Interview: Kowloon Walled City
What I like to do is try to create chords that have a lot of notes that are just a half-step apart. That dissonance ends up just ringing and it creates this kind of fog that sits in those spaces, and that was very intentional because the silence is pretty cool, but having that weird, dissonant thing just floating in the background gives it a touch of menace
Kowloon Walled City are masters of their craft. For almost 15 years, they’ve created some of the most gorgeous, punishing and lyrically evocative sludge to come out of the US, and when Grievances dropped six years ago, it felt like they had reached a musical high tide mark that anyone would struggle to top. Six years later, they have returned with Piecework, an album that doesn’t seek to emulate or overshadow what they have delivered in the past but instead strips it down to the core. It’s a concise and measured paean to post-industrial decay and so Dvid Bowes pinned down guitarist Jon Howell to discuss its birth and growth.
E&D: How are things with the band right now? You’ve been away for a few years so can I take it that it’s good to be back?
Jon: Yeah, it feels great. We’re trying to pull together some interesting things around the release of the record. We had some interesting shows that we were going to play that got cancelled because of COVID, but the point of all of that is that we have, for the first time in two years now, all been able to get in the same room together and practice music that we have not really played together for two or three years because we just didn’t see each other for most of COVID, and that has been great. We’re all friends, we all love each other so it’s like you get to see your friends again but we’ve had this album that we’ve been sitting on. We’ve been sitting on this for so long and we get to play it finally. It’s interesting to explore some of these songs in the context that we’ll be playing them live because previous to this we’d only played two of them live, ever. We wrote this album, like, three years ago.
E&D: Was it just COVID that held back the release or were there other factors?
Jon: It was almost entirely the fact that Scott Evans, the singer of the band – he also records the band and plays the other guitar – he was having some incredible trouble in coming up with what to say. Lyrics were really dry for him. The rest of us were just giving him all the space that he needed in order to get all of this done. We don’t want to throw extra stress on top of this and he needed eighteen months to two years to get vocals for all of the songs written and done. He killed it, I’ve gotta say, because we recorded this three years ago and we didn’t hear these songs with vocals until, like, eight months ago? He wrote it over the course of that entire time but he did a fantastic job so we were all pretty stoked to hear what these songs were actually going to sound like, and they sound great.
E&D: In terms of Scott’s lyrics, how closely did they match up with what you were envisioning back when you wrote the material?
Jon: It aligns for the most part with things that he’s written about before. We tend to write about the indignities of the day-to-day, going to work and killing yourself, driving yourself crazy with stress over a job so there are elements of that that are still present. He has written a bit more about his family in this instance. He’s done that a bit in the past as well but he actually focused on his grandmother and his mother in some of the lyrical content, and particularly their work lives, the things that they had to go through to raise a family while also working full-time jobs. That’s one of the new lyrical components and it’s really cool to see that because we’ve had discussions about this stuff for a while but it’s making an appearance in the lyrics now. Those are the main things and then he tends to pull from different areas. He reads a lot of science fiction, like the Mars trilogy and we all read the Broken Earth trilogy – highly recommend it, we all really dug that – and the Annihilation trilogy, so he’ll sometimes pull elements from those sci-fi things because they speak to us and we all read it.
E&D: You can hear it quite clearly on the record, but you set yourselves a lot of restrictions on yourselves with the writing of this album. Was this largely in terms of tone, length, or a bit of everything?
Jon: A bit of everything but focusing on the two things you mentioned, we had intended when we started writing this and put these constraints out there, to try and make certain that we were writing something that was different from what came before. So with tone, we were attempting to write this album that was just massive-sounding clean guitars – clean, no gain, no fuzz. We failed, but what we ended up doing was that the songs we wrote essentially sounded really cool and the second we all got in the room together, we thought ‘Okay, we’re going to play this but then we’re all going to step on our gain pedals, just to see what happens’ and it sounded sooo much better. So, we wrote the songs clean and then, ultimately the most impactful versions of the songs were gainy songs.
The other thing is that on our last album, Grievances, a number of the songs tended to be a touch longer – which was fine, we love that album – but we were kicking around the idea of, “Can we create the same kind of impact while being more concise?” It’s about being shorter but it’s also about if we really need these extra two or three repetitions of a part. Is it maybe still as effective, or perhaps effective in a different way, if we truncate it? There’s a lot of that going on, where we wrote songs that might have been a certain length and just through editing and arranging, got the most concise form where it’s still as impactful but under five minutes, under four minutes, rather than six minutes or longer.
