|Certainly no long-time True Tunes reader could possibly be unfamiliar with the life and work of Michael Gerard Knott. He has been featured numerous times in our pages and his albums have been among our best sellers for years. This year he has seen a flurry of releases including old demos, recent live shows and brand new bands. True Tunes' Timothy Buchanan caught up with Knott recently for a quick catch-up on this alt-rock overachiever|
True Tunes: First off, could you share how you and Gene Eugene met and any shareable memories of him?
Michael Knott: I met Gene Eugene so long ago that I cannot remember the exact first time we met. My fondest memories of Gene were in the studio. He used to kick my butt over a take or maybe a mix, and I would argue with him even though I knew he was right. I just didn't want to give in to him too easily. I also really enjoyed the shows we did together in New York and Oregon. He was backing me on the piano, and I would sing away. We were like a classic piano duo in a hotel bar.
TT: What projects finished and unfinished we'll be seeing from you soon.
MK: As has been the case for years, I have a bunch of different projects all simmering at once. I suspect the next albums people will hear from me are Bomb Bay Babies Vol. II and L.S.U. - Unplugged. I have a few surprise projects in the works that might also pop up between now and spring time. Otherwise, the other albums I could most realistically see be finishing next are a new Aunt Bettys collection and a wild demos collection we are calling Things Jenison Found In the Closet.
TT: Though the Bomb Bay Babies were a band of the late eighties and are now just getting to be heard on record, is there a future for them?
MK: When Shaded Pain came out, I was basically banned from playing many churches for two years. They were too taken back by the darker tone of the album. During that time I just did the Bomb Bay Babies instead. As far as a future, no, I wouldn't even know how to contact those guys. I will likely include a few of their songs in current rock sets though.
TT: On the Babies' Vol.1 there's a live song you dedicate to the A&R folks in the crowd and tear into the unflattering "Big Shot Record Man". Were there really any A & R people in the crowd that got to hear ya'll chanting 'Payola' to the similar tune of the Kink's "Lola"?
MK: All the time. We actually almost signed to Capitol, and we did sign a publishing deal with Windswept Pacific, who now has the Spice Girls (is that a plus or a minus?). They all loved the song because, of course, I was always talking about the other guy, not them.
TT: Can you tell us about the Aunt Bettys, from its days at Elektra, how it was received both in the mainstream market and with your following, and what the Bettys are up to today?
MK: As long as I have been doing music, I have worked at simultaneously having both a Christian band and a general market band. During early L.S.U., my general market band was the Bomb Bay Babies. Most recently, it was Strung Gurus with Dennis Danell from Social Distortion. In the mid-'90s, my general market side project was the Aunt Bettys. The reason I always had two separate bands was so that I would not muddy the waters between the two. My goal with the Lifesavers Underground was to make a positive impact on people's lives. I wanted to reach those people who felt like outsiders by being a musical outsider myself. I felt that a noble purpose like that should not be mixed with trying to be a secular band going after the big secular deal. In the same way, I don't feel Aunt Bettys should be scrutinized the same way as say Lifesavers Underground, because the Aunt Bettys, like the other side projects, was my vehicle for going after a general market record deal.
Aunt Bettys was received very well in the general market. The punk community actually embraced us, so we did shows with bands like Voodoo Glow Skulls and the Aquabats on one week, and Fastball and Kenny Wayne Shepherd the next. There was a lot of diversity in our fan base. At the time, there were no Christian music crossovers like Jars of Clay, so Elektra was definitely unhappy that I had a history in the Christian market. In response, they would often twist my lyrics and ideas out-of-context in marketing materials to build up the darker elements of the album. This of course caused me problems with certain Christian watchdogs, but ultimately my true intentions and heart for ministry have shown through all the misconceptions. The Aunt Bettys broke up in 1997, and that's pretty much been it since then.
I've done a couple shows billed as the Aunt Bettys, but those were just for fun with the guys from Value Pac. We plan to release a new collection of Aunt Bettys demo songs in the near future, and we might do a few more shows to help promote that. Otherwise, I think that I will just incorporate those Aunt Bettys songs in any regular Michael Knott or L.S.U. shows that I do with a band. I also want to start incorporating some Bomb Bay Babies songs on there as well.
TT: What caused the Aunt Bettys to break up and would Electra have supported ya'll for another record?
MK: That is a tough question with a whole lot of answers. Would Elektra have done another album? It's hard to tell because they didn't do much with the first album. We actually negotiated out of our contract so we were off Elektra at the time we broke up. We did so because there were lots of labels still into us. Island, Revolution, Silvertone, and a few others all talked to us, but only one label - a BMG joint venture - put down an offer. It was nowhere near what the Elektra deal was, but it wasn't like we actually got what Elektra promised us either. We sat on the new offer for a while as we made the rounds with the different labels. Ultimately, I wanted to go with it, but the rest of the band wanted to quit. I think there was a lot of disillusionment within the band as to what finally getting a major label record deal meant.
