I had the pleasure of speaking with the excellent Fifteen Questions about music and process. Read the original here.
Name: Richard Knox
Occupation: Musician, Artist, Label owner
Current Release: Ceremony in the Stillness on Gizeh
Musical Recommendations: On constant rotation for me right now is Kathryn Joseph's new record on Rock Action called 'From When I Wake the Want Is'. Another recent discovery is Slow Mass and their album from last year called 'On Watch'.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was in my late-teens when I really fell properly in love with music. In school I had grown interested in music, at that time Brit-Pop was exploding and some school friends were getting into that which I naturally followed. I started to get into playing bass around that time. In those days I was reading NME and they had an issue with Godspeed You Black Emperor on the cover and (not sure if it was the same issue) did a cover CD with the likes of Mogwai, Arab Strap, Royal Trux and a bunch of other bands. I remember listening to that CD and going HOLY FUCK! - everything fell into place and made sense. I instantly fell in love with those bands and went off to find more. That definitely started the journey and was the turning point I can pinpoint most.
Off the back of that the ATP festival was just launching and I went to the first Mogwai edition ... seeing record stalls there and starting to look further than the bands launched my interest in labels and that side of things. I was slowly piecing the puzzle together. Working at HMV really helped a lot as I could just listen to everything or order copies into the shop, read liner notes, talk to suppliers and distributors on the phone or the reps that used to come in.
During this time I was starting to get the itch to make some music and formed Glissando as an outlet for that. Music had taken over my life at this point so it felt like a very natural thing to pursue. Still doing it 20 years later, so that's not too bad!
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I'm self-taught in every single thing I do. My approach has always been if I want to do something or learn something I'll just go and do it and figure it out for myself, in my own way and my own time. As a consequence I approach everything in quite an experimental way, trial and error for the most part. If I hear something that I find interesting and don't understand I'll immerse myself in that thing for a while and try to figure it out. How is that sound made? How does that piece of music move? – it's not a matter of copying anything but storing up knowledge somewhere in the brain which finds its way out somewhere down the line when you need it. I definitely suffer sometimes for a lack of traditional music theory though, especially when it comes to problem solving when you are trying to write a song.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Self-sufficiency is a massive part of what I do and I figured out pretty early on that having your own place to record and save on studio costs was important. So I've just spent the years slowly building up gear and recording everything myself in my home studio. I wouldn't say too much has changed other than you slowly improve in all aspects of writing and recording and that remains the goal – to make the next album better than the previous one.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I started out with a 4 track in my living room and just collected gear as I've gone along. I've never had much money so as a consequence you have to make do a lot of the time and get creative with the tools you have. As I've moved around over the years I've always tried to find enough space to have at least a very small set up and keep making music. We moved out of Manchester a few years ago to the edge of the countryside to be able to afford to buy a house and do all the work from there so I'm fortunate enough to have a studio, label office and printing room all in the same place. Financially it's the only way to survive as I don't have any overheads. In terms of the studio I have now – it's still pretty basic. I use logic for recording with very little outboard, a ton of guitar pedals, some synths, a few guitars, microphones and amps. Really nothing special at all but it totally works as I know the gear well and I really don't need anything too fancy to make the music I want to make. If I had a ton of money I have a list of things I'd love to get though!
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
It's important to find the balance that works for you. The world we live in now means you have a million options on the table for one thing at any one time and it can get bewildering. For me it's about doing justice to the idea and using whatever means possible to realise it. It's better to have some parameters and limitations to work within and try and get the best out of the ideas and the gear and the budget you have. I think all of those things are intrinsically linked together and they are difficult to separate. It also depends what constitutes technology – a microphone, a guitar pedal? I'm not sure you can pull it all apart so easily.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
The guitar is always the main tool and the starting point. I've had the same main guitar for 10 years now and the ideas start there using different tunings and different pedals to start coaxing the initial fragments out. For a new record I'll spend 3 or 4 months just playing and recording what comes out – kind of like a note book, just throwing all the ideas into a session in logic without thinking to much about it. If I feel like there are some good threads in there I'll take them into a new session and start arranging pieces together and adding in midi drums, strings etc to see where the thing wants to go. It's nice to test out all these ideas in demo form to see if they work without wasting anyone else's time. I can build a really good structure of what the piece will be and then decide on bringing other musicians in.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
As far as A-Sun Amissa goes, collaboration has been a crucial part of the project over the years. The process varies a little. Sometimes it's a case of writing a part myself and getting someone else to play it better, sometimes I have a very rough idea of what needs to happen and someone comes to mind who could enhance the idea and occasionally I'll just ask people to do whatever they like based on the fact that I trust them or feel like their style or vibe will more than likely fit.
