Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Fragile Beauty Transcendent: An Interview with Campbell Kneale

Few artists' music has meant as much to me as Campbell Kneale's.  When I think of the albums that I would truly define as "life-changing" for me, I end up with three: the Dead C's "Tusk," Burzum's "Filosofem," and Birchville Cat Motel's "Chi Vampires."  Together those three records, but Birchville's especially, define what I love most about music, what moves me most fervently on a purely emotional level.  Intellectualization doesn't factor into it: when I throw "Chi Vampires" on the stereo, everything else evaporates and I'm left solely with the sound.  It becomes all-encompassing and all-important, a perfect communion with something bigger than me and my stupid little world.  I can feel the music in me and all around me, cloaking me with its raw and inherent power.  Campbell Kneale has that truly rare capability with his music, to allow the listener to go deep into and out of themselves via the sounds he creates.
I was recently given the chance to interview Kneale.  His answers to my questions were incredibly thoughtful and visual.  Sometimes when writing about music, there's a tendency to overthink and try to attach too much academic definition to something that instinctively defies it, and in that sense some of Kneale's responses to my questions were humbling for me, but reaffirmed something I already knew in my heart: music is ultimately about feeling.  Nothing else matters.

CS:  When OLWDTW began, it was hard for me to view the recordings as not being an extension of the work you'd done under the Birchville Cat Motel moniker.  How far apart do you view the projects as being musically?  Does the compositional approach differ?

CK: The main difference between Birchville and Our Love will Destroy The World is me. Making music had always been like medicine to me, and it kinda insulated me from what I thought was a ‘bad world’ but I had reached a point where, due to some confusing circumstances, and my tendency to overdo things in a particularly introverted way, I needed to take so much of that medicine that it was beginning to nullify its benefits. When all my dominoes had fallen over I had to tap into a pretty terrifying part of myself in order to make some major changes. Usual life-catastrophe stuff. None of this has anything specifically to do with music, but everything is connected by the weird webs of life. Changing the band name was just another part of me reassembling my own jigsaw puzzle and I have to say that in spite of the lower profile, its been incredibly good for me. I've begun to realize that WHY people make things is of far more consequence than what they actually make. I have returned to that very fragile initial spark that compelled me to make this music in the first place… the pure, unadulterated joy of electricity and sound. Everything else seems kinda hollow now. I feel like OLWDTW is far more personal and ‘real’ than anything Birchville was. That may or may not be of interest to anybody.

Musically speaking, one solo project of mine is going to have a myriad of similarities to another solo project of mine. It’s the minute differences that make it interesting. Yep, I'm still interested in textural complexity, creating a depth of sound, subverting the flow of time… but my way of going about that is slowly modifying, becoming more raw in one sense, more crafted in others, embracing my own weaknesses, embracing multiple and compromised fidelities, discovering the ‘total sound’ rather than a layered sound. I'm also becoming more devoted to indefinite and arbitrary timeframes, and an uncompromising lack of progression or narrative. I don’t view my music as entertainment and I'm not interested in making it ‘interesting’… boring is far more interesting. The music is either fully immersive or it's not, the audience is either prepared to be fully immersed, or they aren’t.

CS:   Since "I Hate Even Numbers" there's been a pretty radical shift towards a new sound, something that seems to draw on a variety of global musics anchored to a warped vision of dance music.  Am I way off base on this?  Your current work reminds me a lot of Astral Social Club, or, as I've often thought, Paul Simon circa "Graceland" (just way more psychedelic.)  Have you been intentionally expanding OLWDTW's musical scope?  Do you see there being any limit to where OLWDTW can go musically?

CK: No limits. OLWDTW is me and I make music for myself and I play what I want to hear. I have always hated dance music. Passionately. It would be kinda nice if I could play the ‘well listened’ card here but I can’t. I don’t have a clue and I haven’t got any vision of dance music whatsoever. I think I heard Aphex Twin once... it was fucking dumb. The rhythms you are hearing are hacked-up loops of whatever drums I came across… electronic, ‘world’y, acoustic, blips, anything. I think they are more about the free jazz tendency to use rhythm to bend time rather than keep any kind of metronome going. The beats unbalance each other and act as totally destabilizing sound events. Collisions of tonal qualities, tasteless juxtapositions of rhythm,  like an army of tone deaf krishnas making 'waterfalls' of drums, a celebration of everything cheap and nasty… all mixed at equal volume into perfect dissonance and then dropped in the overall mix to be no more or less important than the other sounds (rather than the usual doof-centric use of drums). Its no secret how much I love Neil's music, but the major difference is he knows his shit, and I truly haven’t got a clue. Our Love Will Destroy The World… like “a way more psychedelic Paul Simon”. That is ACTUALLY genius.

