New music rarely can surprise today but, once in a while, artists emerge whose works are as accessible as they’re intellectual, and it doesn’t take any effort to be charmed and mesmerized by such creators. Boston’s BENT KNEE belong to this category: unlike many of their perceivably alternative peers, the sextet’s exploration of ethereal and noisy extremes isn’t “for the sake of it” kind of exercise, just because the result feels so organic – never more so, perhaps, than on the band’s latest album, their third full-length studio offering.
There are almost-hits on “Say So”; the audience only has to embrace the record. Too bad, then, BENT KNEE sometimes play to a very limited, if utterly captivated, crowd. Still, one may sense it’s just a matter of time before they hit the big time. While it’s happening, it’s tempting to tap into the ensemble’s collective conscious; that’s why, before the group’s Toronto gig, this scribe sat on a near-venue lawn with guitarist Ben Levin, singer-keyboardist Courtney Swain, bassist Jessica Kion and violin player Chris Baum for an engaging conversation. Read on.
– Guys, you are clearly getting traction now. Is it because the band are backed by a label now or vice versa: you got a record deal because audiences started paying attention?
Ben: Having the label deal has definitely helped us get traction because it’s enabled us to reach a new audience and gave as a sort of a seal: “Hey, these people are working hard and they’re serious!” [The listeners know that] Cuneiform wouldn’t sign bands that aren’t very active and trying to make the best music they can as much as they can. In terms of what came first – the traction from Cuneiform or us getting traction and then the deal with Cuneiform – it’s a mix of both, because we’d just finished a three-month tour last summer before Cuneiform approached us, and I think just the fact that we had been out for so long – it was our tenth tour or something – and that we already worked so much was important for the label in their decision to sign us.
– So having Cuneiform backing you gives you validation in the listener’s eyes?
Everyone (at the same time): Absolutely!
Ben: I don’t think labels in general will be that important or around much longer because things are just changing so much that the stuff that makes money in music is more based around live performance now, so unless labels start to play a bigger role in that economic stream… There’s not enough money coming in from recordings themselves, and a big part of why a label is useful these days is that seal of approval. But a lot of people still hold on to the idea that labels are the tastemakers and doorkeepers.
– But from a purely financial standpoint, would it be easier for you to operate now?
Chris: Yes and no. With Cuneiform, because of how much we tour, we’re actually our label’s bigger customers as we wind up purchasing our own records from them, wholesale, and then go out and sell the CDs at shows. It’s hard to say because we’re gaining a larger audience thanks to Cuneiform and, like we’ve been saying, the seal of approval has also helped us validate claims and propel our music forward, but at the same time, we’re making less per record.
Ben: That they do all that fulfilment, that’s huge. While we’re out on the road, we can’t be sending our records out to people who buy them; that’s something the label does that’s useful.
– The music that you play and that pulls people to the band is characterized as “avant-garde pop”; but what’s so avant-garde about it in your eyes?
Courtney: There’s a lot of experimentation in how we’re putting together different forms of the song, but I guess it’s a mindset more than a product. We’re most interested in creating something new: that’s the whole idea of being “avant.” There is a genre and a market for music right now where people are essentially creating the same thing to fill the specific needs of filling a silence in a cafe, people dancing; essentially, commercial music. And I think the whole idea of being avant is that we’re trying to create what’s new. Certainly, if we wanted to be imitative it could be imitative as a byproduct, but we’re trying to create something that’s more than just a regurgitation of what’s happened before.
– Do you have to somewhat restrain your experimentation to retain a pop aspect?
Jessica: I don’t think so. We’re going as far as we would like to go, and that’s both as weird as we get and as normal and acceptable as we get. Every new song kind of steers the ship in a slightly different direction with regards to genre or techniques that we’re tying together into our world, and we are always going in a new place.
