The Chicago blues artist spoke about touring, the writing process, and what his future might hold.
Originally from the Isle of Man, Davy Knowles now calls Chicago his home. The 29-year-old blues rock musician is currently on tour in the US and he took time out to catch up with National Blues Review to discuss his upcoming album, Three Miles From Avalon.
NBR: How are things? Good?
DK: Yeah, very very good. This is our first day off in about a week, I think, from touring. I’m just outside of Sacramento.
NBR: So good weather I imagine?
DK: Oh it’s beautiful. It’s just like the Isle of Man
NBR: Yeah I can imagine.
I have been listening to the new album, Three Miles From Avalon, which is good I have to say. I enjoyed it.
DK: Oh, thank you.
NBR: It’s being released later this year. Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of how it came about, and how you started writing?
DK: Sure. Well, the whole idea for this album was really to do something really raw, kind of experiment with playing to tape, which I have never done as well. The last record, The Outsider, took so long. I am very proud of it but it took so long for a load of reasons and it became quite a frustrating process, you know, a year and a half or so to finish. This one, I think, took three and a half days of recording. And the whole idea was just to go and play. I wanted just a raw band environment. You know, this group of players having been playing for a while now and there’s a good chemistry and it would seem crazy not to try and replicate that in the studio.
As far as the songs go, I’m a big record collector and vinyl collector and that kind of borders on obsession now over the past couple of years.
NBR: I know the feeling.
DK: It’s a wonderful feeling. I’ve always loved it but this past couple of years, I’ve just kind of rocketed a little bit out of control with it. As a result of buying up a load of records, old blues records, obscure blues records, or, you know, records that I grew up with, but wanted them on vinyl and so it kind of became this rediscovery of early blues and early blues rock, 60s/70s music, as well as the delta stuff. So it kind of all came together as far as that’s the kind of record I wanted to make. And I’m very proud of how it came out.
NBR: Yeah, I think it comes out, and I think it does have a live feel about it. In terms of your approach, I’d imagine, especially if you’ve never done that before, recording live to tape must be much more difficult than a standard recording process where you get a hundred takes, right?
DK: Yeah, that is in the back of your mind, you know, don’t mess it up or else you’re going to have to do the whole thing again (laughs). But I’m really, really lucky to play with great musicians and really inspiring musicians, once you get going and once you have that adrenaline running in the room, that kind of goes out of your mind and, in fact, after recording to tape now I’m not sure I would go back to doing the hundred takes way because also you learn to live with things for the sake of character. Something might not be perfectly in tune or something might not be perfectly in time or it might speed up a little bit. All of these things, I think, add character, if it’s not too extreme. You learn to live with those slight faults and inaccuracies. A little bit of salt and a little bit of character.
NBR: Yes, I totally agree and I think it’s interesting because I’ve listened to a few people talk about it recently and I was watching a documentary with Dave Grohl, early on, when he was saying he played with John Paul Jones. John Paul Jones had gone in and done his bassline and listened to it back and there were a couple of scratches and little mistakes on there, and he was like, “yeah that’s great, that’s good to go” and Dave Grohl was like “Oh, that’s how it works then.” But it really does give music more character, I think. It’s getting a little bit too perfect these days in my mind.
DK: Yes, absolutely, it’s got to be human, hasn’t it? Humans make mistakes. And unless you’re Tony Mitchell, humans don’t sing perfectly in tune. If you start fixing things, it takes away that human element. And when you’re talking about blues music, which is a folk music, you know, the human element is so important.
NBR: Absolutely. In terms of your process, Davy, and writing songs, do you sit down and think to yourself I’m going to do an album or are you constantly writing and then you just select from what you’ve written?
DK: I think I’d end up putting out an album every ten years if I decided, “oh yeah, I’m going to sit down and write an album now.” No, I mean, you have to, for me anyway, you have to be constantly on the look-out, constantly coming out with ideas, constantly having things on burners, you know? Otherwise, I can’t breathe – I wouldn’t get round to doing it.
