Originality and Knower: Standing Out in Today’s Industry
It’s an undeniable fact that music is much easier to make and release now than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. With the advent of the internet and all of the platforms that have come with it, music can be made and shared by anyone with little to no money. Of course, the resulting problem is that there is such an excess of music on the market that it can be hard to sift through the masses of bland and unoriginal music to find something truly unique.
But today I’d like to talk about a band that does rise above the masses, with the extravagant flair and good songwriting that means you remember them when all others are forgotten. I’m talking, of course, of the American jazz-funk duo KNOWER.
I recently got the chance to ask the vocalist of KNOWER, Genevieve Artadi, some questions about the band and their music. KNOWER was formed in 2010 when Artadi was introduced to keyboardist and drummer Louis Cole by a mutual friend. As Artadi puts it: “We were friends first, respected each other's music for a while before deciding to try making stuff together,” adding, “it was natural.” It certainly seems natural. Just looking at the solo music they were each making around that time, one can see they were two musicians right for each other. Artadi’s vocal multitrack, “June Again” is a perfect counterpoint to Louis Cole’s smooth, “It’s So Easy” so it’s no surprise the two hit it off immediately.
But where else does their sound come from, who are the “spiritual ancestors” of KNOWER? “We tend to love people who brought their own sound,” Artadi replies, “some people are Gil Evans and Miles [Davis], Michael Jackson, and Aydin Esen.” That last name, Aydin Esen, is an interesting answer. Esen is a Turkish jazz musician, described by Shinedown producer Rick Beato as the “greatest improviser I have ever seen or heard.” His music consists of long synthesiser-based improvisations in odd time signatures and very chromatic harmony. While the previous names Artadi mentioned explain a lot of KNOWER’s more recent work with live bands such as Snarky Puppy, this Esen influence provides a source for much of the electronic music that defined their early work, such as their 2011 cover of the Nero/Skrillex song “Promises”.
I also wanted to know what the process was behind some of their more recent work. “The Government Knows”, released early 2016, is an hilarious song and video about the government spying on us masturbating, an ingenious idea executed to perfection. But how do these ideas form? Artadi responds that: “the song ideas come from a lot of places, many conversations about our observations of the world around us.” She went on to describe them as: “stories from our own lives, things we think are funny or interesting.”
With what Artadi describes, you can begin to see the process of how a KNOWER song takes shape. An initial idea, maybe just a funny anecdote like “what if the government watched us masturbate,” is discussed by the band members and then fleshed out to its logical extremes. Why would the government spy on us? What should we do now that we know this? The song answers all of these questions in spades. The video for “The Government Knows” shows the same flair for absurdity and logical extremes as the song. Why are there women dancing in latex masks of former presidents? “Why not?” is the proper response.
Of course, I had to know how much these songs change from initial conception to the final product that the listeners get. To this, Artadi replies: “The songs on the 'LIFE' album had so many drafts with different topics because we pushed ourselves to explore possibilities before deciding on a final topic. But there are also songs that don't change too much. Louis is huge on making many drafts, sonically and lyrically.”
Springing from this, I wanted to know how KNOWER balances the humour in their songs with making the listeners think about what their lyrics might imply. “We try to amuse ourselves and make music we think is cool,” Artadi tells me, “the balance comes naturally from there. I think if we tried to manipulate emotional reactions from people, it would come across that way, which we don't want.” A good example of this is their late 2016 release, “BUTTS TITS MONEY”. On the surface, this song has ridiculous lyrics and a bizarre video full of CGI penises and fake arms. But dive deeper into the lyrics and many viewers notice that the song seems to be about being a cam-girl, a streamer that strips for money. From there, viewers can interpret a darker message to the song, but it’s never forced on you. If you want to see it that way, you can and if you don’t, it’s still an hilarious song with a killer beat.
So now we know how KNOWER creates their music, which tells us a bit about how they stand out in such an over-saturated industry. But is this something they worry about? Do they ever feel their music isn’t “unique” enough? “We do want to make stuff that feels fresh, but we don't come from a fearful place, where we avoid what we want to do in order to not be like other people. We just follow our instincts and tastes and let the unique stuff be a part of the picture.”
Finally, I wanted to know if they ever felt that the brand they’ve created, the KNOWER image, was constraining them, that they had to act in the way people thought KNOWER should act. “No way!” Artadi tells me bluntly, “KNOWER started with us wanting to go as crazy as we want, and we stick to that. So if anything, the brand is to not do what even we would expect of ourselves. It's not about space animals and pizzas, it's about exploring and going in deep, and trying to come out with songs that have a big impact.”
KNOWER does what KNOWER wants to do, and they will always stand out because of it.
KNOWER will be performing with their live band in Leeds at the Brudenell Social Club on the Tuesday the 20th of March.