used to play when all three of us lived in Los Angeles. We’d do a lot of jazz house sessions. That was a thing people never typically did in Los Angeles, because it was too hard to drive to other people’s houses. That’s more of a New York thing, but we did it in Los Angeles and always had a lot of fun playing together.
Eventually, we said “Let’s do a couple of records.” Both of them were easy to make—even easier than Kneebody. They took a day or two to make it was like “Wow, this is cool. Yeah.” The band is one of those things where you play with people and just have a hookup that works. We never have to talk about what we do. Like Kneebody, not once do we have to say “Maybe you should do this” or “Maybe we should think about that.” There’s something about the way this trio plays together that always feels great. ACT is a very low-key thing. We’ll probably keep making albums.
Your Facebook page states that Field Music and Gentle Giant are influences on Kneebody. Both bands involve multi-instrumentalists who swap instruments and roles, as Kneebody is known to do. Tell me about Kneebody’s interest in their work.
Field Music is my influence. I really like their music. They’re really smart people and good musicians making the music they want to make. It’s hard to find people who make music that’s not boxed in to some kind of movement, because they think they’ll be successful because of it. Field Music makes music at its full capacity. They’re not dumbing it down. They wear their influences on their sleeves, but so much so that it becomes their own music and sound. They understand all aspects of music really well and it has a real depth to it. I also like David Brewis’ School of Language a lot. Gentle Giant is someone Kaveh’s a fan of. I’m not really a prog fan, but I prefer Gentle Giant to a lot of other prog bands. Their music sounds really beautiful.
Lots of negative things have been said about the current situation musicians are facing in terms of monetization. Let’s flip that on its head and get your take on what’s positive about being a musician in this day and age.
I was there for the dying breath of the old music industry when I was right out of college. I was in a band called The Calling that had a major hit worldwide called "Wherever You Will Go.” I was on tour with them for two years in the early 2000s. It was really the end of the orgy of major labels. The way A&R people would talk about music—even the ones with good intentions—felt horrible to me. I understood it’s a business, but it didn’t feel good to me. But the band was great. They were my best friends. It was cool.
I wrote my first solo record Reliving from 2003 while on tour with The Calling. It was mostly about how weird I felt in that scenario. But I did make enough money to buy a house with that band, so it was kind of a 50/50 negative-positive thing.
I sometimes ask older musicians if they would rather have the freedom they have now, like the ability to make a record in their apartment for no money, and self-release it online, or would they prefer to have a label give them advances, own all their intellectual property and have input that isn’t in their best interests.
Generally, the older people prefer the older model and the younger people prefer the new model. It’s also interesting in that a lot of people involved in one model don’t even know about the other model. But for me, I prefer the newer model. I recorded, mixed and mastered the first Kneebody record and almost every record since then. I also recorded and mixed all of my fOUR records. I mastered most of them, too. So, I didn’t have to pay a cent for anything. I can do everything myself. I even make the fOUR videos myself. I bought a couple of cameras and do it all in my apartment, put them online and have a career.
My mom is a musician. When I was five years-old, she said “I think in your lifetime, you’re going to see the devaluation of music, to the point where people who are only in it for the money are going to have to leave, because there’s not going to be any money. The only people left will be people who have to make music because they have no choice.” I believe that. The people who are making music now have no choice. I can’t do anything else. I think about music all day. I just have to make music.
I don’t have any money. None of us in Kneebody have any money. But I have just enough to eat and pay my rent. The music is very spiritually fulfilling. There’s nothing else I could do.
The potential is there for opportunities to arise that we could never have imagined, previously. I think things might get better. The streaming thing is terrible. The record labels are taking advantage of the artists and they know they are. They’re going to get sued and when that happens, they’re still going to come out ahead, and they know that, too. So, they’re just fucking people as long as they can. But like the early days of radio, there’s going to come a point where it’s like “Okay, now you’ve got to pay people.” And then it’s going to be okay again and get better. I can actually see it happening for me. I see my payments going up across digital services. So, I’m optimistic about the future.
What’s your view on how COVID-19 has impacted Kneebody?
It definitely pulled the rug out from under all of us as a band and as individuals. Nate mentioned we got a chance to score The Reckoning, a movie that stars Mira Sorvino and Richard Dreyfus. We were supposed to record together as a band, but instead we’re forced to create music from home. It ended up sounding pretty cool and has inspired us to try and find more opportunities to write to picture. We definitely plan on getting back on the road when it’s safe to do so.
How do you assess the importance of music in the challenging times we live in?
