Grammatics, With That Knife - Tips of 09 catch up- part One

Simon Jay Catling 19/11/2009

Earlier this year we tipped a host of new and emerging acts for 2009.Now with the calender year drawing to a close, we check back in with a few of them to see how 2009 has treated them, and to check on their progress. First up Simon Jay Catling talks to two acts he highlighted at the start of this year Grammatics and With That Knife.

Progress Report- Grammatics

What we said: “In a time when groups are coming to the fore by treading tried and trusted patterns it's refreshing to see a band who could bulldoze the mainstream whilst trying to push their boundaries at the same time.”

What's happened: Grammatics progress hasn't been straightforward; not that you'd expect anything less from a band whose self-titled debut album portrayed an ever shifting pop sound of contrasting variables. Support slots with Bloc Party and a debut album have been offset by personnel changes and personal issues. Yet, as 2009 draws to a close, the Leeds-based group have come out the other side with critical acclaim still ringing in their ears and with an eye on recording album number two. We caught up with ever-honest front man Owen Brinley for his take on the group's past year.

GIITTV: At the beginning of the year what goals had you set yourselves? Do you think you've managed to achieve them?

OB: “I'm not sure that we had any 'set' goals, especially as the line-up we started the year with had such disparate musical aspirations. That's not a bad thing, it's just we never spoke and said 'right, in 2009 we have to be nominated for insert award and play at insert event. I suppose, though, that there was like-mindedness about certain aspects: a desire to tour ourselves mad this year, and take the album to as many people as possible. I definitely think we achieved that."

GIITTV: The album came out in March; looking back now, how do you feel about it both personally, and in how it was received by critics/public? Was there anything you'd have done differently on it?

OB: “There's nothing I would change about the finished record, but it's not something I have any desire to make again. I really had a point to prove, to myself more than anyone else; and I don't know if I'll enter into that mania again. I look back at it as a maddening, overly emotional, totally over the top record; that's where I was at that time. I do, however, love it for what it is; and I'm satisfied that it seems to mean a lot to certain people.

Relating back to the first question, I think one subconscious goal we may have had was to get a kind of public and critical verification of how we felt about the album. We weren't sitting at our computers waiting for reviews, but as they started to drift in I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a satisfaction. I think we probably needed to know that we hadn't gone completely mad after throwing ourselves into something so passionately.”

GIITTV: Touring-wise, you spent the Autumn touring with Bloc Party; how's the transition to the larger gigs been?

OB: “Unexpectedly smooth if I'm honest; our sound seems suited to larger, more open spaces. One thing we've learned from doing these gigs is that energy is as key as accuracy, especially in the larger setting where you're playing to another band's fans. In the past we may have had a tendency to let the music do the talking, and been rather static at some shows. You can't do that in front of 5000 fans of another band; there needs to be a visual foil, as they can't see the whites of your eyes like they can at a smaller venue.”

GIITTV: At the risk of trying to pigeonhole a scene, it seems that lots of acts from Yorkshire have fulfilled their potential this year; yourselves, Wild Beasts, Blue Roses, Slow Club...is it a coincidence that all these bands are coming through together?

OB: “I think there's definitely willingness between bands to help each other out. To lend equipment, help out with vans and driving, appear on each other's recordings, to hang out and do shows together whenever possible. It also helps that nearly all the bands and a lot of their activity in Leeds takes place within the LS6 postcode. It sounds cheesy, but that area is a kind of hub and community for bands; it has pretty much everything they need to operate.”

GIITTV: What've been some of your musical highs and lows from the year?

OB: “It's been a year of knocks and comebacks. A highlight has often followed a lowlight and vice-versa. I'd be lying if I said it hasn't been a struggle, but we've never let our chins drop, and more than honoured as many commitments as possible, sometimes in the face of great adversity. Bloctober was an obvious highlight. It was wonderful that we got on so well with them; and an honour to be asked as sole support for the whole tour. Likewise, the tour we did with Rolo Tomassi and Pulled Apart By Horses was a beautiful time. Collaborating with Blue Roses was definitely a highlight; Laura's album could well be my favourite of the year, and seeing the video for 'Doubtful Comforts' for the first time on Kanye West's blog was a surreal but amazing thing.

