Roach motels and Bill Bruford: Welcome to Bent Knee's crazy world

Bent Knee group shot with Gavin's arms outstretched
(Image credit: Frank White)

The six members of Bent Knee can attest that rock’n’roll isn’t all glamour. During a self-financed tour last year, the Boston-based band spent the night in a “punk house” in Mansfield, Ohio. The squat, whose punk-lifestyle tenants spent little money on rent and even less on shampoo, made a ’roach motel seem like the Ritz Carlton.

“The first thing we saw was this guy straddling another dude on the couch and giving him a tattoo – a stick and poke tattoo,” recalls guitarist and vocalist Ben Levin, sitting today in a Boston café next to bandmates Chris Baum (violin, vocals), Jessica Kion (bass, vocals), Courtney Swain (lead vocals, keyboards), Vince Welch (production, sound design), and Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth (drums). The musicians, all in their twenties, take turns telling the story, which has become firmly established in band lore.

Levin: “[The tattoo artist] turns to Gavin and says, ‘Just so you know, I don’t know where my needles went.’”

Wallace-Ailsworth: “I walk in, and he says, ‘Have you ever heard of Hepatitis C?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Good, you’re getting it tonight.’”

Levin: “There were bugs on the ground. In the kitchen there was a flytrap covered in flies.”

Welch: “It was directly over the sink.”

Swain: “If you leaned in to do the dishes…”

Levin: “I hadn’t seen it, and I leaned in to wash my hands and flies got into my hair.”

Welch: “There was no light in the bathroom. You had to use a phone for a flashlight.”

The musicians have paid their dues, and then some, since forming Bent Knee at the Berklee College of Music in 2009. But they’re laughing, not complaining. After playing hundreds of shows across the US, Cuneiform Records signed the group to release their third album, Say So. A European booking agency reached out to sign Bent Knee because of their growing press profile. Indeed, The Boston Globe recently hailed the band’s progressive sound as a bid for the big time.

The effusive group of musicians gathered around the café table aren’t complacent about their future prospects. They’re still striving to get to the point where they can make the band a full-time career – let alone afford to stay in a comfortable hotel. (“I consistently refer to Bent Knee as a startup, minus the venture capital,” says Baum.) The band cheerfully offer candid insights into the personal chemistry and musical chemistry that has taken them this far.

(Image credit: Photo by Frank White)

Credit Levin’s networking skills in the Berklee College cafeteria for connecting the individuals who later formed Bent Knee. During college, Levin played with each of the musicians in various projects.

“Our project was dating,” quips Kion.

Levin and Kion aren’t the only couple in Bent Knee. Producer and sound designer Vince Welch is paired with Courtney Swain, the band’s singer. But romantic entanglements don’t fully account for why the sextet is as harmonically aligned as six strings on a guitar. Chalk it up to experiences in the foxhole together.

Early on, Bent Knee instituted a tradition of writing retreats in which the musicians convene for a week of concentrated activity. At the first “staycation”, each band member took turns to cook a meal, select a movie for the band to watch at night, and present a song they’d written to the others. Most crucially, each individual was given an opportunity to tell his or her life story in sessions that lasted an hour or more. Swain talked about growing up in Japan. Baum opened up about his father’s death. Levin regaled the group with horror stories about attending an unsupervised, Lord Of The Flies-style summer camp for Jewish boys. And the band gained an insight into Wallace-Ailsworth’s depression, which made it difficult for him to leave his room.

Since that bonding experience, Bent Knee have become a remarkably democratic unit that are capable of enduring just about anything. Case in point: The time when police broke up an underground show they were playing in a basement. “That felt very rock ’n’ roll,” jokes Baum.

I had a camera and asked if we could get a picture. In the heat of the moment I hugged Bill Bruford without his consent. I think he patted me on the back…

“It’s a feeling like you’re in a family. That’s the force that’s most crucial in tying us together and keeping us together,” says Welch. “There are a lot of bands that come out of school that do have a musical chemistry, but without that personal chemistry it just falls apart.”

Wallace-Ailsworth won’t soon forget “the Bill Bruford incident”. As a young teenager, he met Bruford –whom he had idolised ever since he first heard King Crimson’s Discipline at age 11 – after an Earthworks show in San Francisco.

