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Interview: Bent Knee on being ‘slightly obscure,’ living life on the road, and making music for music lovers

 

Bent Knee scan as perfectly well-adjusted, responsible, healthy, hard-working, productive members of society who pose no physical or psychic threat to anyone. But I don’t buy it.

Frankly, while Skyping with four of the six Bent Knee affiliates — as they soaked in some downtime from a 50-commitment D.I.Y. cross-country tour at their synth player’s mom’s house somewhere outside Atlanta — I suspected they concealed their true nature, possibly for my own protection. “Normal” people couldn’t play in this band.

Now, if keyboardist/vocalist Courtney Swain, guitarist Ben Levin, violinist Chris Baum, and bassist Jessica Kion had shown up to this interview decked out as if lately banished from a steampunk convention, and told me last year’s Shiny Eyed Babies was actually written by succubi and essences of long-dead silent film stars conjured during chaos magic rituals… that, I would’ve believed.

 

The Boston-based band regularly get tagged with the “genre-defying” cliche — which sorta, kinda fits. But even if they don’t have a genre, they do fall into an aesthetic tradition alongside the likes of Reverend Glasseye, early years Dresden Dolls, HUMANWINE, Beat Circus, and other Boston art rock organizations who refused to make music that could possibly bore anyone. But make no mistake: this ostensibly non-threatening gang of ex-Berklee kids do not color outside the lines. It only sounds that way to the rest of us, because only Bent Knee know what the picture is supposed to look like.

Following their welcome home show Sunday at O’Brien’s In Allston, Bent Knee tell us they’re on their way to Q Division Studios to forge a fresh collection of tunes, tentatively scheduled for mass consumption in the spring of ‘16. The new material has been described as “charmingly incohesive” and “less sad” than Shiny Eyed’s atmosphere of amped up melancholia. “[That record] was full of blockbusters, I suppose,” notes Baum, midway through this correspondence. “And this is more like indie films.” Bent Knee also inform Vanya readers that the most recent Vampire Weekend and Kendrick Lamar albums are both pretty great.

That’s a good segue into our interview…

 
 

Barry Thompson: Now that every music venue in Boston is closing, do you think touring will become more essential for Boston bands?

Chris Baum: It depends, really. Touring is essential for us, because we have ridiculous aspirations, including playing giant venues and touring the world and all that. But if your goal is to play for a few people and experiment with sound, you can do that wherever you want.

Ben Levin: People could benefit from, at least, playing in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and nearby places in New England. I feel like despite how close New England cities are, it’s not an entirely unified scene. New venues in Boston will inevitably appear because of the closings, but while the new venues formulate, it’d be great if as a result of the closings, there could be a more unified New England music scene.

You mentioned you’ve got anecdotes from this tour. Let’s hear ‘em!

 
 

Jessica Kion: One time, we went to a convenience store where everything was breaking. The ATM took two and a half minutes to reboot, or something. When I went in, there was a fellow who worked there, pushing this long tube into the soda fountain machine. He said, “This is so weird — I’ve got to fish a snake out of there…..”

Whoa. What kind of snake was it?

Kion: I didn’t see it.

Levin: Probably not an amphibious snake.

 
 

Do you remember where this happened?

Kion: It was early in the tour… so, Ithaca? Or maybe even close to Topeka? There was a guy outside the convenience store who told us what a great city Topeka is.

Levin: We were playing an acoustic show in Oregon to three folks. Two of them were listening with expressionless faces, and the third kept her eyes closed. The two expressionless people left — and I try not to assume the worst, because there are so many reasons why a person could leave — but it’s still like, “Ah, man, fourth song and they’re gone?”

Kion: I had even talked to them before we played.

 
 

Levin: She’s a great schmoozer, and she schmoozed all over them, and they still left. But as we were finishing, the lady with her eyes closed was like, “I’d like to buy eight albums.” We had two albums, and she brought four of each. So that’s the power of our ability to misread a situation.



There’s a big audience for off-kilter art rock in Boston and New York. Do you have difficulty finding bands you make sense on a bill with out in further-flung cities?

Courtney Swain: Pretty much everywhere we go, we prefer bands who work hard and bands who do what they do well, instead of bands who fit with us. There aren’t too many bands that we make a lot of sense with, but I’ve been really surprised with how well we’ve fit with metal bands and punk bands and folk bands. Audiences can be strangely okay with how weird we get.