I've seen some great shows this year too: Cursive at The Brudenell Social club, Why? in Berlin, Bat For Lashes and Grizzly Bear at Leeds Met. I got to see Radiohead twice as well, due to our billing at Leeds / Reading.”

GIITTV: What do you think you've learnt from the past year?

OB: “I've learned that determination and passion for what you are doing conquer all. If you're uncomfortable in a situation that means everything, but isn't currently working, then you just have to hold in there and keep driving toward it making sense. In the last year we've lost two members and gained two members. The simplest explanation I can give for that is that it was a symptom of the band dynamic not being quite right. If I'm honest it never was, and we all knew it but struggled on despite that. You can only do that for a certain amount of time, though, without it actually damaging you as a person; Dom and Emilia saw an opportunity to remove themselves from that situation, and I respect them for that as it helped all four of us.

[New members] James and Lins joining Grammatics is a new lease of life for the band; we can continue and find the like-mindedness that has been so elusive. Their dedication in learning the set, whilst writing new material and throwing themselves in at the deep in live situations has been inspiring in itself.”

GIITTV: Finally, what are you hoping for and what can we expect from Grammatics in 2010?

OB: “We finish touring the first album just before Christmas, so after that we'll need a little break. We'll be writing new material for the first part of 2009 and demo-ing songs after that. We hope to keep the live side ticking over whilst writing, but there will be a lot less shows than there have been recently. The December tour is kind of a last chance for our fans to see us touring the first album before we go away and emerge as a new band with new material in 2010. People can definitely expect something different from our debut, as we've never been ones to rest on our laurels; we get bored of themes and formulas very quickly. I think that in itself is the essence of what Grammatics is.”

With That Knife- Progress Report

What We Said: “A cliché maybe, but With That Knife truly seem a group that are 'in it for the music', and their output seems something that they truly believe in; the next twelve months promises to be an interesting time for the five piece.”

What's happened: It would be fair to say that things haven't gone quite as well as hoped for With That Knife. It's been no fault of their own, but changes in personnel as well as the mundane realities of balancing jobs and music have made it a challenging one for the restless prog-punk five-piece. That's not to say it's all been doom and gloom though. Owen, Ed and Wes from the band shared a drink (and a dubiously cooked burger) with GIITTV, and spoke about the trials and tribulations of their 2009.

“I've got a question for you actually”, says Wes, floppy-fringed synth player of oddball rockers With That Knife; “do you think this burger's properly cooked?” It doesn't look it at all to be honest; a worrying shade of pink spreads out from its centre; but then the loss of a band member to food poisoning probably wouldn't surprise the other two sat with me this afternoon. They've already had to replace a bass player at the start of this year, and the ensuing months have seen more than a fair share of testing times.

This was supposed to be a fairly straightforward interview; a breezy run through With That Knife's highs and lows of 2009 over a drink and food in a trendy pub. It doesn't quite work out that way though. For one thing there's a hasty change of meeting point, whilst my dictaphone's buggered meaning things become somewhat more informal; none of us are convinced that my wheezing Nokia phone is picking up anything at all. Thirdly, though, the trio are interesting enough to talk to for conversation to constantly drift off topic. They seem unsure as to their placing amongst the fabric of Manchester's current music scene; occasionally miffed at their apparent detachment from the hubbub surround them, but at the same time proud to be gigging in and around their adopted home. Owen, who shares lead vocals with Ed, puts it well when saying “we get all the advantages of being in Manchester, [the venues, the tradition] without being labelled a 'Manchester band.'” The bespectacled singer/guitarist travels up from Reading at weekends to play with the band; the rest of his time's spent down south dealing with the day job. And with bassist Rich leaving at the end of February, I put it to them that they seem like a band in a constant state of flux. “It's been hard, people leaving” grimaces Owen; Ed agrees: “it feels like every time we seem fully formed and ready to step up to another level, someone leaves [Rich's predecessor left the band in 2008 as well]…I guess it does make our music schizophrenic.”