Chris: Basically every genre label that has been given to BENT KNEE has not been coming from us. We’re not composing music to fit into any kind of genre box; we’re composing music that we like, and the only barrier for [a song] entry [into the repertoire] is that all of us in the band have to really love it and be behind it. (“Yeah” and nods from everybody.) We’ve never writing to make sure we’re in the pop box or the experimental box; we’re just writing music that we really would like to exist in the world, and then, after the fact, it gets labelled in a box as we have to figure out where to send it off to, but that’s not at all a part of our writing process, this consideration of genre.
– Many of your pieces are comprised of a few sections, and I think you could easily make a separate song out of each of those. How hard it is to construct such a piece, and how do you decide where to stop and not add or subtract anything from it?
Chris: With every detail you add to a song you’re either helping to create momentum or you’re destroying momentum, and I think a good song carries you through the whole way, so throughout the whole song you’re engaged as a listener, and it takes you on a journey to the end. When we’re creating sections, we’re trying to further the story and push the momentum forward, so sometimes if things are very secular and the same thing is happening over and over again, it can be helpful to make a sudden change to very new territory, and that’s why we can sometimes fit maybe two songs into one of ours. But then, when we draw the line, we’re not going any further and not adding any more sections because, eventually, if you keep adding too much stuff you blur the whole experience so it doesn’t feel like a journey anymore – it feels like you’re lost in the abyss. That’s how we gauge it – is this furthering the momentum of the song or is it hurting it? – and then we consider what to add.
– Is your Berklee background helpful in this process or is it restricting creativity?
Jessica: When I studied songwriting at Berklee, we learned a lot of songs with really strict forms, and so I feel, after writing songs at Berklee, I always have what a song should be according to people who study songs in the background. But when we’re writing in a rehearsal, I don’t think it changes how we feel about the song we’re working on. Maybe as a principle we prefer not taking to a normal [musical] form like A-B-A-B-B, B, B, B forever (laughs) which is very popular right now. In general, we all like to have more sections than just A and B, or at least have a reason why the song winds up being whatever it becomes.
– But isn’t a simplification to call your composition “a song”?
Ben: The quote I like to call on all the time is: “Lyrics make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. Songs make you feel thoughts” [slightly distorted Yip Harburg’s words. – DME]. Our goal is to make you feel the thoughts, so calling it “a song” is appropriate as long as there are lyrics.
Chris: If there are lyrics and the piece itself holds its own outside of a larger structure, that’s the only requirement I see for a song.
– Did it take you long to learn to collectively construct a song? I feel seams on your debut album but sections flow into one another seamlessly now.
Chris: It’s getting quicker. When we first started doing this, having six people with creative ideas and strong opinions and different backgrounds in the same room, there used to be a lot of butting of heads, so especially with “Shiny Eyed Babies” when we were hashing all that out, it was like pulling teeth because we couldn’t all come to agreement on anything, but we were committed to this idea that everyone needed to agree on everything, so it took a very long time to actually finish that record and turn it in. But since that process happened and we’re all very happy with the outcome, things have gotten much quicker just because we trust each other a lot more and we can validate each other’s ideas. So, it’s getting faster but it still takes a while, and part of our process is: someone will bring in a core of a song and then we all hammer away at it, and once it’s in a playable format we play it out, and we play it in front of an audience to see how it feels to us and see how the audience reacts, and then we take it back to the workshop and continue working out the kinks. Then we get it to the studio, and the last step of our writing process is sitting down with it and continue to reshape it so it takes on its final recorded form.
– Going from quiet to loud section and back again is an assault on the senses. Is it vital for you – especially from the vocal perspective?
Courtney: Is moving dynamically necessary? Oooh, it’s a good question. I was talking before about how we want to do something new, and that idea applies to what we do ourselves, but at a certain point it’s really hard not to repeat yourself, and one thing that we do repeat or we do rely on is that everyone’s playing loud, because there’s a certain visceral feeling to just being hit with that wash, that assault on the senses as you described it – there is something to that. But we’re trying to keep it up there and not use it too much, so that when we do use it it’s because we want to conjure a really intense feeling in a listener, but also because we want to express something within us. Most of the music we write is based on something that happened in our lives, although sometimes we write it like a story that we made up, but even if it’s someone else’s experience that we’re all performing, it’s because we all think of ourselves as introspective people and we need that relief of playing loud and playing hard: it’s just the way that we cope with life… at least I’m speaking for myself. When we get back from touring and stop playing out for a while, we’re emotionally constipated in a way. I think I’m more of a performer than a writer and, for example, Ben’s more of a writer than a performer; but my medium – one that I’m most connected with – is performing in front of people. So in that sense assault on the senses is sort of a need.
