“The Band Moves As Slowly As The Riffs” - An Interview With Khünnt
, April 11th, 2017 09:04
Not just a rude-sounding name and a vital umlaut, this Newcastle band make some of the most elephantine ultra-sludge noise metal you’ll hear. They’re playing a rare gig at Desertfest soon, too. Noel Gardner has a word
If, like all sensible and rational people, you hold out hope that Great Britain will soon collapse in on itself and sink towards the Earth’s core, the island currently harbours a great many bands heavy enough to make this feel possible. The doom and sludge metal scenes, always an obvious check-in point for those who desire this kind of weight, continue to thrive, while equally great things are being cooked up in the realms of noiserock, psychedelia and general experimental meanderings.
And then you have a band like Khünnt, who come from Newcastle and who have a hobnailed boot planted in both camps.
Active since 2006, although often an elusive presence in that time, Khünnt’s two LPs and sprinkling of tapes, CDrs and digital flimflam showcase their foul, slothful approach to sludge. It sounds like a dying king carrying a flaming tar barrel up a mountain, in all its repetition and enlightenment-thru-endurance and pained shrieks. More prosaically, it sounds like – or, at least, is recommended to fans of – architects of the epic like Corrupted, Khanate and Amplifier Worship-era Boris, likewise gnarly crudballs like Noothgrush or Fleshpress.
Their relative inactivity is partly explained/excused by members having myriad other Tyneside jollies on the go. Most of the band (namely Matthew Baty, Sam Grant, Johnny Hedley and Adam Sykes) also play in howlin’ mad psych-punk partystarters Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, with Blown Out and Richard Dawson’s imminently-unveiled live band also in the mixer. Indeed, Dawson is an auxiliary Khünnt guitarist – with or without him, though, this band bring the tonnage, and upfront of their appearance on the Quietus stage at this month’s Desertfest London, I put some questions to the band, and a tag team of Grant, Hedley and vocalist Stephen Palmer answered them.
How active were the band in their early days, which I’m going to call 2006-10?
Johnny Hedley: We’ve never been particularly active. We're probably on an average of about two or three gigs a year. When we put the band together we had members living in Richmond [North Yorkshire], Darlington, Newcastle and the middle of nowhere. Our first ever show was at The Tap & Spile in Darlington. The lineup consisted of two bassists, a drummer, two vocalists and samples/noise – it was hideous, just what we wanted. I heard someone in the crowd afterwards saying, “I want 20 minutes of my life back.” We used that quote on posters for a while.
We loosely demoed the first Khünnt track with that lineup, titled ‘DIY Surgery’, but quickly decided to move away from the bass duo idea and promoted samples man, Sam Grant, to guitar and work more on the slowest, heaviest most uncomfortable riffs we could. It's a little bit of a hazy time really.
What kind of scene(s) did you move in back then? Which bands did you play with?
JH: We seemed to lurk in the fringes of the metal/grind/noise scenes of that time. We also played a select few improvised drone sets with varying different line-ups at a monthly experimental night called The Musical Restaurant at La Toscana in Newcastle. As a result of attending and playing those nights we encountered some of the best artists Newcastle’s underground noise/experimental scene had to offer: the likes of Bong, Mariposa, Phil Begg/Hapsburg Braganza, Stephen Bishop/Brothers Yemen, Richard Dawson and Jamie Stewart, to name a few, all played those nights regularly. These nights definitely influenced and inspired us.
How did the split EP with The Afternoon Gentlemen [Khünnt’s first release, in 2007] come about? They’re pretty different sounding to you.
JH: After honing our sound a bit more and recording ‘King Robert’, Will Westall, one of the original vocalists, spotted a post by The Afternoon Gentlemen on a forum asking for a band to do a split with them, we got in touch, they loved the track and immediately cracked on with getting the split made and out there.
I’m trying to think of when I first encountered you as a band and I’m not sure it was even as early as [2010 debut LP] Dead Eyes… which is probably my fault, but still.
JH: It took us four years to finally get Dead Eyes out there, which we initially funded and released ourselves. This band tends to move as slowly at the riffs.
There’s a fairly substantial crossover in membership between Khünnt and Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs.
JH: Matt, Sam and I have been experimenting with many different kinds of music in too many different incarnations for the last 15 years or so. It's pretty handy having such a close group of friends that just so happen to play drums, bass and guitar. Khünnt had been on the go for a good five or six years before Pigsx7 came about. Sam actually came along to a Pigsx7 practice with a view to taking some pictures for us, but ended up playing guitar and quickly became the main songwriter. At that time Adam, also a Pigsx7 guitarist, wasn't a member of Khünnt – he took over from Sam after Sam decided to step away from the band for a short while, then Sam came back. The history of Khünnt is a little complicated really – the band has had about 14 members over the years.
Did the older band make an executive decision to branch off and make music that ended up being the newer band?
JH: Forming Pigsx7 wasn’t an executive decision at all. Me and Matt came up with the band name and concept during a particularly stressful time in the studio with another band, made a MySpace page then forgot about it. A good few months later, Adam and our friend Angus approached us and said they wanted a jam with the Pigsx7 idea. The initial inspiration for Pigsx7 was early Shit & Shine, which quickly changed direction as the band started to take shape. So essentially, me and Matt were asked to join a band that we'd created and forgotten about.
Failures [the band’s most recent album, from 2016] is somewhat of a departure from previous releases – what made you want to change direction a bit?
SG: This release in particular has come at a point where we've felt we can do something a little more expressive, maybe in the ethos, without the indulgence of big guitar/bass riffs, or melody. It's obviously pretty simple in this instance, but the aim is, and has always been, to find that mood or space that the music sits on. Stripping the compositional element back I think has helped to lay bare the sonics, and the gravity of the mood that underlies the release. So in this instance the different direction has been effective.
