A Look Back at Knife In the Water’s 1998 Debut Album 'Plays One Sound and Others'
To celebrate it's release on vinyl for the first time we caught up with guitarist and vocalist Aaron Blount to discuss the album and it's legacy.
There's a point at the end of Knife in the Water’s “I Sent You Up” when Aaron Blount and Laura Krause are singing about angels turning a soul away from heaven. When the pedal steel and instrumentation stops, the two voices are in perfect harmony. It’s a sound so radiant, that for a moment, it feels like they could be the heavenly guardians in the song.
Blount remembers the afternoon in 1995 when he wrote it in his apartment in Austin, Texas.
“It wasn’t like anything else I’d been writing up to that point. I was standing in the right place at the top landing of the stairwell, for some kind of current to flow through, because I didn’t move or write anything down, and these songs came out.”
Two years later he would record the track as a duet with his girlfriend Krause on Knife in the Water’s 1987 debut album Plays One Sound and Others. The beautiful soaring melody contrasting with the song’s macabre Old Testament tone of devils and angels and “cutting bodies into pieces to feed to fishes.”
The song was to become part of the band’s identity.
Blount (vocals, guitar), Krause (vocals, Hammond organ), Bill McCullough (pedal steel), John Brewington (bass) and John Hines (drums) formed Knife in the Water in Austin in 1997. Named after Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller, the band drew on the music of their Texas roots - country, gospel, and rock n roll - to create an atmospheric and rootsy-psychedelia.
The band toured across the US and Europe and a follow up record The Red River was #14 on SPIN's top 20 albums of 2000. A third album, Cut the Cord was released in 2003. Thirteen years later the band have finished album number four.
But it was the debut and songs such as "I Sent You Up" and the opening “One Sound”, a 9-minute song about someone waking to the smell of a burning home but wanting to fall back to sleep, that stands out as the band’s masterpiece.
To celebrate Plays One Sound and Others being released on vinyl for the first time through Sonic Surgery records we caught up with Aaron to discuss the album and it's legacy.
Noisey: “Sent You Up” has become a big part of the band’s legacy. Why did it resonate with so many people?
Aaron Blount: It’s very simple and easy to connect with. It’s a sardonic way of dealing with vulnerability, like an Addam’s Family episode or Edward Gorey cartoon. There is an unusual thing in Laura’s harmony vocal that is deliberate, where it’s ascending in the chorus up to a point then both vocals join in unison. It’s unexpected because it doesn’t go where the ear expects it to lift, and I don’t think it would have had the same impact the more standard way. Sometimes the thing that sounds wrong is just what it needs.
Laura has an amazing voice. What is it like writing and performing with her?
Unlike the rest of us, she never expected or tried to be in a band. She wanted to be in a church choir. I was persistent and pushed her to play through severe stage fright In college she studied Gamelan music in Bali and she loved Bulgarian choral music. They’re both beautiful devotional traditions, but they are outside the standards of western music. It was so cool to work on harmonies with her and Bill, because they both loved the more predictable country harmonies but they also liked unusual intervals.
A lot of the reviews at the time mentioned the world weary lyrics but you were actually quite young.
I was 24 when the record was recorded. I hadn’t been anywhere farther away than Mexico.
Looking back do you see that naming your band after a Polanksi film is quite earnest/dramatic?
We were film fanatics but I don’t think any of us had seen that film when we started. We decided to do a show with friends way out in the woods of rural Texas. We weren’t a real band had no ambition other than to play once. We needed a name for the invitation and I had read some review of a new Polanski film that said something like “It’s no Knife in the Water” so I put that name on the flier and it made us a band. It stuck, then months later we all saw the film and we were struck by how many of the devices of tension and drama were things we used in our music.
What were you listening to around writing the time? I know you like country and traditional music. What about punk? Did you see 13th Floor Elevators around Austin?
We were serious fans of Roky and the Elevators. They seemed to be from another planet or dimension. Roky was deeply afflicted by his mental problems at the time and was a visible tragic character. He almost never performed and if he tried it went very badly, a far cry from how well he’s doing now.
The Dicks, Meat Joy, Culturecide and the Big Boys were gone by the time I was going to shows, but many of them became friends and they were very supportive of Knife in the Water. There was so much nudity, filth, bizarre films, and confrontation at shows. You might get the idea that it was just white men acting out, but women, minorities, and gay people were involved and they were just as weird. When Daniel Johnston became violent there was a general trend for the underground music community to draw lines between real psychosis and the more deliberate obliteration of the senses. Our immediate peers were Glorium, Gut, and the Hamicks. We had very little in common musically, but we were involved and accepted as doing our own thing.