“He was signing autographs,” recalls Wallace-Ailsworth. “I went up to him and I just said, ‘Uhhhhhh. Oh my God.’ He looked down at me – because Bill Bruford is a very tall man – and he said, ‘Are you all right?’ My father said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s just hero worship.’ I had a little instant camera and asked if we could get a picture. And then, in the heat of the moment, I leaned forward to hug him. He didn’t want it. So I hugged Bill Bruford without his consent. I think he patted me on the back. Even on the car ride back home I thought, ‘Did I really do that?’ If I ever get speak to him again, or if he’s reading this interview, I would say, ‘Mr Bruford, I’m sorry!’”

An apology may not be necessary. Whether or not Bruford recalls the unfortunate bromantic overture, Bent Knee recently wowed the former Yes and King Crimson drummer. Bruford offered the following quote for Bent Knee’s press release for Say So: “Vocals to die for, an interesting new turn at every corner and never a dull moment.”

Bruford’s accolade made Wallace-Ailsworth cry. He’s the only member of Bent Knee who is an aficionado of progressive rock, though Welch cites Porcupine Tree as an influence on his production. Asked to cite their musical influences, the six individuals shout out names such as Sufjan Stevens, Kendrick Lamar, Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird, Steve Vai, The Punch Brothers, Kiss, Laurie Anderson, Nine Inch Nails. It sounds like the world’s most unlikely festival bill. About the only band they can all agree upon liking is Radiohead and, even then, there’s disagreement. When Wallace-Ailsworth loudly declares that Pablo Honey is Radiohead’s finest album, a playful verbal skirmish breaks out around
the table.

What makes Bent Knee’s music so unusual, adventurous, and difficult to compare to the style of other bands is that the mixture of their disparate collective influences creates an unusual potion. On Say So, Rococo rock and pop melodies are twisted into oblique arrangements. The ethereal ballad The Things You Love takes its musical cues from China. Counselor, a song inspired by a radio documentary about gang life in a Chicago neighborhood, features an anarchic crowd chant taped at a Boston concert. The nine-minute Eve scrambles the listener’s musical compass as it swings between the poles of tranquility and freak-out sections.

When Anil Prasad of the influential website Innerviews: Music without Borders, discovered Bent Knee, he became an evangelist for the Bostonians. Bent Knee didn’t foresee that their music would be embraced by fans of progressive rock because they never viewed themselves as a prog group.

“It came as a surprise at first,” says Baum. “At the same time, it makes a lot of sense. We’re definitely doing
things with form – not so much with harmonic structure – that are definitely beyond the norm of pop and rock. The cool thing is that there’s a lot of bands of the past five to 10 years who have started to do this and have had a lot of success. Radiohead are an amazing example. Dirty Projectors are super strange. tUnE-yArDs, too. For some reason, we got ushered into this prog world, which we are happy to be in. There’s a lot of genre bending, but it’s not just us. We live in a much broader camp than that.”

It’s fitting, then, that Bent Knee have been signed to Cuneiform Records, a home for non-mainstream acts. They say the label signing has given them a credibility boost when booking shows with promoters. The band’s professionally filmed live videos help, too.

“YouTube is hugely important. It’s a representation of what we do in a visual format, because it’s how people listen to music nowadays,” says Swain. “We play our music really well.”

“So well that people think we’re faking it,” adds Jessica, pointing to the YouTube comments that claim the band must overdub their live videos.

Bent Knee are looking to capitalise on the release of Say So with an extensive summer tour. Each of the musicians makes a living by teaching music, which allows them to structure their lives around the band.

“Every day I’m either working on band stuff, or worrying about not working on band stuff,” admits Swain. “I don’t have enough money or time to take a vacation. Though I don’t regret any of this, at tough times I envy the parallel-life Courtney Swain who has more money, fancy things, weekends, and vacations.”

For all the sacrifices, such as the ignominy of staying in punk houses, the fun-loving group say it’s worth it. (Though Kion half jokes that the band’s main goal is a tour itinerary with clean toilets.)

“My life feels like a giant adventure, and I get to do the two things I love most in this world – make music and travel – on a daily basis,” says Baum. “Not a bad trade-off.”

Say So is now out on Cuneiform Records. For more information, visit Bent Knee’s website for more information.