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By: Cameron Piko
With Knifeworld‘s Bottled Out Of Eden coming out April 22nd and a short UK tour following in May, singer/composer/guitarist Kavus Torabi took some time out to discuss the band’s latest record. We also chat about a potential 40-minute Knifeworld epic, his work with Guapo and Gong, sea shanties and the value of playing Magma at a rave.
(((o))): When I first saw Guapo back in September, you were just about to head off to the Pyrenees to record Bottled Out Of Eden. How was that experience?
Kavus: Oh it was wonderful. It was so nice – God that’s a terrible word. ‘Nice’. Well, it ran incredibly smoothly. Partly because the last record we made, The Unravelling, just took so long to get to where I wanted it to get to. Because I was engineering it all, and editing and what have you, it just started to send me nuts. So certainly after we did the last Guapo album [2015’s Obscure Knowledge] – which went so easily, we spent a year rehearsing the thing, eventually recording it – I thought this time around, I might try that with Knifeworld. I don’t want to even touch a computer the whole time I’m there. I never want to look at a screen, all I want to worry about is the arrangements and my own singing and my guitar playing.
It was wonderful and Bob Drake I trust 100%. He’s such a wonderful producer and engineer and friend and incredible musician. For me, making that record reminded me of going right back to the 90s, working with Tim Smith (from the Cardiacs) when he produced my first proper band. I just felt complete confidence in him, and that’s what it felt like with Bob. I’m so precious about my music, but to have someone that I felt [was] completely 100% looking after it was great.
(((o))): ‘High/Aflame’ is an absolute success: psychedelic, jubilant horn-heavy pop with occasional odd times. I was comparing that with the album artwork and other song titles like ‘Lowered into Necromancy’ and ‘Foul Temple’, which are rather esoteric and occult. Is the balance of light and dark important for you in your music?
Kavus: Well, absolutely and I’m glad you picked up on that. I’m trying to write about – or at least I hope I’m trying about – the human experience. Trying to make musical what’s going on internally. And …you know, I love it when you have a band or an artist that just really mines a certain emotion or a specific kind of sound. But on any given day, I might be absolutely euphoric about one thing and crushingly miserable about something else. I guess I’m trying to do that with the music. It’s not so deliberate as that, but certainly I like to span both sides.
(((o))): Elaborating on that, you’ve also said that you always like to have a ‘definite theme’ for your records. So even while running the gamut of light and dark, it’s still restricted by a theme. What would say the theme is for this album?
Kavus: The theme for this record really started with the title, Bottled Out Of Eden. The one thing I knew about the record, even before I started writing it, [was that] I wanted to make a very ‘up’ sounding record. I felt like the previous record was very introspective and very – I don’t want to use the word ‘dark’, as I think that’s overused a bit – but it was certainly a very melancholy album. So, I really, really wanted to make something ‘up’.
So that was the initial thing, but once I had the title Bottled Out Of Eden, it had a number of different meanings. It had the idea of just being ejected from Eden, but also the idea that the music itself has been bottled out of Eden. Or, the idea that to be ‘bottled out’ (which means ‘scared of’), being scared of Eden. I thought it would be very nice to make a record that looks at all the different aspects of those themes. It’s never so deliberate as that, but it gives me a rough idea of what [the music] is going to be like and what it’s going to be about, and how to approach it.
The record was very much tempered by losing four very good friends last year, starting with Daevid Allen [of Gong], our friend Nick Marsh from Flesh For Lulu who I was very close with. And then I lost a friend to MS, and another friend to suicide. And that all very much influenced the way I was writing the songs anyway, because I wrote everything in the first part of last year for this album. But rather than just turning it completely inwards and make a kind of negative record, I still felt like I wanted this to be an ‘up’ record nonetheless. I tried to turn those experiences in a vague way to something positive, if that makes any sense.
(((o))): Oh absolutely. That partly answers the next question, but you may have a bit more to say: just compositionally, did you approach this album differently than the previous ones?