It can be a very slow process for me. Sometimes I’ll have a song like “What You’re Made Of,” the second song off the new record, I’d actually written that about the same time as my second record which was about 2009 and it just never sat, it just never worked, it never really fit in and then I ended up playing it, you know, suggesting it for this record to the band and the way that they played it, the way they interpreted it and it worked beautifully so, you know, there’s a song that took seven years to be released.
Yeah, it can take a very, very long time or something like “Government Row,” which is off this new album, it was written in a day. It came out really, really quickly and was obvious it needed to be on this project. It can happen in all sorts of different ways.
NBR: On the tour, when you played at Chicago’s Chop Shop, you played a couple of songs from the album. Do you tend to try them out on tour? Are you playing a few of the new ones at the moment?
DK: Yeah, we’re definitely playing a lot of the new record and that’s because I think yeah, these songs need to grow on the road, you know? You need to test them out on the road before you record them because, you know, it’s difficult just to go in to record a song you’ve never played live before. It doesn’t seem quite right for me. You’ve got to go out there and make sure the song’s worth recording, I guess.
NBR: Are there any that you’re particularly enjoying playing, or any that are going down really well with the audiences, that are stand out?
DK: Yeah, a couple of them. We’re starting the show at the moment with “Ain’t Much Of Nothing” and it’s just a great fun way to start. It’s just real high energy kind of stuff. And then playing “Falling Apart,” I think that is really going down well and it’s a really cool one for us to play.
NBR: That’s like a real slow Chicago blues song. I really enjoyed that one. If I was picking out stand outs from the album for me, I really, really like “Falling Apart.” I really liked “Oxford Mississippi” as well. I thought that was a bit different, and really enjoyed that one.
DK: Oh, cool, yeah. That was something different.Again with all of this vinyl and stuff I’ve gotten into gospel. People like Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Harp and all of this stuff. You know, hearing that kind of gospel side of the blues, I wanted to write something more around that.
NBR: When we saw you at Chop Shop, you were playing a Telecaster that was absolutely gorgeous. For the album did you have one particular guitar that you used primarily?
DK: Yeah, it was that guitar. It’s a 1966 Telecaster and I used a Bludotone Bludo Drive amplifier and that was it.
NBR: And that was it straight in?
DK: Yeah. I think we used an Octave on “Falling Apart,” but that was it. Again, we kind of wanted to keep things simple. I’ve hoarded guitar stuff for too long and I actually ended up getting rid of a load of stuff just because at this point I just want to keep things simple and I’ve found the things that really work for me now.
NBR: So when you are touring are you just straight into the amp generally? Not many effects?
DK: Not many effects at all. I use three – that Octave pedal, just for “Falling Apart,” just for that tune, one song in the whole set! And I have an overdrive which only tends to get used if I’m using a rental amp so that I have a little bit of flexibility and I can kind of get a sound that really works. And then a boost pedal which is just, you know, I just set the amp to kind of break up and then I use the boost to get the solo stuff. But that’s it. Again, I’ve been through the whole rack mount systems and midi switching and all of this and there’s just nothing beats and Telecaster and deluxe reverb and, crank it.
NBR: I always remember listening to Joe Walsh talk, and he’s just such a believer in that. When people are talking about effects he’s like “you just plug the guitar in and then you turn the amplifier up full” and then control it with the volume on the guitar. A lot of guitarists tend to go that route, where you start and you try everything, and then you have everything in the mix and then people tend to come back to just a great amp and a good guitar.
DK: Absolutely, yeah. I think all my favorite players are like that – Rory Gallagher, Roy Buchanan, you know, all of those guys, it was just in their fingers and they could play a Squire Strat into a transistor amp and it would sound exactly like them. I think there’s something, you know, to reach for there.
NBR: Listening across the three albums, there’s a real sort of mix of styles with you. I think, your solos and things, you do some things that are really outside the box, I would guess, for a blues player. Is there any one person you would say has really influenced you more than anyone else?
DK: Yeah, you know, it’s got to be between Rory Gallagher and Mark Knopfler because I love Rory Gallagher’s, just, balls to the wall aggression and at the same time there was beautiful intricacy in his playing, it’s just so lyrical, but super aggressive. But Mark Knopfler, his writing. He is really, really over-played with his stuff from Dire Straits, but his writing is astounding and his guitar playing is so melodic and he’s so thoughtful and I really admire that.