For what it's worth, I feel like I've seen that idea through and I doubt I’ll be pulling those shapes for long.

CS:  "Limbless Soldiers Flight" and "Thousands Raised to the Sixth" seem to really embrace an ecstatic sort of joyfulness, like being eviscerated by a rainbow or something, but both records, especially the second disc of "Thousands," also have a buried sense of foreboding.  What are the primary moods and emotions you're trying to convey with your music?  Do you think about that sort of thing when you're working?

CK: No. I never think of mood when I make music. Its really unhelpful to conceptualise everything first… you just end up making the same record over and over and you never find anything new. I use a pretty 'nihilistic' palette and means of generating sound but I've also really enjoyed hearing the end result break through its own nihilism and become somehow transformative or redemptive. I find it hopeful. It’s the same when I use a ‘prettier’ selection of sounds… I cant help wanting to make pure evil out of that stuff just to see if the sounds can overcome themselves. My own mood is hardly ever relevant to the music. Sometimes I am ecstatic and joyful, sometimes life gets foreboding... often simultaneously... it's all in there somewhere but it becomes less immersive the purer the intent is. Real life just isn’t pure. The clashes and horrible confrontations are where the life of the music is. 

Kneale performing live.
CS: It kills me that I've never been able to see you perform live.  I remember reading your tour rider a number of years ago and wondering how gloriously loud your performances must be.  What's your live rig consist of?  How do you view your live performances?
 For me, the physical presence of a piece of music, whether live or on record, is extremely important.  I want to feel the music washing over me, hitting me.  That's one of the reasons I've loved your work for so long.  How necessary is volume to OLWDTW's approach?    

CK: Ha. I never ‘view my live performances’. I shut my eyes. Usually so I can hear better, but also because I probably look like a spazz.

All my gear fits into a small suitcase. It's total junk. Cheap, preset-intensive, cast-offs. A couple of pedals and my poor old pawnshop guitar that is down to 4 strings of undefined gauge currently. You won't find the answers you are looking for by checking out my gear and it kinda irks me when the gearheads storm up after a show to gawk at my junk like the music is some kind of mathematical certainty based on the way I connect up certain combinations of effects pedals. Gear has nothing to do with the music. Playing live is all about energy… my energy, the audience's energy, the energy generated by amplification. Everything gets shaken as hard as possible for as long as it can be sustained without compromise. Every performance is an attempt to reach that space where I become less conscious of myself… some call it ‘the zone’ where every note turns to magic fairydust with the least effort possible. Finding calm spots in the carnage. Instinct and action. Playing live is becoming the best place to experience what I do rather than recordings these days and I like it that way… unmediated and more real.
Volume is a tool and can be an instrument in its own right. At the moment, high volume levels are important, but that is largely because it makes it easier to release my own personal physical energy resources when it's loud. This hasn’t always been the case, and I imagine it will not always be so. At the moment OLWDTW is interested in zeroing in on one ‘total vibration’, the way all of the sounds make one, single, sound… the errant frequency anomalies that result from a particular sound in a particular room at a particular volume extended out to the point where every little nuance becomes a devastating dynamic twist in an unrelenting blankness. While I have no real love of the generic qualities of noise music, I have really enjoyed reading about and listening to some of that Harsh Noise Wall stuff lately and I have really empathized with that approach… it articulates quite nicely a lot of what I care about in music even though it voices it with a different language of sound. But so does ‘Sister Ray’.

CS: One word I would use to describe your output is transcendent.  Are you going for something otherworldly?  Do you feel that music can break past the walls of consciousness?  When performing or writing, do you feel you're in communion with something larger than yourself?