TT: On your recent releases (Live in Nash-Vegas, Bomb Bay Babies) the Blonde Vinyl logo makes it's comeback appearance. Is this in essence the same label that it was five or so years ago?
MK: Blonde Vinyl is not a label in the sense that it contains any artists besides myself and my many incarnations. I used the Blonde Vinyl logo more as a symbol than anything. I feel the Blonde Vinyl logo represents a turning point in Christian music. The label opened doors by challenging retail buyers, Christian journalism, church organizations, and the rest of the bolts in the Christian music machine. The Blonde Vinyl bands were different than what these establishments were accustomed to, but they saw the way it positively affect the youth who were starving for this type of music. Besides being the first real Christian indie, Blonde Vinyl was also on the forefront of doing Christian music videos. Very few labels were making them at the time. Ultimately, Blonde Vinyl failed as a result of many factors, not the least of which involved the bankruptcy of Spectra Distribution.
To me, putting the Blonde Vinyl logo on my records helps fans remember the important contributions made by artists like Deitiphobia, Dance House Children, Fluffy, Sass O Frass Tunic, Breakfast With Amy, and the rest. Likewise, for those who remember already, having the Blonde Vinyl logo on my records stand for being progressive, pushing the envelope, and the creative blessing of independence. Hopefully these records are living up to what the logo implies.
TT: Do you keep up with the current status of old Blonde Vinyl bands such as Breakfast with Amy, Black and White World and Steve Scott?
MK: I don't really know much. Chris Colbert from Breakfast with Amy and Fluffy has taken over the controls at the Green Room, the studio that Gene Eugene founded. Dave from Breakfast has a new band, but I'm not sure of their name. Black and White World's singer and drummer have a new general market band called Free Spin (were called Oscar) who have been playing out a bit. Ronnie and Jason from Dance House Children of course started Joy Electric and Starflyer, respectively. Wally Shaw from Deitiphobia has Massivivid now, who won a Dove Award. Wally also programs music for video games. Don't know what happen to Steve Scott. Doug from Lust Control of course still does HM Magazine. Shelley Rogers and her CD still gets lots of AM Christian radio play. That's about all I can think of at this time.
TT: In 1992 you recorded The Grape Prophet, which was a thinly veiled analysis of some in the Vineyard Church movement. Can you sum up what you were trying to get at with the record, how it was received and how things stand with those folks now eight or so years later?
MK: The album was not a criticism of the Vineyard church, but rather a movement within one particular place of worship that just happened to be a part of the Vineyard. There was a movement called the Kansas City prophets who did all kinds of weird stuff, like one would talk in obscure parables and another would interpret them. That's where I came up with the song "English Interpreter of English." Eventually, they got a bunch of people to move to Kansas City, and the whole thing fell apart. At the time, CRI were already distributing literature about the Kansas City prophets, basically calling them heretics. The Vineyard has since condemned their actions and teachings as well.
TT: Have you been by the old apartment complex you used to share with Bubbles, Kitty Courtesy, Jan the Weatherman and John Barrymore Jr. (all characters on the 'Rocket and a Bomb' record) any time since you wrote the songs about them?
MK: I've driven by it on my way to performing shows at the Whisky and the Viper Room, but I don't go in and start knocking on doors. No one I knew would still be there, and who really goes to visit the grossest apartment one's lived in as a teen?
TT: Cush will be on a label outside of Blonde Vinyl, correct? Can you give us the story how the band came about and is this going to be another venture into the mainstream (like the Aunt Bettys)?
MK: Cush is an idea that has floated around for many years with Eric, Andy, and Wayne from the Prayer Chain. They even produced some stuff years ago under the name Cush. Last year, Mikee Bridges from Tomfest and Tragedy Ann joined forces with Eric Campuzano from Prayer Chain to form Northern Records, which is a label through Pamplin. For their first signing, they wanted to make Cush a reality, but they needed a singer. They thought about a lot of different singers, talked to a few, but decided on me. They asked if I wanted to be involved, and of course I said yes. I love those guys. In fact, Eric and Andy were actually in my post-Aunt Bettys solo band from 1997-1999, and then Andy was in the Strung Gurus with me for that short time. As far as the mainstream, though, Cush is not some band that is actively pursuing a secular glory signing or anything. The band is about the musical art first and foremost, and everything, and I mean everything, is a very distance second place.