Is it much of an indicator of how future Khünnt releases are going to sound or are you going to go somewhere else again?
SG: I don't think we could do this type of record again – or at least not straight after this one – or that it could be taken as indicator of where any future Khünnt releases would head. As musicians, I think we're all constantly learning and maturing; writing and playing in Khünnt has often been a means of catharsis that we enjoy having, as much as it has been about finding that something that is heavy and impacting.
An obvious facet of Failures is the way it uses repetition – is this inspired more by certain standout doom/sludge metal releases, or non-metal stuff, or a combo of both?
SG: It’s a bit of a nod to ideas in psychology of repetition compulsion. It has come quite specifically from people in the prevailing cultures, who seem happy to continually revisit what you could perceive as mistakes, or the mistakes of those in generations before them. Maybe that's a political comment, or maybe a broader nihilistic perspective on humans. It is a literal record in that sense, and I hope it captures something, even just a glimmer, of that heavy foreboding.
Is it important that people acknowledge the umlaut in the band name or is it more of an affectation a la Mötley Crüe?
JH: When we first sat down and discussed the idea of the band around the breakfast table at Matt’s mum and dad’s house in Richmond, I said “I want to be in a band called Cunt”. We had a slight inkling that a band name like that wouldn't sit well with many people, so worked out a way to put it across differently. We’d just discovered Khanate, they hugely influenced us as the beginning – the Kh is a little nod to them. We liked the look of an umlaut. Double N? Aye, go on then. Khünnt was born. You have to be a little careful when telling people the name – pronouncing it correctly is important if you don’t want a punch.
Richard Dawson features on ‘Failures’ and has played live with the band. Do you think there’s a clear lineage, or sonic connection, between his solo stuff and the Khünnt sound?
JH: We've all been big fans of Richard for years, I remember seeing him for the first time at The Musical Restaurant seven or eight years ago. He played a 15-minute long song about his cats, it absolutely crushed me. We invited him along to support us once too in Newcastle in the early days, which we regretted because he was so much better than us. He also featured as a clown in our video for ‘Brazen Bull’ too, so there had been little connections here and there through the years. He’d also quietly been a fan of what we’d been doing.
I had the idea of asking him to come along to a rehearsal after listening to the noisy guitar interludes on The Glass Trunk; I thought his playing style in amongst our sound would fit perfectly. I messaged him and he got on board straight away.
Is he still in it, or connected to it? Did he contribute any songwriting or just guitar parts?
JH: He’s appeared on Khünnt and Failures. We'’d already written those albums, Richard then came in and worked his magic over the top. It really added an extra dimension to our sound that had previously been missing. He'’s played live with us a handful of times, but is more of a fringe member that plays if he’s able to make it to a show.
Why the long songs? Is there a deliberate ‘endurance test’ element to the band?
JH: We consciously set out to make challenging and uncompromising music, something that is very uncomfortable to sit and listen to from start to finish. On occasion it backfires when we start playing live though, I sometimes think to myself, “Fuck me, this riff lasts for 45 minutes, I can already feel my eyeballs vibrating out of my skull and there's nowhere to run and hide.” But it can also be an extremely liberating feeling, pushing yourself into the black abyss surrounded by drone.
Is there a practical or indeed physical limit to how long you can play for?
JH: When we play we put absolutely everything into it, which can ultimately be quite draining. This may be a factor in why we play so rarely, we can't even handle it.
Are there any particular influences on Stephen’s vocal style?
Stephen Palmer: I suppose my vocal style has developed from listening to black and death metal when I was younger although I prefer a higher shriek to the more guttural death type vocals.
Are there lyrics being sung there or is it a John Tardy from Obituary kinda thing, where he wrote lyrics but his actual vocals were just him making noise?
SP: Often the ideas form from making noises whilst we write until I find a lyrical idea that fits. On our last release, my lyrics were inspired from reading Last Exit To Brooklyn, but only as much as taking an idea and seeing where it led me while recording. So there are some lyrics, but they change and develop when playing live.
How do you see the band’s relationship with the British sludge/doom metal scene? It seems a little more distant than it might be.
JH: I don’t think we play enough shows to have much in the way of a relationship with what’s going on out there. We’re the UK doom scene’s long lost great cousin that rarely gets invited to family gatherings. Khanate were a definite early influence on us and still are. But with regards to UK-based bands that have blown our socks off with their despicable heaviness in recent times would have to be Ommadon and Bismuth. They stand out an absolute mile. They both do bleak like no other in the UK.
You are however playing Desertfest, on The Quietus stage – are you looking forward to that? Are you impressed with the lineup in general that weekend and are you gonna try and catch a bunch of it?
JH: We're really looking forward to it, particularly as we’re sharing a stage with Bruxa Maria and Terminal Cheesecake. Our drummer Matt [Baty] will be doing vocals for Terminal Cheesecake that night too as their vocalist is away on tour with Gnod, I’m excited to see that! The obvious highlight for us all that weekend will be seeing Sleep.
Do you prefer the ‘run back and forth between several different pubs’ type festival or the ‘camp in a field and cook noodles in cider’ type festival?
JH: I do like the multiple venue type festivals over the camping experience. I’m not a fan of waking up at 6am in a sweltering tent covered in beer and puke.
How you are you getting on with writing new Khünnt material, when can we expect to hear it, in what format, on what label, what’s it gonna sound like, are you planning to tour it, where will the tour go? I don’t think that’s too many questions at once.
JH: Right now nothing is set in stone. There definitely will be more to come, but when that is I couldn’t tell you...