by Harry C. Tuniese
From different locales, six youngsters come to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, seeking to elevate their musical knowledge. Soon they form Bent Knee, a genre- defying art-rock collective. Fiercely innovative, the band bridges the gap between the experimental and the familiar, merging texture and style into music that’s moving, addictive, confident, and original. They draw from an expansive sonic palette edged by the touchstones of progressive rock, heavy psych, baroque pop, and the avant-garde. Their sound is new and their scope is vast. The band – Courtney Swain (vocals/keyboards), Ben Levin (guitar/vocals), Chris Baum (violin, vocals), Jessica Kion (bass/vocals), Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (drums) and Vince Welch (synth/sound design) – combines immense depth and musicality with enthralling melody and arrangement. Touring constantly and reaching new converts nightly, Bent Knee is high art for the masses.
It’s serendipitous how I happened upon the group. I heard a couple of Courtney’s tunes on a compilation album, which led me to the Monstre album, and it knocked me out (my #1 album of 2015). When I interviewed her for The Noiselast year, she was adamant I check out her band. Since she was singularly imbued with so much talent, I figured to give the big package a listen in performance. Needless to say, I was blown away from their opening number and bought their Shiny Eyed Babies album immediately. Have been supportive ever since.
Since the group started with a friendship between Vince and Ben, let’s have them offer an early history…
Vince: Ben and I were roommates when he and Courtney starting making demos together. Eventually, as I was studying production and engineering at Berklee, they needed to make a professional sounding song as a class project and we recorded “Styrofoam Heart.” They put together a band in 2009 – Ben on guitar; Courtney on keyboards and vocals; Riley Hagan on bass, who’s on the first album; Tyler Lavander on drums – and it was a slow evolution. Tyler quit before the first album, so we got Jeff Hale for a while, and then we landed Gavin in 2011. By now, Chris and I had joined full time. When I started working with them in the second version, I was playing guitar – mostly as a MIDI control signal – but I soon switched to keyboard. We actually had an accordion player, Phil, for a brief time. But please forgive me, I have a bad sense of narrative cause it all merges together.
Noise: Since I’m only familiar with the band over the past year, how did you become the producer, someone who shapes & guides the project?
Vince: As you know, I’m not the first person to do this sort of arrangement, but I’m unique because my intimacy with the material from the ground up allows an objectivity that merges with the creativity involved, not apart from it. The results have been successful and interesting so far. I like the new album (Say So) more than Shiny Eyed Babies, though it’s like going up to a mirror and pondering whether you’re a good person or not. It’s hard to see yourself so objectively, though we’ve done our best. I’m already looking forward to the next album because I hope that will be an even greater departure from what we’ve accomplished so far. The core of our technique for the past two albums has been to go in and record an obscene amount of material for each song and slowly chip away at it until we have that final arrangement. Hopefully we can have a more focused, fully developed approach – and ha! a lot more money – which will take us into more interesting directions.
Ben: Vince and I met even earlier in 2005, when we were enrolled in Berklee’s five-week program, so when we finally got there as students, we rekindled our friendship and became roommates. The Bent Knee project came about when Courtney and I would share our writing adventures and ping-pong ideas in various ways. It ended up in the cold electronic feel – trip-hop like Portishead – removed from humanity, but with the human fragility of Courtney’s voice. When we actually started performing these pieces, as opposed to the recordings, we knew we were onto something more formidable and impressionable. So although the early material was missing some magic, we knew we had some good songs and we evolved. Right now the only thing that matters is the current version of Bent Knee.
Noise: At what point did the idea of this collective really begin to take shape? As each new member joined? Or as the tone of the material changed? Or the maturation of the members?
Ben: I think the idea of Bent Knee is always evolving. Over time, as we’ve toured and spent more time working together, we’ve gotten tighter musically and inter-personally, and it is through that gradual process that the band has become what it is presently.
Noise: Great bands rely on the members chemistry. As it is right now, you’re a streamlined sextet without a weak link, exuding tremendous confidence. Because sometimes it takes a while to achieve the bigger picture, were you aware of this as each new person arrived?
Courtney: When Ben and I were putting together the beginnings of what is the current Bent Knee, the only people we asked to join us were those who we really trusted and respected as people and musicians. In that sense, it’s not surprising that the band’s relationship is what it is today. That being said, I think what we have right now is so solid only because of everything we’ve gone through together. Chemistry is a living breathing thing, and it wasn’t a given back then, and neither is it now. We’ve worked to get here, and we continue to work to get better. Did we know there was so much potential? We thought there was in our young, giddy, naive way, but speaking for myself, I don’t think I anticipated how strong we could become back when we started.
Noise: What was the Berklee experience like for each of you? Was forming a band one of your ultimate goals? When I spoke with Courtney before, she was determined to get the big picture and understand all aspects of the music biz.
Courtney: My life and who I am today would be very different if it weren’t for the experiences I had in and around Berklee. That being said, every time I get together with or meet other alumni, a lot of times we end up hating on certain aspects of the school or the administration. In my mind, Berklee is like a giant ongoing experiment, which makes it easy for people to see the flaws or problems in the parts that are undergoing refinement. I’ve heard that other colleges and conservatories have the same problem where you have to seek out the best of the school to make it worth your time and money. In that sense, maybe Berklee isn’t that unique. As for myself, by the end of my four years I managed to get the most out of my time there. I also can’t understate the caliber and breadth of talent that the school draws, and being in that pool of musicians alone is quite an experience.
Noise: Shiny Eyed Babies was an extraordinary musical statement, which propelled you to new heights in composition and performance. Did it seem like these songs pulled you forward or did you push them into shape through constant gigging?
