The idea? Every day in May, to mark NZ Music Month and 38 years of his own rancid opining and reportage, Gary Steel will present something from his considerable behind. Personal archive, that is. This week, Steel regurgitates his feature on Chris Knox, originally published in the Sunday Star Times on September 14, 1997.
Father With A Flamethrower
He’s one of the few true Kiwi cultural icons. He’s been called the godfather of punk. He’s the spirit of Flying Nun. In America, an enigmatic legend. Here he is, the multi-talent with the most, Mr Max Media himself… CHRIS KNOX! An appreciation by GARY STEEL.
I LET OUT a coward’s startled moan. Just as I’m about to knock, the door lurches open. Herman Munster’s face looms up and greets me with glee. Vampira stands aloof and deathly of pallour in the hallway gloom.
Reality adjusts itself, and the picture’s quite different, really. Now Herman is Reginald Perrin. For a moment, I’m stranded in ‘70s British sitcom-land.
Then Reginald is suddenly Chris Knox, and Vampira is Knox’s longtime partner in life, artist Barbara Ward. It’s not really scary at all, calm down, it’s okay Gary, assures Knox with a gleam in his eye, and the calming touch of someone familiar with child-rearing tactics.
We move through to the kitchen of Knox’s Grey Lynn villa, nestled in a leafy street in the hippy belt of health food shops, wheat-free bakeries and organic butchers.
But don’t expect this punk-spawned multi-media personality to bend over and take the mental colonic irrigation of his hippy neighbours. Around at Knox HQ, conversation is still spiked with punk vehemence. So he’s just turned 45, and living the life of a suburban family man, but don’t expect time to have mellowed his edgy creativity.
Sitting in the kitchen – where every available wall space is taken up with graphic, bohemian art works rather than the customary wall-mounted cooking utensils – Knox begins expounding enthusiastically on his ideas, punctuated by the mewling of the family cat and an incessantly-ringing phone.
The occasion? Knox has found time at last – between his newspaper and magazine comic strips, and his film-reviewing gig on TV1’s Sunday arts programme – to make a new solo album. Simply titled Yes!!, this is Knox’s most focussed longplayer in years, a stripped-down, memorable bunch of belters, along with the odd moment of outright sensitivity and bizarre experimentation.
It’s raw, it’s loud, and at times, intense, and Yes!! is probably the closest Knox has come to his punk roots since his early work with the seminal Toy Love.
“Punk was such a jolt, and it enabled me to get out and make music in a public way for the first time,” says Knox. “The sheer adrenalin of making a good loud rocky thing is still glorious. This new album leans towards that side of things. I wanted to make something stripped down, and to try and get a bit more power into the recording.”
The journalist is at ease now, sipping from a jug of Knox home brew, and the man himself is in a talking mood.
“There’s still nothing better than thrashing away in such a fashion that your body can only just take it,” says Knox. “You can only just get to the end of the song, and if you can do it, there’s a sense of enormous exhilaration. My favourite moment on the album is the very last song, ‘Flaky Pastry’, which I sang in one take, and was leaping around the room, just holding the microphone and having a great time. I think that comes across in the performance.
“Investing all of your energy into a piece of music is still an extraordinary thing. I know some people who go into recording studios and do these incredibly angst-ridden singer-songwriter things, and come out sweating and palpitating and shitting their trousers, because of the intensity of it all. I find it hard to take myself that seriously, so it’s better to do the physical thing. It’s a bit like the alien coming out of John Hurt’s stomach!”
Eclecticism comes naturally to Knox, whose formative musical appreciation took place during the hazy days of the psychedelic revolution, but Yes!! is “the album I wanted to make loud and in-your-face. This one is easier to put in one bag than the last couple: it’s less eclectic, and it’s mostly reasonably straightforward rocky material.”
Which isn’t to suggest that he stifled those exploratory musical urges entirely: Yes!! is still a wonderfully warped take on the world, and encompasses both of the Knox obsessions, pure pop and experimentation. Sometimes both at the same time.
One notable example is ‘Pibroch’, which fuses a Dylanish vocal, blatantly steals lyrics from a famous Velvet Underground song, and overdubs wheezing, double-tracked bagpipes.
