Welcome and thank you for sending in 'Land Animal'! It is a blast to listen to it. As Bent Knee is relatively new and unknown, could you introduce yourselves to a relatively "metal" audience?
Certainly! Dear lovers of metal and music in general, Bent Knee is a band with the same dream that most bands have. We want our music to be great and to inspire others just as our favorite bands have inspired us. We met first as friends, but became family through collaborating and crafting songs together. Since 2009, we've been rehearsing, touring, and recording our songs and trying to explore new creative terrain with each one. Each of us has a unique musical voice and when the six of us write together, we are not only blending the sounds of guitar (Ben Levin), voice/keys (Courtney Swain), violin (Chris Baum), drums (Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth,) bass (Jessica Kion), and synth/sound design (Vince Welch), but are also blending our contrasting musical perspectives. So our music is pretty eclectic and bridges many genres within a single song. However, the message and story of the song guides our decision-making process and helps us come together and agree on what belongs.
Back in 2011, I reviewed Ben Levin Group's 'Pulse of a Nation' and interviewed Ben Levin - slash you if that's you answering this interview :) - and I said to myself: I ought to keep track here, because there is going to be some great music coming from there. And here we are, and Bent Knee is still around since then. How did the band evolve since 2011?
I am Ben Levin, yes and thank you for reviewing 'Pulse of a Nation' long before anyone had heard of anything I was doing! I am glad you kept track! Since 'Pulse of a Nation', I have released five solo/Ben Levin Group albums and now four albums with Bent Knee. Each album played a huge role in leading us to where we are as a band now. Everyone in Bent Knee has performed or produced on my solo albums at some point so we've all furthered our creative expression through those. Of course the biggest markers of Bent Knee's growth can be found through the Bent Knee discography. Each Bent Knee album helped us strengthen our abilities as collaborators and develop a process and language for working together as a democratic writing force. When you decide to collaborate in a democratic setting with five other people, you are basically deciding to go in a room together and argue for ours. We've all learned a lot about how to do this in a constructive way and I personally have become a lot more humble from hearing how much better other band members' ideas can be than mine.
They say "the sum is greater than its parts", and while that's true with Bent Knee, what is also awesome, is that every member of the band is great on its own already. Your live performances on Youtube really showcase how wonderful each and every one of you are and work together. With such a big group, do you feel this line up will be stable for years to come?
Thank you, that's very good to hear! Yeah, I think Bent Knee is very stable and everyone is essential to the music we are making. I know that life changes and there is always a chance that people might choose to leave the band for unforeseen reasons, but we are all ultra committed and have sacrificed everything else in our professional and personal lives to make this music and see how far Bent Knee can go. Also, we are good at working through tough times and taking care of each other, which helps us stay strong on tour.
Back in 2011, it was Ben Levin and Courtney Swain writing the music. You now present yourself (and quite beautifully, in your bio, giving everyone a distinct voice) as a democratic unit. Does this also mean the writing method has changed?
I think the writing method has basically expanded. When Courtney and I were the only writers, one of us would present a song idea or demo to the other and then we would pass it back and forth until it was a fully arranged and complete song. Now we are doing that same thing with all six of us. One of the six band members will bring in a demo or idea and then the whole band will work on it together. Our process has expanded to include a very thorough recording process too. For the last couple albums, we have gone to great lengths to demo our songs before recording and then Vince Welch, our producer and synth player, does a lot of additional arranging and editing during the mixing process.
Your music is great, that's one thing. But you also have ideals behind your music. Music as a language across languages. Could you tell what you would like most to be the effect of your music on listeners?
I appreciate these encouraging questions. I want people to feel a personal and surprising connection with the music. It would be great if our songs could help people learn more about their own minds and find new reasons to love life and wake up each day. I know when I hear one of my favorite songs, it feels like an old friend has come back to tell me "you've got this buddy."
Could you tell specifically what some songs and lyrics are about? What, for instance, is the 'Holy Ghost' in the song of the same name?
The songs on Land Animal reflect the chaotic and constantly changing world around us and how difficult it can be to stay with it and feel centered. To me, Holy Ghost is about how much easier it is for us to write music about sadness and pain, so sometimes when I'm feeling really happy, I worry that I won't be able to write any great music. So I seek out my own sadness and sort of excitedly conjure it up like it's a holy spirit that's going to bring me great song ideas. I think this is true about the news media as well, people seem much more drawn to the bad news than the good news. We seem to think bad news is more important, and while of course I think we need to be informed about the horrors in the world, it would be good if we got better at noticing the good stuff too.
You have a very wide and varied sound. Would you say you have some distinct influences - as a group or per member? When for instance I hear the opening 'These Hands', I can't help but think of Patrick Watson - but he's also someone with a wide array of influences.
I know that Chris our violinist is pretty fond of Patrick Watson, so good call there. It seems to me that the biggest influences that we share are Radiohead and Kendrick Lamar. I think everyone loves at least one of those two. Jessica and I are fanatical about Sufjan Stevens, Courtney is strongly influenced by Shina Ringo, Vince's production was originally strongly influenced by Nine Inch Nails, Gavin adores Peter Gabriel with all his heart, and Chris has a unique classical background since he played in orchestras a lot growing up.
Since your music covers a lot of ground, you could theoretically play anywhere (from a Dillinger Escape Plan gig to a hip indie pop festival and create new mainstream standards while you're at it...). Do you like performing live, and do you get gigs easily? Also: can we see you perform in Europe in the near future?
There certainly are a lot of different settings in which our music makes sense. I think we have an easier time getting gigs nowadays. Courtney and Chris used to spend hundreds of hours booking our tours in the past, but we recently started working with a great booking agent, so times are changing. We love playing live, it is so rewarding and it's where most of the fun happens I think. We will definitely be touring in Europe either this year or next year, but there is no doubt that we'll come back since we had an amazing time in Europe last summer.
'Land Animal' is your latest album. Do you feel you're continually evolving as you go, and what do you feel makes this album distinct from your previous work - or from any other music any of you are also involved in?
I know for a fact that our next album will be very different because our musical curiosities are changing so much. I think 'Land Animal' is the best album yet and I feel satisfied that we got the ideas that inspired the album across really well. So it will be on to other ideas and inspiration for the next one. 'Land Animal' stands out to me because of the super cool grooves and the larger influence of hip hop in our musical ears. Even though it's hard to tell in the finished album, a lot of the groove ideas came from hip hop artists that we love, particularly Kendrick Lamar. We were also super inspired by the grooves of contemporary minimalist composer Nik Bartsch.
A practical question: do you rehearse together a lot, or do you rehearse a lot individually and then come together to fine-tune? And with so many members, is it possible to jam or improvise sometimes?
We definitely love to jam and improvise and have had the opportunity to perform a lot of improvised film scores to old silent films. We even scored a silent play! So we have developed and continue to develop a language as improvisers together. We rehearse a ton before tours or recordings, but then we're on tour most of the time and do a lot of the fine tuning on stage. It's amazing how much more detailed our parts get as we play them on tour. Eventually though, things start to get sloppy again and we need to get back in the lab and work out the mush.
These were my questions for now. Thank you for taking the time to answer them, and thank you for making awesome art. The last words are all yours!
I hope our music helps people feel good. Thank you for helping us share it by interviewing me!