I meet people all the time on tour or at shows who I would like to work with and a lot of the time just bank the idea for later down the line without even discussing it with them. At one point a little spark will go off and then I can pursue it from there. File sharing has changed things quite dramatically of course and it never ceases to please me that I can work with people over the world at the click of a few buttons. This project isn't really a band as such so there is very little jamming to be had and songs don't get 'road tested' before they are recorded. I finish the record first and then work out how on earth we are supposed to play it live – getting 75 individual stems of music down to something that two or three of us can play is quite the challenge.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Because I do so many different things I have to run a pretty tight ship and so my diary and routine is really important. I also work from home all day (almost) every day so there are certain problems that come along with that. I get up between 6:30 and 7 and make coffee – nothing at all happens until this is done! I'll usually spend half an hour reading the news or reading articles/interviews I've bookmarked. Then I'll tackle emails until 9am. 9-10am is an hour I put aside for exercise and it's something I've forced myself to develop to counteract the working from home. The mental demons need constantly keeping at bay and exercise is really important for me to stay in a healthy state of mind. So I'll either cycle or walk for an hour – we live in a beautiful place right on the edge of the hills so it's easy to go and find some fresh air and scenery.
This routine is the same every morning before I get into the rest of the day. My week is divided up into different jobs on different days, so Monday is a label day where I try to cram everything Gizeh-related into one day. I'll already have a list of things I need to get done on that day so it's a matter of working through that. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are days I work on A-Sun Amissa stuff, that can be writing, recording, mixing, tour booking, admin, artwork, interviews... whatever. And Friday I use as a printing day, so any screen-printing jobs I need to get done or doing my own artwork, printing t-shirts for tour. This method works well for me, everything gets too chaotic otherwise and feels like there's just too much to get done. I'll normally work a 12hour day and then weekends are band rehearsals, finishing bits of stuff I didn't get done in the week, watching some football and trying to find a bit of time out.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
The latest A-Sun Amissa album was an interesting journey as the initial ideas for some of the songs were going to be a completely different record and we ended up going off down a different path. The previous record 'The Gatherer' was quite experimental and drone-based and I had decided to make a more direct and structured album that we could play live with more purpose. There was also a desire to make a heavier record so the challenge was to find the right palette of sounds to use to make the songs come together in a coherent way and also in a way we could interpret in a live environment. I also introduced live drums for the first time which was a new obstacle but with the help of my friends in Hundred Year Old Man we found a good solution in their practice space.
I invited Jo Quail, Christine Ott and David McLean to be involved and was really pleased with their contributions. I'd met Jo once before at an Amenra show and while we were recording in Leeds she had a free afternoon before heading back to London so we just tracked a load of stuff over a few hours, literally just throwing down as many ideas as we could muster, and because she's such a good player most of what we recorded worked really well and ended up on the record. Mixing the album was quite difficult, trying to find this larger, more aggressive sound and mixing drums for the first time. But I'm very pleased with how it turned out in the end and I think it's raised the bar significantly for the next record.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I'm very much of the opinion of just doing the work and not waiting for it to come to you. Make time for the thing you want to do and just work at it. I don't believe for a second that there's an ideal state of mind, that's just an excuse to not work in my opinion. There are certainly distractions and blockages to being able to create though and that's where it's important to have the routine and try and be strict with your time, it's precious at the end of the day. Exercise helps. Also giving yourself some boundaries helps and not putting pressure on yourself. There's no point saying to yourself - “I'm going to write a song today” because the chances are you won't and then you'll feel shitty and it'll put you off doing that again. It's a constant psychological battle, there's no doubt, but it's better to narrow your angles and start building with small blocks.
