An Interview with Young Knives

Young Knives have just finished their 2013 UK tour. When I went to see them at the Cellar in October, they were testing out material from Sick Octave, bravely playing the album through from start to finish. Early on in their career, the Cellar was as big a venue as the trio could fill, but since releasing their breakthrough  album in 2006, they’ve filled much larger spaces. Despite the Cellar’s size, Young Knives’ co-frontman Henry Dartnall thinks it was a “wise choice”. “We were offered a show at the Academy, but we just felt very inhuman doing a show in Oxford at the Academy. It works in some places, but Oxford needed to be a little more intimate, so we turned down the money and went for the vibe. It’s always been a favourite place to play and it sounds good in there.”

The show was good, though many people were confused by the setlist – this time round, four albums into their career, Young Knives have decided to do almost everything experimentally. They crowdfunded this album on Kickstarter, embraced unconventional instrumentation (including old intercom systems they found out at Upper Heyford R.A.F. base), recorded it in disused aircraft hangars, released it without a record label, and abandoned charity-shop style for post-apocalyptic zombie chic. Henry seems chuffed with their new way of doing things. “There was a lot of guesswork, and some of it we got wrong, and some of it we got right. But the point was that we didn’t want to go begging people for money, only for them to want us to make something that would sell loads of records, and for it to sound like it was meant to sell a lot of records. We just sort of said, y’know, why don’t we just do it ourselves?” The result is a record which Henry admits is “all over the place”, but in a good way. Sick Octave spans and disregards genres – very little is consistent across the album other than the voices and the slightly disconcerting atmosphere.

The band are fully aware that it’s a departure from their old sound. “It just feels like a new approach, in that it’s not as much of an “indie” sound. Whatever those connotations are for the word “indie”, it doesn’t feel like that. From the last record to this record, I think the jump is pretty massive. I think perhaps it sounds like what we should have done after [second album] Superabundance, which was quite a noisy record. [Sick Octave is] quite big and full of stuff, quite muddy in places.” When I ask Henry if he thinks their existing audience will be receptive to the change, he’s defiantly confident. “I’m quite happy to shed a few pounds to make something that we find authentic and credible for ourselves. We wouldn’t have done it otherwise. We would have stopped if we’d have thought we were gonna write another indie record. That was the discussion. We either do something nuts or we don’t do it again.”

Young Knives, Sick Octave album cover
Young Knives, Sick Octave album cover (Henry Dartnall, centre)

The repetitiveness of the indie scene in the late 00s drove a lot of artists towards experimentation, and Young Knives are no exception. “I remember people saying we were gonna be like the next Kaiser Chiefs. It’s like, fucking Hell! What’ve we done wrong?” Perhaps cheekily, I remind Henry that his band actually supported Kaiser Chiefs at Leeds football stadium in 2008. “Yeah, well you don’t say no, do you? Anyway, I like showing off in front of loads of people. And [Kaiser Chiefs] are perfectly nice people. I’m not down on it, I just have a different idea about what I want to do.”

Henry mentions two of his favourite artists, Throbbing Gristle and Suicide, and it’s possible to hear the influence of these experimental bands on Young Knives’ recent musical shift. Facilitated by their newfound freedom from labels, Young Knives have moved away from what Henry describes as a “light, punky, poppy” sound. Henry says that his favourites from earlier releases are tracks like ‘Turn Tail’ and ‘Tremblings of Trails’, which hint at the darker direction the band would take later. “They’re the moments that we created something that we actually felt we liked a lot. We never quite understood what it was that made these things work. And we often went in and played everything as fast and as hard as possible, and those are the tracks that I don’t really like. I mean, ‘Up All Night’ is this quick, sub-par… ugh, well we didn’t want to put it on the record, it was so annoyingly poppy. We should have probably put ‘Turn Tail’ out first and that would have been a lot more successful, because Radio One were willing to support us at the time.”

Henry reckons that leaving a record label has generally been a good choice for the band. “Record labels cannot afford to take risks. They’ve got hundreds of people they employ, and everything costs a lot more through a machine like that, and therefore they have to have dead certs. You can’t do that with music unless you put out something that’s kind of boring, in my opinion.” At this point, it sounds like Henry is going to buy into the degeneration narrative that has been circulating in the music press for the past few years – in our digital age, it’s easy to imagine record companies struggling, failing and leaving behind only the huge, well-oiled machines of commercial pop. But Henry is more optimistic than he first seems. “I don’t think that the music industry being in this situation is a bad thing at all. We still haven’t shaken off the shackles of the old paradigm, as it were, but that is what is happening, and the new way of doing things has pros and cons. It’s no easier to break into being a popular band than it was, but I don’t think it’s any harder either, particularly. I just think you do it in a different way – now there are kind of micro-economies, people putting out little things, and that’s what it should be. We were lucky to be at the end of that thing where little bands got famous through major labels, but now we have to adapt to survive, otherwise we’ll end up trying to be Elbow.”

From Henry’s outlook, it seems that the Young Knives are embracing change wholeheartedly. They even considered releasing Sick Octave under a new band name, but decided that would be a futile gesture. “Band names are crap anyway, aren’t they? All band names are crap within about ten seconds. Radiohead’s like the worst band name ever, but people don’t really think about it anymore.”

On Sick Octave, the Young Knives are definitely attempting to challenge unthinking acceptance of convention – in the music industry, in ‘indie’ music, and in their own career. “If we don’t change things, then we’d just stop. I’m not interested in just going over and over it again. It’s like Futureheads having to play ‘Hounds of Love’ every gig they play at. I’m not interested in hearing Futureheads playing ‘Hounds of Love’ every night. I’d rather they just did something groundbreaking.”