interview by Michael McCarthy
Have you ever seen a magic show by one of the masters – like David Copperfield – and swore it was real? Well, I saw Copperfield perform a few decades ago and still can’t fathom how he did anything that night. The finale is the illusion that especially boggles my mind; how he was standing on stage one moment and suddenly vanished only to appear in the theatre’s lobby – on the opposite side of the building – less than 30 seconds later. You see, we were seated by the door closest to the lobby, the first people to walk out there after his disapearance. So, unless he could run as fast as The Flash, there was no way that he could have gone from the stage to appearing where he did the second we went out into the lobby. It seemed, and still seems, impossible. (My best guess is that he has an identical twin that he’s managed to keep secret all of these years.) The reason I’m telling this story is because I feel like I’m hearing the audio equivalent of that performance when I listen to Knifeworld’s new album, Bottled Out of Eden. You hear a song playing and it sounds one way, but then it suddenly sounds quite different – say, the opposite – and you can never figure out how it went from point A to point B. When and how it made the leap is like a magic. Sometimes when these changes occur it’s when the album seemlessly goes from one song to the next. But it happens within the context of a single song many times, too. Such is the brilliance of Kavus Torabi and his eight member band and how they constantly add and subtract instruments in way that’s not unlike looking through a kalideoscope and seeing the colors gradually change, creating new mistifying images every second.
Well, OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit. My point is simply that the songs on Bottled Out of Eden form one perfectly concocted trip. Sure, you can listen to them individually, but its only when you hear the full 50 minute magnum opus that you feel like you’re being transported from one world to another on one terrific magic carpet ride. Suffice to say, I strongly suggest you fire up Bottled Out of Eden and read this interview with the genius behind it. Your mind will be blown, your wires tripped, no drugs required.
MM: I know you were working as a solo artist after having been in several bands over the years. Did you call yourself Knifeworld back then or did you only come up with the band name when you formed the band as it is today?
KT: I wasn’t really working as a solo artist. I’d recorded an album of songs and I suppose I felt a little wary of putting it out as ‘Kavus Torabi’, it had a few guests and friends on it anyway, so I called it Knifeworld. I was a full time member of Cardiacs while I was making it and the plan, originally, had been for Tim Smith (Cardiacs leader) to play bass in the live band . Nonetheless the awful circumstances that befell Tim put Cardiacs on hold indefinitely. Once the album came out in 2009, I put the band together to promote it without any real plans as to what would happen next but after a few gigs we realised we really had something and so the band was born.
MM: Has Knifeworld always had eight members or have you just gradually kept adding them as your vision has expanded?
KT: We started out as a six piece, with a different drummer and bassist. It was after we released the Clairvoyant Fortnight EP in 2012, on which Chloe had overdubbed multiple horns, that we thought it’d be fun to do some gigs where we could replicate that sound live. Charlie, our then new bass player, knew Josh and Nicki and brought them over to rehearsals. It was never the plan to be an eight piece. As you can imagine, for an underground band, it’s pretty impractical. Nonetheless, I’ve never been one to let practicality stand in the way of an insane idea, besides, once I heard the band with the the horn section it was like taking crack, there was no going back. Nicki, who played tenor sax on the last album, had to leave and was replaced by Olly who plays baritone sax, that changed the sound a great deal. It’s such an unusual horn section, Alto, Baritone and bassoon. It sounds really unique and it’s wonderful to be able to write for them. They’re a lot more up front on this record, it’s almost as if the horn section play the part of a guitar at some points. I sort of wrote myself out a little. There’s bits where the horns play the chords and riffs while the guitar sort of weaves a line through them.
MM: What does the name Knifeworld mean to you? Is there a story or meaning behind it?
KT: There’s not much of a story. My friend Jo Spratley came up with it at the tail end of an improbable conversation at about four in the morning. As soon as I heard those two words together, I knew it had to be the name of the thing I was working on. It had such a spooky resonance.
MM: What is the intended meaning of the new record being called Bottled Out of Eden?