Jessica: Just to add to that, I think that a cathartic experience for us, and for the audience more importantly, is playing really loud and then playing really soft or stopping. It’s something that a lot people don’t expect. It’s a very interesting thing to do to an audience, because I feel like a lot of dynamics are flattened with a lot of bands who play loud or soft for their entire performance. But to abruptly go from really loud to really soft is magical!
– So you consciously put an element of surprise into every song, right?
Courtney: That is a byproduct of our method. Sometimes we’re being surprising on purpose, but sometimes it’s just what we feel the songs need, and it might be surprising but it does happen. (Laughs.)
– Is there also an element of synesthesia in the thing that you do?
Ben: There is definitely a sense of imagery that we all get from what we hear in some form or another, but since none of us has synesthesia full-on, and none of us agrees, “Hey, let’s make music that’s the color red!” or “Let’s make music that reminds me of water!” we don’t go and do that, so I don’t know if it translates very strongly in that way.
– Orchestral scope of your pieces like “Little Specks Of Calcium”: do you use it for the best sonic expression or for theatrical presentation?
Ben: For sonic expression, for sure: we’re looking for a sound first and foremost. An original electronic version of “Little Specks Of Calcium” that existed before the band worked on it was not dynamic; it was pretty flat – it was kind of neat flat! But when we started playing it didn’t really feel great; it was part of where we got that exploding sound from, it worked live – it was working.
– Would you like to work with a real orchestra at some point?
All at once (laughing): Yeah. Yes. Sure. It would be awesome.
Ben: I’m scared of brass in arrangements, but yeah, bring it on, bring an orchestra.
Jessica (laughing): Tell them!
Ben: Tell them to give us an orchestra! (Everybody laughs.)
Chris: We’ll make good use of it.
– Did all the elements I hear in your music – vaudeville of “I’ve Been This Way Before”; hard rock and opera on “Styrofoam Heart”; doomsday blues in “Way Too Long”; PINK FLOYD’s “Great Gig In The Sky” in “Dry” – come from your influences or was it just the way the songs go?
Chris: I think they both tie into each other, and the influences are responsible for the way things go. But going back to your earlier Berklee question – whether it was of benefit to where we are now – it was of benefit because we all met each other there, and that’s been hugely important. I would venture to say that the best thing I got out of Berklee was the other five members of BENT KNEE. But we were also exposed to a lot of different genres of music, and we all come from completely different backgrounds: whereas Coutney studied classical piano and I played in orchestras, Ben’s influences are more like guitar gods and hip-hop; Jessica’s inspired by singer-songwriters, Gavin [Wallace-Ailsworth, drummer] loves bizarre prog rock, while Vince [Welch, synths player] is a huge NINE INCH NAILS and RADIOHEAD fan. All of that stuff – especially because we write in this democratic way – smashes into each other and, rather than choosing one direction to go in, we just embrace the cacophony and try to make sense of it after the fact.
– Is there a tendency in your songwriting now of drifting towards epics such as “Eve” or “Being Human”? Or you just develop songs to that extent?
Ben: “Eve” became more epic for the same reason that “Little Specks Of Calcium” did: the band is capable of tremendous dynamics that are hard to capture in a demo. When “Eve” was first coming to be, I didn’t think it was going to be quite as epic and long and morphing as it ended up being, so it’s definitely a result of our process that led us there. And “Being Human” might be the best example of accidental epicness that I can think of, because it didn’t have heaviness to it. The original demo was groovy and funky, then it turned to ballad and then it was funky again, and now it’s a ballad, then heavy rock, and then incredibly heavy rock, which was not a plan – it just unfolded that way when we were working on it.
