Fighting The Formula
– An interview with Aidan Knight –
by robert whitfield
From the outside The Fox on Paul Street looked like the ideal venue for an interview. Unlike the other pubs in the area that evening it wasn’t teeming with workers from nearby offices getting in a quick pint before heading home, and it also wasn’t advertising live music. As soon as we walked in though, a problem became apparent; a lively soundtrack of 90s Britpop was being played at such a volume you’d have thought a band were in that night and the owners had simply forgotten to advertise them. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to scope out other venues, so with Blur’s ‘End of a Century’ ringing out above us we ordered in a round of beers and settled ourselves into one of the quieter corners of the bar to chat about Each Other, Aidan Knight’s recently released record.
Despite having released two albums ahead of Each Other it wouldn’t be surprising if you’ve only just heard of Knight and his music. This third album – released in the UK through Full Time Hobby – is the first to be released outside of Canada, a fact which causes Knight to consider it as his “first one.”
Did the fact that the album was getting a wider release change the way you approached Each Other?
No, I didn’t know. I never approach an album with – I don’t want to say this wrong as it’s not that I don’t approach an album with a lot of forethought – but the idea I have when I’m making music is just to make the best thing that I can, in the amount of time that I have, wth the budget that I have. It’s funny, because you would think that a lot of music is made outside of the constraints of just day-to-day work and you think that it happens in this really magical, creative place – and some of it does – but some of it just comes together in a very logistical way. You then find all of the creativity and what you want to say within those confines. That’s a really long answer, for that, but it’s true – it’s really true.
I’ve never heard anyone describe songwriting as “logistical”.
For me, the songwriting is different from the album creation. I know that sounds a little bit bizarre, but when I’m just writing songs, the more lyrically driven, singer-songwriter stuff, there’s not – I don’t want to say there’s not a care in the world – but the logistics are out of the window. The song can be any length, it can be as expensive [as I want]. That’s the thing that I love about songwriting; you start with nothing and you have limitless possibilities of all the things that you can do in terms of genre, mood or whatever you want to do. You don’t even need to make music that sounds like any other music that you’ve ever heard before.
That’s the great thing about creativity in general – that’s not just songwriting. But for what I do, I start with nothing and I draw on all of the great music that I’ve heard, and processed, and compressed down, and I steal little bits out of it and subconsciously put those bits together into something that makes a song. That sounds creative and magical, but the process of turning that into the recorded music you hear on Each Other is a logistical nightmare! That’s what separates people who just like to write songs, from people who make quite profound recorded music. And that’s sort of what I’m striving to do – make really great recorded music.
So in your mind, what makes a really great, profound piece of music?
You tell me. It’s so unknowable. It’s like, what makes ‘Seven Nation Army‘ by The White Stripes a song that every kid wants to play in their guitar room? There is a logistical [element] about what music is, that’s fascinating. You can break it down into science – frequencies and resonance and what it does to the brain, which is all very fascinating to me. But, when a song is a great song and it just hooks you – I want to believe that there’s not a formula.
The magic that’s left in the world – for me – is going to a concert, or putting a record on and hearing a song that I’ve never heard before and it sort of reaching out and – I don’t know the best way to put it – punching you, touching you; it does something. So when you hear the guitar on ‘Seven Nation Army‘, or the first time you ever heard the chorus of ‘Wuthering Heights‘ by Kate Bush, the first time that you put on the whole Kid A – these are all touchstones in culture and music. I’m not there yet, but I’ve learned from all these things and, as I said, I’ve tried to take all that and try to make something that’s in the image of those great things.
You mentioned that Each Other is more instrumentally driven than previous records, I know you said that you don’t go into a record with a particular approach, but was this something you always planned?
I do go into things with a lot of thought, but I just try to be open, malleable and reactive towards things.