TT: Is "Heaven Sent" [recorded with Cush] autobiographical?
MK: Most of my songs have some biographical elements to them, but I also make them vague enough for people to superimpose their own experiences into the song and make it make sense.
TT: Regarding the subject matter of "Heavensent," are there folks who are still waiting for you to make something of yourself?
MK: I have people who look at me waiting for me to make something out of myself just like everyone else does. The problem is that all these people have different ideas of what that something should be. My parents might want me to be a businessman. My manager might want me to be Dave Matthews or Jacob Dylan. The family might want me to be anything other than Homer Simpson. Some fans want me to be the controversial maverick, while others want me to be more mainstream church friendly. Everyone always has the 411 on what everyone else should be, but no one seems to be able to apply their wisdom to themselves.
TT: Why is "Chelsea's Chasin' Dragons" [Strung Gurus]?
MK: Where I live - Orange County, is to yuppies what Seattle is to designer coffee. It truly is ground zero. You will find more cell phones, Beamers, shopping malls, espresso carts, Virgin Megastores, stroller parks, amusement parks, and quickie oil change drive-thrus than anywhere in the country. Behind all this American dream pitter-patter, there are lots of drugs and various abuses for people who either failed to live up to their neighbors or who struggle to keep everything looking alright. I get surprised so often to see people who seem to have things to together and then later to find out that they are drug addicts. Chelsea is one of those people, and her vice was heroin.
TT: Sin was always a tough fight but the pull of heroin, crack and other drugs is somethin' fiercer. Is there anything observable you've been able to do for folks enslaved by these chemicals?
MK: In my experience, helping people get off drugs only happens when you treat the person, not the addiction. I know that sounds like N.A. or A.A. rhetoric, but it's true. You need to uncover the personality traits and internal struggles that lead a person to drugs. Heroin is an especially interesting drug because I believe it hinders a person's maturation process. There is a certain amount of horrible emotions that every person must work through to mature to the next level. Heroin addicts try to escape these painful emotional times through the drug, which they think keeps them "normal." A 30 year old who has been doing heroin for 20 years often has the maturity of a 20 year old, and that should be kept in mind when it comes to helping the person. Basic trials in life will be much harder for them. Also, you cannot be judgmental on the person, and when they fail, you cannot condemn them. Heroin addicts end up becoming expert liars to try and hide their problem. They need to trust you and have the ability to be straight with you before you can help them.
TT: What kind of person are you speaking of who fears 'Guitars, guns and girls' [Aunt Bettys]?.
MK: Doesn't everybody fear guitars, guns, and especially girls?
TT: I might fear some combination of them (ex. girls with guns) but really, what's to fear?
MK: Broken hearts, bullet holes, and feedback.
TT: Fair enough. One thing I always looked for from you were songs regarding fatherhood, since you seemed to have written about everything else in your life, and of course you are a father. The only thing I can recall was a song I heard you play live about some drinking incident involving a purple dinosaur. Did I miss your other songs about kids?
MK: There are allusions here and there about fatherhood. They mostly are one-liners that reflect this huge desire to give my daughter the world and yet the struggle to even come up with milk money. "Sugar Mama" mentions borrowing money to buy Stormie shoes, for example. Generally, though, family is not something that enters into my music. I'm not really sure why.
TT: Are there any records or bands out there right now that excite you?
MK: I mostly liked the old records that influenced me as a youth because those influences come with me. I do like Tickle Penny Corner, who have also been a great support to me on the road. I like the Huntingtons because of their unashamed Ramones influence. Then there's stuff on the radio that I like, but I never remember the names of the bands or the songs.
TT: Of those favorite records of your youth (or records of any period of your life), what are some of the records you consider masterpieces?
MK: I really enjoyed David Bowie's early stuff, like Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. The Rolling Stones, T. Rex, Lou Reed, Velvet Underground, and the Ramones were also big influences. I think music that is theatrical as long as the artist doesn't wear a clown's mask or something lame like that.
TT: You've covered a lot of musical ground over the years. Any new genres (ex. country, electronica) you're looking to tackle in the future?
MK: I was hoping to join the Lost Dogs and turn them into a barbershop quartet.
TT: Well, do you feel the fever to break new musical ground that others have not, to be progressive to beat senility or complacency?