KT: The title can be interpreted in a number of ways, it seemed to shimmer with a strange magic. I had the title before I’d written any of the songs. That’s always been the case, I have the title for the next album too. Once I’d come up with it then it gave me a general idea about the shape and vibe the album was going to have. It helps give a cohesiveness to the material because, even if fairly abstract and nebulous, you can identify what will and won’t work with the album as a whole. I wrote some songs that didn’t fit with the overall idea so I put them aside to use for something else. Nothing ever gets wasted.
MM: To my ears, Bottled Out of Eden sounds a bit more accessible than The Unravelling. Were you trying to write something that would immediately grab the listener this time around? (It almost seems like there’s a pop vibe there.)
KT: Absolutely. We wanted this to be our pop album. After our last record, The Unravelling, which was pretty maudlin and introspective, I wanted to make something joyous and upbeat. The real events that surrounded the making of it tried to pull it in a more melancholy direction so it ended up being a bit of both. I think it’s our best album.
MM: Do you write all of Knifeworld’s songs alone or does the whole band get together and write or how does it work?
KT: I write all the songs, and generally the arrangements too although I gladly ceded control a little on this one and we worked on a lot of the arrangements together. I’m a fairly benevolent control freak but this line up of the band has been playing together for a while and we’re all used to each other’s idiosyncratic way of playing. Everyone gets what Knifeworld is about so it’s more a case of showing the other guys the tunes, suggesting a general arrangement and saying, “Well, you know what to do”. The buck stops with me, and I’ll certainly be very vocal about something that isn’t working but this album felt far more like a group effort.
MM: Do you usually write the lyrics or the music first or do they come to you at the same time or?
KT: Almost always music first. Usually as I’m writing the melodies, little phrases and lines will appear and sometimes I’ll keep them. That said, If I happen upon little phrases that I like, I’ll make a note of them to use later in lyrics if I can. I tend to talk far too much and, owing to the law of averages, while most of what I say is largely pointless and annoying, occasionally I might find myself on a particularly florid or colourful rant, and stop myself and say “Oh, that’s good…I’ll keep that” and make a note of it before continuing to talk at whoever happens to be in my vicinity.
MM: How old were you when you wrote your first song? Do you remember what it was called?
KT: A piano turned up in our house when I was seven and I wrote a very rudimentary tune on it called Highway Hotel but I’d been inventing tunes in my head for as long back as I can remember. I used to have theme tunes for all my toys, as if they had their own TV programs.
MM: I understand the new album is a concept album about loss and hope. Can you expand on that? Is there a storyline that progresses from song to song?
KT: It’s not a concept album as such, in that there’s no real narrative, but whenever I make a record I like it to have a theme before writing it. Like I said, once I had that title, Bottled Out Of Eden, it gave me a focus with the songs. Surrounding the making of this record was the death of four very good friends of mine, given that Knifeworld, particularly lyrically, is a very personal and autobiographical thing, their passing couldn’t help but influence the songs which I was writing. Nonetheless, I was determined to make this record feel celebratory in some way, so it ended up sounding pretty unique. I guess it’s pretty corny to describe a record as being a journey, but, more than anything we’ve done before, this album really is. It has a lovely ebb and flow to it, I feel.
MM: Are there separate songs that pertain to loss and others that pertain to hope? (If so, can you give us some examples?) Or are both subjects written about in the same songs?
KT: Yes I think there are both. High / Aflame was partly inspired by the passing of Daevid Allen. He lived the life of twenty men and fully embraced his death, I wanted to write about how that had made me feel. I think it’s full of hope. A Dream About A Dream was inspired by the passing of my friend, the musician Nick Mash, shortly after. It struck me that if you leave your music behind after you die, it serves as a ghost, almost a portal between the living and the dead. You leave a part of yourself in the music and live on through it.
I Must Set Fire To Your Portrait, on the other hand, is sort of about transgression, about destroying what you were and being reborn exactly how you’d choose to be, rather than how your basic operating system is forcing you to be. It was largely inspired by my experiences with LSD in my late teens and early twenties which, along with countless other benefits, particularly into creativity, music and acceptance of my own mortality, allowed me to rebuild my consciousness, leaving out all the unpleasant bullshit and insecurities behind. It was life altering and in a lot of ways I owe the happiness of my last twenty five years to the revelations I had back then. That’s certainly a song of hope for me
MM: Are all of the songs from your perspective or were you writing any of them from the perspective of different characters?