CK: I would suggest that if a musician (of any variety at all) is not attempting to break past the walls of consciousness on some level then they have perhaps chosen the wrong medium. That seems to me to be the very definition of music… something either ‘pre’ or ‘post’ language. Language is intimately linked to consciousness evidenced by the fact that if we do not have a word for a concept, that concept becomes foreign to those who use that language. Art of all varieties operates on the level, and serves the purpose of interacting with the powerful, non-rational forces that shape our lives and when you make or engage with Art (or religion probably) you are exploring this hugely important, and often neglected aspect of real life. At the end of the day, if I'm not about exploring something larger than myself with the media at my disposal then I'm merely noodling with a box of battery powered crap. My music would be utter nonsense. Maybe sometimes it is.

CS: You get allied with "noise" genres quite a bit.  Do you feel this is an apt description?  For instance, one could draw similarities between OLWDTW and William Bennett's Cut Hands project, and your work as TMPLS can certainly be thought of as HNW (harsh noise wall).  Do you see your work as fitting in with power electronics?  Do you have a history in that genre?

CK: No, ‘noise’ is a completely meaningless description. Just because a greater slice of the music listening population is able to deal with these three-decade old ideas about 'sound as rock-music', it doesn’t mean that those who have been making the sound have sat waiting around for them to catch up. The concept of noise music meant something at my earliest points but I have long since found the term and related generic postures redundant. I'm coming from a totally different place and seeking a totally different response. I mean, Lou Reed's ‘Metal Machine Music’ still sounds remarkably contemporary but I think it’s a pretty gross distortion to think of it as a ‘noise’ record… Lou Reed is coming from another planet to all that stuff. I don’t know much about Power Electronics and most of the stuff I've heard has been… um… uncompelling.  Like I say, the attitude to sound demonstrated by some of the HNW kids is kinda exciting, but again, I'm coming from another planet.

Painting by Campbell Kneale.
CS: My favorite quote from you regarding your work is, "I just want to make beautiful things."  Can you elaborate on your conception of beauty, what you're wanting to attain with your compositions?  It obviously goes beyond just melody and form for you.  How do you know when a piece of music is "there"?

CK: Beauty is a very very simple energy that is generous and giving. What passes for beautiful these days via the media has a terrible energy… ‘Hot’ people? perfection? Prettiness? Fuck that… that is without a doubt the ugliest, most repugnant, and most forgettable form of humanity. I live in the country with no TV, radio, or newspaper, and even view the internet with intense suspicion. Real is beautiful, in all its un-photoshopped, un-protools edited glory. The forgotten corners of life where the designers and marketers haven’t bothered to enter. The ecstatic joy of the bleeding obvious is where beauty is at for me right now… friends, family, work, travel, pets, food. I have to really protect my little creative spark sometimes because Art simply doesn’t compare to happy, healthy, reality and if I hadn’t made music-making back into a simple pleasure it would be tempting to give the whole thing away.

In terms of how do I discern or create the beauty in my own music… I actually don’t know. It's unquantifiable. It resonates somehow. Sorcery. Vague, but true.

Painting by Campbell Kneale.
CS: Towards the end of Birchville Cat Motel, there was an obvious metal influence seeping in.  It had been hinted at prior, but really exploded on "Chi Vampires" and the work that followed.  The results were pretty spectacular.  Do you think OLWDTW will ever move toward that sphere?  In one of your very vivid release blurbs on the Don't Fuck With Magic site, you described the "Cursegoback" lathe cut as "Burzumic."  Does metal have a place in what you're doing with OLWDTW?

CK: I can categorically say that OLWDTW will never, ever allow those metal influences to surface in the same way again. Never. ‘Chi Vampires’ signaled a time where I began to miss the rush of rock music rather than the beard-stroking minimalism that I had aligned myself with previously. It was about making that minimalism sexy and allowing it to revel in the influences that had shaped me since I was a kid. That meant metal. Metal has always represented the extremity of rock’n’roll swagger and I was interested to see how these two worlds would marry, obviously taking a cue from a few other key releases that finally pointed at an exit from the grim conformity that plagued metal in the 90’s. I wanted to have fun.

I have to say that it worked and BCM became far more ‘exciting’ from that period on but metal is definitely a musical and intellectual ghetto and it's very hard to leave once you have moved in. Metal has once again drowned in itself and reverted to conformity. Boring.

