After A Healthy Interval: The Young Knives Interviewed

Nick Talbot of Gravenhurst offers a mea culpa, a unique insight and a robust appraisal of the newly invigorated and under-appreciated rock group, Young Knives

When their debut album The Voices Of Animals And Men was nominated for the 2007 Mercury Music Prize, Oxford trio Young Knives found themselves unwittingly filed alongside a clutch of mainstream post-punk revival bands. Considering this was a time when people were taking Bloc Party seriously, it was surely a mortifying scene to be swallowed up in. But while Young Knives had much to distinguish them, not least their strong songwriting, witty videos and colourful lyrical palette, I count myself among those who underestimated them. Indeed, it’s possible I never even heard them, but wrote them off anyway on the basis of a set of ugly prejudices.

They were just another band who wore ties, and I hated bands who wore ties.

While occupying this earlier typhlotic model of myself, my band played an unexpected joint-headliner with Young Knives in Paris. They were very friendly and told us of their frustrations with their label, who were, they claimed, trying to tie them into a 360 deal which would allow them to keep all of the band’s tour merchandise profit. I didn’t see their set but I bought one of their ‘Keep It Turning Over’ T-shirts featuring a scene from the song ‘Counters’ – a crappy little car with a hosepipe from the exhaust fed back in through the window. I didn’t even notice what it was depicting until my friend Robin was darked out by it. Aside from appreciating the morbid humour, I didn’t think about them again until their single ‘Maureen’ came on the radio earlier this year, boasting the spasmodic pop immediacy of XTC’s ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ with a more sinister narrative. This came at a time when I was excited by new possibilities in music and realised how much I had missed out on over the years. I contacted them to say sorry for being a miserable sod back then and congratulated them on a phenomenal record. Band kingpin Henry replied saying thanks, but that he didn’t recall me being a miserable sod.

It became apparent that the band had their own label and a finished album, Sick Octave and when I heard it I immediately asked to interview them. I partly wanted to assuage my guilt for past behaviour, even though it seems much of that was in my head. But, now hugely impressed with their back catalogue, I was just a fan who wanted to meet them.

Had I paid attention to their set in 2007 I would have heard tracks from Superabundance, their impressively slick second album of high-speed power pop and moving hymnals to native culture, echoing early Blur at their dewy-eyed best and none of their Mockney worst. If you loathe class tourism as much as you should, you’ll be relieved to hear that Young Knives are happy enough exploring their middle-class, state school-educated concerns. (As Henry from the band once put it, all the musicians around him dressing like tramps went to private schools.) Their England is populated by straw men and salarymen; pagan festivals and pop festivals; Nathan Barley and John Barleycorn; sacrificial daughters and Sunday roast lamb. On their debut album they had even managed to make suicide funny. Here, they repeated the joke; it was still funny. But underneath the humour lurks an uneasy Arcadia; in between the chimes of power chords lie faint peals from a bell tower on a spring morning.

My abiding memory of them in 2007 was a pained expression on Henry’s face. With a label happy to waste twenty grand of the band’s recoupable promotional budget on a single photo shoot, they realised their career was slipping from their grasp and sought to claw it back.

But after setting up their own Gadzook label, their 2011 release Ornaments From The Silver Arcade signaled something of a false start. Compromised by management interference and production problems, the sequenced disco pulsations surge forward but are yanked back by faint post punk photocopies of an earlier time. So after three albums released in the slipstream of the mainstream, the band finally opted for complete control. They took day jobs, built a studio, taught themselves to record and pursued their music with a singularity of purpose that can only come from hard-won freedom.

Sick Octave is the result, a brilliant and bewildering roar of conviction from a band reaching a creative zenith. Its sharply observed character studies and cautionary tales of suburban psychosis are fueled by anger and humour in equal measure, and delivered with a studied but wholly unaffected Englishness and a controlled chaos reminiscent of PiL’s Metal Box and XTC’s Drums And Wires. I met brothers Henry (vocals/guitar) and Tom ‘House Of Lords’ Dartnall (vocals/bass) and drummer/vocalist Oliver Askew in a pub in Oxford and spoke to them about their circuitous route to DIY.