Kavus: Yes I did. There was a number of factors there. One was that all the tunes were written in a relatively short space of time. I think I wrote the first tune ‘I Am Lost’ in December 2014, and I think come July I had written the last tune which was…
Oh actually, I’m lying! The very last tune, ‘Lowered Into Necromancy’, I wrote two days before we went to France. I taught it to everybody in the studio. That was never going to be on the album. I’d just written this new thing and, you know, whenever you have a new song it’s always your favourite. I was so pumped about it that I said “Guys, look. I know this wasn’t meant to be on the album, but I’m going to show you [indecipherable]”. That one came about just before we went away. It was all written in a very short period of time, and what was good about that was that often if I write a tune, it sits and ferments for ages. I start getting really attached to the original arrangement or the original idea I had for it. And then I end up having to try to replicate that with the band. With this, I was writing the arrangements fairly quickly and then working on them with the band. For instance, the horn section. I’d be showing them their parts, and they’d be going “well you know, this is nice but how about instead of this part being on the alto sax, why don’t we put this part on the baritone sax? It would work a lot better.” Actually, working with the horn players, I think the horns just sound fantastic. I’m not a horn player, although I write for them, and they instinctively know as the horn section which part is going to work better, and certain ways of breathing and what have you. Because I trust them so well, I didn’t stand back exactly but allowed everybody to have a bit more input into the arrangements. Certainly with Emmet [Elvin, keyboardist], I’d say “this is the kind of thing I’ve got in mind, but you know the sort of thing I mean”. Also, he’d come up with much better parts based on my original ideas. So, I think the record breathes a lot more because of that.
And also, we played pretty much all of them live before recording it. So we knew that the arrangements worked really well. More than any other record I’ve done, it has far less overdubbing and multi-layering. Particularly with the guitar. The guitar, in a way, it takes the background a bit on this record.
(((o))): Yeah, no guitar harmonies this time!
Kavus: No! The horns got all the really groovy parts, that was the thing. Normally the parts I would give to myself, I gave to the horns. They get to do all the really fun stuff on this record.
(((o))): Looking at things compositionally again, I’m always interested in asking musicians who write (or co-write) in multiple bands. Beyond the obvious differences – horns in Knifeworld – have you noticed over the years any distinguishing features that make you realise the piece you are working on is for Knifeworld, or Guapo, or whatever else?
Kavus: Yeah. I’ve been thinking about this recently, because actually as we speak I’ve been working on a new Gong record.
(((o))): That’s my next question!
Kavus: Then we’ll talk about that later. Well, with Guapo it’s a very different thing. Guapo is a group-composed thing, so everything we write in Guapo is written when all four of us are together. I’d say about 40 or 50% of it is built out of improvising. We’ll improvise and then have a good idea out of that, and we’ll spend the next few weeks honing it and developing it and adding to it.
Whereas Knifeworld is very much something that I work on at home, or wherever, and bring it to the band when I’ve finished it. So it’s never like we sit around and jam with Knifeworld and then songs are born out of that. I suppose it’s the stuff that’s most personal to me, and similarly with the lyrics as well it tends to be incredibly personal stuff that goes into Knifeworld.
With Gong, I do write stuff ahead of doing it, as do we all. It’s a little more like the Guapo way of doing things, although I’d say a little more structured because it’s more song based. It’s probably somewhere between what Knifeworld does [and Guapo]. But the thing with Gong is that, just due to the nature of way it works, everybody comes up with their own part. So I might say to someone “I’m not entirely sure about this bit”, or they might say to me “Maybe you shouldn’t be singing in that bit”. It’s all sort of open.
All three seem to work very differently, but all work very well.
(((o))): Yeah! And, as expected, I understand the next Gong album is almost complete! Can you tell us anything about it?
Kavus: Yeah, I can.
[There’s a brief break as Kavus’ child interrupts the proceedings]
I’m writing lyrics and singing by day at the moment, and doing Knifeworld interviews by night! [Chuckles] That seems to be the routine for this last week. I’ve done all the guitars now, all the drums are done, I’m doing singing now and hopefully it will be done ready to mix in about two or three weeks, I think. I’m extremely excited about this one, I must admit. You see, [with] all of the body of work, whether it be Knifeworld, Guapo and Gong, I’ve worked hard. I like to put 100% into everything and really throw myself in completely into whatever it is I’m working on at that time. Right in this few weeks I’m currently in ‘Gong mode’. Really, really excited about how this record is going to turn out.
(((o))): Fantastic. Well, is there anything upcoming for any other projects? I don’t normally ask, but you’re in like 45 bands.
Kavus: [Laughs] Yes, there’s some really fun stuff coming. About three or four weeks ago, I mixed an album by a project called Admirals Hard. Now, Admirals Hard is a part-time thing I’ve been doing with some friends for about the last ten or fifteen years, but we’ve never recorded any stuff properly. What it is – do you know what sea shanties are?
