Bent Knee’s visit to Germany last summer included a comedy of errors. The night before the Burg Herzberg festival, several members of the group visited their hotel sauna. Clad in their swimsuits, the American musicians were surprised to discover that everyone else in the sauna was naked. “It was the first time in my life when I felt uncomfortable having clothing on,” recalls violinist Chris Baum.
The following night, Baum, singer Courtney Swain and live sound designer Vince Welch celebrated their triumphant show at the festival by returning to the sauna. This time, the hotel receptionist recommended that they also try the salt baths, too. Heeding the maxim ‘When in Rome…’, the trio decided that they would take off their robes, just like the locals.
“It was our first time being naked in front of each other,” says Baum. “We said, ‘We should go to the salt baths before we get into the sauna.’ So we walked down some stairs. Took our robes off. We were uncomfortable, but we confidently walked towards the pool. As we got closer, we realised that everyone in the pool had a bathing suit on and were staring at us! We walked 10 paces toward the pool, realised we’d made a mistake and then we all just turned, put our robes back on and walked back up the stairs.”
“Power walked!” says Swain, laughing.
If there’s one thing Bent Knee have learned, it’s how to maintain their sense of humour under adverse conditions. That attitude has buoyed the six Boston-based musicians during the difficult period of creating their fourth album, Land Animal.
A year ago, Bent Knee had a singular goal in mind: make an album that would enable the band members to quit their day jobs. Diamonds are formed under pressure; so are musical jewels. Land Animal has a baroque, chamber pop sound that may appeal to fans of XTC, Knifeworld, Sufjan Stevens and Cardiacs. Bent Knee’s music is as playful and lively as the personalities in the band. Listen close to the lyrics, though, and you’ll hear a deep strain of anxiety. The title track sums up how Bent Knee believed that the extensive touring behind their previous album, Say So, wasn’t paying dividends.
“We had done everything that an indie band can do,” says guitarist Ben Levin when Prog observes the album recording sessions. “You have to keep an email list, you have to keep your contacts, you have to sell your music, you have to have lots of videos. We did all of it. Then we toured as long as we could. But it wasn’t immediately obvious if we had benefited a whole lot from touring so much. We felt very discouraged and lost. The verses of Land Animal are about scrambling your whole life like land animals have to.”
Bent Knee operate like a start-up – except that the investors are the band members themselves. The musicians have poured thousands of dollars from minimum wage jobs into the collective enterprise. Each member plays an operational role, whether it’s handling booking, selling merch or overseeing promotion. Fourteen-hour days and late nights are the norm. What keeps Bent Knee going is a belief in their unique selling proposition: a difficult-to-classify progressive pop sound that is all their own. But after seven years without making money, Land Animal feels like a make-or-break album for the 20-something musicians.
“There are so many bands that our friends [were in] that have died over the past year,” says Swain, sitting on a couch inside Q Division studios, an anonymous building next door to a dry cleaner in Somerville, Massachusetts. “This was the year of everyone [else] getting married and giving up.”
By contrast, Bent Knee had spent the spring and summer of 2016 crammed into a beat-up tour van that traversed more states than a presidential candidate. When they weren’t on the road, they holed up for intense, week-long writing camps. Sometimes working as a group, sometimes in pairs, the musicians wrote songs about personal and universal concerns.
“We are all in our late 20s now,” says Baum, the group’s upbeat violinist. “You start to become much more numb and beaten-down by the previous 25 to 30 years of bad news and terrible things happening in the world. You start to become affected less by all the news coming in. A lot of Terror Bird is about that.”
One of Levin’s contributions was affected by the sights from the windscreen of his driver’s seat in the van.
“The Well is about global warming,” says the bushy-haired guitar player. “Is what I am doing on this earth valuable enough to justify my carbon footprint? This summer we drove almost 40,000 miles. We kept filling up the tank. We’d seen a deer that had been smashed by buses. I can’t even count how many animal corpses I saw on the side of the road. These roads are dividing habitats. How can you not drive if you want to tour?”
Bent Knee’s campaign to promote their third album wasn’t in vain. The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal ran enthusiastic features on Bent Knee. Prog magazine nominated Say So in the Vanguard category of the 2016 Progressive Music Awards. Then, finally, the biggest break of all. Unbeknownst to Bent Knee, they had caught the attention of Liam Wilson, the bass player for The Dillinger Escape Plan. He recommended Bent Knee as openers for The Dillinger Escape Plan’s blockbuster farewell tour.
“Someone at one of our dankest house shows in Philadelphia a few years back sent him a video from the show that clued him into us. He kept tabs on us after that,” says Swain. “It felt like we were bashing our heads against the limits of what we could do as an indie band. Out of nowhere, these Fairy Godfather dudes reached out to us and picked us up.”
The tour was to prove more impactful than Bent Knee could have imagined when they signed on.