And also, I just feel like I’m a fan of an enormous amount of music. I think it’s crazy just to limit yourself and say well, I’m going to do this when there’s so much great stuff out there and one of my big goals as a musician is just to wake up a better musician every single day really and that means playing a whole bunch of stuff and trying stuff, experimenting with stuff and just, you know, whatever comes out of that, I think it’s important to put it out there. It’s part of the journey I guess.
NBR: I listened to some of Mark Knopfler’s solo stuff, and I really liked Tracker, that new album that he did. It’s fantastic.
DK: Oh yeah, absolutely.
NBR: And some of the other stuff, he’s really gone back to – and I was going to ask you actually, because I watched Island Bound as well – and Mark tends to go back to alot of the folk-influenced music from the UK and the celtic influence. Can you maybe see yourself doing an album more focused towards that at any point?
DK: Yeah, definitely. I would love to do, at the very least, an EP of songs that I learned from Island Bound and I’ve written a few tunes as well kind of based on the Island Bound stuff that I learned. Absolutely, because it’s beautiful. When you really listen to it as well, you know, those stories – you can see where country music came from, you can see where the beginnings of blues and stuff like that because it’s not a world away. When you listen to the very darkest, deepest old Appalachian stuff, it’s a really beautiful thing, so yeah, I absolutely can see myself doing that.
NBR: The new album is coming out later this year and will be available on vinyl as well and you’ve got the Pledge Music page. Thats a chance for people to sign up and get some extras when they buy the album right?
: Absolutely. It’s a pre-release so people can head over to the Pledge Music page
, people can sign up and they’ll get extras that they won’t get buying it off the website when it’s out. There’s a couple of exclusive acoustic tracks, acoustic versions of things, there’s more updates of stuff from me, but you can also get t-shirts and bundles with it and all tht stuff. So, yes, it’s like a really fancy pre-release. And it’s coming out on vinyl which I’m really excited about. It’s my first studio record to do that so I am very excited for that.
NBR: With the vinyl, I know we have talked about it a little, do you feel – one of things I’ve noticed getting into myself, is that there’s a different kind of sound when you play a record on vinyl. It sounds more open. Is that something you’re finding as you’ve recorded this one straight to vinyl?
DK: Yeah definitely. I haven’t actually heard this album on vinyl yet but when you listen to records it sounds wider, a bit more room and a bit more space. More than anything it makes you listen to the album that you put on as a whole not, as a piece of work rather than well I’ll skip this tune, this tune isn’t working. That kind of attention span of a gnat kind of way that people listen to music now.
With vinyl there’s a whole process, a whole kind of tactile kind of experience with it and I think that is an incredibly healthy thing for human beings is to spend that 45 minutes or 40 minutes that you get on a vinyl record and take that time to actually concentrate and listen and enjoy something. It’s meant to be as a whole not three minutes of quick gratification and then you’re off. That’s what I love about vinyl, is because it kind of takes you away from things.
NBR: I totally agree. I’d fallen into it absolutely myself. A bit of a pick and mix really, when once you’ve got access to Spotify and those kinds of things, where you can go in and listen to this tune and then I’ll listen to this, and then this. It’s nice to put some time aside and listen to something beginning to end the way that it was intended to be listened to, how the band intended it to be listened to.
DK: Yeah, can you imagine listening to Dark Side Of The Moon on shuffle? It’s not a thing!
NBR: Yeah, that would make absolutely no sense!
DK: Absolutely nothing. So yeah, essentially this kind of music lends itself to it, with that medium. I hope people kind of go for that option, because that’s what we really had in mind setting this up.
NBR: One final one – obviously you’re out on tour on the West Coast at the moment. Any plans for back in Chicago or back in the mid-west after this?
DK: Well, nothing in concrete yet but definitely we will be back soon. The touring has just started to kick off again. Once this album is out, too, there’s going to be a lot of stuff around it so it won’t be too long at all.
NBR: Thank you for taking the time to catch up with us, Davy.
DK: Oh no, my pleasure.
Be sure to check out Davy’s Pledge Music site, and pre-order the album now to get instant access to all the extras.
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