I’ve met four different bands who had Mercury nominations, and they were all ambivalent about it to some degree. I get the impression that once that happens you get written about in a different way, and if you aren’t out there winning the Mercury every year, people assume you must have split up.

Henry Dartnall: We were really negative about the Mercury when we got it, because we were a bit cocky; we didn’t really want to be in a competition to be the best in music because you might lose it. So we were a bit off-hand about it. It gets milked doesn’t it? "If Q gave it 5 out of 5 maybe there’s something in it." People look at stuff like that, and whatever you may think, so do you. So do we all.

Tom Dartnall: The worst thing about it is when there is that perception that you are on a downward spiral, and you meet people and you know that they are thinking, "They’re on a downward spiral; used to be big, Mercury Prize, downward spiral" and you think, God, this is so depressing, because you can’t explain to people ‘It’s not like that! That’s not how it works!’ because then it looks like you are trying to cover up that you are on a downward spiral. Even my mother, she’s like, ‘I hope this album does better..’ and it’s like, that’s not the point mum…

Oliver Askew: [adopts mum voice] You’ve had a good innings haven’t you Thomas…

TD: "You’ve had fun but we all have to grow up!" It’s alright, it gives you something to rebel against still.

HD: I think subconsciously it had an impact on us as well, because we had signed to Transgressive, and our manager knew that there were conversations with Warner Brothers going on, so we went from being signed to an indie to then being on a major. And while it’s still sort of what sustains us, it means people know who we are, it also means people know who we were. The double edged sword.

Looking online at past articles people frequently pick out the fact that you once wore tweed. If you put something in a press release or an interview in jest, it haunts you forever.

HD: Tweed geek rockers. But I think people will eventually see past it. It is your job to be better than that. It’s not your job to complain about it – that’s because you haven’t done anything more interesting than yes, wear tweed. That’s why I keep going at it! We can write better music than the tweed-wearing story.

I’m interested in the journey you took from being on a mainstream label where decisions were made for you to where you are now, having complete control. Superabundance is a slickly produced guitar record; is it right to see Ornaments From The Silver Arcade as a stepping stone between that sound and Sick Octave? Because you had your own label by then, but you still worked with a producer.

HD: Yeah, I felt like we were sort of talked into using a producer. It was like an assumption that we needed to do that, and by the end of it, once we’d gone into the studio and overdubbed a whole load of stuff that we’d demoed, because we didn’t have enough time to record it properly – nuts! – we were like, "If that’s good enough to put on a record, doesn’t that mean…?" Because there is always the fear that you can’t record it at a high enough standard and you think that to do drums really well, you’ve got to put twenty mics up! Because that’s what "they" do! And a six grand room mic!

And you’ve got people on forums saying "There’s no point spending anything less than nine grand on studio monitors, it’s pointless", and if that was remotely true almost everything that has ever been released on, say, Warp Records shouldn’t have come out.

HD: Yeah. So there is a great fear that you have to overcome. We were being offered to make another record in a studio with a guy that we respected, cos he’d done Public Image’s Flowers Of Romance, so we thought, "This is gonna be great, this guy is gonna be bang into the record", ‘Terra Firma’ was one of his favourite records of all time, and sometimes you need that confidence. But it was a confused record, because our manager was basically A&R-ing it and got involved in the music, and started going, "You need to bring this down to its perfect essence". They are the kinds of people that chop the bottoms off emails so that you can’t contact the person directly, and I think he probably spoke to the producer and said, "This is where Young Knives need to make a big slick pop record."

TD: I got that distinct impression. I asked him [Nick Launay – producer] outright if he’d had that discussion and he just said "No". And I was looking at him going, "You definitely had this discussion, and if you haven’t had it as a discussion, our manager has at least said to you, ‘That’s how I want it to be.’"