KT: They’ve almost always been from my perspective but for the first time on Lowered Into Necromancy, I stood back and sort of wrote from the perspective of someone else. It’s loosely about a Faustian pact, and it’s a conversation between the Devil and the, er, ‘pactee’. That’s the starting point anyway. I tend to avoid over explaining what I mean by every line because I like mystery and ambiguity in words, although every line has a particular relevance for me. Again, the title came first. I’d had that one for a while and it bubbled back to the surface once I had identified the basic Bottled Out Of Eden concept.
MM: Have you performed the new songs live yet?
KT: Almost all of them. That was one of the differences with this album, we gigged the tunes before recording them which was extremely beneficial. They sound very ‘played-in’, I think.
MM: Do you ever get over-powered by your emotions when performing them live?
KT: It’s hard to say. I get very involved in a performance, I try to put everything into it and time seems to compress and expand in an unusual way when gigs are going well. That can be pretty overpowering.
MM: On “I Am Lost” you sing, “I am higher than the morning sun.” What might one find you high from?
KT: The actual lyric is “I’m high with the mourning son” which has an altogether different meaning. As to what I’m high from, what have you got?
MM: Are you a fan of The Beatles, by any chance? “High /Aflame” sounds like something they might have done during their hippie years.
KT: Yeah, it does have a Beatle-sy feel. Yes, I love a lot of their music a great deal. Some of it is the greatest pop music ever, some of it not so much, I know you’re not supposed to say that. The commonly held belief is that everything they did was brilliant which I don’t think that was the case. I love the psychedelic albums and I the earlier stuff particularly.
MM: Which artists were you inspired by, if any, when writing the new album?
KT: I think whatever influences I have, and they sound kinda obvious to me, have been present in my work for years now. I used to be very thorough about trying to cover my tracks, in terms of influence. If something sounded even a little bit like another artist, then I’d alter it. These days, I’m less hung up about it. As long as I haven’t consciously ripped off an actual melody or tune then I’ll let it go.
There was no artist in particular that consciously inspired this new album. If anything it was the other guys in the band and their unique way of playing that inspired the writing, I wrote the music for these players specifically. I know how they play, and as a result the music seems to breathe more.
MM: You always have such great album covers. Are you using different artists from album to album or is one person responsible for them?
KT: Thank you, yes it’s the same guy. Steve Mitchell at 57Design. He’s amazing. He designed our logo too. I said. “Come up with the sort of logo you would want to paint on the back of your leather jacket, when that used to be a thing”.
Graphics are so important, I think. The overall look is absolutely central to how I feel about an album. Obviously great music is great music, regardless of the cover, but I find I always associate the colour and imagery with the music. I think it says a lot about a band if they have shitty artwork. I love working with Steve, every time we have a new album, I’ll have a good idea as to the sort of thing I want and we’ll usually discuss it for a couple of hours, but what he comes back with always completely surpasses whatever I had in mind. I never want to work with anyone else for Knifeworld, I think his imagery defines the band.
MM: Do you prefer writing and making albums or performing live?
KT: Both. They really are different things. It’s so funny that they are tied in together. Can you imagine if a film maker, having finished a new movie, had to tour the thing with a group of actors, re-staging key parts of the film and then having to get them to perform the public’s favourite bits of previous films too? Or if a sculptor, having completed a great work, had to go around the country doing a version of that sculpture to different audiences each night.
Nonetheless, you finish an album, then you have to go and tour it. I love the recording process, from invention to completion. With performing live, when it works well, it’s exhilarating. It’s the greatest, most exciting feeling. When it doesn’t go so well, it’s absolutely crushing. Being an octet, with a mixture of loud electric instruments and acoustic instruments, we’re always treading a fine line. It’s always a risk. Each room is different, sometimes you won’t have long in the changeover to get your stuff set up. We haven’t made it easy on ourselves, but as I said earlier, I’ve never been one to let impracticality stand in the way of ambition. When it’s right, I really believe, there isn’t a band in the world like us. It’s worth the risk for that.