For instance – on the days I'm writing new music I'll usually know what that work might involve, so if it's starting from scratch then I know to just leave myself open for simply playing and it doesn't have to be anything, just sit and play and if chimes with you then do a quick recording and make a couple of notes before you forget it. No pressure, no end result in mind. If all you come up with is a heap of shit then you try again the next day. It doesn't matter, there are always days like that, but there are also days where you'll strike gold. After a while these small steps will start to form a bigger picture and you'll have the beginnings or a foundation of something. You can apply this to music, art or writing, I think they are all the same in that regard.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
They are heavily linked but certainly each come with their own different rewards. Writing has all these infinite outcomes that you slowly whittle down into something solid and meaningful, trying to find the discipline to sculpt these ideas together into a coherent whole. Once the record is done and mastered – imagine all of the things that it could have been, literally anything at all, but it's ended up as this thing. Think about all of the millions of tiny decisions you've made throughout the process. I always find that part a bit surreal. Playing live is reinterpreting that process in some ways but it's a more cathartic experience, a more immediate sense of achievement (or disappointment if it's a shitty show). It's more fun these days because of the volume we're playing at and the show is more dynamic and difficult to play than before. It's rare that all band members have a good show at the same time but when that happens it's quite magical, both on stage during the show, afterwards while we share a beer or in the van dissecting it all the next day.
Up until Ceremony in the Stillness the live shows have always been a mix of structure and improvisation and I found it quite difficult to get into the groove of playing a set thing every night but after the last tour I'm feeling much better about that and I quite enjoy it these days.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I'm not thinking about this too much, certainly not in an analytical way. I know what I can achieve with the gear I have for the most part and I'll work with what's in front of me. I try to keep a lid on finding the perfect sound because more often than not it's gonna cost you a heap of money you don't have. It's important to experiment because you learn so much that way and that sound you can suddenly hear and want to find you know you can get near it by placing these pedals in a certain order or playing your guitar with an ebow or something. Certainly a particular tone or timbre can spark an idea though and it's also a skill to allow the music to have space and breathe and allow those sounds to resonate.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Going to see Sunn O))) live for the first time in 2003 was probably my first experience of music being this intense physical force. Your ears are being assaulted and your whole body is shaking and the combination is making you wonder if you are going to die or be sick or pass out or go deaf or shit yourself or all of those things at the same time. I have to say I don't really have anything too insightful to offer on this, I'm not sure I could put into words the complex feelings of these things colliding.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
It's the only thing that's ever felt right to pursue longterm. It's not an easy path to choose but I suppose that's part of the challenge. My approach is having an idea, developing it and acting on it to see it through to the best realisation I can manage, that's basically it. I'm absolutely not doing this for anyone else but I do feel like what I'm doing has some kind of worth to others and is hopefully inspiring in some way. There's nothing else I would rather do with my time and it gives me a purpose and a reason to get up every day. For now it's sustainable and I have to keep working at that to make sure it stays that way.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
That just proves how important it is to people and how it can transcend time and the ages, it really is quite amazing. That's why we need to defend the arts and culture as much as we can, it's so important in balancing the world. I think that the digital age has devalued music somewhat and it will be interesting going forward to see what the longterm impacts of that could be and more generally the attention spans of people being shorter and where that leads. It's hard to say what anything will look like in the future these days as everything moves so damn fast. There has always been great music and terrible music though and I suspect that trend will carry on for a good while yet.
SLOWSECRET is a resource and archival site dedicated to the work of Richard Knox & associated projects.
Richard Knox (b. 1980) is a musician and artist living and working in Glossop, situated in the Dark Peak district in the North-West of the UK. Currently writing and touring as A-Sun Amissa, he is also a founding member of The Eternal Return Arkestra, The Rustle of the Stars and Glissando and a member of Shield Patterns. He formed and is still currently running the independent record label Gizeh Records and alongside his design work and mixed media art projects he co-founded the screen-printing and art studio SmilingPaperGhosts.