HD: That album was really beset by the fact that we had already recorded it once and the demos were exciting, and then I had some inherent problems with some of the tracks, that some of it was too cheesey. You know, pop music is cool. And I wanted this to be cool. I don’t want this to be just, like, nice. Like ‘Everything Falls Into Place’, I knew that sounded great when we first recorded it, it sounded hard, more like The Rapture, you know. Quite a few of them, even ‘Woman’ did. But you can’t see the wood for the trees when you are recording, you think it all sounds wicked, and you’re looking forward to the mixing, putting big delays on it, and the producer wouldn’t do it; there was no extreme mixing, it was very subtle. And the thing that people always say about L.A. is there’s a sound, as a community of people. And that’s what that record sounds like.

TD: We were in a studio that used to be owned by the drummer from Toto.

HD: It wasn’t a really swanky studio, but it still cost fifty grand! And then you’re like "Hang on!" Look, on eBay, you can get a desk for a grand with 48 high quality preamps in it and you just have a digital interface, and surely then you’re recording. So we just saved a bit of money from festivals. We all got jobs and instead of waging ourselves we spent it on equipment. We spent less than three grand. We bought a D&R desk, it was supposed to be the one that was used to record ‘I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt’. It’s got broken bits and bits that are gaffa taped on. And on Sick Octave, we’ve done what we’ve always talked about. You’ve got the basic song then you cut the shit out of it, and it’s great because I like making collages, and having accidents.

Serendipity is crucial.

HD: Yes, and that doesn’t happen when a producer wants you to stand in a room together and get it better and better and better – accidents don’t happen that way. That wasn’t an unpleasant experience, it’s just we didn’t have the options, and were being pushed in all sorts of directions. We should have just had the balls and said we’ll record it ourselves. But people won’t give you money if you say that!

It sounds like you were ready to but didn’t know you were ready.

HD: But even with this record at the beginning I was like, "How the fuck…" I could see hours of sitting in front of the computer and trying to work out where the buzz is, and thinking there are massive holes in my knowledge, and you talk to sound engineers and they know all about frequencies. So I was trepidatious about starting it. because we started spending money on equipment and that’s like buying a new pair of trainers cos you wanna get fit. Or joining the gym and saying "Well that’s that sorted then!"

TD: The period of us fiddling around with the gear and going "Actually we need another mic" was actually longer than the recording, but we were writing at the same time, and we could have actually got stuck into it, but were like, "Not quite yet… Not quite yet…"

HD: And right up to the point when I took it to the mixing engineer I thought, "Does this sound like a professional recording?"

So you engineered and produced it all yourselves and then someone else mixed it?

HD: Yeah, David Wrench mixed it. He did Caribou, Race Horses. We figured, that’s what Arcade Fire do; they record and record on a broadcast desk in a big old church and then send it to someone to be mixed with reams of notes.

I think I’d really benefit from that…

HD: Well, it still costs a shitload of money. You should be able to do it all, but…

It’s hell of a big ask, to expect to do it all yourself on the first record you produce.

HD: It’s an epiphany when you realise the "right" drum sound is just whatever we want it to be. And you hear horror stories, like about Joy Division and New Order just spending days on a snare sound, and there is too much procrastination and too much analysis, and we don’t have the patience for that. We fuck about with it until we think, "Ah there’s a load of boof on that! That sounds boofy!"

I think that’s what everyone does though. I think a lot of sound engineers and producers are guilty of rationalising after the event, and building up a narrative and a myth about how they did it and they don’t want to admit to their own lack of knowledge in various areas.

HD: But at the same time, people say, "Just use your ears" but that doesn’t mean anything if you haven’t disciplined yourself to think about what it is that you want with reference to other sounds. I’d never thought about making records before. I’d just sat there and someone else had dialled it up. And because you’re not doing it, you’re not connected to it, so you can’t see how twisting that knob makes it sound different.

TD: We were having discussions between ourselves about drum sounds whereas before that we’d never actually had that discussion, except after the fact, when we’d got a mixed record back and you go, "Oh. I don’t like that. The guitars sound shit."