Kavus: [Picking up my Australian accent] We have a tune called ‘South Australia’, funnily enough. So sea shanties were sung by the sailors on ships, and there were different sorts of shanties: pumping shanties, and rigging shanties and whatever. And so, there’s a bunch of us who all play in fairly experimental psychedelic groups, but we’re all from Plymouth – where we grew up, in the southwest – and we just formed this group to play sea shanties! And I don’t know if you’re aware of a band called Stars in Battledress, who are also on my label [Believer’s Roast]. They’re involved, and the guys from my old band The Monsoon Bassoon are involved, and myself. It’s really not like the other stuff I do. It’s very trad folk. Slightly psychedelic trad folk. We recorded the album a year ago, but I’ve been so chock-a-block with Knifeworld that I haven’t been able to mix it. So I’ve been saying to everyone in the band that as soon as I get this album finished, Bottled Out Of Eden, I’ll mix this thing. So finally that’s mixed and been mastered, and we’re just in that bottleneck queue waiting for the vinyl to get pressed. But that should be coming out in April. It’s lovely, actually. I’m attached to it sentimentally because it’s very much music from the southwest with some really, really old friends. The guys that are in the band, they’re all wonderful musicians, but they’re guys I’ve been friends with now since I was in my mid-teens. So I’m very excited about that. And it’s all traditional sea shanty stuff. It’s not original tunes, but the arrangements are very much our own.
(((o))): Knifeworld are doing a short tour in May around the UK. The album launch in London’s Bush Hall on is meant to feature the “biggest production yet”. What’s that?
Kavus: It just means I’ve bought a special costume to wear. [Laughs]
No, no. We’re going to have the guy who did the projections on the ‘High/Aflame’ video doing projections throughout. I’m hoping that we’re going to record it for a live album as well, and hopefully film it too.
I have an idea of where I want Knifeworld to go next and I’m not saying for one minute that I’m bringing this version of the band to bed, because the line-up will be the same, but I really want to have a go at writing ‘the great epic’. The great 40-minute Knifeworld track. I’ve written the first ten minutes of it already, and I’m really, really pleased with it and I have a few ideas. For instance, Melanie [Woods], who sings in the band, is actually a terrific drummer as well. So I thought wouldn’t it be nice to have two drumkits. I don’t know if you ever saw Melvins when they touring with the two drummers, but it’s just so amazing. I’ve seen a few bands with two drumkits and thought it’d be really great to write for two drummers. And Mel’s such a great drummer. To hear her and Ben [Woollacott] play against each other would be really exciting.
I feel like I want to at least have a go. I mean if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But I’d like to have a go at composing ‘the epic’, the forty-minuter.
(((o))): It’d be like [King Crimson’s] THRAK with horns.
Kavus: [Chuckles] Yes exactly, that’s good. But yeah, that’s the other thing: really make use of the horns. We’ve always had that very minimalist, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass-y, Michael Nyman-y vibe to the arrangements and I thought wouldn’t it be nice to really stretch that stuff out and have these themes that really develop and keep coming back again. But rather than coming back over like 3 minutes, have these big themes that come back ten minutes later or turn themselves around and they come back in a different way twenty minutes later. Rather than confining it to these 5 or 6 minute tunes.
This is the plan. It might go all tits up and it might not work.
(((o))): Well, at least you’ve had a fair bit of experience. It’s not like Guapo songs are particularly short or anything.
Kavus: Well that’s it! That comes back to how, in a way, one band feeds the other in terms of ideas. These last two Guapo records [Obscure Knowledge and 2013’s History of the Visitation] have all been these long pieces, and Knifeworld is a very, very different beast. I’m thinking wouldn’t it be nice to apply the sort of colours and textures and sound that Knifeworld do, over a very long thing. Guapo is a lot more dissonant and a bit more experimental. Knifeworld tends to be quite melodic, Lydian and ‘up’, so I’d like to have a stab anyway at doing a longform with them.
(((o))): Absolutely. I guess the only thing that really links the ‘trio’ of Knifeworld, Guapo and Gong is psychedelia, but it’s a nice idea that you can pull from any aspect of each band at any point and employ it.
Kavus: Yeah, yeah. The one other thing with Guapo is the way Dave Smith drums. No matter what you write, once he starts drumming over it, it just sounds like Guapo. He has such an idiosyncratic style in drumming; I’ve never played with another drummer like him. And it’s instantly recognizable. Honestly, I swear you could play “Happy Birthday to you” and if he was drumming on it, it would make it sound like Guapo. It’s extraordinary, this guy’s playing.
