Though still a do-it-yourselfer at heart, Chris Knox – together with band The Nothing – has turned out a “warmer, more... polished sound than a lot of his more famous creations” on new album A Warm Gun, writes BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

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Chris Knox and the Nothing: A Warm Gun

THE ENEMY. Toy Love. Tall Dwarfs. Four-track recorder of most early Flying Nun singles. Maker of The Clean’s ‘Tally Ho’ music video. The Nothing. Brought over Jeff Mangum to Auckland to play his last ever concert (to date). Lo-fi icon the world-over. Described by The Village Voice on their cover as the “tenth Beatle”. Integrally tied into the promotion of bread. Head-set microphone wearer. Writer. Comic artist. Film buff. Reviewer. TV presenter. All-round nice guy.

Say what you like about Chris Knox, but this man’s got a CV so big, you’d be hard-pressed to find many New Zealand artists who have had as much impact on New Zealand culture as he has. He keeps marching on as well too, releasing yet another album A Warm Gun, his second with his band The Nothing (featuring Stefan Neville AKA Pumice, and Jol Mulholland). The album is full of the typical Knox conceits, but with a warmer, more, dare-I-say-it, polished sound than a lot of his more famous creations. It’s also rip-roaring fun, full of dissonant noise, screeching violins, brass instruments and beer coasters.

You do have to wonder why someone like Knox keeps making music, continues releasing albums, given his history book-full career. Surely he’s earned a retirement by now. “I’m not sure that I’ve got an answer. I suppose it’s the sheer enjoyment of writing, recording and creating a package. In the case of Warm Gun lots of things were going on that worked nicely as songs.” This is Knox’s second album, following on from 2006’s Chris Knox and the Nothing. But for a man who’s notorious for the DIY ethic, recording in a studio and with a band does seem a little odd (notwithstanding his early days in The Enemy and Toy Love – but they were a few decades ago). His first album with the Nothing started off when “I started recording out of home but I just got bored. I wanted to play with some other people. I’d been doing some stuff with Stefan and I thought ‘bugger it and find a bass player’.” From there he recruited Mulholland from Gasoline Cowboy, and “really enjoyed that, and thoroughly enjoyed not having to think about the technological side of things. Now I can’t imagine really completely going back to doing it by myself. I probably will” Roy Martyn was added for the new album on guitar.

But Knox does admit it was difficult initially “taking the songs to a couple of people who I didn’t know that well and trying to figure out a way to enable them to think they were contributing something but get what I wanted. I’d forgotten that kind of dynamic. I’d never been in that dynamic to be honest before – Toy Love and the Enemy were very much democratic and we were all writing. This was new, I was going with fully fledged songs.” Knox is very complimentary of his musicians as well, suggesting this was an easy process. “Both of those guys are utter musicians, it just flows out from them. For me it’s just hard work, but they’re fantastic. Stefan, he’s probably New Zealand’s best drummer and Jol’s right up there with bass playing. He’s a good guitarist too. His bass playing is so fertile. The hard thing was stopping him when he’d come up with something good, he always thought he could come up with something better.”

The album benefits considerably from its rhythm section, giving Knox a background to build textures and let the guitars go. His solo stuff had previously used drum machines or nothing. “It was good because when you’re working with a drum machine it’s very limiting. I’m no drummer or no programmer, and what I did with the drum machine was very basic. The rhythm section on my total solo stuff was very lumpy. It was a joy to have those living breathing organic swinging things.”

“I’ve always loved a good melody, but I’ve always enjoyed a certain amount of anger or attitude or edginess. I don’t really like fully finished, beautifully honed, comfortable songs. I like there to be a bit of roughness somewhere, and sometimes a whole lot of roughness.”

For someone who has released a lot, he has been quoted about worrying making music “in a rut rather than a groove”. He admits “I think that became a rut many years ago. The easiest songs to write are the ones you’ve written before. I try to avoid them but it gets increasingly hard. New melodies become hard to find.” However, he does suggest that “having other people around keeps that staleness away a little bit – having to accommodate them and them accommodate you.” He also reckons that he’d “love to work more with them on a song-writing basis as well.”