HD: So this time I just went in and was like, do anything. If it sounds fucked, I’ll put something on the snare, and I’ll record the sound of a metal bar hitting a wall, and I’ll put that on. And that’s what I wanna do, I wanna make that record. And we tried all sorts of things that didn’t work. And we cut stuff out and got rid of stuff, and people always go on about, "You get the performance, you get the performance" but it totally depends on what kind of fucking record you’re making. The best drum takes were when you [Ollie] didn’t even know the part ’cause you didn’t have time to learn it, ’cause you were working full time, and we were like, "come over and do it in an hour" – and it was better, ’cause back when we were all standing around in those studios playing together, we couldn’t think about the sound.

OA: But saying that, the tracks we did do live, we did in one take.

HD: Yeah. We split it up. We thought, "This needs to go faster and [this needs to be] slower and [this needs to] be energetic." And we’d never done that before, we’d always played to a click. Even when slowed down, they’d program the click to slow down! But [on Sick Octave] the ones where there were mistakes in there, when you were playing it for the first time, we were like, "Yes! That’s the one!" and you were like "Really?! I thought I was fucking up!", "No it sounded awesome!"

I want to ask you bit about the lyrics…

HD: Well I can give you a low-down – lyrics are all about trying to sound clever, put words in that you’ve not heard in songs before, make it sound like it has some vague mood or meaning, and then say "That’ll do won’t it?’, and they’ll go "Yeah that’s great, that’s better than lyrics other people do… Just whack it in." It’s all about the delivery.

Yes, ’cause in say, ‘Marble Maze’ you’re detailing things that are quite routine and suburban, but you’re delivering it in such an intense way that as a listener you can’t help but take it seriously. Like tapping into a slightly more unhinged version of yourself. It sounds like you were really able to get immersed in the characters on this record.

HD: Yes. The things is, every time you do a record with a producer, someone is analysing your vocal take as you do it, and you can’t fucking do it. "Why has my voice gone all tight? There’s a man watching me…!"

My Bloody Valentine used to cover up the windows of the vocal booth.

HD: I need more than that! ‘We Could Be Blood’ I did one my own, I put a little res-lo on the window sill, closed the curtains. ‘Maureen’ I recorded the vocal forty times, and I went back and there was something I didn’t like about it, and that was the first recording we made for that album, and I kept bits from different performances, and it all changed when I put in that keyboard which no-one understood for about six weeks. It’s got that dun-dun-dun-dun and Tom was like, "It clearly doesn’t go with the bassline" and I’m like, "It does" and I had to get my wife up, and she said it all really worked.

It sounds like if someone wrote a song with a strummy guitar, say, did an arrangement around it, then just took that guitar out, dragged the original frame right out of it, in the way Eno’s work with Bowie works, and XTC in a lot of ways. All the middle is ripped out, and you’re just left with the adornments in syncopation.

HD: Exactly.

TD: We do that so many times, write something on guitar, record the vocal along with the guitar, then just keep the vocal. ‘"Heroes"’ is a classic for that; I don’t know but it sounds like it was written to a bunch of chords and they took them out; there’s no ‘backing track’ as such.

HD: On ‘Marble Maze’ you said, "Why don’t you just scream the fuck out of it", so I did, and it was too… it was very John Lydon. [Does John Lydon impression to much laughter]. And it sounded a bit contrived, so we left it for a few months, then came back to it and for some reason it had settled down; I knew it so well I could play with the melody more, rather than think about the words.

You don’t have time to live with it when you’re working in a studio with a producer.

TD: We’ve had that problem before, where we’ve done vocal takes, and afterwards you know exactly what you should have done with it, and so you end up singing it differently live.

HD: ‘Maureen’ got ridiculous. I thought, "I’m just killing this", but actually that track required hours; I’ve never spent so long on a song, and some of it was trying to fix the fact that it sounded like a song that we’d written four years ago, which it was, and it sounded like an indie band song, and indie band trying to do a Kraftwerk track, and I thought, "It’s too much fun! It shouldn’t be fun! It’s too upbeat! It should be deeply disturbing."