E&D: Did you have to condition yourself out of a lot of bad habits to manage that?
Jon: Absolutely. We had to be brutal when we were writing this thing. Scott and I have developed the ability to write together where we can be really honest about cutting something if it isn’t working. As much as you might like a part or a riff, you have to be brutal. Decide at what point it’s most impactful and when are we just going along with it because that’s what we would normally do. From the writing perspective, we were much harder on ourselves than I think we have been prior. We’re trying to do something different and I think we succeeded but it was a difficult process in terms of writing and arranging.
E&D: How long did the full writing process take?
Jon: I’ve written out a full timeline since it was so long ago and I’m still trying to process this record. We started very early writing in March of 2016 and then we wound down for a bit, came back in 2017 and basically it took us about a year and a half to write, demo and record the whole thing. There were just a lot of breaks in between all that. Again, by the time we actually around to having it recorded – no vocals. Zero vocals. We got all the music down and that’s been sitting there since the middle of 2018 and in the interim was when Scott was able to start finishing up the vocals.
E&D: Could you say a little about your approach to musical phrasing? You use a lot of open space, resonance, and it seems like an almost minimalist/maximalist approach.
Jon: The way that I go about it in this band is that I figure out where my place is in playing my instrument. I think we do two things. We try to create stuff that’s interlocking. The older version of this band was very noise rock. We were all playing riffs and now, one of the things we can do is that we’re all playing things that can be slightly different – the bass, the two guitars – and the idea is that it all comes together into something that is the fuller picture of a riff, or a part, as opposed to us all playing the same note, syncopated or non-syncopated. That’s one thing and we’re very conscious of that now in trying to create that interlocking vibe. As for the other thing you mentioned, the spaces? There are those spaces and we have filled those spaces with the resonance, right? From my perspective, what I like to do is try to create chords that have a lot of notes that are just a half-step apart. That dissonance ends up just ringing and it creates this kind of fog that sits in those spaces, and that was very intentional because the silence is pretty cool, but having that weird, dissonant thing just floating in the background gives it a touch of menace. It puts something there that’s a little ephemeral and maybe a little bit different.
E&D: This was your first time actually recording with Dan (Sneddon, drums). How was that experience for him, and for the rest of you?
Jon: That was interesting. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Dan but he is the drummer for Early Graves. I met Dan 20 years ago and we were in a band then. He came from Santa Barbera, I came from Cleveland, OH and we moved to San Francisco, we met and started a band. So I’ve known him for a long time, the other guys have known him for a long time as well. He’ll tell you this but when he joined this band, he didn’t know how to play slow. He’s a killer drummer; he’s got that fast, punk, Dave Lombardo style. He’s a sick metal drummer and when we’re playing a bunch of slow songs in practice, sometimes he’ll just need to blast for a second between songs. Everyone just stops what they’re doing and looks at him. It was interesting because it was a learning process for him to learn how to be in this band, to learn how to play slow and do it in a way that was pleasing to him. It wasn’t just him doing stock beats but creating that interlocking thing that the guitars and the bass do – how do the drums fit into that? It was really interesting to watch him figure out how to be in this band and then figure out how to write in this band. We kind of threw him into it as well as he joined this band and then immediately we went on tour in Europe. We threw him right into the buzzsaw so he learned by playing live.
E&D: What are the advantages, to you at least, of playing slow and are there any pitfalls to watch out for?
