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