– Another color in your palette is vocals that are processed live. How did you arrive at this approach?
Courtney: We started as a band when Ben and I were trading sound files – it was like a laptop project – and then Vince started working with the material because he was looking for a school project. He recorded several of our songs, and we loved the way he treated the vocal. It was such an important part of what made the songs so strong, and the way those songs turned out made us realize: “Maybe this is something powerful and we should take advantage of it when we’re playing.” So when we were putting together the band, we decided that we wanted to have someone whose job would be just to manipulate vocals. It’s a really cool thing about our band, and it’s one of the primary reasons we’re considered forward-thinking, not just in our songwriting and compositional practices, but also in terms of technology – Vince, the guy who does all that stuff, and Chris are very up-to-date with what is possible with a computer, and Ben too – so when we write a seed of song or when we write as a group, our possibilities are extended by what’s possible with computers and effects processing. It’s a large part of our writing; not just part of our sound.
– Your imagery is rather dark and ambiguous: do you think it makes it easier for the listener to relate to a song by adding their own experiences to it?
Jessica: I think so. Lyrically, we all have different styles, but one thing that works with us is when you have a visual theme. It’s not all about “I feel sad because you left me” and saying things like this in any of our songs. It’s a way to express those things that you feel without actually saying everything you feel: it’s showing you instead of telling you. People feel it because they can put our imagery into their lives.
– To me, your lyrics convey the sense of fear. So what are you afraid of?
Ben (laughing): On the first album, I was scared of being alone, and the lyrics reflected that. Courtney, I think, was scared of being sick in the head, of being mentally alone, closed off and seen as someone wrong. Then, on “Shiny Eyed Babies,” when our lyric-writing process evolved to include everyone, the range got broader and maybe harder to summarize, but it’s always spread throughout everyone’s lives, with immortality being a fear: running out of time or losing the ones you love and not living up to your own moment. Those things that are scary to everyone.
Chris: “Shiny Eyed Babies” also reflects our feelings of finishing college and going out into a world where we were unsure if we had made the right decision in studying music. It’s such an ambiguous thing to step out of the cocoon of a music school. You’re just drowning, treading water for a while. Our new material encompasses a lot of thoughts of, “Well, we’ve made music we love, we’ve played it in front of lots of people, and it still feels like we’re not moving anywhere” (laughs). It takes a lot of self-encouragement to overcome those obstacles as well.
– I think your “Babies” would have made a great playlist together with Alice Cooper’s “Dead Babies” and “Billion Dollar Babies”…
– … and looks like you’ve finally arrived at a hit with “Hands Up”: do you feel like it’s becoming one? More so, is it a surrender to happiness?
Ben: You’re right there. That’s maybe the first twinge of happiness in our catalogue. It’s still got anxiety to it, in the lyrics, but it’s a pretty doting, loving song. It’s influenced by this artist Kimbra that we all like who writes more poppy music, and we wanted a song like that; it’s a strange song even though it seems somewhat poppy, especially in the chorus, so I don’t know if it’s going to be a hit…
(Everybody starts laughing and talking at once.)
Courtney: It took on a progressive form. It feels like the first BENT KNEE song where we need a radio edit, like, just trim it.
Ben: No, no, no.
Chris: No, no.
Jessica: We will not do it.
Ben: We’ll make that radio thing start like, (sings) “Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding… Hands up! Buy my album!”
Chris: I don’t picture our career trajectory ever having a “hit” in the traditional sense of the word, necessarily. The people who tend latch onto BENT KNEE – and any of the artists that are similar to us, for that matter – are much more canny listeners than I would put into this traditional pop song – “Here’s a hit! It goes on the radio! It feels good!” – type of camp.
Jessica: I feel like if we ever have a hit, it would be the kind of situation that OUTKAST had in “Hey Ya”, where it sounded like a hit to some people, but then, when they actually put the single out, it performed terribly and people were turning it off because it sounded different. What ended up happening was the disk jockeys were encouraged to put their most popular song, and the second most popular song third, sandwiching “Hey Ya” in the middle (laughs) so people would eat it, eat that sandwich!