Schizophrenic's certainly a good word for it. At one point this afternoon, as Owen admonishes Bibio's Ambivalence Avenue for wandering too much, Wes butts in “says you with your songs written in eight parts”; With That Knife's music does seem to resemble a fusion of frantically colliding atoms, occasionally meeting long enough to form a thread between their jerky math-rock-cum-punk movements. Yet even splitting them between these two genres doesn't really do the band's sound justice; and, in their words, they “often seem to stick out from other local bands like a sore thumb.” In a city that, on the surface has always relied on its music to bring unity to the city- Factory records, acid house, Oasis- does the group's somewhat off-kilter music ever make them feel like outsiders in their adopted home? “For me, personally, I think it does a bit” pipes up Owen, “I like being a Manchester band, because there's been some great stuff from the city in the past, but we're not part of that linearity of Manchester guitar-based music that others seem to be,” Ed agrees, “no one seems quite what to do with us; we get put on bills with anything from post-rock, experimental, metal..”

“But then,” jumps in Wes, to complete a startlingly rapid-fire and contradictory triple-pronged answer, “that's also how we get a lot of gigs; people putting on a specific night notice that we've got some of that genre in us to be able to play on the bill.”

This suggests that With That Knife are one the city's drifters, and with that comes a danger of falling through the cracks. This year that seemed possible, until a recent surge of interest led to a slot at October's industry sign-'em-up, In The City; something that seemed to come as a pleasant surprise for a band used to peering at such events from the outside in. “It was nice to be involved”, says Owen, eyes sparking up, “especially with it being something like that, in our own home; in the past we might've been ignored,” and how about the gig itself? “it was special in that Kong [who featured on the same showcase as them] were the first band we've played with who we'd bought records by, but apart from that it felt like a normal gig” reflects Ed. Looking at the music industry in its current state, as a young band, is it something they'd want to be part of? “I think for the moment we're better off on our own,” comes an initially firm reply, before a slight backtrack, “unless someone offered us something that was significantly better than what we could do on our own.” It's becoming a common feature, these ever shifting answers, as though they aren't quite sure what to think of themselves as band; but then that's what makes their music so exciting: “five distinct personalities wrestling to be heard” claimed local rag Manchester Evening News. This much is evident even when discussing their favourite albums of the year- answers range from Dananaykroyd and the Dirty Projectors, to the aforementioned Bibio, and Chris Clark; it's beginning to feel like we've not tied-up anything this afternoon. And there are still our feelings on Manchester to sort out.

“There's lots going on in Manchester, lots of good bands”, comments Owen, before allowing Wes to take over, “I think a lot of the audience, though, they still come to gigs with this idea of what the music around here should be like.” So, the audience is playing catch up to the new forward thinking acts that are starting to come out of the city; Wes reminds me that Delphic were on Jools Holland the other week and expresses hope that others will follow through and change the dated outside stereotype of lad rock, Hacienda Manchester. With a now familiar sudden change of gear Ed changes tact; “You hear talk in the press of Manchester rising again, and it puts quite a lot of pressure on those acts who are part of it” he muses.

If things sound all grim and serious with With That Knife, they're not really; the band's name came from the MTV animation Space Ghost, whilst other off record conversations this afternoon range from Asterix & Obelix books to wanting lunchboxes with their faces on (“in fact” starts Wes, “I'd want a pair of pants, with a lunchbox on them, with a picture of my face on.”) Being in the group evidently still provides the three of them with joy, and there have been numerous highlights this year; press from Drowned In Sound and High Voltage amongst others, as well as a support slot with South African math-rockers Blk Jks- who labelled their opening act “supermagic”. “It was great to play with a band that were actually interested in their, as opposed to just turning up for their own set” says Ed, enthusiastically, “and they were the second band we've played with this year who we've bought records by, so that was special.” With talk finally turning to 2010, the group seem bullish “we're definitely releasing an EP at the beginning of the year, and we want to play festivals” comes the mission statement, “and we want to play London”. Indeed, I'm half tempted to tip With That Knife all over again for next year; a group who in person and through their music are both confusing and clear, disparate yet together. But then you wouldn't want them any other way.