interview
Photos by Isabelle Hellyer

Brightness is What Happens When Alex Knight Stops Caring So Much

We met the industry veteran in a bar somewhere to talk Korn, coastal New South Wales, and how to get over not "making it".
July 5, 2017, 2:58am

Alex Knight is the man behind the name Brightness. Brightness is the name behind the new record Teething—released June 30th—a collection of songs that are strangely familiar and classically comforting. Sitting nicely somewhere between sounding like The Smashing Pumpkins and then Conor Oberst, Teething may be new to us, but Knight isn't.

Back in the late 2010s he was one half of Sydney band Canvas Kites (alongside Mercy Arms' Thom Moore), who moved to London to crack the market. And never quite did. While in London, Knight formed Kins, and toured with the likes of Courtney Barnett.

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A little over a year ago, he returned home. Knackered and over it—waiting for the music thing to work out. Moving home to Lake Macquarie, a small coastal city a few hours north of Sydney, Knight began quietly doing other things like cleaning windows. Being a musician, though, songs began coming out.

We met Brightness in the inner Melbourne suburbs for a pot, and spoke about the throngs of the industry, Korn, and about how to stop caring so much.


So you recently moved back to Australia from London, how long have you been back?
Since March 2016.

Did you work out that thing you wanted to do was just as possible here, in Australia?
When I came back here, I had no intention of pursuing music at all. It was like game over. It's not that think lowly of the Australian music scene at all, it was just a point of my life that I thought I would move back to Australia, get a trade and start life episode two. It's not I consider it a failure, it's just that people in my situation need to make a call. I felt like I had enough experience with the other bands, with touring. We toured the States a few times with my old band. It wasn't all for nothing. There were moments that felt that way, but looking back when I left, it was just making a new start. That's been kind of postponed, with the record deal and all.

There was definitely a period of bands or artists from here that were being told to go to either London or L.A., and the general rhetoric being thrown around was, "this is where you go to make it big, you'll work with these producers, get all this reach". Just as that happened, Australian music scene started to blow up in terms of locality. If you think about what jangly pop music, like Twerps, that have blown up, it's become a lot more grassrootsy. There's more a caring about our own artists now, because there was a drop off for awhile, between Triple J heyday to wherever we are now.
These are movements I've always had trouble keeping tabs on. I never feel like I know what's going on. It's very interesting to hear that, there was that shift.

I think there was and it's easier than ever to peddle your own music, because there's way more of a spotlight and the breadth of the internet. With how much stuff that's coming out of here, people are taking much more focus. A lot of our local stuff is going so far, in terms of our site, people really do care what people are doing here locally. It doesn't really mean getting big somewhere else anymore, which is nice. It takes the pressure off and lets people enjoy playing, instead of trying to impress some record label and crack into the US market.
I think when I was 21, when I left, it wasn't so much… I partly wanted to see more of the world. In regards to moving to England for the first time, the idea of being big here was never appealing to me. That sounds kind of condescending, maybe it is. If you grow up listening to bands that're pretty much strictly foreign, that sets the standard. I would've move to America if it was possible, because most of the bands I like are from there. It was just becoming apart of that league, it wasn't that I wanted to dominate. I was playing drums for a band at the time, and I would've gone anywhere.

It's a pretty incredible opportunity to be afforded at 21, and to be doing it with friends.
Yeah, totally. It was crazy, having Polydor Records inviting us over to do some demos, at that age. But now, I know that 99% of the time those things don't flower out. But back then, I was thinking, "Oh wow! Polydor have signed us! It's done!" The Polydor thing ended up not happening. That guy, who would pay for rehearsal space and come watch us, actually said to us, "Guitar music is heroically unpopular at the moment".

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I mean, he was right!
This was 2010. Two or three years later, it definitely picked up. These things definitely go up and down. It's not to say that it would have definitely happened, but at that age, you do see things that blind your way.

At some point you've gotta have that experience of being totally let-down, or learning that having attention on you doesn't necessarily mean that success is going to follow. But logically it makes sense to expect things. It's not some weird hair-brained thing to think, that it's going to keep working out and getting better.
You're in the lottery at least. The amount of bands, friends' bands, that was the first time that had happened. Since then, the band that I was in before I left, in England, you could randomly contact a label and they would come to our shows, but nobody would offer anything. It's apart of their job, to make sure they are at those shows, to make sure they could say they were there. It's not a glamorous thing, it's just to make sure they don't get fired, if that band went and gone massive.

"I was watching the finale of Survivor , I'm sorry Brian!" Did that contribute to you wanting to come back, having these brushes with fame and over being let down?
I was over the lack of directness. I had one guy that came to 10 of our shows, and you'd think after the 10th show, there'd be some sort of thing. It was other things in my life, like my work, it was just having that uncertainty in bands. It's hard because if they like it, then they show it to their superior and they don't like it, you're dropped. After a protracted length of time, it becomes a bit nauseating. There's a sacrifice to a degree, you're living in London, living in some ratty conditions, the rent-to-pay ratio is really bad. You share the house with the rats. It feels like you're doing the hard yards, but there's no finite amount of time. This goes for so many different industries too. With a trade, you do your time as an apprentice and then you work. You'll be in demand. Not being in demand and having to gel with people all the time, it feels like a magic trick. People are either going to like you or not, and you shouldn't have to this kind of dance. I wouldn't put it just on that, that's just one in half a dozen things.

