Interview: Experimental Rock Band Bent Knee on the Intersection of Songwriting and Live Performance

by Jon Simmons, iZotope

Artist Stories | July 10, 2017

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Bent Knee, Photo by Chris Anderson

Bent Knee’s new album is called Land Animal, but anyone who has listened to their music knows that the band has descended from another planet. The sextet blurs rhythms like an avant-garden of creeping vines and delicate flowers, as if the music were plucked from Alice in Wonderland’s soundtrack. Does Bent Knee play experimental pop? Prog-rock? Art-rock?

Who knows? Who cares?

Since forming in 2009, Bent Knee has pushed the boundaries of musical genres and garnered fans across the country for their pristinely intricate and emotional sound. As one fan recently commented on Facebook, “I am ready to cry when you come to the UK.”

Today, we’re happy to share the band’s latest music video, recorded live at The Record Company, as well as an interview with the group’s violinist, Chris Baum, on the intersection of songwriting and live performance.

“Recognize which elements of a song are the most important, and experiment with stripping away the rest.” —Chris Baum, Violinist, Bent Knee

Your music has been described many ways by many people. How would you describe it?

Bent Knee is a band of differing influences and conflicting ideas. We pull bits and pieces from across the musical spectrum and have tailored our writing process to allow for this source material to shine through our music. Everyone in the group comes from a different musical background and continues to have contrasting artistic influences; permitting these differences to co-exist together is the primary reason why we sound the way we do. “Rock” would be the very broad category to lump us into, but to narrow the genre, we have particular affinities for experimentation, intricacy, unusual song form, and dynamic contrast.

Between tempo changes, complex chord patterns, and a wide range of dynamics, Bent Knee’s songwriting is intricate. Walk me through how songwriting (and development) happens in the band. Where do you start? How does an idea grow to be a finished song?

We’ve tried throughout the band’s existence to foster a “try anything and see what sticks” mentality. Nearly everything has a place on the table before we start taking things off. Bent Knee functions as a democratic collective, and every idea is altered/honed/refined by the ensemble before it’s either embraced or discarded. Our writing process can vary, but typically, one of us will bring in a demo—it could be a melody, a chorus, a concept, a framework—which will then be deconstructed, turned over, smashed apart, and reassembled by the group into what ultimately becomes a finished song.

As an example, In God We Trust was written at Bent Knee’s very first “staycation”: a week we blocked off in order to pursue a collection of creative exercises together. One of these was an "object free write", in which a random item in the room would be chosen as writing fodder. Individually, we’d jot down as much as we could on each subject for ten minutes before reading these thoughts out loud to see what resonated. The lyrics for In God We Trust were born out of this exercise. Later that week, we paired off to convert our newfound lyrical concepts into potential musical material. Jessica and Courtney came up with the basic framework for the song, and we gradually worked out the rest together in our rehearsal space.

How much do recorded and live versions of Bent Knee songs differ?

Simply put, there’s more happening on the studio recordings. We’re only six people, so that’s what we’re limited to in live situations. On recording, we’ve tracked string sections, horn players, berimbaus, tom ensembles, pipe organs…you get the idea. We’re able to realize our compositions for a larger ensemble in the studio, which means that everyone in the band winds up playing a bit less on the albums than they do on stage in order to leave space for everything else that’s going on.

What have you learned about songwriting from your live performances?

We saw a lot of live music when we first started to tour. Each bill would consist of a number of local acts, so we’d typically see two or three performances every night we’d spend on the road. We witnessed some great shows, but a troubling pattern started to emerge. Why do some many of these groups sound bad live?

Eventually we came to the realization that most rock bands write their music specifically for the studio. It’s an “anything goes” approach to part-writing and mixing, and while it may produce incredible results on recording, you’ll wind up covering up critical components of any given song during a concert if you’re not orchestrating for live performance. Consequently, we started writing exclusively for the stage, carefully carving out sonic space for each instrument (especially the vocals). Rearranging a song for the studio comes after we’ve mastered its delivery in a live setting.

How has performing your songs live affected your songwriting?

Performing a piece of music in front of people is an excellent litmus test for what’s working and what isn’t. During the initial writing process, we generally work a song up to roughly eighty percent completion before testing it in front of an audience. After a concert, we’ll bring it back into the workshop to be retooled. Following this is the recording and mixing of the song. We’ll come up with new arrangement ideas in the studio that wind up being translated back into the live show.

What tips would you have for other musicians for translating recorded music to live performance? What challenges do you face in doing so, and how do you address them?

If you’re writing vocal music, make sure there’s sonic space for the vocals to be heard. If you cover up the singer, the majority of the audience will tune out immediately. Also recognize which elements of a song are the most important, and experiment with stripping away the rest. If you’re playing in small rooms with a house engineer, things can get muddy quickly. Oh, and play together as a band as much as you possibly can. Tightness and precision, in any ensemble, come from the hours spent holed up in rehearsal spaces.

Lead singer and keyboardist Courtney Swain described Land Animal as “an immediate album.” She said, “With our previous album Say So, I think it took people a few listens to absorb its themes. That’s not the case with Land Animal, which delivers more instant gratification.” From a musical standpoint, could you expand on how you reflect this immediacy?

The immediacy on Land Animal is primarily the result of what we were listening to prior to writing the album. Recordings like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead were in heavy rotation at the time. While our last record, Say So, involved quite a bit of experimentation with song form, we were more interested in playing with rhythm—how it moves and functions underneath the melody—on Land Animal.

We wound up altering our recording approach as well, which could play into the “instant gratification” factor. On previous albums, our process was to track every instrumentation idea we could think of, leaving Vince to wade through the mess during the mixing process. He became a "sonic sculptor" of sorts, muting dozens of tracks until something resembling a song eventually emerged. On Land Animal, we wound up recording considerably less than on previous albums, in part to save Vince an enormous amount of work, but largely because we thought we’d end up with a bit more precision in the end-product.

Now that Land Animal is out, what’s next for the band? Any short-term or long-term goals you care to share?

Short-term, we’ll be touring as much as we can, and are working on something mysterious and exciting that’ll be debuted at some point next year. Long-term, we’ll continue to make music we’d like to exist in the world and play it for anyone who’s listening.

Keep up with Bent Knee on their official website. Want to catch them on tour? See if they’re playing in your town:

7.14 Northampton MA @ Iron Horse

7.15 Nashua NH @ Riverwalk

7.17 Buffalo NY @ Studio at Waiting Room

7.18 Ferndale MI @ The Loving Touch

7.19 Indianapolis IN @ Radio Radio

7.20 Madison WI @ The Frequency

7.23 Dekalb IL @ House Cafe

7.24 Minneapolis MN @ 7th St Entry

7.25 Lawrence KS @ The Bottleneck

7.27 Denver CO @ Larimer Lounge

7.31 Seattle WA @ Barboza

8.1 Portland OR @ Analog Cafe

8.2 Bend OR @ Volcanic Theatre Pub

8.4 San Francisco CA @ Cafe Du Nord

8.5 Los Angeles CA @ Bootleg

8.7 San Diego CA @ Soda Bar