It’s more valuable than ever when we all come together and commune to enjoy positive, live music—something that’s creative, expressive, positive, and unifying. The online nature of our lives makes those in-person moments even more valuable. Those alternate personalities people have online can take on rude dimensions and those exchanges are so different than in person. So, a performance is a chance for us to be in the room together, say a few words about what’s going on in the world, and try to reinforce the importance of getting on a better path as a country.
Chapters is a reference to that. I definitely see this period in America as a really specific chapter, in the sense that it's defined by a current set of personalities in the federal administration. But they also reflect longstanding problems in the country. It’s not like this is something new that’s going on. However, it’s a chapter in which some of our old problems are really boiling over. The album was also being written as Kneebody was starting to go through our own changes. We had the feeling Kaveh would be leaving. So, Chapters refers to that too—we’re entering a new chapter as a quartet.
What’s Kneebody’s raison d'être in 2020?
I think it’s to be open to what can be different and embrace changes in the way we make music and how it sounds. We’re a band that’s been together 20 years. We’ve gone through really different iterations in the way we make music. During the last few years, we’ve become more concise in how we deliver the music. I think that’s because we’ve played more festivals involving shorter sets and higher-profile situations. I think we developed some good approaches for packing everything we do into a really dialed-in 45-60 minute set.
Tell me about the desire to pursue a hybrid vocal and instrumental approach for By Fire and Chapters.
It’s an idea we’ve had for a while, because as a band, we’ve always collaborated with artists the whole time. We were often a backing band in the early days for other people. When we did residencies, we’d have different guests with us. Kneedelus, the album we did with Daedelus, is also an extension of that.
We’ve always had singers work with us. We previously did shows with Gretchen Parlato, Theo Bleckmann and Busdriver. It’s something we’ve always been interested in and we’d been talking about it for a while. It was a natural idea to say “Let’s make this record inclusive of some of these guests and friends we want to work with.” We’ve never done covers before and we thought it would be fun to try that, too.
Rather than all the vocal tracks going on to Chapters, we also put some on the By Fire EP. The EP was focused on covers, and the album is a hybrid of us as the quintet we’ve always been, and some tracks with just the quartet, as well as with vocalists. I think Chapters represents all sides of the band well.
There are political elements to Kneebody’s music. How has adding vocalists enabled you to pursue that realm more directly?
We’re more interested in that, especially as we get older. In our early days, I think we were working more on playing music and getting better. It was more insular in that way. Now, we enjoy more direct connections with the audiences and I think working with vocalists creates more possibilities for that. We’re still discovering it, now. The song we did with Gretchen—"When It All Comes Down"—is a climate change anthem. We’re starting to define ways we can communicate directly about what we’re thinking about—and what everyone’s thinking about. We’re trying to create a conversation with the audience. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg with this, really.
Is there an element of wanting to open up Kneebody’s audience as well?
Oh, absolutely, yes. We’re not shy about that either. We consider that a positive, but we’re not just doing this for that reason. We’d never attempt to pander in a base way to expand our audience. But this does feel like a natural extension of what we’ve been doing and we hope with some of these guest performers, some new folks will find a way into enjoying our music.
Describe how the creative process worked for Chapters.
We tried to get a format figured out for the album and then we had to work out the logistics. Were we all going to be together? In which city are we going to work with the other folks? We got to a formula of let’s do a cover and an original with each of our guests. Ben did some of the co-writing, together with Becca and Gretchen. Overall, it was pretty quick and we enjoyed that. We didn’t belabor the compositional part in a way that made things too slow or heavy. We work quickly in the studio, too. We’ve arrived at a place of a little more maturity, in which we don’t sweat the little details like we might have when we were younger, and really fussing over little ornamentations. We were more like “Let’s get the message, sound and vibe of each of these songs going, and just do it.”
We made demos. People had charts. We’d send audio back and forth and scratch out little lead sheets. Some of them were more organized charts. It was a mix of all of that. The way Kneebody traditionally worked is that we learn everything by ear and go slow. But it wasn’t possible for these recording sessions. We had to go with something a little more traditional, with a mix of charts and reference audio.
Kneebody is capable of going anywhere, genre-wise. How do you decide what direction to take a track in?
Luckily, it works pretty naturally. The range of influences comes out organically in the music. They aren’t scripted. No-one’s saying “How about we use a trap beat, with an EDM synth sound from the trumpet?” Nothing gets put together that way. Those references reveal themselves on their own. We’re often defined as genre-bending, but it’s not something we ever plan. We’re trying to do something that sounds unique and steers clear of obvious stylistic formats. It’s about how we instinctively move as a band. It’s also about the moment of composition and the collective energy. We do think about structure and development, but in a more general, hopefully timeless, sort of way. We’re also really lucky that we work together well. Everyone has a lot of respect for one another and cherishes the band.