It is. It reminded me of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads series of monologues; it’s a character sketch but via an unreliable narrator who is giving away stuff about himself while talking about someone else.

HD: I wish I’d thought of it like that!

OA: Remember that for future interviews…

HD: With the lines, "I live near you… I live for you" it gets a little bit more intense; there’s the ambiguous nature of whether he’s a bit of a pervert or just a guy whose intentions are sound and is just a bit of a weirdo, or maybe what she’s going through is really, really bad, but you can’t tell from his point of view; the guy’s a bit too weird to be trustworthy. I knew it had that in it.

It’s in that English tradition of very bleak comedy that you would struggle to explain to a foreign visitor exactly why it counts as comedy. Like Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, and Dear John.

TD: Dear John was classic!

HD: And Sorry!

I think you have to grow up in this country to understand why that kind of hopelessness and despair could be remotely funny.

OA: The last episode of Dear John where he goes to America and he just throws a shirt in a plastic bag, and you could tell he was going to fail. It was like …Reginald Perrin.

HD: I spent a long time getting the right amount of despair and evil into that lyric to make it not fun. The keyboards help, they make it a lot more discordant. It was a half-dreamed track. The first verse I woke up with, "I hope you don’t mind me asking", but not the chorus.

It’s a real money-shot chorus, but you don’t over-egg it, you only do it three times.

HD: Ah – but you see it wasn’t originally; it was harmony bliss at certain points, it was ridiculous and I couldn’t work it out, and in the end it took Dave Wrench to pick out the main vocal that he liked – and you can’t really hear the rest of them – and the two really simple notes, "Mau-reen, Mau-reen", probably started out as harmonies to the original notes.

The character in ‘White Sands’ I immediately thought of a coke-snorting A&R or booking agent bragging about the amount of pills he’d taken. "I took a hundred of these!"

HD: Actually that’s the most confusing track.

TD: Confused lyrics because we were having some kind of discussion about washing powder…

HD: It’s almost a political statement, but without any kind of teeth, about the West’s fascination with desert countries. "Detergent, wash it out." Cleaning them up. It was supposed to imply that.

TD: I always thought the line, "The last great man in the Western world" sounds like a much cooler Obama. Like in Idiocracy where the President is an ex-wrestler.

HD: That’s why I like doing songs like that, because it doesn’t matter what it means when the whole thing has got a really good feel about it. And every lyric you write has a little meaning, that’s the reason you write it, but the whole thing doesn’t have to have an overall meaning.

In the song ‘Something Awful’ – just the phrase itself "something awful’" is such an English thing, it’s something my mum would say. I had a bit of a nightmare with it, you always do, but I had more fun this time when you free it up. In the song ‘All Tied Up’, there’s the line "Weapons out at the count of three – we’re going to fuck you up" – have you seen that Pinter poem American Football? It’s obviously an American soldier, and it basically just goes, "Yeah we fucked them up! We blew the fuck out of them! We shot their fuckin’ asses till they came out of their fuckin’ ears! Hooray for us!" It’s a really blue poem, but its brilliant, people say it’s just a stream of obscenities but it’s really enjoyable to listen to because it’s so blue, but also you know exactly what it means, and it doesn’t matter that it’s an almost sixth-form point – that Americans just like war.

So ‘All Tied Up’ became the most political song I’ve ever written, even though it’s only a hint. But there’s the idea that with the British military, the whole way it is sold, is never about shooting the shit out of someone, it’s preventative military, and there is the idea that even Prince William saves lives, he’s out there in his helicopter, the Mines charity, they’re all doing their bit, their military activity is all about looking after people. Then there was all the firemen at 9/11, they become an image of what it is to be American, almost [an] Athena poster. The people needed that – not to say that they’re not heroic, it’s just the way that it’s used, the imagery. And the English have the same thing with their military, with the soldier that was killed recently – some people who are friends of mine put things on Facebook that I just read and thought [exhales sharply] "Jesus Christ!" You’ve been sold a story and you’ve bought it. Yes, it’s terrible that someone died, and it’s shit that somebody used Islam as a fucking excuse for doing it, but it really is just some dicks killing a guy – it’s not Islam killing a guy.

