Of the many bands I became familiar with and wrote about in 2017, few meant more to me than the Boston art-rock/prog rock/whatever you want to call it collective Bent Knee. I’ve written about them several times this year, including a lengthy interview and profile of the band with frontwoman Courtney Swain. Frankly, by the time we were ready to roll out our album of the year list (where they ranked #17) I didn’t think I would be writing about them again for a while. But they were stopping through Brooklyn again in December, this time with the always amazing prog force that is Thank You Scientist, and I knew I had to come out and see them.
And then the interview request came. Given that I had written so much about the group in my previous interview with them I wasn’t sure how to approach this one from a fresh angle, but I knew that whatever I did I didn’t want it to be overly serious like the last one. So I spent some time coming up with a small list of questions and then a lot more time forming a little game of animal identification that would at the very least provoke some interesting responses. Thankfully, the band were more than game themselves for some lighter conversation as we met after their soundcheck to grab some dinner. This time I would be talking with the majority of the band outside of Swain, including guitarist Ben Levin, violinist Chris Baum, bassist Jessica Kion (clad in an exceedingly excellent long and brightly-rendered cat sweater), and producer/live sound wizard Vince Welch. Our original destination was a supposedly well-reviewed taco restaurant in the western Williamsburg area that, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a taco truck, which was less than ideal in well below freezing temperatures. We finally settled on a small pho restaurant nearby and settled in for conversation.
We spoke a bit about their momentous 2017 in review, about how large a role video (live and music video) has played in the band’s success and reputation, about dream tours, and some more, but mostly we just laughed a lot as the group gawked at photos of strange creatures I showed them on my phone and asked them to give names to. The pho was also great, by the way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity (as well as a dumb technical mishap on my behalf that cut out a couple of minutes of recorded conversation).
Nick Cusworth: Thanks for talking to me. I’m glad I get to talk to 4…6ths, 7ths of the band?
Chris Baum: Yeah, 6ths! Two thirds!
CB: Yeah, the tables have turned now.
Ben Levin: Yeah, we’re four people now!
NC: So, last time I talked to you guys was right after Land Animal came out. Have you been surprised by the positive reception of the album? It seems like it’s gotten pretty good pick-up and a lot of good press for you.
BL: I’m still really happy with it musically. I think that’s the most important thing for me is looking back at our discography and feeling good about it. I’m really happy with it and how it feels to play the songs and still have a lot of fun playing them. So, that’s surprising, kinda, because we play them a lot. And, I don’t know, I think you can kinda ride those songs whereas past albums there’s a lot more downtime. These songs kinda take you for a ride while you’re playing them, and they’re enjoyable.
CB: Yeah, that’s a really good point. We’ve toured this album pretty heavily, and we’ll be playing a lot of Land Animal songs tonight, and it’s still fun to practice them.
BL: Make silly faces. Jump around.
NC: It definitely seems like that’s a mark of good music and a song when you can play it over and over and not get sick of it and can’t wait until you can stop playing it.
BL: It’s definitely a mark of something! I can imagine if you had a song that’s super boring to play but just the right amount of notes that it’s good, then it can be a great song that gets really boring to play over time.
Jessica Kion: More like a hit for your fans, probably. They have this song that, no matter what, they have to play it because that’s what [the fans] are looking for. No matter how complex that song might be, you get sick of it.
Vince Welch: We have songs that we’ve played hundreds of times at this point, and I still enjoy playing “Way Too Long” or “Being Human.” I think it’s just that some bands get unlucky, and for us it’d be like if “I Don’t Love You Anymore” became a giant smash hit and we had to play it every night.
BL: The funny thing is that one’s got riffs! I get to do something. I get a little solo in that one! I’d get to improvise a new solo every day.
JK: It has a Muse-y bass part, too.
BL: Yeah…let’s bring back “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” Good point, Vince!
NC: So, other than the album release, have there been any major highlights for you all from this past year?
CB: It’s our first year with a booking agency, so I think for me it’s been not booking. That’s been pretty fun!
NC: Before you had that, who handled all of that?
CB: Mostly Courtney and I were doing the booking. And it was really fun to do the summer tour. Every time you go out it’s exciting because more and more people start showing up. We had a really weird summer because we now have an agency and a label, and now we’re at this strange crossroads where every night we were playing to a larger crowd than we ever had before in whatever city we happened to be in. It was very exciting, but at the same time I have the agency being “Ugh, that’s not enough to capacity!” So it was such a weird thing to juggle between this elation of feeling like we were really moving forward and constantly being kicked by “You’re not moving forward fast enough!”