(((o))): As you are also one half of The Interesting Alternative Show, this is a good opportunity to get some music recommendations. What’s some good and weird music people desperately need in their collection – that isn’t Knifeworld?
Kavus: Right, well I’ll talk briefly about that because what tends to happen with me is that, when I’m working on new music, I tend not to listen to other music. When I’m writing stuff, I like my latest tune to be on the internal jukebox. I tend to find that once I’ve had the initial idea – the chords and the melody and the structure – most of the arrangements just seem to happen when I’m not sat with a guitar. Most of the arrangements just happen when I’m doing other stuff and I’m just letting the song cycle around on the internal jukebox. And that’s one of the great things about having an iPhone now, is that I can instantly get my phone out and sing. Most of the last album is little sound recordings on my iPhone with me saying “Ok, horn melody for ‘A Dream About a Dream’” and just singing it into the phone.
The great thing about The Interesting Alternative Show is that it’s forced me to keep up with new music, because that’s the nature of the radio show. And it’s brought in some brilliant opportunities. We were DJing – Steve [Davis] and I – at a techno festival called Bloc, the weekend before last. We were playing stuff like Aksak Maboul, Magma, Fred Frith, Frank Zappa, Camberwell Now, Captain Beefheart. All this sort of stuff, playing at a festival, and the guys were going bananas for it! I’d never DJ’d at anything like this before. I thought “Oh my god, how are we going to go down?” But we just brought our vibes, Steve and I, to the thing and the ravers loved it. And to see [these guys] really, really dancing away to Magma was just wonderful. I had people coming up to me going “Oh what’s this mate, this is amazing!”
So it has really allowed me to keep up with new music.
[A child’s voice pipes in again. As much as I’d like to hear more of how exactly one raves to Magma, I feel I should wrap up soon and leave Kavus to his kids.]
Most of the really exciting stuff seems to be coming from the electronic world at the moment. For me, stuff like Holly Herndon. Her album from last year, Platform, was extraordinary. There’s a guy called Oneohtrix Point Never. He’s doing incredibly cutting edge stuff. Like with progressive [music], or whatever you want to call it, it requires at least 8 or 9 listens before the tunes start really letting themselves in. But there’s so much going on there, it’s extraordinary.
Other cool stuff. There’s a really terrific sort of …art rock? Or chamber rock? Or prog? I don’t know. From New York, called Voice Coils. They’ve just put out a 12” single and that’s incredibly detailed composition. Very loosely you’d call it rock, because it’s rock instruments, but it’s very formal sounding. So that’s very exciting.
Um, what else has been really getting me going? The new album by The Gasman, who I really like. Another electronic artist – I’ve put stuff out by him on our label – that’s really good. If your readers don’t know about Stars in Battledress, their last album In Droplet Form is I’d say indispensable. Absolutely beautiful.
I’ve been really enjoying Tim Hecker, post-industrial/electronic artist. Another terrific artist I’ve been enjoying recently called M.E.S.H., who is on the PAN record label. And also another artist called Helm, also on PAN. I don’t exactly know what you’d call it, because – if it is a scene – I’m [not] really bedded in with that scene, but it’s incredibly exciting, instrumental, ambient, industrial kind of stuff.
(((o))): So we started with you saying you don’t listen to any other music but your own, and I’ve just been given a list of 20 artists. [Laughs] But that’s good!
Kavus: It’s funny you should mention that. One of the reasons I think I’ve been going towards electronic-y stuff is that when I’m making records, I don’t like to listen to stuff that is sort of in the same field as what I’m doing. Because I get so self-conscious about whatever is I’m working on at the moment, that if I hear another rock-based band it’s like “Oh, it’s all so good! God, now our new record is going to be…” I try to listen to something that’s really different. When I was making The Unravelling, all I was listening to was Steely Dan. It just seemed like this stuff can’t affect me, it’s [just] doing what it does. And that’s how it’s been making this record. All I’ve wanted to do for the last year or so is listen to electronic music, so I don’t start thinking “Oh God! How did they get the drum sound?! Why don’t our drums ever sound like that?!”
(((o))): Well, that’s all I’ve got for you! Thanks very much for taking the time to have a chat.
Kavus: You’re welcome! Thank you so much Cameron.
Knifeworld UK tour dates:
09/05 – Leicester, The Musician
10/05 – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
11/05 – Brighton, Green Door Store
12/05 – London, Bush Hall