The last thing we all made together – Small Reveal – the five of us said that we were going to make [the album] a band recording, but I still sort of drove a lot of the process. I brought a lot of the ideas in and the guys played on it. [Each Other] was the first time that [not only] was I bringing in ideas, but also the guys were coming up with their own bits and pieces. It’s still not a hundred percent all the time though. I will say that I have a lot of opinions and a lot of ideas, because I have a lot of music that I’ve listened to and I’m trying to respond to. So this was a band recording from the perspective that we all got together in a room and just said “let’s try anything”. You come up with great results that way, but you also come up with stuff that doesn’t work simply because you have so many different opinions and sometimes the opinions can’t all come together. But I really love how all of these opinions came together on this set of songs, so when you listen to it you hear bits of everyone in all of the moments that we play together.
Do you think that having more input from your band members changed the record from how you initially envisioned it?
Yes. It’s like a physics law, you know, what happens will happen. Creating a record is a lot like what I imagine fate is like. You make the thing, and you could have made it differently, but you didn’t. You made what you made and you have to live with it!
Every record that you’ve ever heard has been accomplished with a compromise in it, whether it’s money, time, judgement, the producer says it’s done, or the musicians say it’s done. I think why it’s called a record, because it’s an actual record of time. It’s a portrait, it’s a piece of history – which is crazy to think about.
My parents played music and my mom, she never made a full CD, but she was making cassettes. So she has this music that she made when she was 24/25 and I have this ability to go back and, from a distance, travel through time and hear what my mom was [like back then].
It sounds like you see records as snapshots of a specific moment…
But they’re also an abstraction.
It’s never ultimate truth.
Exactly. It’s filtered. So when I hear this cassette tape, she sounds younger, and not just in terms of the way her voice sounds but also her perspective on life. She doesn’t write as many songs now, but she still plays music and I get to hear what she’s up to now. It creates a more complete, more human picture of someone who I know quite well, but I imagine that you can do this exact same thing with an artist or a band. Over a ten, twenty-year career you’ve really seen so much of their successes and failures and there’s something really beautiful about that – particularly failure, there’s something great about that.
I think it’s really interesting the idea of seeing a record in that way. Were there particular moments, perspectives, that really fed into this record?
I think that this record is really about my relationships; good and bad. Hard not to think about that when I have quite a few old friends that I haven’t done a great job with being around. But also, I got married right before we went into recording and seeing all my friends got me quite emotional about what’s going on in my life and what I’m trying to pursue and if it’s worthwhile. I think I’m having quite a typical late-twenties reaction to life.
I believe in the idea that if you have if you have a feeling – particularly if you already think that it’s something that other people think – then that is able to reach out to the listeners and they’re able to turn it into their own thing, which I think is the most important thing about lyrical music. To be able to say something that is very personal, but to not to hold on to that and to give it to other people and have them interpret it their own way – because that’s the music that I really enjoy listening to. So that was the goal. And the relationships are getting better, so it must have worked!
Your music is often described as being quite intimate and I think that, even on this record where it’s more band driven and has quite a lot of punch to it, there’s something in your hushed vocal delivery that really draws you in and makes you listen even as things are roaring around you. Is that something that you’ve always kind of worked towards?
Well, when I say in ‘What Light’ that I’m not in love with the sound of my own voice I [mean it]. To me, that’s a great opening line to a song because it takes the uncertainty and anxiety I have about myself and then sets it up [against this emotional idea]. ‘What Light’ is a love song, so while I’m not in love with myself, I really am in love with this other person.
[Also], not to get too self referential, but I don’t think of myself as a very powerful singer, so it’s a bit of a cop out for me to be a more hushed singer. I don’t want that to be my only thing and I’d love to work towards other styles of delivery. So maybe there will be a change there – I don’t know. I mean I think that it works.
You say you don’t like the sound of your own voice and then you put it front and centre for the very start of the album. I was really interested in how that track came about because it starts so quietly and then when it kicks in your vocals have so much reverb, that you find yourself listening more to the tone of your voice than the actual lyrics.
I see myself more as an instrumentalist actually. I think of myself more as a player and a pseudo-producer or engineer. [While] I think a lot about lyrics, I think of the human voice as really serving alongside [the music], because I just love instrumental music. I listen to a lot of music that has no vocals and it’s still very compelling and very evocative to me.