“If you listen carefully you’ll find that the first part of the verse is note-for-note ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ by the Velvets… don’t tell anybody! Right from the beginning, I realised it was a real Scottish-sounding thing, and ‘Pibroch’ is a Scottish bagpipe lament. It transpired that this guy could actually play a traditional bagpipe lament over what I’d written, as I’d accidentally written in the key the bagpipes are generally tuned to! So all these coincidences came together. Some people would call it synchronicity, but I’d kick their teeth in!”
For the first time in his 18-year recording career, Knox has indulged another of his passions: total experimentation. ‘Ndidi’ – 17 minutes and 27 seconds because that’s “the exact length of a roll of tape” – is a sound manipulation homage to The Beatles’ ‘Revolution Number 9’, that scary tape collage with the ‘Paul is dead’ backwards messages.
It echoes a time in pop history where anything was permissible, and the world’s most successful pop group could get away with a 9-minute piece of brilliant sonic absurdity.
“There are some sounds in there that sound like ‘Revolution Number 9’, which really pleased me,” says Knox. “The raw ingredients of that were done years ago, when I wanted to put out an album of three parts. The other parts were pretty dull, really! So I just resurrected the tape and reworked it.
“It’s just for those who want to get stoned and listen to some ear candy, which is what it is. I like that shit, and I want to do more of it.”
The experimentalist in Knox is one of the lesser-known aspects of his artistic persona, and has been effectively buried since the disparaging notices which greeted his first solo album in 1981, Songs For Cleaning Guppies. This journalist remembers The Gordons (now Bailter Space) disdainfully nailing the album to a wall in a Wellington rehearsal space.
For Knox, though, all music is equal, as long as it has something valid to communicate, and makes cool noises. After all, while his friends were probably grooving to Vanilla Fudge, the 15-year-old Knox was getting into the work of avant-garde legend John Cage.
“One side of this album had 28 minutes of (John Cage’s pianist) David Tudor scraping various instruments that had tiny microphones and tiny pickups on them all over a piano. It was shatteringly loud and abrasive, and no matter how many times you listened to it you could never predict it.
“I would put that – or ‘Revolution Number 9’ – on the turntable, and put as many radios as I could find on different stations round the room, turn the TV on, turn all the lights off, and lie on my back in the middle of the room and listen to this smorgasbord of noise. That was a little ritual I did on a Saturday night when my parents were out!”
Probably more than anything, Knox was raised on the wonderful combination of pop tied to experimental elements that was unique to the psychedelic era.
“Growing up in the ‘60s was a really good thing because bands seemed to be encouraged to be eclectic. Every time they’d put out a single they’d try and make a different sound. Even bands like The Hollies, they’d try and have a different instrument on every new single, and that really rubbed off. Nowadays, you can sit there in your niche and find it very hard to cope with eclecticism.”
Knox reckons he doesn’t yet understand why he feels the need to write and perform pop songs, but takes obvious relish in his attempt to subvert the usual delusional love lyric matter.
“People like words about love, because love is something they aspire to but very seldom have. I try to undercut that by being realistic about the whole process. Love, which is a word I don’t often use, is a very complex thing. There’s an awful lot of loathing, bitterness and compromise, all sorts of stuff mixed in there to result in what we call love, and that’s what I want my songs to talk about, not this ideal thing that most love songs are about, which to me is mostly unrealised lust.
“There are times where you have really good sex and you do go into that ethereal state. I’ve got a song that was written just after one of those wonderful sensual encounters, but by the time I’d got to verse four I was coming down, because you do! And sometimes you come down with a real wallop, too! So verse four was about coming down!”
Having begun his public life as an abusive, body-slashing punk in Dunedin group The Enemy back in the late ‘70s, moving on to pop flirtation and potentially huge success with new wave group Toy Love, then retreating into his idealistic cultural life with Tall Dwarfs and as a solo artist, Knox has noticed a songwriting rite-of-passage that is anything but unique, but nevertheless perplexing.