‘Burzumic’. Good word. I use it to describe the ratty, compromised sound quality of records like ‘Cursegoback’. It implies crusty and suicidally self-destructive… It's an attitude toward recorded sound rather than an attempt to align myself in any way with black metal. Not interested in that.   

CS: Hit me with a few of your all-time favorite metal albums.

CK: Slayer  ‘Reign in Blood’
Rush ‘Exit Stage Left’
AC/DC ‘Flick of the Switch’
Iron Maiden ‘Killers’
Burzum ‘Filosofem’

Black Boned Angel summoning up the darkness.

CS: You're also responsible for Black Boned Angel, who've been silent for some time (at least compared to your output as OLWDTW.)  What's going on with BBA?  I know there's the upcoming record on Handmade Birds-is there anything else in the works?  Is it more difficult to compose for BBA?

CK: No. Black Boned Angel is done. Our forthcoming album on Handmade Birds will be our last.

The grand-scale, crushing, sadness that is plastered all over those records was actually real for me and I can't live that way anymore. I was actually miserable when I made those records. I care about the music I make, it's not just entertainment or an act for the punters, I’d like to think that the best music I've ever made has also been the most honest music I've ever made… and Black Boned Angel is very honest. In the same way that you can't fight drug addiction and still hang out with your drug-buddies, I can't keep my head clear while remaining aligned with all that sadness. My life has changed quite a bit and I don’t want to drag that corpse with me. I loved Black Boned Angel and I love playing with James more than anything… it was a really good band when it was at its best… but for me, that time and place is full of terrible, terrible ghosts. It's time to let it die gracefully.

CS: On a similar note, you released a posthumous BCM album in 2011, "Came A Great Stallion Whose First Leap Sparked the Celestial Star."  It was easily my favorite record of the year, and supposedly the "final" Birchville album.  Are the vaults truly empty?  And do you think you'll ever record under the Birchville moniker again?

CK: No, The vaults are not empty. There are a few good albums in there, but they are for me. I’ve said all I want to say under the name Birchville Cat Motel and I have no intention of returning to that moniker. I mean you can't unlearn what you have learned right? I think when bands that you like move on there is a tendency to romanticize and immortalize them, but if both bands were running at the same time and I magically got to choose between what I had with BCM and what I have with OLWDTW I would choose Our Love Will Destroy the World… no question. It’s a better band on almost every level that matters to me.

Painting by Campbell Kneale.
CS: You've created a lot of the artwork for OLWDTW's releases, almost all of which beautifully approximate the sounds of the albums.  How long have you been painting?  Who do you see as your influences there?  Any other artists whose work you especially enjoy or admire?

CK: Yeah, I've been painting for nearly twenty years and this is where my efforts are primarily going these days. I'm fascinated that you can see the connections and links between my painting and the music because it was never consciously intended that way. I guess I should accept this as some kinda confirmation that what I'm doing is genuine and true to the qualities I admire about art and music.

To be honest, I hate art about as much as I hate music… that’s about 98%. Of course there are some outstanding exceptions, but I really only connect with the visual work of people I know personally. For the most part contemporary art is nothing more than a middle-class dinner party. A lot of what passes as cutting edge is nothing more than cheap one-liners, that have far more to do with the shallow soundbite culture that it claims to disdain. I find it extremely helpful to be a musician and have another language and tradition to help me understand where I want to take my Painting. I mean, I take it for granted that if you ‘sign to a label’ you are fucked, period. So why would I want to sign to an art dealer? It may be commercial suicide, but if it's not on my terms, I'm not interested. The simplest and most honest gesture is the only thing worth pursuing regardless of the response (or lack thereof).

The greatest influence I have would definitely be my girlfriend Ellen. She's the toughest and smartest person I know. She knows me and holds me to account for everything I make. Let me tell you, the dinner time conversations at my house would peel the skin off your teeth… we ACTUALLY care about what we make, and we prioritise the act of making over and above all the other things we could be doing, or ways we could be living. We choose to have jobs that allow us to make stuff rather than flash jobs for better money, we choose to live in the countryside so we can afford to make stuff rather than live close to ‘the scene’ in the city, and we are both dedicated to making a lifetime's work as opposed to gaining short term recognition. A lifetime's work is undeniable… you may or may not like it, but you can’t deny its interest or value if someone has invested the duration of their stay on the planet to achieve it. The more quietly they achieve it, the more interesting.