Ben: If we got a hit, it would be a nice surprise.
Chris: I don’t think we’ll ever purposefully engineer one. We’ve never said, “Let’s write a song that’s a hit.” We can make money someday. (Laughter all around.) “Being Human” from “Shiny Eyed Babies” was a song that no one expected to be the standout of that record – internally, anyway – but it caught on fire more than anything else on the album. Anthony Fantano from “The Needle Drop” was the very first major player in the music press world who latched onto the song and shared it on his blog: it was our first real sense of what press could do for a band, and it affected us so much that we ended up delaying the release of the album because we just needed more time to establish a proper PR campaign behind it. All because of the legs we gained through that one blog. So again: if we get a hit, it’ll be great, but we won’t be able to predict that at all.
– These songs do hit you sonically. So how important is such a physical manifestation of your music?
Courtney: Oh, it’s hard to play for people who don’t look like they’re into it. We’ve been touring America a lot and we’ve played plenty of shows with no one there, so we’re completely capable of playing well without an audience – it’s just a lot harder, and we play much better when people are enjoying it. It created a minor problem for us: the first time we went to Japan – Ben, Chris and myself as an acoustic trio – we were playing and we were surprised that people in Japan don’t look at their phones, they don’t talk: it’s like an actual concert there. Everyone is staring with zero expression on their face. It was very bewildering. It was like: “I don’t know if this is going over well…” so we were clueless until the very end of the shows, when people said they’d had such an amazing musical experience. We would respond with: “Oh, we wouldn’t have known!” That’s something that we have to learn to trust. People generally seem to like our music, so you’d think that we would believe it by now, even if people didn’t show it in their expression. We put a lot of stake into our music and we’re all sort of needy people in general, so we feed off the energy of the audience, and our best shows are when the audiences are really expressive about their appreciation.
Chris: And the manifestation that we can all agree on regardless of audience is, if we hit one of our very quiet sections coming out of a very loud section and we can’t hear anyone…
Chris: That’s an amazing physical manifestation of an audience. It’s just a sure sign that people are listening and paying attention, giving our music a chance to resonate.
– Talking about amazement: the cover of “Say So” reminded me of Dorothy coming out of the forest on the Yellow Brick Road and admiring the Emerald City. What was the idea behind the artwork?
Ben: It’s actually about two forces meeting: one that is small and one that is large and powerful. The small is a narrator who is trapped in a difficult situation, and the large force is the situation itself. That thing is manifest in a lot of different songs on that album, so having the cover be someone small and vulnerable making her way out or, perhaps, deeper into the darkness – that is a really cool cover. She could be headed into another patch of dark forest or she could be on her way out: it’s not entirely clear.
– There were at least two configurations of the band, right?
Ben: We had at the very beginning a laptop, file-sharing version of me and Courtney but then, in the live sense, this configuration has been dominant. BENT KNEE became a real band when we established the line-up we have now.
– So what’s so special about the people in the band, except that there are two couples among you?
Jessica: I think we balance each other out emotionally, which is really important while we’re on the road. And I think we also balance each other out musically, because we’re all coming at the compositions from different angles.
Ben: It’s one of the most important things: for a band to be happy and continue existing, everyone’s got to get along pretty well, and that’s really hard with six people in difficult circumstances in close quarters. But this band is good, this band is truly good, because people in this band bring out the best in each other and make it possible for us to be good even on our worst nights – even when we’re feeling depressed or disagreeing. When we’re writing, it challenges our relationships because we’re all together for a long time debating constantly. That’s the nature of group-writing: it’s a large debate that everyone agrees is worth having, and it takes a long time. So when you get into a room full of people with strong, and sometimes drastically different opinions, you’re going to have constructive disagreement. It takes a lot of chemistry for you to give your OK.