“It gets harder and harder to write songs all the time,” he admits. “I’ve noticed this thing in a lot of people, and I can see it in my own career: with The Enemy we were writing these rock songs that weren’t very melodic. With Toy Love melodicism started to enter the picture, and they got more craftily structured. And then it hit a peak in the early Tall Dwarfs days, where the melodies were just running free and they were all over the place, and you never knew from one song what the next one was going to sound like.
“Then it peters away and you start getting into a rut, or a ‘style’ as some people like to call it! It’s more and more difficult to write freely, and you end up doing the same tricks over and over again as you exhaust the obvious things.
“You can see this in the careers of virtually any writer who’s gone for more than ten years. Look at The Beatles: they started off with these copy songs which are neat but pretty much what other people were doing, and they hit this peak five years later, where they’re doing these extraordinary songs that are all over the place. And in their solo years, they get into these grooves. Look at Lou Reed: he used to write really good melodies. Now he just writes good riffs and talks over the top, because it’s all he’s got left.”
Almost painfully honest, and constantly debunking his own talent and skills, Knox is an engaging conversationalist who thrives on thrashing over ideas, and hasn’t the least bit of interest in nostalgia.
While at home he’s now more well-known for his comic strips Max Media (The Herald) and Pop Vulture (The Listener), it’s worth remembering that Knox’s influence on the Kiwi music scene is massive. The Knox aesthetic has defined the Flying Nun sound; a sound that has had a huge part to play in shaping some subcultures within the American underground rock scene, particularly the genre known as ‘lo-fi’.
But Knox is typically humble and dismissive of all this carryon. “The difference between what we were doing and what some of the lo-fi kids have been doing is that they were trying to degrade things in order to get a sound that was different. We were never trying to do that. We were trying to record as best we could. I’ve never been lo-fi, I’ve been lo-tech in that our fidelity to the sounds that were being produced was actually higher than that which has been transmuted through a lot of effects and an enormous amount of studio trickery and so forth. Lo-fi was hi-tech but lo-fi. What we were doing was lo-tech but hi-fi, fidelity being truthfulness, and we were being truthful to what was actually being emitted.
“I played two lo-fi festivals overseas, but it got to the ridiculous point where people were adding hiss to their records to make them more commercial, within the lo-fi brotherhood… and it was very much a brotherhood, there weren’t many sisters involved! It was getting really wanky.”
The result of all this malarkey, says Knox, is that “with the Japanese noise invasion the floodgates have been opened, and if it’s obscure, there will be a thousand people in the States who will buy it. You can get away with murder, which is great! It’s what the punk revolution was all about… you can actually sell a thousand records without having any talent whatsoever!”
After a short trek around NZ, Knox himself will be back off to the States to give his adoring fans another taste of his unpredictable live presentation. “They take me very seriously, because the records do sound more serious than in fact they are. They pick up on some of the humour, but there are some people where that goes right past them. They just want to get to the angst.
“It’s really interesting if I go to a new city, because the people there have been waiting to see me since 1982 or something, and they’ll be sitting there waiting for every word, and I get up there and do something really dumb to start off with, something totally stupid. And it’s like… this idol fractures before their very eyes, and some of them don’t recover! Some of them can’t handle the silliness, or the amateurishness, or the ineptitude, but by the end of the gig 90 percent of them have clicked and realised what’s going on.
“It adds an extra dimension: there’s the angst, plus the comedy and the physicality.”
Knox despises the way musicians are idolised, and works towards reclaiming the human relationship between himself and his fans. “It’s pathetic. I’m just some geek who gets up onstage. So there’s the jumping into the audience to make them well aware that I’m just a fat little fuck. And that has become more and more of what I do to some degree.
“I was in a lot of audiences before I ever got up in front of an audience, and I was always disheartened by the ones where there was no spontaneity, no correspondence with the audience. I still feel like a part of the audience when I’m onstage, and know that the only way to have a good gig is to get the audience on your side, and that if they’re having a good time, you’re having a good time. These things feed on each other until they become this big orgasmic splodge.
“For a while I was trying to break through by being as vile as possible, but now I try and do it by being pretty much as stupid as possible, which people love, except for those who are there for a transcription of a record. There are still some of those around, God curse them!