Painting by Campbell Kneale.
CS: "Thousands Raised to the Sixth" is your most exhaustive effort (in the best way) as OLWDTW, two massive discs whereas before most of OLWDTW's had hovered in the 20-40 minute range.  The effect is akin to psychic wipeout-it's a very immersive listening experience.  Were you consciously setting out to make such an expansive record?

CK: Haha… I was planning on making a MORE expansive record. I originally sold Handmade Birds the idea of a 3 CD set featuring 3 disc long pieces. Immersive in the extreme. As it turned out the vibrations that resulted weren’t totally suited to that format so that cracker of an idea will have to spend some time on the bench.

CS: One of my favorite records was the collaboration between you and Tomutonttu.  Despite the distance between you, there are some distinct commonalities in your music.  How did you guys hook up?  What was the recording process like?  Any plans to work together again?  Are there any other collaborations in your future?  Anyone you'd really like OLWDTW to work with?

CK: I've known Jan Anderzen for a long time, from back in the quite early Kemialliset Ystavat days. His early cassettes really taught me some good lessons. I made it to Finland a couple of times and Jan has made it to New Zealand too so we have caught up on these occasions and made a little music together. We both have had open door policies with regards to our music, it's relatively easy to involve others and collaboration has always been an interesting part of our music. I probably would not have played with Jan when we last got together if we hadn’t gotten my car stuck in a bog when he came to stay… it cost us a lot of money to have it towed out so we decided to make a fundraising release to try and cover the costs! Ha. To be honest, I am finding collaborating a bit of a drag at the moment… it's so much a part of this subculture's ethos that I tend to find it almost obligatory and the expectation of collaboration kinda dulls my enthusiasm. I’d much rather hang out, have a glass of wine, and talk all night with people than merely engage in more music-making… I am completely at odds with the idea that music is a higher form of connection than simple, honest, conversation… I think music making can hide an awful lot of insecurities and pretense. Collaboration these days is reserved for my closest friends or when it comes completely naturally.

CS: Another of my favorites was the Ming record you did in 2011.  I was very much reminded of Eliane Radigue's work-those gorgeous, extended, deep-drone tones that ripple over you and impart a serenity.  What was the impetus behind that record?  Are you planning to do any more work in that vein?

CK: Ming is my duo with Ellen… we play one large ride cymbal each. I guess the impetus is a search for the simplest possible gesture… what can you make with one cymbal? Neither of us are interested in making ‘music’ or employing any form of technique, we don’t want to make ‘noise’, we aren’t interested in ‘progression’ or whatever… its about being together and doing something impossibly simple. Everything is recorded live, without overdubs, no electronics, no effects, just the purest and heaviest acoustic sound. It's very very fragile stuff. We have actually had to become very brave in order to accomplish the level of emptiness we want to experience. The negative space involved is extreme. We also paint together under the name Ming (Ellen is fine-arts trained) and again, we are all about the simplest possible gesture… I paint it on, she scrapes it off… that’s all… the negative space is the image. We are looking for opportunities to tour Ming cause there are a lot of things we are doing that in many ways surpass Our Love Will Destroy the World. We have bought a PA and turned our house into a venue (we can pack in about 20 people into our lounge!) and probably the best place to see us play thus far is at home.   

CS: And lastly, just for kicks-make a case for what you feel is the best Iron Maiden record.

CK: ‘Live After Death’ double LP on vinyl. ONLY on vinyl. The first one I heard. The masses of tour photos. The fucking  earthsplitting cover! The raw live-in-the-flesh power. Steve Harris star jumps. The huge ‘Powerslave’ mummy prop with pyro eyes. The slightly faster than the record vibe, the rockstar bullshit banter, Winston Churchill and Aces High… dear God, you’d have to be one hell of a brain damaged 14 year old to not love this. 

-Cory Strand


  1. Such a wonderful interview, can't believe I only just came across this.

  2. It´s sad that Black Boned Angel is done. It was such powerful music. But I can understand his point.

  3. It´s sad that Black Boned Angel is done. It was such powerful music. But I can understand his point.


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