David Knight is a former member of the disbanded Day One Symphony, a Bay Area group that enjoyed a fair amount of success before a car crash that led to their break-up. Knight has emerged from the experience as a brilliant solo artist with the presence of a band. He pushes creative boundaries, conceptually and technically, and produces electrifying music for the soul. He brings uncommon (and common) instruments and pedals pedals pedals to the stage. Think electro-acoustic meets whimsical (+ satisfying lyrics) resulting in a fizzy bottle of all our most potent emotions. His music is truly unique, from vocals to layering qualities.
Surprisingly, Knight’s overseas contacts have led to a large audience in Malaysia (he was even covered in the Oct/Nov 2009 issue of M2 Malaysia!), where he records and tours from time to time, while he remains under-underground in the US. This local artist is a Malaysian sensation! He’s heading back to Malaysia soon to work on a new sound (with an electric guitar!) in an album titled Sycophant.
I wanted to talk to you about Mandala. Did you record that in Malaysia?
I wrote some of the songs in Malaysia. A few of them were written before I went. Certainly the concept of it was inspired by the trip to Malaysia.
What year was that?
2008. My band broke up around Spring 2008, for good. Luckily, I had already gone back to writing a lot. I figured I needed to augment what I was doing with acoustic guitar, because my interests are in digital audio, and I have a background in it. So I started adding the sampler and the loop station, and picking up other instruments. I took that concept to Malaysia. I went to this really amazing festival, the World Music Festival in Borneo. That got me out of the idea of looking at music from a pop perspective, which is kind of inevitable if you live in the States. You’re just so constantly barraged by it that it’s really hard to look outside. But when you’re in Borneo, in the rainforest, listening to a bunch of artists, who are never going to be Top 20 Artists, but who are all really amazing, you realize there’s a lot more out there. So I came back home with that experience.
Do you have a particular process for writing?
For me it really kind of happens the same way every time. I have a melodic idea and I have chords, so it’s usually voice and guitar and then the lyrics sort of come out in this gibberish language.
When you’re talking about singing in gibberish, what kind of sounds are we talking about?
God, how would I go… it’s mainly the vowel sounds, and those are really important to me, so I will listen and go, okay well this word definitely needs to have an “ooo” or an “oh” sound because an “eee” sound would sound stupid here, then later I try to find out which word I meant.
Is there a theme for this next album?
I don’t want to pigeonhole myself but it’s a bit of a commentary on social media, on pop culture. I’m hopefully contrasting the things I think are meaningful versus the things I think aren’t meaningful about our culture. I found that I have a lot of anger toward how hard work is not widely rewarded and how superficiality is highly rewarded, so rather than bitch and complain about it, I figured I should just put it into music, and that’s the feeling I’m riding on.
Do you feel like your Malaysian audience understands or receives your music the same way your American audience does?
No, the Malaysian audience is not only attracted to the fact that I’m American, but also to the fact that I don’t sound like an American singer-songwriter. It’s a culture that’s very used to emulating what’s going on in the world, pop culture-wise, so they really embrace the uniqueness of what I’m doing. The looping, the sampling, the sort of reinvention of what a singer-songwriter is supposed to do on stage, they really dig that.
Have any of your other travels influenced you as much as Malaysia has?
I think musically nothing’s shaped me as much as Malaysia has.
Why do you think?
Well, I think because the modern musician has to be a lot more resourceful. You can’t wait for a record contract anymore. I had an opportunity to play in Malaysia and I took it. It turned into something that gave me a lot of hope and confidence in my music. You can really suffocate in a day and age where there’s YouTube and everyone is self-expressing, which I have no problem with, it’s great, it’s just a bigger pool and harder to be seen, and so in Malaysia I feel like I stand out. Maybe that’s a very selfish reason to be going back but I certainly don’t feel the same attention being lavished on me here, and it’s important to stand out.
How do you feel about pop music in Europe?
I actually don’t follow pop music in Europe too much. I really am quite oblivious to what’s on UK charts right now. I bumped into some Irish tourists in Laos, they were listening to a lot of dance music. I don’t know, I have no issue with dance music; what I do have an issue with is feeling like people don’t have a lot to say. As a listener, I connect to a musician who is telling me a story that is enlightening me in some way or helping me to feel something that they’re feeling, and a lot of music I listen to… I don’t feel much of anything about. That’s not very articulate (laughs). Dance music is tough, it’s meant to put people on the dance floor. If you’re on the dance floor you’re probably having a good time, but what happens when you go home at night, what happens when you wake up the next morning, what do you listen to then? In some ways I feel like the pop world is limiting the scope of emotions that are covered in the discourse that is music. You really have to go indie, you have to go super indie to find those subtleties in music, things that are going to speak to your soul.
This might be really random, but do you have a favorite emotion?
Hmm can I… I’m going to think about that, favorite emotion…
What about sadness?
That’s a good point, I wouldn’t say sadness is my favorite emotion but it certainly predominates me emotionally a lot of times. Some early criticism of my music is “ oh, it’s so sad,” “it’s depressing.” And I wonder what’s happening to the world when there’s no room for sadness. I mean clearly it’s a vital part of the emotional spectrum. You can’t have happiness unless you experience sadness, you can’t have optimism without pessimism, and so I don’t understand when someone can look at what I’m doing and take that one element of melancholy of the other emotions, such as hope and reassurance and the upside, and fixate on that, and they can’t handle minor chords.…Okay my favorite emotion- humor- that’s my favorite emotion.
How do you think that fits into your music? Or does it?
Well there’s a lot of tongue and cheek in my lyrics, a lot of play on words. That’s me injecting my humor and I have very dry humor so you really have to look for it but that’s my humor. It’s maybe a little sardonic, maybe a little sarcastic but that’s my light note in my music.
One more question—what’s your favorite sound?
I’m not going to be so cliché as to say silence… you know I think probably my favorite sound is rain.
Interview & photos by Vanessa Ta