Interview: Bent Knee
Bent Knee are an unique, mind bending art rock & progressive rock group who have been garnering a lot of buzz with the upcoming release of their fourth album, Land Animal. Ethos Live interviewed Chris Baum, the band's violin player, while the band was finish up their headlining tour in anticipation of the album.
EL: When Michelle and I are swapping our new bands with each other, we like to play a game. We pick 3 bands to ascribe the bands sound to. Which three would you choose to describe the sound of Bent Knee?
Chris: That’s a tough one. We’re grabbing bits and pieces from so many places, it’s hard to narrow the list, but I’ll take a crack at it. Radiohead shares our appreciation for accessible musical experimentation, Deerhoof shares a similar approach to song arrangement and quirk, and The Dear Hunter shares our affinity for dynamics and drama.
EL: Your upcoming album Land Animal features a great deal of experimentation and challenging composition while still maintaining a strong pop sensibility. Was this one of your goals in writing these songs? What else did you set out to achieve with this album musically?
Chris: One of our missions is to convert complex, challenging, “academic” musical concepts into accessible, digestible, enjoyable compositions. We’re influenced by work from across the musical spectrum, and we’ve tailored our writing process to allow for those influences to shine through our music. That said, our primary objective on Land Animal - and every other record we’ve made, for that matter - was to write a great collection of songs. Nothing more, nothing less. Every creative decision we make is to move the song forward and tell its story in the best way we know how.
EL: What do you believe makes Land Animal different from your previous releases?
Chris: We’re more focused on the concept of "groove" on this release. While our last record, Say So, involved quite a bit of experimentation with song form, we were much more interested in playing with rhythm - how it moves and functions underneath the melody - on Land Animal. A lot of this comes from our love and admiration of hip-hop's current landscape. Albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead have had a huge influence on our writing over the past year.
EL: Can you tell us more about the creation of the music video for "Land Animal?" What were you looking for with the visual representation of this record in illustrating its message?
Chris: The concept for the Land Animal video was to depict an artist being driven mad with his need for an outlet. Once found, his relationship with his work morphs from parasitic to symbiotic, and momentarily bliss is achieved as he communes and dances with his creation. Everything in life is temporary, though, and ecstatic contentment is no exception. In the end, we find the artist back where he started, staring at yet another blank page. We filmed everything for both the Land Animal and Terror Bird videos over a long weekend with Greg Bowen (Being Human Productions) in Baltimore, MD. Ben (guitar) and Greg have been friends since high school - they even played in a band together in their teens - and have been collaborating on projects ever since. Greg also directed videos for Leak Water and Hands Up, two singles from 2016’s Say So. Jessica (bass) invited her brother Tyler Kion's partner Jake Brasch to star in Land Animal. He’s an incredible actor and was previously lead on our video for Black Tar Water. Ben had been working with digital stop-motion in Adobe Animate for a video called The Flombus Lives, and we thought we’d use similar techniques to make Jake’s “art” swarm around him. We knew how we wanted the video to start and end, but the middle section, in which the artist enters the world of his creation, was still a mystery until Jessica received footage of a dance Jake and Tyler were learning. Perfect. We dressed Tyler in a black latex suit and filmed them dancing in the woods together.
EL: This is your first album on InsideOut/Sony Music. How has the transition been to a larger label for this release?
Chris: It’s been an exciting process. We were initially wary of working with such a large organization, assuming they’d eventually try to steer us in one direction or another creatively. We’ve all heard the various horror stories regarding major labels. So far, though, it’s been a joy and an honor working with the team. Our long-term interests are closely aligned, and nearly every idea we’ve pushed for has been given a green light. We’re anxious to see what their influence in the industry is going to do for the album once it drops on the 23rd.
EL: You recently finished up a tour supporting Thank You Scientist and are about to head out on a headlining tour. What was the overall audience reaction like throughout the TYS tour? What are you looking forward to in the upcoming headlining run?
Chris: The Thank You Scientist crowd was a perfect fit for us. We had a wonderful time on that run and miss traveling with the band. Regarding co-bills and support slots, the biggest challenge - and greatest asset - for Bent Knee revolves around the fact that we don’t really sound like anything else. The industry seems to have a hard time knowing what box to throw us into. On the flip side, we’re a malleable unit, and have sets of music that work for a wide variety of performance situations. Last fall we opened for the Dillinger Escape Plan, which seems like a bizarre fit at first glance, but we’d take the stage with our most intense material each night and consistently win over their audience. Looking forward to our upcoming headlining dates, it’s always exciting knowing that the crowd is there to see you, and watching attendance grow each time we return to a city is tremendously validating. There’s nothing quite like seeing people wearing Bent Knee t-shirts in the crowd and hearing them sing along to the choruses.
EL: The word ethos describes the basic morals that form one’s customs in creating their culture. Describe Bent Knee's ethos- what makes up your cultural input?
Chris: We’re always seeking to make the music we’d most like to exist in the world. We’ve tried throughout the band’s existence to foster a “try anything and see what sticks” mentality. Nearly everything has a place on the table before we start taking things off. Bent Knee functions as a democratic collective, and every idea is altered/honed/refined by the band before it’s ultimately embraced or discarded. It’s a painstaking process, and four albums in, I’m hesitant to say that we're anywhere close to mastering the approach, but we’re getting better. Everyone in the band comes from a drastically different musical background and continues to have contrasting artistic influences. Allowing these differences to co-exist together is the primary reason why we sound the way we do.
Interview by Michael DiGiulio