Worshipped internationally, inconspicuous locally, Campbell Kneale, formally Birchville Cat Motel, talks new work with BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM.

*   *   *

CAMPBELL KNEALE is one of New Zealand’s most criminally underrated musicians. He’s operated for the better part of a decade under the moniker Birchville Cat Motel, but has decided to led the BCM persona retire. However, this doesn’t mean he’ll stop making and self-releasing his haunting and beautiful music. His collaborative project, Black Boned Angel has released another album in New Zealand (The Endless Coming Into Life), while his new solo project, Our Love Will Destroy the World, named after a BCM album, continues his uncompromising and stunning output – the man doesn’t know how to put out a bad release.

Noise music is a problematic and reductive label, and is a term commonly thrown at Kneale’s various incarnations. For some listeners, the music would be difficult to listen to, but there’s real beauty in the dissonant and sensuous way which Kneale explores textures and layers. Kneale says “it’s funny, I guess I feel like ‘noise’ chose me rather than the other way around. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve specific sounds that connect me to specific places. I distinctly and vividly remember ABBA and KISS on our brand new colour television at an age where I would not have been able to even spell either of those bands names. Bashing pots and pans along to The Wombles LP. My tiny orange transistor radio held a status similar to that of a teddy bear. AAAh.”

Kneale says however, he chose to work in such a commercially uncompromising direction as “the discovery of rock music was obviously deeply religious, and religious experience has always been an idea that is very close to my heart when talking about music. I felt the buzz greatest with music that was extreme and inimitable and I guess I’ve been on a steady trajectory into deeper and deeper levels of extremity since I was a teenager. I ended up here. Creating beautiful Wagnerian chasms of unearthed fuzz flying free in order to encounter some sense of ‘the divine’. I slowly learnt to let go of the reins with music and allow all that amplified energy to slip free and make itself into things in a fashion more in common with the likes of John Coltrane than anything from the rock world. The idea of making music that was more about pure energy, mass, and velocity rather than melody, harmony, and rhythm seemed like a welcome antidote to the boredom I felt with music by the time I had reached my early twenties... probably as a natural conclusion of running out of extremities to plunder for pleasure.”

Anyone who has had the privilege of seeing Kneale perform live, or aware of his output, would attest to the physicality of his music. Much like the effect of avant-garde cinema, the music is a sensory overload – you don’t simply listen to the music, it’s something you feel. For Kneale, the sensory overload is part of the “religious experience”. “I don’t consider myself a particularly talented instrumentalist with regards to traditional technique, but I am deeply musical with ideas and strategies for outworking them. I couldn’t really play guitar ‘properly’ (with all the twiddly solos and shite) when I formed my first band as a teenager, so I had to devise ways of playing that managed to skirt around my technical shortcomings in order to produce a music that was better than my ‘very average’ level of skill. Much much later, the music I made with Birchville Cat Motel and now with Our Love Will Destroy The World shouldn’t have even worked and there was a lot of joy in the discovery that, for reasons I couldn’t really grasp, it did work. Not only did it work but within these little hurricanes of sound there was a musical language that seemed as clear to me as any other form of conventional music.” Kneale’s m.o. is simply described as “layering. The combinations of tones and frequencies have strange ways of producing new tones and frequencies that don’t seem to have any real resemblance to the original performances. Certainly at the moment of recording I very rarely know where a piece of music is going to go. I work with what I have and trust in my vision of what I want the music to be. Fortunately, there seem to be almost infinite ways of getting to a similar point of musical catharsis. I’m not limited by chords and lyrics and beats like most bands. In spite of the cliché that my music is all a bit the same, it’s actually quite extraordinary how different it can be.”

Kneale’s live performances, when confronted by good speakers, is where his music seems even more ‘real’. “In the context of live performance, I am all for the creation of a suspended world between reality and fantasy. I’ve often commented to rather surprised writers that performing live for me is one of the quietest, and calmest places I know in spite of the terrific volume all around me. That unending crescendo combined with the naturally intensified awareness of your own body that happens when you perform in front of people seems to result in a gradual slowing of reality to the point of near collapse. It’s a feeling that has parallels with religious, sexual, or drug experiences. I’m almost catatonic by the end of my own shows. Utterly lost. Naturally, I cant even hope that an audience will ‘get’ this en masse as people’s experiences with music are so unique, but I’m always delighted to hear when people comment that they kinda ‘woke up’ half way through and realised they had been completely away with the fairies for most of the show. That’s a good thing.”

“I guess I feel like ‘noise’ chose me rather than the other way around. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve specific sounds that connect me to specific places. I distinctly and vividly remember ABBA and KISS on our brand new colour television at an age where I would not have been able to even spell either of those bands names. Bashing pots and pans along to The Wombles LP. My tiny orange transistor radio held a status similar to that of a teddy bear.”


