Name: Daniel Knox
Occupation: Musician / Pianist
Current Release: Chasescene via H.P. Johnson Presents
Recommendations: Please listen to the song “Miracles” by Memphis gospel singer Johnnie Frierson/ Certain doubts of William Kentridge, a documentary about my favorite living artist
Website/Contact: You can find out more about Daniel Knox and buy his music at danielknox.com
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I didn’t start playing music until I was about 22. It had always felt like something out of reach before then, even though I had a pretty good ear and was already sort of playing things back for myself in my head and figuring out how things were arranged.
I listened to a lot of film scores growing up both as part of movies and on CD or cassette so that and movies in general were a primary creative influence. Initially I wanted to be a filmmaker but the collaborative nature of it was an obstacle.
I wouldn’t say I was drawn to music and sound, but more than they were a means to an end for me. As much as I love film, the best part of any film comes before it’s over. In music and song, you can suspend that moment, and re-live it. Songs felt like trailers for movies that certainly existed somewhere but that you’ll never get to see them, so those missing pieces belong uniquely to each listener.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
It’s funny because when I started out I tried very hard never to emulate anyone or even play someone else’s song for fear of unwittingly plagiarizing someone, but of course now when I listen to my early recordings I can hear all the influences I was wearing on my sleeve.
When I started singing I was really surprised that I had a voice at all because I’d grown up really shy and barely ever sang. I was the person who would always try to get away with lip synching happy birthday and hoping no one would notice. When I discovered I had an ability it only had a few settings. It was like an ON/OFF switch and when it was on it was way too loud and drenched with vibrato.
Now I like to sing other people’s songs all the time. I like to find the limitations and strengths of my voice by singing other people’s phrasings and styles, even if it sounds terrible.
I wonder sometimes if I would have been a better musician if I had tried learning by copying and exploring other people’s work. I wonder if it would have made my playing more versatile and well rounded.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I taught myself to play piano and sing. Initially the challenge was to retain my compositions through practice and repetition. I started out just playing these ornate piano flourishes. They were these sort of overcooked 3m wordless songs that served as showcases for every new thing I learned while dicking around at the piano but they gave me something to build on. I wasn’t really sharing my music with anyone at that point so I lacked encouragement but I was also pretty free to learn at my own pace.
I recorded my first proper album on a BOSS BR-8 multitrack recorder that used Zip disks. When I think of it now it seems like trying to record an album on a calculator but I sometimes long for the simplicity of recording like that. Every function had just one thing to interface with and I ended up learning a lot about mixing through trial and error.
I recorded my second record with Pro Tools. After Brett Sparks of The Handsome Family told me that’s what he used I went out and brought a rig and it was immediately too much. The BR-8 was like having a toolbox and this was like having a hardware store. It took me a whole year just to get to a place where I felt confident in what I was tracking but I don’t mix anything of my own to this day. There’s an art to that that I have come to respect and I’m not that kind of artist, although I remain heavily involved in that process.
I recorded my self-titled album and this new one at Electrical Audio which is a proper studio and about as ideal a recording environment as you could ever hope for. It spoiled me in a lot of ways, but also made me want to do something fast and cheap as a kind of response. With all that equipment and all those resources I found myself trying to chase after something perfect. We completely disassembled and rebuilt the piano because it had click sounds I didn’t like. We went great lengths to repair little sounds that only I could hear (but they were there!). We threw things out and started over many times. Then, as now, I would say all of those things were necessary to get the album that I wanted, but it’s taught me to set margins beforehand and to let mistakes inform the process sometimes.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I suppose the previous answer takes care of some of this, but my first recording setups were exclusively in studio apartments and in one case a bedroom and kitchen of a tiny house. But to build on my previous answer, after recording two full length albums in a state of the art studio, I now record in a beautiful environment that Justin Dennis from Kinora in Chicago has been working on with me. A lot of synths, a piano I struggle to keep in tune, lots of terrific outboard analog gear, and Pro Tools 10 which is the best Pro Tools. I love my Roland sound modules. I love the Roland XV and XP synths. I’ve loved Yamaha stage pianos until now and am hoping to save enough to get a Korg SV-1. Justin has a vibraphone I like to play but am not very good at. My favorite instrument however is a whistle I have that looks like a cat trying to play with a bird in a cage, and the bird bounces up and down which makes the whistle fluctuate very fast, only I like to blow into it really really slow when the bird is hardly moving because it sounds like the wind crying.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I am a highly unorganized person who has become organized by means of putting systems in place that institutionalize the real me and keep him on task for the ideal me.
That’s as true administratively as it is musically. Pro Tools allows me to make a mess and then clean it up. My synths allow me to separate sounds into a menu I can order from.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I don’t use a whole lot of plug-ins. I have two I like very much both made by the Polish company PSP. I like their EasyVerb reverb and a compressor they have called OldTimer.
For software instruments, I like Pianoteq and M-Tron Pro. Those are the only two synths/soft-synths I really experiment with though. I’m pretty precious about my gear. I fall in love with things and use them to excess.
I hate the nature of software with its constant updates and compatibility issues. I wish they made computers built to last. I try to treat every piece of equipment like it’s something I will still be using when I’m 100 years old.
My favorite piece of gear is the black ink Bic Medium Point Round Stic ballpoint pen. I keep two in my pocket and one behind my ear at all times. They no longer make them and I have a stock of about 250 at this point.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
There’s only a few people I ever thought I might try and write songs with. I’m interested to see how that would shake out, but I feel such a strong sense of ownership and identity with my ideas that I would feel strange just giving one away to somebody and hearing them finish it like some kind of exquisite corpse. Maybe that speaks badly of my social skills. I don’t know. But I would feel just as strangely taking someone else’s idea and trying to force my own will onto it. I’d much rather offer ideas in service to someone else’s than just try to plant my flag there. Maybe some people don’t see any difference.
I love playing with other musicians. But it’s always been in the dynamic of serving an idea, either them serving mine, or the other way around. I’ve never just improvised. I’ve had a few awkward stabs at it but it always feels like too many people talking at once.
I really enjoy collaborating with non-musicians. I’ve enjoyed writing scores for theater and film. I made a large song-cycle with photographer John Atwood. I would love to work with people more on that level.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My routine depends on what mode I’m in. I tend to have only these modes of operation: WRITING MODE, ADMINISTRATIVE MODE (or TASK MODE), LEISURE MODE, and PANIC MODE. Of course, there’s a little bit of each in every day but one tends to dominate its own sector of the year. Presently, as I prepare for my album’s release I am in ADMIN/TASK MODE.
Between 3 and 5pm I wake up slowly. Take vitamins. Stretch. Lift weights. I check all of the social media bullshit I need to keep in order. I am a night-person and waking up late allows me to answer most of the emails people have sent throughout the day in one sitting. I do this while I have my coffee.
If it is a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, I go to work at the Music Box Theatre where I am a projectionist. If the movie is digital and there are no guests, I will usually try to do some kind of personal work or make phone calls. But often there is a guest or special event that requires my attention. Or we are running something on 35mm or 70mm film which requires my attention and great focus (no pun intended). On the weekends we have midnight features and I will get out of work around 2am. The studio I work from is nearby and I will usually go there to practice and/or write until dawn.
If I am not working I will see a movie, have a meeting, or rehearse with Josh who plays guitar with me and also co-produces many things.
Sometimes there will be tasks I don’t want to do and I will end up chasing them into the early morning hours, staying up sometimes as late as noon the following day. But I’m much happier chasing ideas instead.