“But most people love seeing someone on the edge, not knowing quite what’s going to happen: that feeling of danger, where there’s a possibility that I may just leap offstage and bury my head in their crotch.”
Knox admits that people are drawn to enigmatic, mysterious performers in a ridiculous quest for some super-human element in their entertainment. “They want ET, and if ET’s got a guitar and can boogie, then that’s really cool. I’d give them that, but I’d give them a cinema where the film continually comes off the sprockets, and does that great psychedelic thing where the frame burns, and where the projectionist is really, really out of it, and puts the wrong reel on and upside down and so forth.
“But the whole thing of the tortured, enigmatic artist in every sphere of creativity just gives me the total running shits.”
Chris Knox is an alarmingly moral Kiwi renaissance man: still seething with contempt at hyprocrisy in every form, he walks it like he talks it, unforgiving in his criticism of anything that raises his ire, but also constantly turning his scorn on himself. And strikingly, a middle-age family man whose personal convictions and creative convictions haven’t diminished over the passage of time.
And fittingly, in a commercially-oriented Auckland where goal-setting and future planning have been planted in our brains as essential prerequisites of modern living, Knox takes a contrary stance: “I’ve got a very short attention-span, I’ve got no short term memory, and I have no aims or plans. I’m one of those people who just lives for the moment… and the next couple of months. I have no idea what’s going to happen in a year, and that’s the way I like it. I vowed and declared around the time of the formation of The Enemy that I’d never work a 9 to 5 job again, never get into that predictable rut, and so far I’ve made it. There are joys in that, and rather large yawning chasms of terror!”
And although he professes a desire to have a huge pop hit, Knox won’t soon be joining the rest of the pack in swish digital studios aiming for the next smooth crossover sensation. In fact, his last encounter with a digital studio got him so frustrated that he had an epileptic fit… an occurrence that these days is thankfully rare.
Professing to know nothing of today’s big hitmakers – the only Britpop group he likes is Supergrass – Knox reckons today’s digital studios just make the whole process too easy.
“In the ‘60s you had to battle against the technology in order to get what you wanted, whereas now virtually anything you want is at your fingertips, and you can do it with the utmost of ease. If you want the sound of 40 yaks barfing into a concrete pipe, there’s probably a sample on a CD somewhere that you can just whack into a sampler. In the ‘60s, you actually had to go to Tibet!
“So I don’t have access to UHF (music television), I don’t listen to mainstream radio, I’ve got no idea who those people are on the front cover of Lava magazine, and I keep hearing these names of people who are apparently really-really-really famous that I’ve never heard of, and wonder what they’re like for about 15 seconds. Then I get over it.”
We solicited a few average Kiwi opinions about Chris Knox, and put them to him:
* Why doesn’t he play more soft songs?
“Because Graeme Downes said the ones on my last album sounded like Enya!”
* Chris Knox is the Sam Hunt of the music world.
“If that person means I’m an aging, past-it person who still has a certain amount of idiosyncratic creativity, I’ll take that as a compliment.”
* ‘Not Given Lightly’ is a Kiwi pop classic. Write more like that!
“This person has no brain. I’d love to write another ‘Not Given Lightly’, but it’s not something you can sit down and do. It’s been a bit of an albatross. People play it at their weddings and funerals, but it never actually sold anything!”
* Why don’t you make a real pop record in a real studio?
“I find it really hard to listen to all the digitally synthetic things that are done to voices and instruments in order to make them sound ‘good.’
* Chris Knox should have stayed with Toy Love.
“It’s just nostalgia, and the fact that it was a band. People yearn for that, and find it hard to accept a soloist playing rock. What I enjoy a lot about my live gigs these days is that those people aren’t there.”
* Why doesn’t he play more often?
“It’s tough to get a headlining gig here, because people go ‘oh, Knox again, I can see him for free sometime in the quadrangle.”
* He’s the original slacker.
“My definition of a slacker is someone who is very creative, very intelligent, but doesn’t actually do anything. I do things, but I’m not very intelligent. To me, the whole slacker and Generation X thing was just another way of selling soda to the masses.”