An Evening with Bent Knee

PHOTO: The Prog Report

by Quentin Singer

Bent Knee is pushing the boundaries of what it takes to be an original rock band. I only digested a handful the band’s tracks before their show at the last Thursday at The Sinclair, and little did I know I was in for quite the rock spectacle. If you don’t already know, Bent Knee met at Berklee College of Music and were picked up as a Heavy Rotation Records band (BPMI) back in 2013. Since then, the band has toured all over the world, released three studio albums, and more recently created Paper Earth: 30 minutes of breathtaking original music that the band created alongside Boston Conservatory percussionists. While the band’s recent US tour is entitled “The Paper Earth Tour,” they’re not playing anything from that project (given it requires nine other percussionists), but encouraging audiences to check it out nonetheless. Throughout their 37 date US tour, the band has played songs from all of their records, including a handful of new songs set from their forthcoming album.

Before their performance in Cambridge, we sat down with the band and were able to get a little more insight into how Paper Earth all started.

Berklee Groove: So, regarding your project Paper Earth, what inspired the collaboration behind the project both lyrically and as far as arrangement?

Jessica Kion: Jeff Greenstein reached out to us, and he put on a couple of festivals, and basically told us we could write a piece with an ensemble. So, we thought about what would be the coolest. I mean we thought about [having] a bunch of vocalists. So, we got to work with nine students at the Boston Conservatory and the teacher Sam Solomon. We kind of shaped it with them. We performed it with different students in Switzerland, then the students we made it with in Boston, and then in New York again with a bunch of other people.

Chris Baum: The process of writing this was really interesting. We had never done anything quite like this before. We started writing just with ourselves, and we tried to make as much of this piece work as a standalone thing, because we really didn’t know how else to approach it. So we started at BOCO [Boston Conservatory], who let us use a bunch of their instruments, and we played around on a bunch of stuff, even though none of us are concert percussionists. We tried to emulate as best we could some things. We got the core of the piece, but every month or so we’d start going into workshop ideas with the Boston Conservatory percussion ensemble, and they would come back at us with all these textural ideas, and then we’d go back and work some more and we’d go back and forth like this for a long time. Such a luxury, because normally if you’re writing a piece for a ensemble you get a dress rehearsal and then you just go.

Ben Levin: Which is sad, because you can get top notch players, but you can’t get emotionally connected to the music and have it flow mindlessly with one rehearsal, no matter how good. It’s a tradition that’s only there because of the economics of music, and people’s time costs a lot and it’s hard to rent the space, but it doesn’t result in elevating music at all. It’s really a bummer. We played the first and last show of Paper Earth with really good ensembles, but we only had a day to rehearse with those groups. It was not nearly as good as the ‘Boston Berklee Caf’ one which was with the people we had really rehearsed it with.

Chris: People can’t fully embrace the art behind it until they’ve had a chance to get over the initial hump of “Here’s how you actually play it,” and getting into the “why you should play it.”

BG: Given that you’re all Berklee alumni, was there any particular element at Berklee that contributed to you’re growth musically and/or career wise?

Chris: The biggest thing I got out of Berklee is the band. I mean I loved everything about Berklee and I have few regrets about going there except that I was 18 when I started, and I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing. The biggest aspect is just all the musicians I’ve met and collaborated with and continue to collaborate with professionally. I do a lot of string arranging for other bands and that’s a big aspect of my career outside this band, and 90% of those gigs have come in some way through a connection that I’ve made from going to school, so the network is the biggest thing.

Ben: When you take that many classes in music you learn how to teach as well as how to learn, because you’re just following the example of your teachers. Having so many teachers and so many styles has allowed me to have a teaching career, and Jessica teaches too.

Jessica: I think because each of us were different majors that helps our whole flow a lot too. I studied songwriting and got a ton of ways to get started that directly correlated to our second album Shiny Eyed Babies, I think.

Leaving the Sinclair that night, I wasn’t sure what genre with which to affiliate Bent Knee. Of course, they have a strong rock presence, but they’re so much more than that. Their sound encapsulates an array of styles and textures, making for a very elaborate concert experience, one that’s not just for rock fans, but fans of music in general. To make music that’s entertaining from the character, enthusiasm, and diversity, is every band’s bane, and one that few can overcome, however, Bent Knee is the exception.

Did you catch Bent Knee at the Sinclair? Sound off in the comments!