"I always felt that we never went as far as the stuff that we liked listening to..." - hmv.com talks to Young Knives
When Oxford-based trio Young Knives first burst onto the scene with their 2006 breakthrough album, the Mercury Prize-nominated Voices Of Animals and Men, they delivered their surreal brand of spiky post-punk clad in tweed and conjuring images of a spooky, forgotten England populated by morris dancers and straw bears.
By the time of their most recent album, 2013's Sick Octave, the tweed had long since disappeared and their music had begun to mutate into something far more experimental. Now operating as a duo following the departure of drummer Oliver Askew, brothers Henry and Thomas Dartnall have spent the last few years developing the experimental ideas first revealed on Sick Octave and this week they return with their fifth album – their first in seven years.
Barbarians arrives in stores today and ahead of its release we caught up with frontman Henry Dartnall to talk about their new musical direction, getting obsessed with Death Grips, and their recent series of live-streamed gigs hosted in a caravan...
It's been a while since the last one, how long have you been putting this album together?
“Well, we did an EP in 2015, which had new tracks on it as well, and then we wrote for a bit, and then Olly (Askew, drummer) left. I guess that must have thrown us a bit, we didn't write very quickly, but I think we finished writing this record quite a few years ago really.
“But I basically had to learn how to mix, I hadn't really mixed an album before and it took quite a few attempts before I'd finally mixed this record.”
Did you guys not self-produce your last album too?
“Yeah we self-produced, but I didn't mix it. We recorded it all and then we got David Wrench to do all the mixing. So yeah, it was quite a learning curve, and time just seemed to go by really quickly, it's crazy, really.”
Sick Octave sort of felt like an exercise in pushing the boundaries as far as you could, this feels like more of a balance... a bit more melodic, maybe? How would describe where you are musically at this point?
“I don't know, I thought Sick Octave was even more melodic than this one, maybe. I do think Sick Octave was a bit of a release, it felt like a bit of a 'f*** you' to all the people who told us what we should be doing. I just got to the point where I was just so sick of that world, it was like: 'When did this happen? When did everyone get to have a f***ing opinion on what we do?' Classic band tale, I think.
“So this time it was a bit more insular, less of a reaction, because we'd already broken those bonds. So I guess there was no expectation of what this one was going to be like, and we perhaps felt a bit freer from that kind of negative vibe. But we also felt freer to do whatever. We sort of disappeared away for a bit and the fans had gone quiet, it was just us and our manager. But it's been really good that way.”
Have you kept writing the whole time?
“Yeah, I mean we used to meet up twice a week and just sit in a room together, but this was more like what I wanted to do, which was write some songs, half do them and then work on them together. I always felt that we never went as far as the stuff that we liked listening to. And I think a lot of bands do that. They claim to influenced by such-and such, experimental, bleak music from the 1970s and 80s, and then they write really very poppy records.”
“I mean, I still like pop music too, so it was never going to go completely all the way, but I think I wanted to push us even further towards making a record that I might actually put in my collection. I don't know if we achieved it, but I wanted it to sort of sound like late-70s / early 80s experimental rock, with some more, I guess, millennial, experimental hip-hop and other things mixed in, because I like all that.”
Do you listen to a lot of other stuff while you're writing, or do you find it best not to do that?
“I got so obsessed with Death Grips at one point that I couldn't listen to anything else. Going back to 'normal' music was like I had to take a huge leap back to a place with melody. I guess that's the good thing about writing over a bit of time though. I suppose if we'd written something more quickly it might have been a more consistent listen, with a definite vibe to it, whereas this more a collection of songs. It was written over two or maybe three years, I suppose.”
Were there any songs that took a particularly long time to come together?
“There's a track on there called Jenny Hanniver, which we wrote a while ago. Oliver was on the original demo, I think it must have been from about 2009. But the song never worked, and we were like 'There's got to be a way to make this work'. I always think 'this is a great song', but then I always think something about my delivery of it sounds a bit 'Indie', and I guess I still quite like the idea from anything that even smells of 'indie'.
“I don't think that's possible, because it's such a broad spectrum, but I mean that kind of jangly guitar pop. I just want to get away from that kind of thing because it doesn't interest me, never has. I like balls-to-the-wall rock 'n' roll or electronica, but 'indie' feels like a bit of a weird fit.”
How does the writing split work between you these days?
“I think I do most of the writing, as in I put most of the hours in. But I'm more like a dog with a stick, I can't leave it alone, so I'll sit there for hours bashing away at it, even if it's really unproductive. Whereas Tom is a bit more laissez-faire. He'll have a few ideas that he'll bring in, and we'll pick out one and do it. He tends to write one track on each record, in terms of bringing something that's almost completed, and then we use it.
“But more and more now he's less about the lyrics and more synth-driven, coming up with textural stuff, and that tends to be where we write our songs from now, more than me writing a chord structure. The approach was to make something repetitive interesting.”
We see you've been doing some live-streaming stuff. It must be difficult releasing an album in the middle of a pandemic, especially with touring and stuff – what are your plans for getting around that?
“Yeah, in a way I don't feel that frustrated. It probably should be frustrating, first record in seven years and you can't go and play it anywhere. But I do find live performance quite draining, and the fact that no-one can do it at the moment does make me feel slightly OK about not doing it.
“We did have a tour pencilled in for September but that's not going to happen, so I think most of it is being rebooked for March and April next year. But that'll be good, we'll go and do Europe at the same time and I will enjoy that. I just like being in the studio and writing. The live streams have been great, but you do spend three days of the week sorting it out. But so many more people who wouldn't have come to a gig have seen us playing as a result of it, and we're in a period now where most people seem to just live on Facebook, so I thought we might as well provide something entertaining.”
Barbarians is available in stores now – you can also find it here in our online store.