Chris: You’ll also be surprised with how difficult it is to find a group of six excellent musicians who not only get along and complement each other creatively but are willing and able to sacrifice everything that needs to be sacrificed to do what we’re doing, which is touring around in a van and living in quite uncomfortable situations for many months out of the year. We’ve all put our lives into this – we built our lives around this band – and finding people who connect and want to do that is really difficult.
Ben: We’re really lucky.
– Your approach to writing involves staycations, improvisational potlucks and object writing: is this all your modus operandi or method to the madness?
Ben: They’re an essential part of what we have in common: we all like music as a means of growing in addition to the performance and recording aspects. Music is like a companion throughout your life to help you understand the world, so when we get together to improvise, we understand socialization and human nature and ourselves; when we get together for an improv potluck we learn a lot about who we are, and it’s all of these musical settings that help us become stronger and happier. So yeah, these methods ended up being an essential pieces of the pie, but I wouldn’t have expected them to be a prerequisite for us to do what we’re doing.
– But what we can learn about you from your photos? You’re image-savvy, with mirrors on your eyes and stardust on your shoulders. What does it all mean?
Ben (laughing): We’re just trying to look cool!
Courtney: What can we do is free associations and make it…
Jessica: …what hasn’t been done recently!
Ben: Low budget means mirrors and candles.
(Laughter all around.)
Ben: I can get flour; I’ll put flour all over my face! There is a candle; put it on your head!
Chris: Our press photos are built around the idea that we need to have band photos, and we need people to become interested in the band through the band photos.
Jessica: And we just don’t like the typical band photos.
Chris: We’re just trying to design scenarios where people see a photo and go, “I should listen to that band.”
Courtney: When you see a photo of FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE, you know what they sound like, to a certain extent, so we’ve started trying to achieve that by having odd photos. I’m not sure if it ever encapsulates all of what we’re doing, but it should be intriguing and a little bit different.
– Would you call your music “paramedic for our ailing souls” if you allow me to quote yourselves? You heal yourself and your listeners?
Chris: Absolutely, yes. That would be the ultimate goal.
– But what can you give to a person who’s already happy and doesn’t need to be healed?
Chris: Being happy day-to-day relies on a certain sense that there are things in the world that you didn’t know about yesterday that you can find out about today. Even if you’re happy with life, continuing to be happy means filling yourself up with new exciting bits of the world, and music is part of it.
Jessica: I don’t think anyone is forever happy.
Courtney and Ben (at the same time): Yeah. Exactly.
Jessica: There’s always a time in life when you need something, and the hope is – at least for me, when I started writing music or thinking about being a musician – to offer something similar to what music did for me when I felt really bad. There was a time in high school, and it’s a tough time for generally everyone, when I’d just go home and put headphones on and cry listening to music. Songs like “Being Human” are for situations like that, I hope.
Chris: It’s important for me to eat, and I’ve had some pretty amazing meals, but eventually I’m going to need to eat again, and eventually I’m going to want to eat another amazing meal again. To remain happy you need to have all of your essentials met, but for many people – and I think it’s just a part of being human – consuming creative things and experiencing life through other people’s eyes is essential for growth, which is essential for happiness. It brings us closer together with everyone.
– At this stage of your growing popularity, is there any artist BENT KNEE would bend a knee to?
Ben: Oh, many.
Chris: So many.
Ben: I would bend a knee to Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, and just about anyone who’s older than me. (The rest of the band laughs.) EIGHT BLACKBIRD, TUNE-YARDS…
Chris: Nik Bartsch.
Ben: All of the people who write stuff better than we do. I feel like I’m getting my ass kicked by music on a daily basis now.
– Do you think with the success of this album there’s going to be a moment when you say “Told you so!” about “Say So”?
Ben: I don’t know, but we have a lot of support. We’re really lucky because there hasn’t been a whole lot of people saying, (in a rough voice) “You guys suck! No one’s ever going to like your music”; we’ve had mostly people say, “Keep going, we believe in you!”
Chris: So maybe we’ll say, “I told you so!” just to ourselves, for all the times when we were doubtful and worried, but I don’t know if we’ll ever say that to anyone else.