What was the recording process for the album like?
Half was recorded at Mike Vasquez’s Sweatbox studio in a building downtown that had rehearsal spaces and drunk old men living in offices like they were apartments. Mike was involved in every record we made. A quiet, skinny guy who wears four pairs of pants and combat boots in the summer. The recording went quick, it was mostly live. The rest of the songs were recorded at Bill’s house on an 8-track. It was all really simple and fast, we just did what we did live. We never mastered it, we pressed CDs with no label and took it to KUT, the public radio station and they started playing it everyday. It was a hit locally, to the shock of everyone. We sold a shitload of them.
Bill McCullough’s pedal steel really stands out. How did you meet him?
Bill dated my friend Meredith. They’ve been married for a long time now, but they had just started seeing each other and she said you have to come play with my boyfriend Bill, he loves country music like Johnny Bush “Green Snakes on the Ceiling” and he’s playing pedal steel all the time. I went over to his house, which is where he still lives, and he was this sweet natured, eccentric guy with giant homemade orange speakers through which he listened to his favorite records, Meat Puppets II and Rain Parade. He was in a band in the 80’s called the Wigglies that made this beautiful arty angular melodic music. Everybody in town still calls him Bill Wiggly. They always played at Liberty Lunch with another band I loved, the Texas Instruments. So we played guitars and had an immediate musical affinity. Bill approaches things via a process, so the tonal and theoretical possibilities of pedal steel are perfect for his way of thinking. He was excited about my songs and how they weren’t country songs at all, but they didn’t ignore the tradition either. What he specializes in is this sculptural harmonic complexity, with a sense of space and dimension. He is an excellent arranger, and he taught me to listen to the Association and Burt Bacharach, really cool harmonic and structural work.
Image: Bill McCullough
Image: Bill McCullough
What was it like as a young Austin band in the tail end of the 90s?
There is no evidence of that Austin anymore outside of certain people and their houses, and I don’t want to be too nostalgic. It was where I went through life’s changes, but nothing is special about change, it’s just personal. There was an adolescent beauty and friendliness to the town that couldn’t last, that made it easy prey for opportunism and exploitation. Cool things in Austin never last very long. The main loss is community, it seems so distant and broken now.
There are so many strangers now who have no clue what an interesting history they are walking on, or any awareness of the rebellious Texas progressive strain that made the Elevators, the Dicks, or Ralph Yarborough happen. Its more difficult for groups of abnormal people to pull together now and make music in public that challenges expectations. They still do it every day though.
A lot of reviews of the album mention drinking, sitting alone in cars or driving along desert highways at night.
Driving long distances and going to the desert are fairly typical things for a Texan. I think the sense of place, space and expanse in our music was certainly shaped by where we grew up. In Austin you’re at a midpoint between two cultural polarities: New Orleans in the swamp to the east and El Paso in the desert to the west, with Mexico to the south. There is an entire world within this expanse. My Mother is from east Texas, stomping ground of Jerry Lee Lewis and Dale Hawkins and my father was raised out in west Texas of Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Bobby Fuller, so we drove between these places all my life. Drinking was a part of life the same as anywhere else, it brings people together more than church or politics, then it divides them for all the same reasons.
By 1998 the alt country and No Depression era was in full swing. Where did you fit in with all this?
We weren’t part of that scene and we’ve never been included in the narrative. I was told that Wilco liked our records, which is cool, but we had no connection to that world. We didn’t play with the bands at all other than Calexico, if you include them. In Austin alt country was a very popular mainstream thing. It was on TV. There was a belief for the No Depression scene that there could be this transcendental evolution of country music into a broader and softer American or even global movement, and that idea is fundamentally horse shit to me. Real country or blues or gospel is just rock n roll to me, it can’t evolve and you can’t recreate it for a multimedia world. The fires of hell are no longer real. The Californication of Folk and Rock n Roll is inevitable, but it is still attrition and entropy as opposed to new blooms on the bush. Maybe our rebellious streak was too strong, maybe we were too raw, or maybe they thought we sucked. We were closer to Flying Nun bands, or Palace Brothers, in our hearts. I believed we were doing a new thing, from a different viewpoint, for a new time.
'Plays One Sound and Others' will be released on vinyl Nov 11 through Sonic Surgery records.