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Exclusive: Unleash the Animal, an interview with Bent Knee

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We interviewed Bent Knee and this is what they have to say about their brand new album.

Not too long ago Bent Knee had delighted us with their delirious Say So, well, they’re back and they’ve taken delirium to whole new level! They are deeply involved with what’s happening around them and they translate it into music, into sharp emotions. Courtney Swain’s voice is probably one the most powerful voices out there, it sweeps you off your feet right from the start. Land Animal is about to be released and it’s quite electrifying. Terror Bird rushes into your pulse, there is a sharp sweetness to it, their vertiginous pace is quite infectious and it’s a thrill to feel how it unfolds around you, how it starts rising and rising, to end on a high note, Hole comes right after; contrast might be a good word to describe them, they are constantly flirting with bright colors until they melt abruptly into dark shades. Holy Ghost was one of the first tracks they released for us to have a peek of what was to come, it lurks playfully as it blooms, every turn they make is unexpected, they seem to have developed a narrative of their own and each turn makes perfect sense, this song ends and when it comes back to life it gives place to one of the highlights of the album (though it’s pretty hard to choose only one). Insides In glides about, softly, as it quivers mysteriously along the strings that seem to breathe, there is an uneasiness about them, and as the song grows quiet the strings deeply galvanize you, they tremble and finally reunite with the voice. Their music is rather powerful and they have a very creative way to address our reality, they are bringing something bright to the music scene, and we really hope they stick around, their perspective is inspiring. Sometimes it would seem they’re constantly visiting places that appear familiar, but they always find a way to articulate them away from common places, such is the case of These Hands and of their first single: Land Animal, with this track the pace of the album changes into something slightly lighter, there is an urgency during the first half that is transformed from song to song, when Time Deer comes along the album has arrived to a warmer place. The Well is another highlight worth mentioning, a whimsical, jaunty piece that swarms up and down with a peculiar inertia revolving around it, they always have an ingenious approach when it comes to sensations, they don’t stick with one, they play about with more complex feelings. Land Animal ends beautifully with Boxes as it fades along into silence.

Here’s an interview with the band concerning their brand new work!

 

CS = Courtney Swain (vocals + keyboards)

CB = Chris Baum (violin)

BL = Ben Levin (guitar)

VW = Vince Welch (production + sound design)

GWA = Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (drums)

JK = Jessica Kion (bass)

How would you describe life in the 21st Century? What do you think about its rhythm?

CS: On the first track of Mitski's album "Puberty 2", the song starts with a relentless MIDI drum pounding; it's overwhelming but you quickly grow accustomed to it. I think the 21st century rhythm is a lot like that. When playing or listening to difficult, fast-paced music, I find it helpful to try to find the bigger beats instead of frantically nodding my head up & down to the smaller, quicker beats. The same applies to life in the 21st century, where it's easy to get swept up in the abundance of information and instant-gratification at your fingertips. I find that I feel better when I slow myself down and make sure I'm spending my time in bigger chunks where I want to, instead of fragmented in small pieces on my phone.

Could it be that the more connected we are, the harder it is to send a message?

CB: It’s certainly difficult to cut through the noise while everyone’s being assaulted by an endless stream of information. Our technology has outpaced our ability to evolve with it, and we’re still struggling to catch up. That said, I’d argue that the more connected we are, the easier it is to send a message; it’s simply harder for it to reach its intended ears.

How can we change the world with music to make it a better place?

CS: I think it's easy to fall into the mindset that music is a static object that makes the world better. In reality, listening to "Imagine" on repeat doesn't really actually change anything. For me, I think what's important is to engage with music as a process and an active experience, whether it be writing, performing, attending shows, or sharing. Writing; to speak up, to console, to invigorate, to let loose. Performing; to inspire, to be bold, to open yourself to vulnerability, to share a moment, to have people's attention to say or do something you think is worthwhile. Attending shows; to feel the power of live music, to get out of the house, to get off your phone, to be a part of a moment, to meet people, to forge a community. Sharing; to build relationships, to work for something you believe. Through music, I try to be the most honest and best version of myself. I think that more people being their most honest and their best selves is what will lead to a better place for them, and in that process, a better place for all of us.

Do you think we tend to repress our animalistic urges? What’s so musical about them?

BL: Animalistic urges don’t necessarily help us survive efficiently in modern society, and I think we build a collective philosophy to make better choices.  Music plays a big role in the search for that collective philosophy.  Music and art in general teaches us to feel empathy, value education, and think about things from multiple angles.  So, I guess you could say it helps us be better than our animalistic selves without losing the perspective that we are still animals.

 

Would you say that “Land Animal” is a bit more accessible than “Say So”?

VW: Yes I think Land Animal is somewhat more accessible than Say So. I believe this is largely a result of the less complicated song forms on Land Animal. They are still a good bit more exotic than your typical pop/rock structures, but nothing that approaches the bizarre form of a song like EVE.

How did you manage to create another full length album in such a short amount of time? Could you tell us a bit about the writing process? Which was the first song that came to life, and which was the last one?

GWA: We tend to miss that feeling of having new songs to play on stage, so we tend to want to write new stuff fairly quickly after an album is released. This new album was largely written between tour legs. We would go into our practice space at 10AM, leave around 7PM, and spend the time developing the new material. This album came together much quicker than any of our previous albums. The first song that I remember us developing was the title track, and the last one was Time Deer.