NC: How did live videos and live performance in general become such an integral part of how you reach fans and new listeners?
CB: So, years ago when my roommate started So.I.Heard House of Music, as a part of their promotional toolkit they had bands come in to the school when they first started it up to shoot in studio, kind of as a branding thing for them. So they offered it to us for free, and we came down and did the song. And the tour we did after that, all we would do is share the video on the Facebook event page or however we might get it out to people who might eventually come. Because we had a professionally-shot live video that sounded great, it did wonders for just legitimizing the band. Following that, another Berklee person started a label called Interrobang and approached us to film a live video. And he let me pick the location, which is where we did the “Live at Hand Forged Works” stuff. He let me choose the crew. He let me choose all of the sound people, and he just cut checks to everybody. And we did four songs at my friend’s iron forge, and those are what I think really catapulted the band into legitimacy.
BL: The thing is, I think it’s a pretty obvious thing to say now, but bands are expected to have video, not just music videos. The more of your stuff that is documented in video form, the easier it is to get people to pay attention because where people actually go when they’re on the internet, Youtube is the second biggest search engine. So they’re on Youtube, they’re on Facebook, no one is going to click a song link that is going to take you out of Facebook. They’re much more likely to just watch a video in there. Video is really internet-friendly. Honestly, you don’t have to watch very much of a video to decide if you want to check [a band] out more later and then our albums are there. But it’s just a great way to get people in the door. I think everyone has to do it now.
NC: Speaking of music videos, I feel like Bent Knee has also been building up a reputation as a band making really creative and ambitious music videos for a band of your size. Are there any plans for other creative video projects in the new year?
JK: I think we’ll probably go through the same process, which has been basically us writing the music video with a budget in mind and seeing what sort of story would serve the song best, and then doing the storyboard. Then we usually work with at least one or two video kind of people. We’ve worked a lot with Greg Bowen. I think almost all of our music videos are with him.
BL: It’s kind of built into our process at this point, so unless we change our process for the next album we’ll probably just keep doing more and more of those, but also we have a bunch of live stuff that’s yet to be determined if it’s coming out.
NC: Do you all have a favorite music video of yours?
CB: I will never forget when we got the first draft of the “Leak Water” music video, and I almost literally fell out of my chair. I could not believe how well it turned out. And the way that all of this came to be was that Ben had written most of the script, and then we needed a young girl in what I think had to be close to Baltimore because that’s where Greg was, to be cool to just shoot all day. And my sister at the time was going to grad school in Baltimore, and she’s my twin, so basically any time I need something that I pretty much know she can’t get for me – it’s pretty much a running joke that we ask each other for things that we don’t have access to. So I asked her for a cute 7-8 year-old girl who’s good in front of the camera and lives in the Baltimore area, whose parents would be willing to let her star in this music video and spend all day shooting. And she got back to me and said, “Actually, I think I do!” An old colleague of hers had moved to Gettysburg, but she was so thrilled with the project and her daughter was so excited that they drove to Baltimore. We shot all day after driving all night.
BL: After a gig.
CB: After a gig, we drove down to Baltimore.
JK: It was crazy.
CB: Yeah, the chips were stacked against us. But, yeah, I’m still really thrilled with that music video. It’s still my favorite.
BL: Yeah, it’s my favorite, too.
VW: Mine is “Time Deer.”
JK: That one is really cool. I really liked “Land Animal.” That one was surprising, like, we had an animation sweatshop for that one. Most of the animation you see is things we did, and the best animation you see is what Greg did. I think it turned out well. Like, we went down for a weekend and tracked that one and “Terror Bird.”
NC: So the past couple of years you’ve toured with some pretty big and significant acts and a pretty wide variety of acts. Do you all have a dream tour in the back of your minds that under ideal conditions would happen?
CB: Yes. St. Vincent, take us on tour!
CB: Radiohead, take us on tour. Tune-Yards, take. us. on. tour.
JK: Son Lux!
CB: Son Lux, I know you already have supporting acts, so take us on your next tour.
CB: Yeah, anyone whose music we like.
BL: Just anyone!
CB: Yes, take us on tour!
BL: For me, I think the tour that would be the most exciting and likely is if we opened for “Weird Al” [Yankovic]. It would be so fun to hang out with him. I bet his whole band is awesome. They’re all just a bunch of really cool people.