Kneale has legions of fans overseas, yet is free to wander around the Hutt Valley without any recognition. Given New Zealand’s history of great, marginalised, visceral music (e.g. Xpressway, Alistair Galbraith etc.), it’s impressive to see the drive and sheer output of Kneale’s self-released work. I ask if this marginalisation gets frustrating. “I don’t feel like New Zealand owes me a living. I choose to play music that basically nobody likes and the natural result of that choice is that there is going to be very little in the way of tangible support. But really, let’s remember we live in a country that needs a special month to celebrate its own music. I’m afraid it’s all uphill and you’ve got to be a special kind of person to sustain that kind of practice for more than the briefest of stints. I don’t really care about attaining any kind of profile here in New Zealand, I’m quite happy to be left alone. All my records go overseas, that’s where my efforts go. [It] makes sense. For me, it’s very simple. If you want to make a record, make one. Record it, master it, press it, package it, and then sell it to people. No one’s going to help you. No ones going to do it for you. Do it yourself. If you want the whole world to love you and support you either get ready for major disappointment, or emigrate to Norway.” Kneale says “it’s easy to make music. It just falls out of you as long as you have love in your heart and a steady stream of 9-volt batteries. It’s all that ‘recognition for your hard work’ malarkey that makes your anxiety levels spike. With Our Love Will Destroy The World, I’m really making an effort to ditch as many of those kinds of distractions as possible as the frustrations of entering into that kind of mentality after ten years are starting to outweigh the joys. I want to make beautiful music. I’m tired of almost everything else.”

However, Kneale did feel like the era of Birchville Cat Motel had done its time. “There were many reasons to finish writing the Birchville chapter but the most compelling for me by far was the sense that the chapter had come to its natural conclusion. Over the last couple of years I had made the albums I always wanted to make with Birchville Cat Motel. They really worked. I was really proud of them, and they had the added bonus of being critically acclaimed by others as my best work. The dilemma was whether to continue to provide my audience with what they had come to expect from me or to be brave and move on in order to keep the music vital. It’s my opinion that bravery always wins out in the end. It makes the story more interesting in the long run. So with a good deal of healthy trepidation I finished the chapter and began a new one. Same ‘book’, different ‘chapter’. Once I had decided that the current chapter was to be written out instead of dragging on and getting progressively more boring I was hit with a sense of total, reckless, delight. I couldn’t wait for Birchville to end. I felt great about it.”

Kneale elaborates on the ending of BCM, and the tiredness from doing everything himself proved a challenge to overcome. “The other reason for ending Birchville was that I was very keen to re-establish a few lines in the sand for me personally. The work I had to undertake to get people to take notice of my music internationally was completely unreasonable. Not only was I a very prolific artist and producer, but also manager, tour manager, promoter, accountant, archivist, label guy, distributor - usually for little reward other than the sheer joy of rock‘n’roll. By the end it was quite seriously starting to ruin my life and it became very clear to me that enough was enough. As an artist I needed to make new music, as a label I needed to work less, and a touring musician I needed to insist on getting the right conditions and financial recompense to enable me to perform as well as I could. I had to learn to say no. I had to learn a whole lot of things. I needed balance and to get everything centred again. This seemed to be a lot more achievable by starting afresh rather than redrawing my existing boundary lines with Birchville.”

However, Kneale is keen to make sure the link between Our Love Will Destroy The World and Birchville Cat Motel is evident. “I was not renouncing anything I had done in the past, merely moving forward in a common sense kinda way as I always had. The music I make under Our Love Will Destroy The World is still just ‘Campbell music’. It is what it is. It is the logical next step for Birchville Cat Motel and signals an enlargement of my artistic practice rather than a dismissive ‘starting again’. This is the music I hear in my head and I can’t change that any more than I could change my native language.” However, there has been a subtle shift in how Kneale conceives of music under his new project. “Lately I’ve been feeling a growing frustration towards the ‘narrative’ structures I’ve employed in the past. I guess I’ve always tried to make music that ‘goes somewhere’ and I’m beginning to feel like this is getting a bit limiting. I seem to be making music that ‘goes nowhere’ now. It has no real sense of progression through time. The listener is even more lost in the endless clouds of noise and there is nowhere else to go but deeper. In a nutshell I’m thinking more about composing music into the timeline three dimensionally, rather than along it.”

Kneale’s also recently released an album The Endless Coming Into Life with Black Boned Angel – a band which Kneale calls “a completely different bucket of blood altogether.” “It seemed important to me that if we wanted to stay above the mire of post-Sunn O))) doom metal hordes we had to make albums that used those same reference points with less reverence and far less one-dimensionally. Black Boned Angel is aiming at exactly the same thing as Our Love Will Destroy The World – total sensory and spiritual overload -– it just uses a very different language to give the idea form. Whereas the first album was pure Swans-inspired murk and filth, and the second album completely assured, ecstatic/boring, mono-riffage and immobile shriek, we felt the third album should depart again from its immediate predecessor. I always wanted to make a metal album that was still incredibly heavy without relying on the ‘Wall-o-Marshalls’ approach. Corrupted do this so so well, as do a number of the hermetic forest-dwelling, black metal weirdos. The Endless Coming Into Life as an album was all about creating a frightening emptiness.” Collaboration however plays a crucial role in Black Boned Angel. “In spite of the fact that I hold the title of ‘Exalted Author of Megariffs’ in Black Boned Angel those pieces of music take on a life of their own once passed onto James Kirk, the ‘Conduit of Hallowed Bass Carnage’ and it would be fair to say that Black Boned Angel would be nothing without him. He adds so much personality to the live incarnation that makes the whole experience so much more genuine for me and the audience alike. He’s one of the most musical people I know in a way that straddles unconventionality and proficiency alike.”

Kneale’s considerable output is challenging, brash, fragile, evocative, haunting, breath-taking – a plethora of contradictory and celebratory adjectives. But his status as a great musician is undeniable. I ask if it gets lonely or depressing finding beauty in things society in general doesn’t consider pretty enough to consider. “No. It’s a gift. And it makes clothes shopping cheaper. I couldn’t think of anything more depressing and lonely than sitting in the middle of the road with everybody else.”