MM: What was the first instrument you learned to play and how old were you?
KT: I’d played the piano a little, just making tunes up before, but the first time I picked up a guitar and invented a tune on it, at the age of nine, I knew that was my instrument. Even right at the beginning when all I could do was place my index finger over the first three stings and move it up and down the neck, I knew I could get somewhere with it. It felt very natural. From there on in, I started teaching myself. I didn’t learn any proper chords until I was eleven so I’d already ruined any chances of being a proper player by two years of developing my curious, singular style.
MM: Did you ever take lessons?
KT: I took classical guitar lessons for a couple of years in my teens, I enjoyed them, but I was always far more interested in playing my own music. I’d start practicing a piece but after a few minutes it would give me an idea for something else and I’d put the spanish guitar down, grab my electric and a pick and spend the next few hours working on my own thing, so I didn’t really get far with it. My parents didn’t like the music I was interested in at all, so doing classical lessons was, I suppose, a way of appeasing them. I left school at sixteen and joined my first proper band and quit the lessons shortly after. I can still play Greensleeves but that’s about it.
MM: Was anyone in your family a musician?
KT: My Grandmother was a good pianist and used to write tunes, just for pleasure, and my Grandfather played accordion but my parents weren’t interested in music at all and I think they resented the way it completely took over my life from the age of eight.
I have a cousin, Arash, who grew up with us and is like a brother. He’s a bass player and plays in The June Brides, The Distractions and The Granite Shore now. We used to make music and were in bands together when we were growing up. My younger brother Bobak is an amazing DJ and a pretty good pianist and drummer, our tastes are pretty similar in some ways. All three of us are totally absorbed by music and have been since we were kids. I feel sorry for our folks. I think they would have loved just one of us to have had a straight job.
MM: How many instruments do you play now?
KT: The only instrument I can play with any sort of competency is the guitar and, at a push, the bass. Even then, given my funny style, I have some real limitations. The thing is, I am a player. That is to say, give me an instrument and I can get something out of it. I get called a multi-instrumentalist but I’m really not, I’m a player. I may play santoor or harp, or keyboards on some of our records but you’d never hire me to play any of those in your band.
Charlie, who plays bass in Knifeworld, has mastered about twenty stringed instruments from around the world. Now, he’s a multi instrumentalist. Emmett, our keyboard player, is a terrific guitarist and a great drummer. Me, I have my curious style. My strengths are writing and arranging, I think.
MM: How much touring do you plan on doing to support the new album? Will you be doing any dates here in the U.S.?
KT: As much as we are able. You know, it’s nigh on impossible for a band at our level to come to the US although we would love to do it. The cost of visas alone is so prohibitive. Even if we were a four piece, we couldn’t do it. The only way I could see it happening at the moment, unless we became incredibly successful, would be if we were booked to play a festival.
I’ve toured the US with Guapo and quite a lot while I was a member of the Mediaeval Baebes. There was a time in the late 90’s and early 2000’s that a lot of bands we knew were able to do it but it’s so much harder now.
MM: Are you headlining in Europe or are you still a supporting act?
KT: We’re a headline act in the UK but we still need to work on Europe a bit. It wasn’t until we signed with InsideOut and released The Unravelling in 2014 that we had anything available or any promo in Europe at all. We’re looking to tour there in September.
MM: If you could tour with any band in the world today, who would you pick?
KT: Oh God….who would I pick? Well, here’s the thing. No matter who we have toured with and no matter what bill we have been put on we are ALWAYS the odd one out. We’ve played at psychedelic festivals, prog festivals, math rock, classic rock, experimental etc and we always stick out like a sore thumb.