I just want to go back to what you were saying about the opening – it touches on a really important part for me in this album and that’s talking about what it does to the listener. This, again, is a sort of technical, logistical aside and something I thought about a lot. I love the idea of things starting right in front of the listener. It’s close, it’s in mono, and when the band comes in you’re hearing reverb and you’re hearing space and depth and it’s opening up. I love when a record can not only reach out and punch you, or touch you on songs, but it actually plays with your mind about how spacious a thing is. I love playing live, but when you make a record you can have something that sounds like it’s in a cave or something that’s so close and dry and intimate. You can’t do that in any other thing.
I totally get that. For me it really made me question what kind of album I was listening to as usually the opening track sets out the template for the rest of the record. Every time I thought I knew what ‘Each Other’ was, it changed up, became something new.
There’s another part to that song that we scrapped – a whole outro. We were like, “we can’t have ‘The Arp‘ be almost seven minutes long and ‘Each Other’ as well”. It’s a short record and I didn’t want two songs to be over half the album.
It feels like the length of a classic album – a single vinyl.
It is and it’s pretty much the exact right length to sound really good on vinyl – not so long that it starts getting into the centre where it gets a little wobbly.
Almost every record that I’ve made has been quite short, even Small Room, which is the longest one [I’ve made], is still not that much longer than this one. There are very few records that I can think of that are fifty minutes where I’m like, “I can’t wait to listen to the whole thing”. Go back and listen to Ziggy Stardust. There’s quite a few songs [on that record], but the songs are quite short and it is great song after great song.
Well, in the sixties and seventies they had a much more prescriptive format that they had to work within.
Because we don’t have that now we can have the fifteen-track album and that’s fine if you’re just hoping you’re going to get a few more singles out of it.
I’m sure there are fifteen track albums that are really great, but it’s hard for me to get through that amount of music. There’s something great around [a run time] between thirty and forty minutes, because it just breaks down [easily]. It’s like watching an episode of television, either twenty-two minutes or forty-three, so there’s a thirty-minute or hour long programme with commercials.
The other thing that I like about Each Other is that while there are two acoustic songs on side B,’St Christina‘ is a short song and leads in to ‘You Are Not Here’, while ‘Black Dream‘ is just playing you out. It makes sense to me. I like listening to records on vinyl, because the format forces me to listen to music a certain way.
‘St Christina’ is interesting as it’s the only truly solo track on the record and comes quite late on the track listing. As such it feels like a introduction to the end. Was this always the plan for this track once you’d written and recorded it?
I guess the other thing about records is that you never know all of the drafts that go in to a song. What you get is a final song and maybe the band puts out demos and sketches later, but for the most part that song [is all you hear]. [With ‘St Christina’] we had all these other ideas of ways it could go. It could transition into noise, or it could go to here, or it could go to there. We kind of made this record more of less live, with us playing together, but I didn’t know we were doing that and it kind of freaked me out. We moved past that and everything was [going] great and then Colin [Nealis], our bass player had all these crazy hearing issues towards the end of the recording. Then David [Barry], our drummer, left to go to school and I had – not like a mental breakdown – but I had two months of being like, “ok we just spent all this time, all this money making this thing and it’s sort of halfway finished, but I don’t know if I can finish alone”.
So ‘St Christina’ is a solo piece simply as a matter of circumstance?
All that stuff happened and then all of a sudden [I realised] – I know this will sound crazy, but it’s kind of technical and logistical – ‘St Christina’ works really well transitioning into ‘You Are Not Here’. It’s the right key, it’s actually a really great introduction to the song, but it’s also its own sort of standalone thing. So we just put them together.
That period where I was really pulling my hair out, it was also, coincidentally, when I was recording the vocals as well, so it was – mental health-wise – a really great time in my life. It was good for me though. I was able to channel some of that stuff into the vocals, but not touch too much of the music and really let the great stuff that we’d recorded in the studio together be what it is.
Let it be the record. Let it be the time that we spent together and if we never get to play together again, I’m really glad that we got this record out of it.
Each Other is out now, via Full Time Hobby
You can buy it here
Aidan Knight tours the UK with Villagers this week and plays the following dates:
10th Bath, Komedia
11th London, St John at Hackney Church
12th Brighton, St George’s Church
13th Ashford, St Mary’s Church