Knox’s career has been littered with Beatles references, and this album continues the Beatles’ homages with its title and the back cover, which Knox suggests was a bit of a coincidence. The Beatles influence isn’t unexpected, given that his music has been typified throughout by strong melodies. However, there has also been an abrasiveness to the sound, whether it’s tape hiss, guitar distortion or filthy power chords. “I’ve always loved a good melody, but I’ve always enjoyed a certain amount of anger or attitude or edginess. I don’t really like fully finished, beautifully honed, comfortable songs. I like there to be a bit of roughness somewhere, and sometimes a whole lot of roughness.” For example, the new album’s opening track ‘All I Want…’ really lets rip.

His use of melody has gone so far as to have the iconic United States arts magazine The Village Voice call Knox the tenth Beatle, in a statement that Knox was stoked about. The Beatles “loom large in my life but they were an extraordinary band to grow up with. Just the fact that the smallest thing they did would be on the front page of a newspaper worldwide would never be repeated. They’d grow moustaches and be on the front page.”

His iconic status overseas is constantly reiterated by some of the key independent musicians of the last thirty years, but Knox modestly downplays his overseas success. He doesn’t agree he’s sold more overseas either. “It hasn’t. Not in terms of comparative populations. It’s sold more in the States than I would sell here, but to a larger population base. So really I’m more successful here than anywhere. But having said that, if I went and played in Paris, I’d probably get more people than if I played in Auckland. In fact a lot more.” However, he’s entirely sure why Flying Nun and Tall Dwarfs are so beloved overseas. “I don’t know, I think there’s a certain charm in the New Zealand, the New Zealand gestalt, for wont of a better word, that they see overseas, that we are blind to.”

However, it was all about the timing, and the success of Flying Nun couldn’t have worked now. “I think the field has changed remarkably. We were late pioneers, there were people doing it well before Flying Nun, but there weren’t a lot who did as much. It was a point of difference. But now, it’ll be another bedroom record. The timing was great and never to be repeated I think.” It seems personally, the timing was perfect too. He first made a name for himself with the Enemy over thirty years ago, a Dunedin nihilistic punk group from which Knox still bears scars on his arms. “They were hilarious. They were great fun. There was a wonderful feeling of community, not necessarily a punk community in Dunedin, it was much more wide than that. It was much more structured up here [in Auckland]. It was a great movement to be a part of. You felt like rebels and bad-asses and all that sort of cool shit and musically, that was great to get up and do pretty damn primitive stuff and get away with it.” It was also an outlet for “delayed adolescent angst.” From The Enemy, the band morphed into Toy Love, a much tighter and melodically driven band, but with the rough edges retained. However the band fell apart for a number of reasons – record company shenanigans from the Warners’ owned WEA, sterilising record mixing, and forced touring a crucial part of the dissolution. “I’m quite glad I had the whole big music industry experience really early and realised how much of a crock of shit it was. Getting that behind us was a wonderful thing. The difference between the WEA experience with Toy Love and Flying Nun and Tall Dwarfs was so extreme and so much in favour of the Flying Nun experience.”

Knox continues his DIY background even with this album (which is naturally in mono) by releasing it on his new label “A Major Label”. For a man whose blood would have bled Flying Nun it must have been an unnerving step. “Flying Nun had ceased to be anything I was interested in, it was just another slab of Warners.” To Knox, they’re no longer relevant. “I thought just fuck it, I’ll do me own label and it’s been fine. It means I’ll get a lot more per record sold and it seems to be about the same amount I sold as pre-Flying Nun. It’s really great owning your own CDs. I keep asking permission to get a few for friends, but I realised I don’t have to ask permission. And I always wanted to call a label ‘a major’”. I ask if it’s tiring being relentlessly DIY and Knox says “I’m lazy, so I get tired really easy. No, not really, I enjoy it. I’m an only child, so I’m a control freak and like having my hands in every part of it. When I get my ass into gear to do all this shit, I really enjoy it, so it’s [not] like work at all.”