Human Nature: An Interview With Young Knives

Young Knives' first LP in seven years sees the brothers Dartnall plumbing the depths of human darkness and emerging with by far their best record to date. They speak to Patrick Clarke about their bold new sound, and why they no longer consider themselves a 'band'

Photos by Ian Wallman

Young Knives’ new record Barbarians plumbs the depths of human darkness. Its loose concept was inspired by singer Henry Dartnall’s reading of John Gray’s infamously bleak book Straw Dogs. “It’s this idea that human progress is a bit of a myth, and that faith in science is a bit like faith in religion,” Henry says. “People aren’t really becoming better human beings, there’s still as much barbarity in the world as there was, it’s just taken a different form. We always call it inhuman to be barbaric, but it appears to be a very fundamental part of what we do.”

That book concerns mass wildlife extinction, Soviet Gulags, the genocide of native Tasmanians at the hands of British colonists, and the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger to name but a few of its subjects. In addition, the Dartnall brothers looked into the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority figures, an investigation into the psychology of genocide in which participants were made to believe they were administering electric shocks of increasing, eventually fatal, severity to other people. “A few people get very upset, but even the really upset ones carry on and do it,” Henry says. “One or two of them say ‘well the man in the white jacket is saying things very forcefully!’” They also researched the practise of Necklacing, a form of extrajudicial execution in which a rubber tire filled with petrol is forced around a victim and set on fire. “We were just imagining, kids must have seen that. That must have happened in many places, where public displays of violence were seen by very innocent people.”

For all the horror of its subject matter, however, Barbarians is not an austere or oppressive album. It’s extremely entertaining, full of ricocheting industrial riffs, pummelling beats and thunderous electronic rushes, as melodramatic and pompous as it is dark. “We didn’t want to make a massive moral judgement and say ‘oh aren’t humans the worst?’ It’s a bit more like, ‘this is just something that happens’. We seem prone to continuously wiping each other out and hurting each other, so the question is, how do you live with that?”

“It’s about how you think you’re stronger willed than you are,” adds his brother. “You think that you’re more in control than you are, but you’re much more driven by your base fears and impulses.”

“That’s why we made some shit records!” Henry laughs, a tongue in cheek reference to the band’s mid ‘00s run of spiky post-punk revival records; their shouty 2006 single ‘She’s Attracted To’ recently placed at number 34 in Vice’s much-discussed ‘Top 50 Greatest Landfill Indie Songs Of All Time’ list; their biography on Spotify is a fantastic retort to the platform’s algorithms that continue to group them with the likes of The Cribs and Milburn. “It is!” the singer insists. “You’re very suggestible when you’ve got a bunch of people standing around you saying, ‘you should make a pop record’, you start to think ‘well maybe you should buy your freedom.’ If enough people say it, you end up believing it.”

This time around, Young Knives were entirely independent. “We’d been led to believe when we first started that you just get taken to the studios and people paid for it. I knew that wasn’t true, but I think subconsciously you start to believe you can’t do it yourself because you don’t have the skillset.” Their last LP, Sick Octave had been funded in part by a crowdfunding campaign, some of the money going towards professional mixing and mastering, but this time they were intent on taking charge of the entire process. That’s part of the reason there were seven years between Barbarians and Sick Octave. “It was finished by late 2017, but I just kept mixing it,” Henry says. “I had quite high expectations of my own record. I thought we should be able to do this ourselves really. I never liked that process of relinquishing it to someone else.”

The complete creative freedom they enjoyed meant they could explore the whole breadth of their ambition in the studio, creating the epic lattice of texture that makes the album so enjoyable. “I think we were fairly bored of turning up to a studio and they say ‘start playing the song’ because it assumes that’s how you’re gonna do it. I think, we wanted to make an interesting record with everything that was available,” Henry says.

“Once we were doing an album where we had to play some piano on it and we wanted to do that ourselves,” Thomas recalls. “The Scottish guy producing it went ‘I havenae got time to wait for you two to learn the fucking piano!’”

Young Knives is no longer a ‘band’, the Dartnalls insist, so different are their methods to before. “We’re no longer a boy gang, we’re two brothers and sometimes we get people to come in and play music with us. We can expand on that a bit more, make it more of a title to stick everything under. We don’t even have to both be on all the songs anymore.” There have been times, he admits, when they’ve considered changing their name entirely. “It has a bit of baggage with it, we have thought ‘should we just sack it off?’ But then I thought, it would still be me and Tom which was kind of the essence of it. It would still sound like a Young Knives record.”

“That nasal vocal,” interjects his brother.

“And then you’d have to come up with a new name as well! My god! I can’t think of anything worse. [We thought] let’s just make the name into something different, let’s make the concept of Young Knives something that people like and battle with the demons involved with that, rather than just going ‘nah, let’s rename ourselves The Dipshits.’ It’s a terrible name in the first place, like Radiohead.”

This embracing of their mission to make Young Knives something completely different, in addition to their newly acquired total knowledge of the production process translates to a freedom that can be heard on the record. Tempering the darkness of its subject matter is a dynamism and textural richness; you can hear the fruits of Henry’s extensive mixing and remixing. “On Sick Octave we were still really a band with guitar, drums and bass, and we felt the need to not be that,” he says. “We allowed ourselves to chop things up if we felt like it, to remix a song if we felt ‘this isn’t really doing it for me anymore.’ It was less of a ‘let’s get the performance in the studio’, more of a ‘let’s make a great big collage of stuff’.”

It also gave them the space to explore their concept of barbarity at length, and to make it entertaining, too. “A little bit like how cartoon violence is,” says Henry. “We wanted to mix a bit of that into it too.” On ‘Society For Cutting Up Men’ Henry’s vocal soars with gothic pomp over a churning beat, as he sings about a ‘big, juicy arse’. “It was originally going to be ‘big fucking arse’, but I thought juicy was a bit more daytime TV,” he says. “There was always a bit of fun in our records that made me feel like ‘oh fuck, we’re a comedy band’. It’s such a fine line, I like music that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but when it gets too funny, I find that quite difficult. There’s lots of good music like that, like Future Of The Left, but we felt like we’d been a bit too funny in the past."

They were inspired as much by the grim addictiveness of YouTube street fights as they were Gray’s total nihilism. “There’s so many of them, it must have some kind of inherent entertainment value,” Henry says. “Everyone cranes to see the fight, so why is that?”

“They make my heart beat too fast,” he continues. “I almost stop functioning at the point where there’s a threat of violence.” The record’s colossal and nightmarish title track samples audio from one such scrap, grim but strangely honourable as onlookers cajole the combatants whilst also reminding them that biting is against the rules. “It’s a particularly visceral fight, by the end the guys can’t speak they’ve been in such an intense fight, and everybody around them is just managing it in a way that they want it to continue and continue fairly. That’s why we got a bit obsessed with them, they really felt like real moments of human ‘whatever-it-is’ on display”

Young Knives’ new record does not only get to the core of human whatever-it-is, it does so with such drive that it makes the delve immensely engaging – the same mix of terror, complicity and entertainment one feels while watching a street fight. It’s an invigorating album, not only for the listener. “I think it’s the best thing we’ve done, definitely, because it was totally our thing,” says Henry. “We made it, from beginning to end.” Having established complete independence, eyes are now firmly fixed on the future. “My only joy is the hope of the next one. The process is the funnest bit.”

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