Kavus Torabi is a busy man. Even before we sit down to do the interview proper, he’s talking about rehearsing with the post-Daevid Allen line-up of Gong and the challenges of honouring the band’s legacy while continuing to make new music.
This is in addition to being guitarist in avant rock gods Guapo, boss of boutique label Believers Roast, DJ partner of Steve Davis on the Interesting Alternative radio show and, most importantly, bandleader and creative force behind Knifeworld, whose third album Bottled Out Of Eden is the reason we’re meeting today.
Just as Steven Wilson has become the majordomo of all things nu prog, so Torabi has come to occupy a similar position in a tight-knit, post-Cardiacs world where the music is playful but challenging, gloriously melodic but often fearsomely complex. Torabi was a member of the Cardiacs when the band were forced into an indefinite hiatus after Tim Smith suffered a heart attack and series of strokes, and in many ways, Knifeworld have carried forward the torch of this particular type of music since their first release in 2009.
However, with their new album, they may well be about to take things to another level. While 2014’s The Unravelling received some rave reviews, it was still characterised by the type of sudden mood swings and dense, twisting arrangements that even in prog circles can alienate as many people as they delight. Bottled Out Of Eden is a different beast altogether, pulling off the trick of immediately engaging the listener’s attention without sacrificing the joyful complexity of the band’s sound. When Prog tentatively suggests that this is a much more accessible Knifeworld, Torabi laughs and nods enthusiastically. “That was sort of the idea!
“It’s not an attempt to go commercial,” he adds, “but after the last record, which was very knotty and navel-gazing in some ways, I wanted to write something that was ‘up’.”
Melanie Woods, Torabi’s co-singer and percussionist, agrees with this assessment: “It’s not compromised in any way – there’s still a lot of intricate stuff on there. But if somebody was checking the band out and heard those first three tracks, they would keep listening.”
Indeed they would. Opening song High/Aflame fades up on a cosmic drone over which Torabi sings ‘The devil keeps a close watch on his entryphone,’ like a puckish Brian Eno, before a driving bassline pushes the song heavenwards. The Germ Inside has a Robert Fripp-esque riff, but it’s the handclaps and fruity sax that make it really swing. I Am Lost interlaces jazzy piano and brass lines with a soaring vocal from Woods, then explodes into a climax of strutting guitar and spacey synth. It’s a confident series of songs that set the stage for the rest of the album.
Knifeworld’s approach to making Bottled Out Of Eden has made all the difference, as Torabi explains: “The Unravelling was probably the hardest record I’ve ever made – it took about two years, with lots of editing and re-recording. I wanted to do something more immediate, with the songs written in a very short period of time.”
Much of the material was also played live before entering the studio. “We learnt it as a band and went out and toured it, really broke it in and made changes – does this song need that third verse? – stuff you only realise when you play it live.”
There were other stipulations too. “There were going to be no solos on this record and I also wanted it to have piano. The previous album is all Fender Rhodes and for better or worse, it puts people in mind of the 70s and so I thought the piano sounded more timeless.”
Bottled Out Of Eden was recorded over nine days last September in the Pyrenees. Much of it was recorded live, with overdubs kept to a minimum. Torabi also ceded production to Bob Drake (Thinking Plague), who mixed the previous album. “This time, I just wanted someone else to worry about miking up and engineering so I could concentrate on the singing and the arrangements.”
He doesn’t believe that Drake was responsible for the album’s more direct sound, but agrees he played a pivotal role in “getting the best performances out of everyone”.
One of the defining aspects of the band’s sound is their three-piece wind section of bassoon, baritone sax and alto sax, which imbues the album with a vibe midway between the modern classical soundtracks of Michael Nyman and the systems music of Steve Reich. As Woods says, “The guitar is quite secondary – the songs are often carried by the horns.”
Torabi concurs: “A lot of what the horns are playing was written as a guitar part.”
When the band originally started adding wind players, “We thought we’d just do it for the big London launch,” Torabi says. “But it’s like cocaine – once you have it, you want more, and once I heard those horns, I was like, ‘Come on!’ As completely impractical as it is for a band at our financial level, it just sounds wonderful.”
Making such an ‘up’ album wasn’t without its challenges. Both Daevid Allen and Torabi’s friend Nick Marsh (Flesh For Lulu) died while it was being written, but Torabi chose to take inspiration from how their lives were lived, rather than be crushed by their loss. Indeed, in advance publicity for Bottled Out Of Eden, he’s described it as being about how life can be “a self-made Heaven or self-imposed Hell, that agony or ecstasy are often a choice”.
It’s not an attempt to go commercial, but after the last record, which was very knotty and navel-gazing in some ways, I wanted to write something that was ‘up’.
Torabi expands on this: “Daevid seemed to approach his death in such an extraordinary way, as you would expect from how he lived his life. It’s about trying to find happiness in what you’ve got rather than focusing on what you don’t have.”
That’s not to say the songs are all unquestioningly optimistic. For example, Foul Temple features the lines, ‘I’ll come with fire until your scriptures are all unknown/Your congregation will die alone, we’ll build our empire out of their bones.’ Torabi describes it as “my idea of a protest song”, but admits, “I’m increasingly confused by the world. I think the rise of fundamentalism, not just Islamic but in general, is because people are so overawed by information that they want to retreat to somewhere safer. It feels like the baddies have taken over – the people in power are the ones who want to be there, so of course they’re going to be psychopathic, while the good people want to build dams in Africa or create beautiful art. I wanted to write something positive, where maybe the good people could win.”
When Prog opines that the album’s lyrics are artful and allusive, but not wanky, there’s much hilarity, but words are clearly important to Torabi. “I agonise over them. Looking back over the records we’ve made, it’s the lyrics that I should have spent more time on that make me wince now.”
Woods interjects, “Now we start off with one batch, we’ve just learned them, then, ‘I’m sorry Mel, I’ve just changed all the lyrics!’”
Torabi adds, “What changed my attitude towards lyrics was reading an interview with Leonard Cohen about how he went through six notebooks until he got the lyric he was happy with for Tower Of Song…”
The running order of Bottled Out Of Eden also feels different from previous albums, with the quieter, more reflective tracks grouped towards the end. Torabi says, “I usually know exactly what the running order will be, but while I had a rough idea with this one, it wasn’t right. The surprising thing was putting the ‘pop tune’ [Feel The Sorcery] at the end. It’s like Secret Words is the last song, you get this breather, and then the credits come up at the end of the film. I wanted to avoid putting the big epic at the end of the album. Once we found this order, we thought, ‘Ah, now it’s a journey and a story.’”
Torabi’s passion for what he does is clearly undimmed. “I’ve been writing music since I was nine, and every time I come up with a new tune, I still get incredibly excited. I enjoyed making this record as much, if not more, as the first time I went into a studio. My relationship with music and performing with a band hasn’t changed a bit. In terms of creating, it’s more fun than ever. The fact that every time we go out and somehow manage to stage a performance with this very ambitious eight-piece band on smallish stages, and we pull it off, it’s a triumph.”
Bottled Out Of Eden is out April 22 on InsideOut. See Knifeworld’s website for more.