What’s the story behind “Insides In”?

JK: Insides In is a mix of things I was pondering at the time. I was thinking about inner beauty versus outer beauty and how, in media, they are contrasting, like a story of a gorgeous person with a rotten personality or an ugly person with a beautiful personality. I was thinking about what happens if they're both ugly and how that person deals with life. I was also thinking about a family member going through chemo, so there's some stuff in the second verse about that.

Your music is rich in contrast, so dark and soft at the same time, how do you relate to contrast?

JK: As listeners, we all love contrast and dynamics. Our band sprouted from loud bars and parties and we've found that dynamics and surprises serve those venues best because they keep people's attention. More than contrast as a general rule though, we try to make each song sound like it feels.

There is also this beautiful narrative to your songs in the album. By taking unexpected turns at all times and softly revisiting places, all the songs end up being related in a way. Could you tell us more about this narrative?

VW: There is no literal narrative for the album. Broadly speaking, you can divide all albums into two categories. The first, you have a single piece of music that is divided into tracks. The second, you have a collection of pieces that you want to release together. For us in this instance, it's definitely the latter. We simply had 10 songs we wanted to release at once. However, there is still a necessity for the album to flow. So a decent amount of thought did go into the ordering of the songs. But this order wasn't dictated by any sort of story, rather our concern was enhancing each track as much as possible by virtue of what comes before and after it.

 

Could you tell us a bit more about “Terror Bird”?

CB: One byproduct of the free, constant flow of information is the never-ending exposure to tragedy. I’ve often felt less-than-human reading the news, wondering why I’m not falling to the floor in a puddle of emotion. While seemingly all of humanity is reacting, why do I feel so numb? Terror Bird is about fighting our natural inclination to become indifferent toward the world around us. In a globalized, hyper-connected society, it’s a problem we wrestle with now more than ever.

Is contemporary harmony a limit or does it help you to expand your musical language?

CB: Quite simply, limitation leads to expansion, so the answer is both, I suppose. Contemporary harmony is simply an expanded musical vocabulary. It allows us to build within a framework, and even stretch out of it when necessary. Without the confines of language, novelists would be free to invent and write with as many words and symbols as they’d like, but I doubt there’d be much of an audience to digest the story, no matter how brilliant. Language, harmony, and other artistic “limitations” simply give creators and consumers a bit of common ground.

Speaking of narrative and contrasts, am I going too far by comparing these swirls to memories? To the way time changes the shape, the speed and even the continuity of what we remember? How autobiographical is “Say So”, how autobiographical is “Land Animal”?

BL: All of our music is a collage of memories.  Each album is a dream coming to life, out of order, and deformed.  Once people hear it, the dream is no longer ours, but becomes a whole world in other people’s heads instead.  Dreams and memories aren’t really that different anyway.  We only know the parts of dreams that we remember, and we don’t really remember anything that well. Since all of this music came from our work at a very specific time inspired by our lives in an exact moment, I would say that every album is entirely autobiographical.  They are real dreams that we really had, and some of the stuff got in there because of things we experienced when we were awake.

 

Do you remember your first approach to music?

GWA: The first music I remember hearing was Peter Gabriel. A family friend bought me a copy of Peter Gabriel's P.O.V. on VHS (recently re-released on DVD under the name Live in Athens 1988). That music is still vital to me today, and lives at the core of my musician's DNA.

Where has “Say So” taken you? Any anecdotes you’d like to share?

GWA: After Say So, we got a chance to tour in Europe a bit, which was an amazing experience. We also got to tour with The Dillinger Escape Plan - who have now become one of my favorite bands - and we just finished a run of dates with Thank You Scientist. One recent anecdote: we ran into some trouble with a hotel losing our reservation and being just awful to us at 3AM, so Tom from Thank You Scientist, who’s brilliant at keeping a straight face, called the front desk asking if the neighbors could hear him using the bathroom. This went on for minutes. Talk about band camaraderie.

Please tell us more about “EVE” and “Good Girl”

BL:  Eve is about coping with death by creating a fantasy that can live forever.  Ultimately, I think it’s healthier to face the reality of death rather than try to dream your way around it, but in Eve we give the dreams a try. Good Girl is about the language powerful people use to control others and make them feel weak.  The twisted notion that women should be good girls and stay in the background persists because of a lot of reasons, one of which is the language we use when addressing them.

Which places would you love to visit with your music and why? It could be places you’d like to return to or places you would love to go for the first time.

JK: I'd like to tour in Japan because it's our singer, Courtney's home and I feel like all of us experiencing the culture she grew up in would help us bond even more as a band. We also had an unbelievable time in Europe and would love to return. In North America, our favorite spots are the West Coast - San Jose up to Nanaimo B.C. - Boston, MA, Lowell, MA, Dayton, OH, New Haven, CT, and Lawrence, KS. We have consistently awesome shows there.

Where are you planning to take “Land Animal”? Any tour dates you’d like to share?

CB: We’ll be touring quite extensively over the next eighteen months! Keep checking our website for updates.

 

Let’s all get carried away with these guys!

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