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How's it going?
Yeah, fine. When I moved back, I stayed out in the country for a bit and there's no internet or phone. I decompressed for awhile. At my Mum's.

Is that where you filmed the most recent video clip?
Ah, no. That's at my Dad's house, in Peats Ridge. There's a festival there, it's where a lot of water comes from actually. Coca-a-Cola bought a spring up here. Anyway… He's been there since I was 14 so it's apart of upbringing to a certain degree. Having those spaces to do those things, play drums and listen to music really loud. That's one of his main things. Since you can't really call ahead, from the gate you can hear music being blasted. It wasn't the usual. It was a lot of 70s and early 80s post-punk, that music to me still is so fresh.

Is that how you feel about your Dad's taste, or just knowing that post-punk is still really good?
I think the way that anyone in the position of power like a father has to a young kid, showing that much reverence to something, of course it's going to have an effect. With this PIL album. Like with some dads and football, just having that reverence that he showed to guys like Robert Smith.

My dad unfortunately did the same thing with Steely Dan.
Ha. That's the thing we bond over. He introduced me to Radiohead. I remember listening to OK Computer at the dinner table. So, it was 1997, I would've been 8. You don't really see it as a band, you see it as an ethereal thing. The name of the record doesn't matter, it's just this mystical thing.

And you haven't been on Noisey and seen the recent thinkpiece "OK Computer was Actually Shit!"? I think when you're young with your friends, it's such a cool time to develop your taste and you truly love the shit you love because there's nothing informing the shit that you love. Or what your parents like.
The music was so hard not to love. One style of music he didn't really like was metal, which played a major part for me. The first type of music I got really obsessed with—posters on the wall—was Korn. In year 5, we had to do an acrostic poem and I did one about Limp Bizkit.

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Do you remember how it went?
I remember it went something like, "Positively Hate, Bubblegum Bands". Back in the 90s, all those bands like Backstreet Boys and the hate they copped from Korn and stuff… That wouldn't happen today.

I am certain that all those feuds were the result of some very cunning PR.
One of my nightmares is to be quoted as saying something mean about someone, trashing someone… Unless it's done really eloquently.

Totally. I feel like Father John Misty who makes pretty good music spends his entire life trashing everybody else who makes music, which makes it basically impossible to enjoy his music because he's such a cunt. The music industry equivalent of the guy who comes to the dinner party, brings his own whiskey, scoffs at everything.
Do you know what bands he doesn't like?

Any female pop musician that's more bankable. Any person without a beard and a steel string guitar. Anyone who doesn't live on some ranch in some middle American small town. Or a dilapidated New York loft where Adam Green visits you every Monday. Anyone who benefits from or participates in popular culture. He hates them all.
It's kind of reminiscent of that late 90s thing. Us vs Them. There's resentment maybe to be had with this sneaky pop machine incorporating indie writers, morphed into one thing.

Isn't that what the majority of writers and musicians have always wanted, to be paid for their music? To be invited into the big machine and to profit from their work? Everybody is benefiting, and it's taking us to a place where we can love pop music. People can say that, "Radiohead is my favourite band, but I'm also obsessed with Rihanna and Lana Del Rey" because they all have merit in their own arenas. It's all very positive. Smaller artists can make really luscious pop and feel like they're not selling out because it's just a genre. We were devoted to Prince, to David Bowie, for making subversive pop music. That's Lana Del Rey to me.
It would be bizarre, if [writing pop music for someone else] was ever proposed to me. I mean, it would be an opportunity to expand my songwriting. Majid Jordan, I tried covering one of their songs: "Her". Covering a song, you get to look under the hood and discover the mechanics of the song in a way you can't by just listening to it. It's apart of my process, as the world is drying up, as I feel, to learn something from a different style than your usual genre.

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That song would be a completely different thing coming from you.
The thing is that half of the time when some of the music is pumped out, it's not even really any song. Just the surface.

It's amazing how you can take anyway one vocal line or instrument and the song is gone. It's just background noise.
That's a really good point. When I'm writing my parts, either the bass or drum part, is having that lyrical element. Dave Grohl is one of my favourite drummers.

Did you see that Foo Fighters released a new single today?
Ha, I don't necessarily dislike the new stuff but I don't feel anything for it. His drumming, you can listen to the drums to "My Hero" and go, "that's that song" if it was just a solo or an opening fill to any Nirvana song within a second. To have that kind of personality within it, that's as good as it gets.

That's what people said that Pharrell did with beats. If you hear the first five seconds of the song, you instantly know it's a Pharrell beat.
I made a Spotify playlist of Tricky Stewart and The-Dream. On that playlist is crossovers with stuff that they did together with Pharrell. Just the motifs that occur were great. There's always something to gleam at, say with Majid Jordan's style of singing, slightly flattening. It's great, as with my singing it's not always that dextrous. It's a good way to advance yourself.

Listen to Teething in full below.