 
 

Baum: I’m so grateful for this — it almost seems like people who love music happen to like us. I mean that in the sense that there’re a lot of people who won’t venture outside of their genre of choice. But there’re always people at shows who just love music, or music that resonates with them, and it doesn’t necessarily matter what kind it is. In that respect, it hasn’t been that difficult to find bills, for the most part. For instance, when we played the Campbell Bay Music Festival on Mayne Island in British Columbia. The guy who runs it loves our music and wanted us to headline this folk festival, which seemed absurd. Then we played, and it’s probably our most memorable show ever. We couldn’t believe it. So many good things have spawned from that one single incident, and this was a folk festival where most people were playing bluegrass.

Levin: I was flattered by an interview that described as a “slightly obscure band.” I had never been “slightly obscure” before. I had always been “thoroughly obscure.” That festival — in a few people’s minds — made us a slightly obscure band, as opposed to incredibly obscure.

Bent Knee tunes are collaborative efforts, as opposed to the more conventional paradigm, where one or two people do all the songwriting heavy lifting and everybody else just learns their parts. What’s the advantage to the more democratic method?

Levin: More than anything, it gives people freedom to grow their role. So if one person does the writing and everyone else learns the parts and maybe makes suggestions, then you have these very defined positions. That’s good for business, but it’s not really good for songwriting, because when everyone has the right to review whatever we want and defend it, then we start expanding the definition of what we do and what a song can be.

Kion: All of us working together causes a lot of friction, but yeah, because we all want to steer things in different directions, the songs end up not going fully in anyone’s direction, and turn into a mixture of everything and feel new.

You guys know Mighty Tiny (RIP). I interviewed them a few years ago, and asked “So where’d you guys meet?” and the drummer went “Oh, Berklee,” and the rest of the band was like “Dude, SHUT UP, don’t tell him that!” Do you have a take on the stigma surrounding Berklee in Boston?

 
 

Levin: Well, at Berklee, students get worse at music while they’re learning new skills, and ignoring the talents that got them into the school in the first place. For instance, some people come into Berklee as classical players who want to do something like jazz or bluegrass. They have to learn to improvise, and when you’re first learning to improvise, you’re pretty stiff and pretty uncomfortable at it, so you sound bad. You could be this incredible musician who’s just four years away from being good at improvising, but at first, you suck. Then you start a crappy bluegrass band where everyone’s stiff and still reading off charts. Then people see this stiff, crappy bluegrass band that’s reading off charts. Then when these students graduate, they’re quite good at the new skills, but really bad at the ones they used to be good at. So two years after graduating, they’re good at their original skills again, and by then their bluegrass band might be also good, and audiences might say, “Wow, it’s a bluegrass band that also does chamber music with a bluegrass flair. That’s pretty great!” But those who see the end of that process are the minority. Debt is pretty high when you graduate. People give up.

Kion: A lot of people move away.

Levin: We’re lucky because the six of us are all on the same page.

Baum: At MIT, unless they’re a genius, the first couple pieces of software a student builds aren’t going to be very good. But the thing is, people don’t see those.

Kion: They’re not trying to sell them right away.

Baum: Whereas at Berklee, part of the learning process is playing in public, which means you have to go suck in public. Therefore, Boston has seen a lot of Berklee people sucking in public, including all of us.

 
 


I gotta ask — the first time I listened to “Sunshine”, I got about two-thirds of the way through before I realized it was a cover of “You Are My Sunshine,” and that’s while I was paying attention to the lyrics. It’s kickass, don’t get me wrong, but when you were discussing doing that song, were any of you like, “Are we seriously doing this?”

Kion: Well, we were listening to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack on our first tour, and I pointed out how depressing those lyrics are. Everyone thinks that’s a happy, sweet song you would sing as a lullaby or something, but the roof of that facade got blown off. So it put the idea in our heads that it’d be a special song to do.

Baum: Throughout the lyrics, if you go verse by verse, the singer just slowly goes more and more insane, so there’s this weird dichotomy between that and the traditional melody and chords. The way we built that song, that’s what we were going for; slowly but surely becoming insanely obsessive.

Any non-Bent Knee records you recommend?

Levin: I personally have been very obsessed with the new Kendrick Lamar. It serves as a perfect example of how on any given day, you can listen to something that totally changes your view on music. Y’know the classic, “You don’t know what you don’t know” kind of thing? The forms and the beats and everything about it are surprising and fresh to me. It woke me up, musically.

 
 

BENT KNEE + STANDBY + ANDREW SMITH + ART SCHOOL GIRLS :: Sunday, August 16 at O’Brien’s Pub, 3 Harvard Ave. in Allston, MA :: 8 p.m., 21-plus, $8 :: Facebook event page