“They are wild boys,” is how Bent Knee bass player Jessica Kion describes The Dillinger Escape Plan. That’s a chronic understatement. On any given night, the members of the hardcore jazz metal band will breathe fire on stage and dive into the crowd. They’ve also been known to set fire to their drum kit, invite a couple to have sex in front of the audience, and almost ran afoul of the UK’s public decency laws when singer Greg Puciato defecated on stage at the 2002 Reading rock festival. (Question to Mr Puciato: surely the festival backstage Portaloos weren’t that dodgy?)
“Dillinger would tell us these crazy stories and we’d think, ‘We like to have a few beers after the show and we don’t stay up too late because we get sleepy,’” says Welch, the multi-instrumentalist who produced Land Animal. “We might be the most boring band on Earth. The craziest thing we did was bought a weed vaporizer in Oregon. I got stoned every night for a week after the shows.”
Bent Knee were inspired by The Dillinger Escape Plan’s kind embrace backstage and kinetic energy on stage.
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“They changed our dynamic because we played a lot harder to get the audience’s attention as an opening band,” observes Kion.
The more muscular approach spilled over into the recording sessions for Land Animal, says drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth. That vigour is immediately evident on album opener Terror Bird, which features a telegraph rhythm as urgent as an SOS, defibrillator jolts of guitar in the chorus, and a piano melody that rolls like a ship in heavy waves. The song is one of several tracks on the album that bears the influence of pianist and percussionist Nik Bärtsch. Bent Knee took a workshop with the Swiss composer to study how to superimpose one cycling musical pattern over another.
“The most obvious track that you see that polyrhythm stuff on is Terror Bird,” says vocalist Swain, who plays the keyboards. “During the instrumental bridge we said, ‘Let’s try doing a Nik Bärtsch kind of thing.’ We had a piano line of 16 notes cycling over it and they said, ‘Let’s make it 17 so that it will take a while for it to cycle.’”
One of the most ambitious aspects of Land Animals is its rhythmic approach. Wallace-Ailsworth’s drum patterns range from the unchanging metronomic pulse in Boxes to the stuttering beat in Hole, which was inspired by the Ghanaian style of drumming. On the funky Holy Ghost, the beats bounce like a ball on a spinning roulette wheel.
“There’s a line in 5 but my snare hits around 2 and 4, as if I am in 4⁄4, so you get an undulating sound that settles uneasily but you’re also dancing to it,” says Wallace-Ailsworth. “Rhythmically, this song is influenced by King Kunta from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly—that driving, relentless groove with energy to it.”
“The violin pizzicato stays very straight and that helps emphasise the weird groove that’s going on,” adds Baum.
Bent Knee’s players have a penchant for muso-speak even when describing an uncomplicated song such as Belly Side Up. “All the parts are very simple,” says Kion, “especially my bass part which is just an ostinato of eight notes.”
“It’s the closest thing we’ve written to a straightforward pop song,” concurs Swain. “We’ve been labelled ‘prog’ for a large portion of last year. That hasn’t sat badly with us, but we want to be more than ‘prog’. We were talking to The Dillinger Escape Plan and they said, ‘We’ve always felt that we never fit well into a genre. But we also work well within a lot of genres.’ We thought, ‘That’s how we feel.’”
Thomas Waber, the head of InsideOut Music, picked up on that quality in Bent Knee. Earlier this year, he signed the band to the record label, which is releasing Land Animal.
“When we were doing Say So, there was a little bit of dialogue with InsideOut, but they passed on that album,” says Swain. “The real reason that they turned around and said ‘We want to take you’ was because we toured with The Dillinger Escape Plan. Vince and I went to talk with Thomas over brunch in New York and he was very specific that the motivating factor was that we were appealing not only to prog fans, but also to a younger generation outside of prog.”
It’s a momentous, game-changing deal for Bent Knee. Swain can already testify to the power of the label’s distribution via Sony. On the day that first single Land Animal was released, she was impressed to discover that it was available on the leading streaming service in Japan, the country she grew up in.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a signed musician who was touring internationally,” says Baum. “Now that we’ve done all that, we are moving to the next thing. The landmarks continue to appear. It goes hand-in-hand with the album artwork, which has a character climbing a ladder that never ends.”
Since the record deal, the musicians haven’t given up their day jobs – which range from ride-share services to teaching music lessons – but they have scaled back their hours to facilitate extensive touring. They’ve yet to make any money. If these musicians tried to withdraw cash from an ATM, the machine would probably spit the card out. That’s why Levin wears broken glasses with a rubber band wrapped around the damaged lens.
“I had a home the last time we recorded an album,” laughs Wallace-Ailsworth, who has been sleeping on his bandmates’ couches over the past few months.
That resolute, cheerful attitude helps Bent Knee to survive from day to day, much like the creatures in the lyrics of Land Animal.
“When I sing the song live, I always like to look out at the audience and look at the people to say, ‘Don’t you dare give up, because we’re all in this together,’” says Swain. “But I’m also really just singing to myself.”
Land Animal is out now on InsideOut. For more information, see www.bentkneemusic.com.