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It's not just McCullough's pedal steel or Krause's sweetly intoned harmonies that invite comparisons to the grittier traditions of country music. It's tales like the one in "Rene": "Well, Rene was on the outside with a pistol in her purse/She was waiting for her man inside, the captain of her curse/She was smoking just to occupy the shaking of her hands/for tonight would be the ending of that man and his demands." Or "Machine to Tulsa," a slow, dazzling story of threat and escape that unfolds over a languid waltz: "To the west is a storm coming this way/To the north is a twelve hour drive/Below us are floods in the causeway/And nighttime is opening wide."
Those situations, and characters like Rene who somehow get stuck in them, turn up all over Red River, giving the listener an echo of the loud internal conversations that underlie our most solitary moments. "That's a big part of what songwriting is, to me," says Blount. "I try to focus on that isolated feeling when I write. . . . I think that's why most of the songs on Red River have a kind of dialogue, an inner dialogue running through them. It was intentional, but I didn't really realize that until after the fact."
The late nights that went into preparation for Red River might have had an effect on its sound, as well, Blount adds. Whereas the band's debut album was mostly low-fi, Knife in the Water booked some helpful studio time for the follow-up. "We were on the road off and on before we went into the studio for Red River. As soon as we got off the road, that was when we really tried to put it together. I was writing the songs, still writing them while we were touring -- though a couple of the songs on that album are actually a few years old -- anyway, we all started learning the new ones right in the studio. We recorded partly at the studio that's owned by Asleep at the Wheel, and it was a really good deal because they're very well-known, plus it's a great studio; it had a piano, and other things that were brand-new for us. But part of the great deal stipulated that we had to go in after midnight, so that's when most of the album was done. We were all pretty tired by the time we got around to recording it.
"We didn't stop experimenting afterwards, though. We've actually rearranged a lot of the songs since then, so the arrangements on the record aren't really the ones we're touring with." Blount reports that the band's work was marked by a feeling that the stakes seemed higher this time out; they felt like they had bigger responsibilities to live up to. "Realizing that people were actually into it, that there were people who would be interested in and listen to what we did, that was a big part of it. That's why the band is here, really, that interest. It's kind of snowballing, our seriousness. Which is great. I mean, we were only supposed to be a one-time thing" -- Knife in the Water was originally assembled as a single night's work, as part of a local music showcase -- "but here it is a couple of years later, and it feels like a band. I think we're going to spend a lot more time at home for the next album."
And well they might. Austin's been good to Knife in the Water, though Blount has seen some sad changes in the city, which was made a little too famous in the 1990s by the South by Southwest music conference and Richard Linklater's film Slacker.
"Austin's not too great right now," he says regretfully. "It's really sad to see all the creative people leave town; or that's what it felt like, anyway, to me, like around two years ago. Around that time, I watched all my friends leave, going to Chicago or New York or someplace else to try it out there. There was a time not long ago, maybe 10 years back, when you could live in Austin and rent a house for like a hundred bucks a month. You could have a part-time job to make money, and you could do music every night of the week and make money off that, on top of your 20-hour-a-week thing. But it doesn't have that feel anymore. Most of what's happening here is the corporate punk thing, like Blink 182, or 30 ska bands that all sound the same. I'm not saying that's all that's out here now -- there's always been that element -- but right now it's the dominant sound. My friends and I grew up seeing people like the Butthole Surfers and Daniel Johnston playing in bars in town. Not so much anymore."
Despite the changes in his hometown, though, Aaron Blount is happy with Knife in the Water's new album, happy with the work, happy with the touring. "People liked it when we went out to play; that's what made this album so much fun. It wasn't a massive amount of people, but . . . I got to go to New York for the first time, we went to Europe, we got to travel and meet all these incredible people who were into what we did. It's really expanded our world, and it's even expanded the kind of music we play. Getting out of Texas was a really big deal for us.
"That's the best thing about it," he repeats, in the tones of a man who's looking forward to seeing a lot of lights, in a lot of towns. "The traveling. Meeting all those people."