MK: When it comes to music, I'm like a painter who doesn't know exactly what I am ultimately setting out to paint until the painting is done. It's always more of an inspiration than an idea, a feeling than something written down and practiced and thought out. When I write a song, I really try to capture the specific feeling that I have at that particular time, whether that feeling is happy, sad, weird, or even silly. I then write music that will hopefully accentuate the feeling and help bring it across. A lot of times, I write the songs and then have to categorize them accordingly. The song "Crash" was supposed to be an Aunt Bettys song, but it ended up fitting more as a solo song. Likewise, "Mother Trucker" was originally a solo song for Strip Cycle, but it turned into an Aunt Bettys song. Then you take the different versions of "Rocket and a Bomb." The song could go two ways, so I wrote it with two different types of music. The solo version is more reflective and sad, while the Aunt Bettys song is more an outburst of pent up frustration. In other words, should I do a electronic album or country album or rap album or whatever, I would be doing it because that's the medium that fits the emotion and idea that I'm trying to capture.
TT: Regarding your prolific writing, is there a frustration that comes when a song of yours may lay around for a while before being recorded properly and with that a frustration at having a catalog that is so backed up, finality may never come to be in your life time?
MK: For me, the wheel is always turning. I may be over the top about one group of songs one month, but a not long after, I'm all excited about the next batch. We are doing our best to record, catalog, and release - even if in small numbers - as much of this as possible, though lots still slips through the cracks. Ultimately, there's no frustration. The fulfillment comes simply in creating the art.
TT: Musicians often look to trophies to work for, such as gettin' their first paying gig, scoring a record deal, making their first record, receiving their first fan mail, winning awards and so on. What does Mike Knott work for?
MK: Everything you mentioned above would only apply to brand new bands. Whatever my trophies have been over the years, they definitely have changed with maturity. Oddly enough, what people consider the big trophies have little value to me now. I've been on the radio, had a major label deal, and played with big secular bands, all before the general market had ever heard of Jars of Clay or Sixpence. Once the "newness" of those things pass, they rust very quickly.
For me, there are two trophies that I long to acquire continuously. The first trophy is each and every person whose life has been profoundly impacted by my music. Many times I am singing about struggles I have or have had personally. I know how difficult they can be. To have fans say that one of my songs touched them and encouraged them and helped them deal with that particular problem is a prize worth more than I ever would have imagined when I was a new artist.
The second trophy is to see a person come to know Christ through my music or through a show. I don't mean seeing a person who has gone to church for ten years raise his hand for the twentieth time at an emotionally delivered altar call. I mean a person who has seen Christ in my pain and struggles and in the words I speak and the songs I sing, and then who believes that what I have is real and wants to have it in their lives. Again, as a young artist I would do altar calls almost out of habit, but I rarely went away with the feeling that something real had happened. In the past year on the road, I have had the opportunity to pray with a lot of non-Christians, and I know what happened was real. Of course, those trophies don't belong to me. They belong to God.
TT: The reason I ask about the trophies, is that, as you described as rustable, what we often hold high as the watermarks of artistry, once attained, come to find out maybe are vain and part of some selfish sideshow outside the frame of loving one's neighbor as yourself. Was there a point in your career that you found your prior ideas failing acid tests and wondering why you should you bother at all?
MK: If I have ever wondered why I bother, it was only for a heartbeat and because of the financial struggles of pursuing music. The answer was always clear to me. Making music is as important to me as taking my next breath. I often write a song a day, and sometimes I wonder what would happen if I actually had my own studio. Then I'd really be flooding the market!
If I understand the question, I think that you are implying that what new artists see as important often fails to live up to expectations. That would be an absolutely true statement. Each accomplishment that I achieve still pales in comparison to one earnest, excited, touched fan or one person that I can have a spiritual impact upon. Even for the huge artists, I bet it's still the same. You look at an artist like Britney Spears on MTV, and her life looks larger than life. Thing is, it's too large to be real. For every second that a fan screams for her, there's something or someone else screaming at her. Give me this, take this, do this, lose a few pounds, you name it. In the end, glory is fleeting. That's why at this point in my music I want to do my best to make a difference in people's lives that will last. I know that sounds cliché, but if you think about it, the idea is profound: I could actually write a song that speaks to a person's heart with such magnitude that it has a huge positive impact that could produce actual change. It's mind-boggling.
TT: Your story songs seem to be the most popular. In terms of what you said earlier regarding your trophy of affecting people with your music, have you ever accessed the strength of story telling on your own fans, against the non-story songs?
MK: I really have not. In fact, I didn't really even think about this until you said it. However, I think I know why the story songs are more popular. In simple terms, your average person would think that "Kitty," "John Barrymore," "Jan," "Bubbles," and the rest of the lot are all freaks. In my songs, I show how their uniqueness and oddities make them stand out, and those qualities endear these people to the listeners. My music is really outsider music, because I'm trying to reach people who feel like they don't fit in. What I am hoping is that my fans - especially those who feel odd or different or unlikable - can relate and see how their differences make them special. As my manager always says, 'If you fit in, you can't stand out.
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