What are the biggest challenges the band faces?
What makes things hard is we make original, instrumental music and to make the band more comfortable and solid, we need more people checking it out and coming to shows. It needs to have market value for venues and stuff. It also helps us cover the bills and takes that financial pressure off. The music is pretty natural and fairly endless. We were students together and we’ve really maintained that kind of atmosphere of learning and growing. I think where we’re trying to get better is on the business side. We’re trying to be smarter about marketing and planning.
Tell me about the band’s interest in covering The Band’s “King Harvest” for By Fire.
Kaveh’s the one who introduced me to The Band. He said “Have you seen The Last Waltz?” when we were young. I love Levon Helm’s drumming. The sounds and feel he gets out of the instrument are incredible. The way he sings and plays at the same time is also something that’s always resonated with me.
I’ve always had a real affinity for ‘70s singer-songwriter rock music. I’m a big Nick Drake, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young fan. It’s a period I love and it’s in what I do. It doesn’t always come out in my playing or Kneebody’s music, but sometimes there’s a chance to unearth that. I should also mention Nate’s parents were singer-songwriters in Los Angeles in the ‘70s. His dad, Steve Wood, played with Kenny Loggins for a long time.
Josh Dion, who plays on “King Harvest,” is a modern-day Levon Helm. He has that kind of presence. His feel, soulfulness, and the strength of his singing and drumming are great. So, we thought “King Harvest” would be perfect and a chance for us to do something different that’s not part of our typical Kneebody vocabulary.
Kneebody has been on a lot of labels and is now with Edition. Tell me about those shifts.
Yeah, we keep switching labels. Greenleaf was a huge break for us. For Dave Douglas to say “Alright, I’ll go ahead and put you out” during the early days of his label was amazing. We were also with Concord, but they ended up not wanting to do more with us. They didn’t want to do the record we wanted to do. Winter & Winter was a little more tricky and complicated. Motéma wanted us to stay, and we think it’s a great label, but we felt Edition, being based in Europe, and having good marketing and publicity, was something that could really help Kneebody. We’re off to a great start with them. We like them a lot. They’re working really hard. But we’re really grateful to all the organizations that have helped us out.
How did Rastegar’s departure affect Kneebody?
We had started recording the new album and then just as we were almost finished, he said “I think I’m done.” Then we did one more recording session with just the four of us. But even during the sessions when he was there, he had to leave early, and then Nate handled the bass parts. I sort of felt it was coming. It’s still kind of a shock, but it didn’t happen out of nowhere. It had been ramping towards that.
I think his leaving is really about professional growth, which made it hard for him to be in Kneebody. He does so well in Los Angeles as a writer, producer and bass player. He’s really risen to the highest level possible. Out of that, some personal tension surfaced. He couldn’t be in multiple places at once and had to make a choice. It made sense for him to choose to move ahead with a solo career, and we all support him doing that.
It’s a big change and we’re very sad about it, but it’s also unusual for a band to have the same lineup for so long. In some ways, it helps Kneebody because it means we’re starting a new chapter. The fact that Nate can play bass and drums at the same time is amazing. The rest of us also have Korg Minilogues, so there are moments when Nate is playing drums with two hands, and one of us can take over some bass line stuff. But Nate does most of the bass and drums on his own.
Kneebody music is difficult to play. Nate makes it look astoundingly easy and he’s sounding better than ever. He’s really comfortable with it. The music has taken on a whole new life. It’s a new story. It’s a total trip. We can extend what we do without bringing a new person in. Nate plays very differently from Kaveh. It’s a whole other unique element for Kneebody.
How do you look back on 2017’s Anti-Hero, which many consider a band highlight?
I like that record a lot and how the songs fit together. I also like that it had a societal theme and message. It wasn't just insular, instrumental music. We were so overwhelmed and shocked by the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The fact that things would swing so far in a nationalistic, ultra-corrupt direction wasn’t something we could believe. We felt we were really in a moment in which our art had to reflect our view on it.
The mood of some of the songs reflects urgency, frustration and anger about when something goes so clearly wrong. The music explores injustice and corruption. The song “Uprising” is really about that—standing up and taking care of the country. We make a point of talking about what it’s about during shows. We’re not talking about pitchforks, breaking things and mob reactions. We’re talking about what it takes to make serious political, social and economic change for the country. And that means getting our heads together and becoming politically active.
A couple of new archival recordings featuring you were just released: Tim Berne 7’s Adobe Probe 2009 live album and Yasei Collective’s “Regular (2020 Remix)” single, originally recorded in 2014. Tell me about them.