What seems to happen with us when we play with other artists or at festivals is that a large percentage of the audience don’t really get us, a smaller percentage absolutely hate us and a similar percentage totally love it. Regardless of the bill, this always seems to be the reaction. I’m not interested in appeasing the people who hate us. All we can do is our own thing which we think is brilliant. I know there’s not another group anywhere that sound like us. That has advantages and disadvantages but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Often the folks who didn’t get it the first time round are intrigued enough to check out our stuff when they get home and then get in touch to say that they love it. It’s great when that happens. I know it takes a few listens.
That being the case, I’d be just as happy to tour with Iron Maiden as The Flaming Lips. In fact either of those would both be pretty fun.
MM: What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
KT: The first Stray Cats album in 1980. I still love that record, everything about it. That was the band that started everything off for me. When I saw them on Top Of The Pops playing their first single, Runaway Boys, I realised there and then that I wanted to be Brian Setzer when I grew up. Well, not actually be him, but sing and play guitar, write songs and front a band. I knew nothing of the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll at the age of eight. I had no idea that Stray Cats were doing a kind of 50’s throwback thing. To my ears Runaway Boys sounded like it had been beamed in from outer space and still does really. I think it’s still one of my favourite songs thirty six years later
MM: I understand you were born in Tehran but moved to England as an infant. Have you ever been back to Tehran? If so, what was the experience like? If not, is going there someday on your bucket list?
KT: I haven’t been back, and there are a lot of difficulties in trying to do so, largely because the Iranian government do not recognise dual-nationality, so I’d have to travel as an Iranian citizen rather than British. Initially it was the problem that I’d be eligible for national service, but now it’s that the British government has no power over me if I went there. It’s unlikely that they would, but if the Iranian authorities wanted to detain me there, then there’s nothing that Britain could do. It’s just not worth the risk. It’s a real drag because I would love to go back for a visit. I haven’t been there since I was two. I have a huge family there, most of whom I have never met. I’m hoping things will get a little easier in the future.
MM: Are you a city or a country person?
KT: Oh city, definitely. I live in London out of choice, I moved here when I was twenty one. It has changed a great deal since then and is increasingly expensive which, for someone specialising in, shall we say, ‘niche music’, makes things very difficult. Were I twenty one now, there’s no way I’d be able to move here and do what I did then. It was still possible to live very cheaply and the rents were relatively affordable, back then. Nonetheless, there’s nowhere else I rather be, in this country at least.
MM: Of all the places you’ve traveled to so far, which has been your favorite?
KT: New York. I have quite a few musician friends there. I’ve been perhaps nine times. It’s the only other place I’d really love to live. That said, like London, it seems to have changed a great deal too. My first time there was in 1999. I suppose because I go less frequently I tend to notice the changes a lot more.
MM: Do you intend to ever write an autobiography?
KT: Actually I do. A possible title is “Not In The Classic Line Up”. I have a lot of terrific stories, seriously, some really ridiculous stuff. It’s something I’ll look at when I start to run out of ideas. Until then, the music takes priority. That said, I imagine it would only have the same limited appeal that my music does.
MM: Have you ever used a line from a book or movie in one of your songs?
KT: Yeah, loads.
MM: What was your biggest indulgence this month?
KT: I don’t tend to spend much money, to be fair, I don’t have much. I don’t value it at all, once you start placing any importance in it then you’re fucked, so I treat it with the contempt it deserves.
I mean, I know I have to earn it and that it’s necessary just to oil the cogs and pay the rent and put food on the table and just keep the whole life thing afloat but beyond that I don’t think about it.
I try to enjoy everything I do, I don’t measure anything by how much money I have and I never save it. If I have it, I spend it. So far this attitude has worked out fine.
I bought three LPs and a ‘special suit’ to wear for the forthcoming tour. That’s about it. That feels like a real indulgence to me.
MM: Who is your favorite filmmaker?
KT: Too many, to pick just one would feel like betraying all the others I love.
Favourite drummers and filmakers, I have hundreds. I think it’s because I really wish I could have been one or the other but know I never could. Guitarists, on the other hand…I’d be hard pressed to name a handful that I actually like!
Extra special thanks to Kavus for giving us such thoughtful answers. Special thanks also to Roie Avin at Inside Out Music for setting it up.