CB: I mean, musically-speaking, I don’t know if we could ever convince an audience to get down with this, but I would love to do a Bent Knee/Snarky Puppy tour.
JK: Oh my god. That would be really crazy.
CB: And I just feel like we could use so many of their musicians in ours. It would be really fun.
JK: We would sound so good!
BL: I wish Kendrick Lamar would take us out.
JK: Yeah, that would be not a…not a normal choice…
BL: A great choice!
JK: But really fun. I would love that.
CB: I wonder what his audience would think.
NC: He’s already done a collaboration with U2. I feel like this would be less out of place than Bono.
BL: Run the Jewels is playing with Lorde, so I don’t think it’s so unbelievable.
CB: Lorde, take us on tour! Run the Jewels, take us on tour!
JK: Lorde! Mitski! We have a half-Japanese singer, too!
BL: Everyone! Until you get to the next question we’re just going to keep saying “Take us on tour!”
NC: Okay. Have there been any albums from this past year that have particularly stuck out for you? And it can be a new album or an older album that you just started listening to.
VW: I like the new Queens of the Stone Age album. I was listening to it the other day, and I don’t know if you’ve heard the whole thing about him with the photographer, but it opens with this track – by far my favorite track on the album – called “Feet Don’t Fail Me,” and I can’t hear it the same anymore.
JK: I listened to RTJ3 a ton.
CB: Let’s see. I LOVED the Arrival soundtrack [composed by Max Richter]. I think I’ve listened to that record more than pretty much any other album this year. It’s just so haunting and unique and creative, and it’s the best film soundtrack I’ve heard in years. And I think the most sonically-pleasing album for me this year is the Perfume Genius album.
JK: Oh yeah.
BL: I realized that I listened to DAMN by Kendrick Lamar the most. Again, I can’t stop listening to the album! Maybe his next album I won’t like it. I’m open to the idea of not liking one of his albums. It’s not just a given. But that’s the one I’ve listened to the most. And I guess second most would be the album Peasant by Richard Dawson.
NC: Okay, I have other questions, but I want to get to this fun thing because I spent a disproportionate amount of time doing this.
CB: I like fun things.
NC: So, your most recent album is called Land Animal. I thought we could play a game called…
“Name That Land Animal”
Bent Knee: Ohhhhhh
NC: Here I have a list of six obscure creatures that reside primarily on land. I’m going to show you a photo and give you a couple of factoids, and you can either guess what the animal is or, if you have no idea, come up with a name you think best fits the picture and description.
CB: This is exciting.
Animal Number 1
NC: This small mammal is a close cousin to the rabbit and can be found in the mountainous regions of central and south Asia. Unlike other, similar species, this land animal does not burrow but instead lives in rock crevices.
VW: It’s like a big-eared rat.
CB: It looks kinda like a cross between a marmot and a pika, which are both high-mountain creatures.
BL: It’s a wendy jib-job!
NC: Final answer?
BL + JK: Wendy jib-job!
NC: It is actually a pika.
CB: Oh it’s a pika!
NC: It is technically a large-eared pika.
CB: Okay cool! I know we have pikas in America, so that’s what threw me off.
NC: I’ll technically give that to you for suggesting the pika.
BL: Oh, is this a contest?
CB: So do I get a point?
NC: The group gets a point.
Animal Number 2CB: Whoa, is that extinct now?
NC: No. It is very much alive. This species of mammal is known primarily by the large, protective keratin scales that cover its skin. They use their long tongues to eat mostly ants and termites. They are nocturnal, live in sub-Saharan Africa and southern and southeastern Asia, and are the most heavily trafficked mammals in the world.
BL: Sloth-fingered armadillo!
VW: I don’t think that’s what aardvarks look like, but I’m going to say aardvark.
JK: I think it’s a hurt basketball.
BL: I think it’s an armadillo. A giant armadillo.
CB: I’m going with giant armadillo.
NC: It is called a pangolin.
JK: I’ve heard of that before!
NC: They are great because in every single photo of them they look like they are fretting over something that is troubling them in the world.
CB: A pangolin sounds like a mandolin made out of a-
CB: -drum, so it’s kind of like a banjo, so you get that kind of twang.
NC: Creating new instruments right here.
JK: You heard it first!
Animal Number 3
BL: So I feel like that could grant you a wish if you caught it.