It’s so nice that Berne recorded that concert at Ars Nova in Philadelphia. It was quite memorable because the chemistry of the group with Dan Weiss, Marc Ducret, Michael Formanek, Matt Mitchell, and Chris Speed, and the writing were both so potent and exciting. I particularly remember the drum and bass connection. I was on a lot of gigs with Dan around that time and I’d seen him make life pretty hard for some great bass players. His language on the drum set is so unique and strong. Michael is such an unflappable powerhouse though and it was really deep to watch them work it out. They sounded amazing together and it was smiles all around.
Yasei Collective holds a very special place in our hearts. They’re an inspired group of benevolent guys. They loved Kneebody and brought us to Japan for the first time. An unforgettable trip for us.
You have another group called Invisible Bird with Scott Amendola and Dave Devine that released its debut album Flutter to Fuzz in 2018. Tell me how that group came together.
That album came out great. It came out of Scott coming to Denver to play his own gigs and he asked me to perform at one of them. Dave had been playing with Scott already. Then Scott said “Well, maybe this could be a band.” We decided to make an album, but just before the recording session, Scott’s bass player got another call for a really good, high-paying gig. So, we had the studio booked anyway, and we decided we were going to go ahead. It totally changed the plan for the band. Dave is a wizard with electronics and pedals, and we came up with a way to fill out the sound. We wrote some music and we do Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell covers. We’re hoping to do more in the future.
You play on one of my favorite albums of all time: Steve Coleman’s Sonic Language of Myth from 1999. What do you recall about working on it?
I was just a kid when I did that. I was studying with Ralph Alessi in the Upper East Side of New York City, where most of Kneebody was based. Steve was doing that large-scale project and needed extra players. Ralph brought a few of us down to do a first recording session with him. Then there was a tour Ralph couldn’t do and I ended up being a part of Steve’s touring group. I was a totally-bewildered 20 year-old. I couldn’t even believe I was there with all these people like Ravi Coltrane and Greg Osby. It was a super-humbling and really developmental experience.
That music is so unique, intense, difficult, and technical in a way most other music isn’t. Steve is a total genius virtuoso. I was completely awestruck. The album is one of the most well-developed personal, compositional expressions I’ve ever seen. The fact that he can command it on his instrument is incredible. One of the highest-level things I’ve been a part of. It was a real adventure and my first chance to really tour around the world, including Europe and Africa.
You were part of Ani DiFranco's band in the early 2000s. Reflect on what that was like.
It was great and such a new scene to be part of. It was the only time I’ve had just one single gig. I’ve always been a freelancer, doing a lot of different stuff. Ani is such a unique artist. Her guitar playing, singing, songwriting, and business acumen are so strong. That was an amazing experience. It was also great to meet all these other musicians I’d never met before and to tour in a way I had never done before.
I still remember my first gig. We were playing in a hockey arena at a college. We were about to go out and my friend, the drummer Daren Hahn said “It’s going to be really loud when you get out there.” I remember thinking “Yeah, yeah.” And then when we walked on stage, the way the audience screamed for her—the deafening volume of it—I just couldn’t believe it. My jaw hit the floor. It was something else to see that kind of enthusiasm. Fans would follow us from gig to gig and try to lurk around backstage.
Working with Ani was also one of my first times to play with someone who’s a real activist with a real political stance. She made her message part of the show every night. I still reflect on that and take inspiration from that time. It’s a huge part of her framework. I feel lucky I got a chance to see someone do that for real at that level.
What else do you have coming up across 2020?
I’m keeping up my teaching and am devoting more time to political activism and community outreach. Since moving back to Denver from New York City in 2015, I started volunteering with an immigrant support organization, have been booking workshops in area schools, started a drumming program at a youth detention center, and will be extending that to a youth homeless center as soon as possible. I’m organizing some chamber groups to play outside of senior centers during the pandemic. I’m trying to do something every day to get Trump out of office and promote needed social and political progress in America.
What are some net positives about being a musician today that keep you going and excited about what you do?
I do think it’s a great time now. We have the possibility of making our own music so much easier than we could before and putting it out to a potentially huge, wide group of people. I think that’s really exciting, even though music doesn’t have the same monetary value as it used to anymore. I think the ability to experiment in your personal, creative output is amazing and you see it across all the great artists making music right now. You can also connect with them and have a chance of interacting with them in different ways.
Right now, things are both really exciting and kind of scary. Cynicism can abound, for sure. When they invented the phonograph, all the musicians back then thought the sky was falling and nobody was going to come to gigs anymore. Right now, we’re in a moment in which the structures are changing again.
I still believe in the power of live music, high-level musicianship and artistry. I think we still have the opportunity to pursue that now, more than ever. I feel positive about that.