Dark Waters

Defying stylistic tags and genre hybrids, Austin's Knife in the Water makes music for the curious and melancholy with Red River

Aaron Blount, lyricist and guitarist for Austin-based Knife in the Water, is but two degrees of separation from president-elect George Dubya, kind of.

"He used to be my dad's next-door neighbor, years back," Blount laughs. "It's really weird to see him on TV now. My dad spoke to him a while ago, before he was running for president. Apparently he was nice to him, but . . . it just burns my dad up. It burns me up, too; I voted for Nader. A lot of people out here [in Austin] voted for Nader. We just heard this rumor about Bush, that he's only been putting in like one day of work as governor per week, and that's been the standard for a long time. The only thing about it that's kind of cool is, you know, there's a Texan in the White House.

"Of course, it might not be all that cool. Remember LBJ."

"I try to focus on that isolated feeling when I write," says Knife in the Water's Aaron Blount (far left).
"I try to focus on that isolated feeling when I write," says Knife in the Water's Aaron Blount (far left).

Listening to Blount and organist Laura Krause speak, you begin to wonder whether people so evidently open and laid-back are capable of making music that stumps anyone who tries to talk sensibly about it. For if you dig around the press clippings long enough, you begin to notice something distinctive about the articles and reviews concerning Knife in the Water's two full-length albums, 1998's Plays One Sound and Others and this year's Red River: Music journalists simply cannot describe this band in a helpful way. Knife in the Water is almost invariably pegged as a "cross" between some band and another; dogged research yields comparisons to Bedhead (Seattle Weekly), the Birthday Party meets Echo and the Bunnymen (Spin), The Velvet Underground meets Spiritualized (Texas Monthly), Nick Cave (Melbourne Tribe), Kingsbury Manx (All Music Guide), and others too numerous to list. (The Spin review of Red River takes the Millennial Prize for Most Unintelligible Comparison in a Work of Music Criticism, however, describing the band's sound as "the aural equivalent of that opening scene in Gilligan's Island" where the ship's wheel spins out of control first one way, and then another. I know. Me neither.)

Aaron Blount doesn't have any theories on why this might be so, particularly when Knife in the Water's sound is so consistent unto itself. "But I've done the same thing, picked up new stuff on the basis of a comparison like that. Maybe it's because they're trying to help people who might not check it out otherwise. I don't mind it much. But sometimes I don't get it. I like Gram Parsons, for example, I like him a lot, but that's one of the comparisons that I don't get; I don't hear it, anyway, though our music is a little country. People who have those other records already, it gets a lot of the feel across. I guess you can't just say, 'Well, this music is really quiet and subtle and pretty.'" He thinks for a moment. "One day I'd like for people to say, 'That band sounds a lot like Knife in the Water,'" he finishes, and laughs again.

But Knife in the Water's music is really quiet and subtle and pretty. It's also menacing and dolorous and very, very melodic, and Blount's lyrics run the gamut from low murder tales to introspective meditations on travel and escape in a way that won't be encapsulated by alt-country or No Depression or slow-fi. (If anyone really thinks we need another one of those half-assed descriptive terms, I'd like to suggest melanchountry; should you spot this adjective used without permission in Rolling Stone or Spin in the upcoming months, please advise.) So without resorting to superficial comparison, how does one describe the music found on the lovely Red River?

You know how it is when you're on a road trip, and you're driving solo along an unfamiliar stretch of interstate, late at night or early in the morning? And you've either got a lot of miles ahead of you or a lot of miles behind you, but either way, it seems like your operative modes of perception have to do solely with distance and time? And your head starts moving in directions it doesn't normally, and you become suddenly aware of the fleeting presence of the world passing you by outside the car, and you look out of the driver's side window at the lights of the small towns you're passing, situated past the oil derricks or the farmhouses or the wheat fields, and you think, I wonder what all those people are doing right now. I wonder who's falling in love, and who's having a fight, and who's having to count to 10 before they scream at someone, and who's lonely and who's sad and who's knocked-out drunk, and who got married and who passed away, and who's getting ready to leave town for good, and whom they're leaving behind.

Well, maybe you don't know that feeling. But that's precisely what Knife in the Water sounds like -- a curious and slightly melancholy wondering, rendered in sound.

Everything about Knife in the Water, from the CD and promo artwork (executed by Blount and Austin-based printer/artist Meredith Miller) to the songs themselves, evokes that feeling, making Knife in the Water one of the most artistically cohesive bands in recent memory. The sparsest of instrumentation helps every song lean forward on Red River; each slips so gracefully and sensibly into the next that the album feels much shorter than its 50 minutes. Blount and bandmates Krause, Bill McCullough, Mark Nathan and Cisco Ryder are a tight combo, with each instrument placed apart from the others so that the music is always crisp, even if the stories are oft-times muddy.

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."

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