Jon: There’re no pitfalls for us if you just take us and our set – our set, no-one else playing. I think it’s a cool thing. You create a vibe, you create an experience within that. The only time it can be a bit meh is if you are playing either directly before or directly after bands who are playing straight-up grind, where the audience has been primed for this fast, gnarly thing and then we show up and are like, “Hey, 80 bpm – this is what you get.” In those instances, sometimes we’re playing for audiences who are checking their watches, just being polite. Beyond that, playing slow is easier, I think, than playing something like grind. It’s easier to create a mood. You’re forcing people to concentrate. They can’t throw their arms around, spin-kick-fight ghosts, so they just have to pay attention to the music. They can be stoked but it focuses audience attention in a way that I find really cool. Being on stage and playing slow, sometimes it’s incredible because in those gaps, in those silences where we have this dissonance going on in the background and the audience is dead silent because they’re paying attention, they’re in it – that’s cool. That’s the advantage, to sit in that moment. Prior to this, I’ve been in faster, noisier bands that sometimes played slow and in this band, it’s kind of the opposite where it’s mostly been slow with maybe one or two songs that are mid-tempo or fast. To experience that with the audience, where we all have to sit in this really interesting, quiet moment together, they’re connected to what we’re doing and we’re giving it to them.
E&D: How did you end up working with Melyssa (Anishnabie)? That cover shot is just gorgeous.
Jon: Yeah, it’s a fantastic shot. I don’t remember how Scott came across Melyssa but we spent a lot of time trying to work out what the artwork on the album was gonna be. On Grievances, we used some publicly available images from a famous photographer from the ‘20s, ‘30s (Lewis Hine). We started looking at stuff like that but nothing was quite right but, I’m not sure how Scott found her, but he started sending me some of the pictures that she takes. What she does, like on the pictures taken for our album, she locates these vacant houses, goes to them and finds these moments in those houses that are really evocative. Just incredible stuff. She also did the video for Piecework. From a little bit of a nerd perspective, I found out after the fact that she has done videography for the show The Expanse. We all watch it and then when we found out that she does that, it was pretty cool, I’ve gotta say.
E&D: I love those shots and that feeling of urban decay that they convey. Does that tie in with the band’s themes of being left behind by the daily grind of work?
Jon: Absolutely. The artwork for the previous album was pictures of factories, and people who would be in those factories. This artwork, this is where you end up. That’s the idea. Not only these homes where you end up after these years of work but then the homes themselves fall apart. You fall apart, you’ve made it through your life, but then the home that you live in, even that will ultimately decay. At the end of everything, these places still exist and it’s such a weird, terrible, beautiful thing to see them, to see these moments. Someone lived in these houses their entire lives. They’re full of something that we don’t know but it’s there and the pictures convey that.
E&D: Do you still see much of that in the Bay?
Jon: In the Bay, absolutely not. She operates in a town outside of Toronto. All the other guys moved closer to Oakland but I moved further north, and there is some of that as you go north. I can see it as I’m driving to my house after practice in Oakland, I’m going past these fields where there are these old, tumbled-down farmhouses. If you went inside there, you would see something similar. Definitely in Ohio, where I’m from, the decay that you would see there would be comparable to what Melissa shot.
E&D: This album, like the last one, will be out on Neurot. How has your time been with the label, and with the Neurosis guys too?
Jon: They’re fantastic. It’s interesting being on Neurot because obviously, it’s run by artists. It’s not run by people who’ve never been out on tour, you know what I mean? That means something. It’s people who have been through everything that we’re going through. Any experience that we could have as a band, they’ve probably been through it so they can provide that level of guidance to some extent. They know what the appropriate thing to do in terms of promoting an album, or touring – ways to get music in front of people. That’s been fantastic. The key thing, though, is what isn’t worth spending time on. Talking to folks about the record? Always good. Dumping a ton of money into this or that so that other people can do it for you? Maybe not. Results may vary.
E&D: What do you hope people get out of Piecework?
Jon: I think we made a record that’s going to make sense to people. It’s going to be easier for people to latch onto because it’s more concise, but then it’s also a strange record because we’re kind of a strange band. What I’d like is for this record to mean something to people. I want them to connect to it, whether that be through what Scott is saying in his lyrics or a mood, or a vibe, that is attractive to people. I think that this is maybe a more accessible record than the previous one and at the same time, it’s a step forward for us artistically and musically. I want it to resonate with people and I hope it does.
E&D: Would you consider writing with as many restrictions moving forward or was this largely an experiment?
Jon: We are definitely going to include new restrictions going forward. Even though we failed in certain ways it changed the trajectory of how we wrote. Even though we didn’t succeed in the ways we originally set out, we did things differently because we started with these restrictions in place. We’ve already had some discussions on what we could try next that would make things just a little different. We haven’t made any decisions yet but we’ll definitely keep this going because I think it’s been very effective.