Knife in the Water Resurfaces
Nineties slowcore pioneers quietly re-emerge after a decade-plus layoff
Dumpster diving served as an inadvertent foundation to Knife in the Water. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Aaron Blount retains some of the vinyl he and his younger brother dug out behind Waterloo Records during their anarchic Austin childhood. They'd shop at the store's original South Lamar location, then go around back and cart off whatever noisy, scratched-to-hell LPs they could carry.
"It was like putting a piece of sandpaper on the turntable, 'cause it was just awful and raw, but as a kid, that opened up a world for me," he recalls fondly.
Acquisition and immersion happened between attending shows at Liberty Lunch and the Armadillo World Headquarters with his hippie dad. Blount notes seeing local post-punk pioneers Scratch Acid and the Butthole Surfers as particularly informative. John Waters movies, making mixtapes – his was a typical Seventies Austin upbringing, he insists, nonchalant.
Blount comes off reserved, with a smart, serious air about him. Each sentence emerges impossibly thoughtful and articulate. Which makes it somewhat surprising that such a lawless mish-mash of influences laid the groundwork for Knife in the Water's subdued sound.
"It's not fun music. I know that," he acknowledges. "It's also not feel-good music. It never has been, by design."
The band's hazy, pensive output resonates with people nonetheless, levitating between obscurity and reverence locally for nearly 20 years. From 1998 debut Plays One Sound and Others to the March 3 release of Reproduction, Knife in the Water has maintained singularity of sound. In the Nineties when grunge and hardcore reigned in Austin's clubs, Knife in the Water pushed back against that with quiet audacity.
Bedhead, American Analog Set, and other Texans set into motion a Lone Star branch of a national movement led by Galaxie 500, Codeine, and Low that utilized negative space in sound and songwriting. Uniquely, KITW combined elements of folk, rock & roll, and centrally, country music.
"We tried to destroy country music in a way, and make it something that belonged to us," says Blount. "Hardcore was just so boring to me because it was like fighting all the time – skinheads and all that shit. Around the time I started becoming part of the local music scene, I realized that what I wrote in trying to express myself was nothing like what was going on around me."
His output reflected a cerebral, cinematic, and tense world reliant on storytelling. Like subgenre peers Matt & Bubba Kadane, Andrew Kenny, and Alan Sparhawk, the Austinite presented quiet simplicity as radical. In 1997, he put together KITW out in the country near Lockhart. Blount had been writing music, but the sound fleshed out with vocals and organs from Laura Krause, and pedal steel from photographer Bill McCullough.
Plays One Sound and Others became a hit locally thanks to play on KUT. The disc started selling steadily in town, so Alejandro Escovedo, who Blount knew as a clerk at Waterloo ("He was always right about punk records"), got on the phone and booked the band's first tour. Momentum followed through consistent roadwork with the likes of Calexico and Califone, and the release of 2000's Red River and 2003's Cut the Cord. Pitchfork awarded thoughtful analyses and a review score of no less than 7.8 to all three releases.
"When it all kind of fell apart, it was a really sad time," grimaces Blount. "The music scene was changing, but Austin was really changing. In the band we all kind of grew apart in this way that was natural."
Neither breakup nor announced hiatus, Knife in the Water's retreat in 2006 occurred as quietly as the group's emergence. Blount characterizes it today as a "radical slowdown." Band members still played shows occasionally, impromptu things, but the frontman retired the KITW moniker while continuing to make music.
Eventually, both McCullough and Blount's wife noted that something seemed missing for him. Maybe putting his music out into the public sphere played an important role in his life. So Blount and McCullough set about recording a new LP. Tracking began at Spoon drummer Jim Eno's studio, Public Hi-Fi, but was abandoned in favor of a cobbled-together studio in Blount's house. Super Secret Records' reissue arm, Sonic Surgery, debuted Plays One Sound and Others on vinyl in February, followed by fellow homegrown endeavor Keeled Scales (see sidebar) putting out Reproduction on the eve of South by Southwest.
Anchored by Blount's sleepy vocals and guitars, the twang of McCullough's pedal steel, bass from Vince Delgado, Matt Strmiska on drums, and vocals from Shelley McCann (replaced by Jana Horn in the current live incarnation), Reproduction picks up where Knife in the Water left off. More or less. It's actually the band's most cohesive, fully realized, striking work.
"I wanted it to be prismatic," offers Blount. "What the songs are about is very complex, and I didn't want it to sound complex. I wanted it to seem simple. I wanted to be able to say stuff about emotional terrain that isn't said in songs.
"From the beginning to the end, the songs are about being confused by suffering, essentially, and having to turn that into art or whatever it is. Or the ability to move through it."
Woven together with a consuming melancholy and puzzling narratives told through multiple points of view, Reproduction is brilliantly sequenced, a compelling arc bubbling in the depths of sorrow until closer "I Can Go On" leads us out with an air of hopefulness and a nod to Blount's love of gospel. Promoting it has been gradual, with the bandleader admitting they're taking their time and being thoughtful about how to proceed. When he describes Knife in the Water playing publicly again in Austin after a break, it's a fitting metaphor for the band's growth, too.
"A new city was built upon the town we lived in."
Keeled Scales' Reproduction
Some creatives subscribe to "Don't quit your day job," but for Tony Presley, it's the other way around. Co-founder of local imprint Keeled Scales, he shifted all label duties to 9-to-5 while still picking up catering or restaurant gigs a few times a month to make ends meet. Cassettes and LPs organized neatly, he operates from a small apartment with big windows located above Estuary Recording in Hyde Park.
Seth Whaland and Presley started the label three years ago this June, building up an impressive, cohesive roster. The latter came to it after 10 years performing under the moniker Real Live Tigers, while Literature and Très Oui bassist Whaland co-founded mid-Aughts Austin label Natrix Natrix, which included releases from Deer Tick and the Shivers.
One out of three artists on Keeled Scales is a homegrown act, but every musician whose work they put out has an Austin connection, from living in town or playing a show booked by Whaland and Presley. Twelve releases in 2016 are on pace for even more this year, including a subscription service offering the entirety of the label's annual output at a discount. The Shivers' Charades vinyl remains their steadiest seller, but Julia Lucille's otherworldly Chthonic, Adam Torres' Pearls to Swine cassette, and Knife in the Water return Reproduction all pressed future favorites.
Presley saw the latter during the group's first run in Austin.
"I got really interested in bands purposefully playing slow, quiet music to prove a point or get something across," recalls Presley, who takes tastemaking seriously. "That's something Seth and I talked about a lot at the beginning, being a very carefully curated label, so that people would, at some point, become a fan of the label and trust us."
Knife in the Water plays the Sahara Lounge on Friday, May 5.