Jessica: Shiny Eyed Babies took about three years to write, record, and mix. In that time, our music tastes changed, we grew up a little as people, and we indeed played a ton of shows. I think there were parts of these songs that were above our abilities when they were written, and we had to rehearse a lot and rearrange a lot to get them to what they are now.
Noise: To follow up that thought, I know you had composed this new album before you went out on last year’s tour and you consciously used that experience to shape and refine the tunes prior to recording them. Would you continue to use that very smart strategy as a modus operandi?
Jessica: Yes, that strategy of tightening songs on the road worked well, although if the songs had serious problems with flow or energy, I’m not sure we would have been able to rearrange it on the road as we had no rehearsals, just shows. The songs ended up getting what we call “tour tight” and it took one day of tracking to get the basics for every song, which was unprecedented.
Noise: I love progressive rock and have been following it for many decades. Though it’s been now categorized as a “sound.” don’t you see it more as a set of ideas that stretches concepts of your abilities? I see it in both of Ben and Courtney’s solo work, which challenges their own notions and stylistic tendencies. As you continue to develop, will other members offer their own visions?
Gavin: I believe that true progressive music is more about incorporating new and exciting things into music, it could be different sound textures, technologies, song forms, or anything. I find it unfortunate that prog-rock has come to be known purely as odd time signature acrobatics and twenty minute songs (though plenty of music that I love is like that). As for our development and incorporating everyone’s vision, I think we’re already doing that. Everyone has input on every tune, even if they didn’t bring the original idea to the group. That way the compositions all come out as having everyone’s distinct flavor in it somewhere. A great example of this is the tune “Being Human” from our Shiny Eyed Babies release. Courtney brought in the original demo for the tune, which if memory serves ended at the bridge. As a band, we composed the rest of the tune in rehearsals.
Noise: Many of your tunes sketch schemes of struggles, relationships, connections, loneliness, or depression into a patchwork that form an exquisite whole. Stories are often impressionistic phrases rather than a linear story. How do you write and how do you finalize these songs? Since you choose to portray yourselves as a collective, under one moniker, would you mind breaking down some of the new tunes – who started the music, the words, the themes?
Gavin: A great example of our writing process is the way we came up with the tune, “The Things You Love” from the upcoming album. Jessica had written the lyrics and chords for a section of the tune (“Because the things you love…”). She thought it would be cool if we somehow book-ended that part with something. We experimented with a few different things, and eventually Courtney started playing a Gamelan style riff on the piano based on something she had learned before. We tinkered with that and used it in the tune.
Noise: Since you improvise so fluidly, how do you react to and categorize your ideas? Do you write music that has references to your influences? And who are some that helps define your group? To be honest, it’s hard to identify your mentors because at this stage of your existence I find you uniquely original.
Ben: We have improvised together a lot as a way of composing film scores and for studio experiments. In those settings, we are often recording our improvisations and discussing or planning around them in some way, so the sounds get stuck in our heads. For Say So, we recorded the songs as we play them live and then improvised overdubs on top of them. Vince later sifted through these overdubs in search of gems to use on the album.
As for our influences, I think we all channel our individual influences subconsciously as we write, but since the band has such a melting pot kind of writing process, the influences get diluted and hard to pinpoint. We are all at least somewhat into Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens and Tune Yards, but I don’t think we connect over sharing influences as much as we connect over a desire to push ourselves and explore.
Noise: Working with composition and improvisation on an equal level, using many contrasting forms, different dimensions, randomness, or parallel directions which weren’t necessarily meant to express anything specific other than to work within the frame of the piece itself, as well as mature musical shifts in tempo, meter, and dynamics – is this the secret to your talent?
Chris: You touch on many of the elements that make this band unique, but I don’t think there’s any real secret behind the music we make. We follow whims. We take chances. We trust each other, and don’t allow ourselves to settle. Each member brings a vastly different musical background and skill set to the table, and all internal ideas and opinions are carefully considered and weighted equally. Above all of that, though, we create music we’d like to hear in the world. Perhaps there’s a lot to be said for that.
Noise: The sound of the band goes way beyond its lyricism, especially with the deft touches your sound mixer/producer Vince achieves. Do you collect samples and loops from rehearsals to offer him as sound fodder? Or is he always open and certain of the effects he wants to achieve for your performances? Is everything always discussed?
Vince: We’ve rarely used samples, either live or in the studio! And on the occasions we do, they tend to be very heavily manipulated. As far as the effects I use, I’m given pretty much free reign. Sometimes other people will have ideas for effects that they’ll suggest, or sometimes they won’t like something I’ve added. In either case, we’ll try to find something that everyone likes.
Noise: What do you hope to achieve with Say So? With its bold, atmospheric, and clever sounds, as well as incessant touring over the past several years, you’ve just been signed to the national independent, progressive label, Cuneiform, which is the dream come true and an ideal situation. After eight years of shaping the band, you’ve finally reached a rich culmination in focus and style. This is the start of the next level in your career – you are very lucky and deserving.
Courtney: Say So is the best thing we’ve made. So were Shiny Eyed Babies and Bent Knee (their first album in 2011) at the times we released them. Every album is a step up, and a milestone in our upwards growth. The million-dollar question is which step are we on? Where are we in the grand scheme of the upswing? Are we on an incremental or exponential path of growth? Who knows! It’s probably unwise to spend too much time pondering this, so we’ll just put our heads down and work on our next opus. I guess the short answer is that “We hope to reach more people than before with our music, which will get us a step closer to making a living from our art.”