NC: This mammal is the largest canid in South America. Thought it resembles a fox and is name as a wolf, it is not closely related to either of those animals, nor any other canid in existence. It is the tallest wild canid, largely due to its long legs, which it uses in the tall grasslands of its native habitat.
CB: It’s named as a wolf?
CB: Is it a deer wolf?
BL: Fox wolf. A hoof woof.
JK: It’s like a red panda fox.
BL: Star-spangled spar bangle.
NC: It is a maned wolf.
CB: Ooooh, a maned wolf.
BL: Cool, learning!
Animal Number 4NC: I really like this one.
JK: I know this one! I did a report on Africa [that mentioned it], but I don’t remember what it’s called.
VW: It’s a ziraffe.
CB: It looks photoshopped! It really looks like someone put a jacket on a zebra and made it deer-headed.
NC: This mammal lives in the tropical forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They feed on fruit, tree leaves, grasses, and fungi. It is closely related to the giraffe and is the only other member of the family giraffidae.
BL: Hungry hungry-
VW: Congo giraffe.
CB: A zebraffe.
BL: How about a tallboy longfellow?
CB: How tall is he? I mean it.
NC: Did you just gender this random animal?
BL: I gotta say, like, it’s a…God’s mistake.
NC: It is an okapi. But I also would have accepted forest or zebra giraffe.
CB: I said zebra deer.
BL: We did say when a giraffe meets a zebra.
CB: I like this game.
Animal Number 5NC: This one’s a doozy.
VW: Oh whoa.
VW: Oh that’s a scorpadillo.
BL: Yeah, that’s some type of scorpion.
NC: This arachnid resembles a scorpion in its features, especially its whip-like tail. They are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions of Europe and Australia. When attacked they produce an offense liquid discharge of acetic acid, which produces a vinegar-like smell.
BL: That shit’s a cicada.
JK: Stinky scorpion.
BL: A scorpacada…that’s what I’ve got.
NC: The technical name is thelyphonida, though it is commonly known as a whip scorpion or a vinegaroon.
BL: A vinegaroon!
JK: Like a macaroon made of vinegar.
CB: That sounds so gross! It’s like a pleasant cookie that is very sour.
Animal Number 6
NC: I feel like you guys should get this.
CB: Ohhh, is that a lynx? It’s fatter than a lynx.
NC: This small wildcat lives in the mountain steppes and grasslands of central Asia. Though around the same size as domesticated cats, their stocky stature and dense fur makes them look stout and plush. They have attained viral fame in the past year or so due to their curiosity towards cameras and befuddled and disgusted expressions upon discovering them.
JK: Is it Grumpy Cat?
BL: Stumpy foible?
JK: It’s like a thicc cat, spelled t-h-i-c-c.
BL: Thicc cat! Yeah, I agree. I’m with her, and so does Chris.
CB: Okay, so let’s do it right now. Unless you have more questions.
NC: One last question. Do you have any plans or projects you can tease for the new year?
BL: Yes! We have a piece that we’re writing in collaboration with the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. We’re writing a piece of music for the band and seven or more percussionists, and we’re going to premiere it at Zurich at the Apples and Olives Festival. We’re going to play it in New York and Boston. It’s cool because we’re composing this thirty-minute piece about memory, and we’re using all of this instrumentation we’ve never used before. It’s very exciting.
JK: It’s much more chill than what we usually write.
CB: The New York and Boston shows, I think they’ve been announced and tickets are on sale. So New York’s the Ecstatic Music Fest at Merkin Hall, and we’re playing Celebrity Series’ Stave Sessions, which is their contemporary classical series, which is at Berklee the [second to] last Saturday in March.
NC: Okay great! Thank you for sharing pho with me and playing my silly little game.
BL: Your game is fun!
JK: It’s hard! Though I guess it wouldn’t have been lame if it had been easy.
NC: Yeah, it wouldn’t have had the same effect if I had picked an elephant.
BL: A bird!
JK: You got it!
Upcoming tour dates for Bent Knee are below. You can purchase their latest album, the excellent Land Animal, here.
FEB 16 – Sonia – Cambridge, MA
MAR 2 – Cultuurpodium Boerderij – Zoetermeer, Netherlands
MAR 10 – La Casa di Alex – Milan, Italy
MAR 24 – Celebrity Series’ Stave Sessions – Boston, MA
MAR 29 – Ecstatic Music Festival – New York, NY