People got very confused. Clever people got confused. Really weird. And it’s all about what is reported on the news. I had to put something of that into a song without making an obvious punk, Gang Of Four sort of, ‘I Love A Man In Uniform’ reference. I still wanted to make it a fun song.

You don’t have to write a really specific lyric because the way you sing it, "We’re going to fuck you up!" and then the very English "He’s a killer – he’s alright!" conveys the emotions and the way these people behave, through the delivery. I think that’s probably the best way of handling the desire to make political points in music, because songwriting isn’t really the best medium for marshalling an argument.

HD: It’s like using music for charity. I’m with the Freddie Mercury school of, "It’s just a fucking show." He didn’t wanna do Live Aid. He said, "I’ll do it on the proviso that I don’t have to make a point about people dying in Africa – I have an opinion about it but I don’t want to use my music [to explain it]." And I don’t want to use my music to make an overtly political point, but the thing is, you write about what you feel, and I really hate the way the news – just by what they choose and the order in which they choose to present it – even my mind gets changed by those things. Just by saying, "The attackers are believed to be Islamic", or "It is believed to be a race-related attack."

And with ‘All Tied Up’ it’s about being presented with the ideal form of hero, and it’s all tied up – the guy who goes up the tower, saves a load of people, that’s him, he’s it, he’s the guy you wanna be. Everything’s right. It’s just a made-up thing to make everyone rally together and feel good. But we never made that point that strongly, did we?

TD: No.

The line in ‘Green Island Red Raw’ "I’m sick of living my back story over and over" – is that a reference to zombie press releases?

HD: Yes. ‘Green Island Red Raw’ is probably the deepest, most meaningful song on the record! "Chasing the big glory / Sleeping beside you / Dreaming right through you." It’s about ignoring everyone, and that’s how it felt making that record. You think, "God I’ve got a curtain rail hanging off that I need to sort out, there’s a load of weeds growing outside, but I literally haven’t got a second to do it, and I’m lying in bed thinking about the swing of a beat".

‘Green Island Red Raw’ is just about that, milking the shit out of a record. Going off around the UK again… "Gonna do Bath Moles again… Go and do that venue again that no-one turned up to last time, yeah… Let’s go and do it again." We had someone on the front of the stage [puts chin in hand] doing a thumbs down at us the whole time. It’s the feeling of having to work to people’s expectations, when you get caught up in it, and want to please them all, and this whole record was, "Let’s definitely make sure we don’t do that", because it’s no fun. If it’s crap and everyone hates it, so be it. Let’s just do what the fuck we want. We still wanna make music and we don’t give a fuck who likes us.

Every time we turn up to a venue, it’s always a load of lads in the support band, an Oasis type support band – still! – every venue that we get booked into that we don’t take our own support, it will be lads with Epiphones with a fucking Union Jack on the front, doing some kind of lad-rock. Haven’t you noticed that that is not what we do? Anybody who sends me a tweet with the word "lads" in it get ignored. "Alright lads, how about a gig in Nottingham?" Fuck you, not for you. It must be like when Nirvana wanted to get rid of all the Guns N’ Roses fans. I’m sure there are better reference points than that, but it’s the first one that occurred to me.

So now you’ve cut all the ties with any of the people you could feel a sense of obligation towards.

HD: Yeah. But they’ll still say it’s indie rock. "Good one lads, sounds like the Roses!" No it doesn’t! Stop it!

Sick Octave is out on November 4 via Gadzook, with Young Knives starting a UK tour in Oxford on October 26; for full details and tickets, head to the band’s website. Gravenhurst play the Bishopsgate Institute on Friday night

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