No Knife: Culture Work

July 16th, 2002 | Category: Essays, Interviews

In her recent book Utopian Entrepreneur, Brenda Laurel describes a dialectic between the high art of the academy and the lowly wares of pop culture, writing, “Philosophical, political, and spiritual matters are seen to be central to the discourses of the arts and humanities, not the material of popular culture. Too many artists circumscribe their audiences by restricting themselves to a kind of peer-to-peer philosophical dialogue, conducted exclusively in the academy and the gallery.” Blurring the lines, she bucks the term “artist” and instead calls it “culture work,” adding, “It’s discourse may be productive of desire and pleasure, but popular culture is also a language in which people discuss politics, religion, ethics, and action.”

No KnifeDesire, pleasure, action… These are all things that stir in the gut and head while listening to No Knife. And “culture work” seems an appropriate title for what they’ve been doing for the last decade or so. As far as the trials of a rock band, Ryan Ferguson (vocals, guitars), Mitch Wilson (vocals, guitars), Brian Desjean (bass), and Chris Prescott (drums) have all been there and back. Starting on the indie label Goldenrod, then spending several years on major-player Time Bomb, they’ve settled on indie Better Looking Records for their latest release, Riot for Romance. Looser and more open-sounding than their last full-length (the sprawling and majestic Fire in the City of Automatons), Riot for Romance came together when the boys were, well, basically broken up. Australian producer/friend Greg Wales coaxed them back together for an all-out, seat-of-the-pants studio jam session.

“We were on hiatus and deciding whether or not to continue just because of all this extraneous stuff like taxes and shit like that, that had been building up for years and years.” Mitch explains. “We got to the point where we weren’t even practicing or anything like that for several months, and Greg called from Australia and said, ‘I’m gonna be in San Diego over Christmas vacation. I’m gonna have six days, let’s do a record.’ We were like, ‘Well, we kinda broke up.’ and he said. ‘I don’t care! If you guys are broken up, that’s even better because it will be just for the sheer joy of making music together.’ So we got together and started practicing, and we realized that we’d been writing together for so long that it was so natural.”

“All the songs on the record,” Ryan chimes in, “are a mixture of pulling parts of songs from five years ago or just ideas for songs from back then, to recently, to right now, and to literally while the ‘record’ button was on.”

“There’s a lot of spontaneity on this record…” Mitch adds. “We didn’t have a lot of time to over do it. It was in the spirit of Rock — how it should be!”

Bands with long histories typically take longer and longer to do records. Because of money, time, expectations and egos, they usually end up taking themselves too seriously, and their records suffer as a result. With Riot for Romance, No Knife found themselves in the studio with a situation that they liken to the recording of their first record. A “return to form” Mitch calls it.

Outside of the band, all of the members of No Knife are all back in school. And while “fall semester” and “fall tour” don’t necessarily mesh together very well, they feel that life on the road has been an education unto itself.

“All of my friends after high school went to college for four years,” Ryan explains, “I played in a band with these guys and we toured… I don’t have a degree to show for it, but being able to get around by yourself in various countries is an education in and of itself.” Culture work as academy, to blur Brenda Laurel’s dialectic even further, is what bands like No Knife make for themselves. They epitomize what she calls “utopian entrepreneurs”: people who create culture and attempt to make a living doing it.

“If humanist action in a commercial context is ever seen as the risk it truly is,” Laurel writes, “utopian entrepreneurs may be better compensated economically as well. But in the meantime, there may be no reward as sweet as… mail from people who truly love what you’ve made for them.”

“The coolest thing, honestly,” Ryan concludes in a serious tone, “is checking our email and there will be messages from Switzerland, Korea, the Philippines, South Africa, and all around the states… We have this cool following of people that love our band, and that’s honestly why we wanted to do it again and put out another record.”

[San Diego CityBeat, 2002]
[Photo by Candace.]

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