What is a survival knife? It depends on who is holding it, explains the Pacific Northwest rock outfit called Survival Knife. Their debut album ‘Loose Power’ came out this spring and blew our minds with an effective combo of posthardcore, prog and 70’s hard rock. Behind the name we find diy-veterans Justin Trosper and Brandt Sandeno from the iconic posthardcore band Unwound. After doing other things for years the two finally teamed up with longtime friends Meg and Kris Cunningham to start Survival Knife. And we are thankful. Lappland were lucky enough to get Justin, Brandt and Meg to answer some questions about survival knifes, losing power in different ways and about being back in the independent music business. (From Lappland Zine # 2)
Let’s start out with something concrete. Your band name. When were you like “Yeah Survival Knives are awesome – let’s use that for a name”? I don’t disagree; it’s a pretty cool name.
Brandt Sandeno: We were toying around with a short list of different band names and this one had the aspect of sounding phonetically and conceptually right and it was also kind of comedic at the same time.
Justin Trosper: It was a question of finding a name that wasn’t already being used and wasn’t completely stupid. So, a process of elimination was pursued. I do like it now conceptually. We live in an era of paranoia and endtimes mentality. Many Americans are worried about their empires crumbling. What are we going to do when the shit hits the fan? Stockpile food and ammunition! The concept of a survival knife is that if someone is placed in a survival situation all they need is this one tool and their knowledge base to get through the situation. Of course only a very well trained individual could survive with just a knife–it is an absurd notion. So maybe Survival Knife is sort of representing the absurdity of our vain attempts at conquering nature and/or trying to reverse or combat entropy. It comes from John J Rambo ya know.
And before you were to name your new band, you’ve been out of the music game for a decade I’v read. What happened after Unwound came to an end?
JT: The short answer is that I retired from music completely for close to 10 years. I climbed some mountains and played with my dog mostly. I might have never returned to being an active musician, but I’m glad I did. Creativity is a deep part of who I am.
In Gold Widow from the Loose Power album you sing “California’s getting old, moving north to find some gold”. You moved back up to Washington State again I’ve read and that got you back into playing music. Is that how it happened?
JT: The commentary of this song is meant to describe an individual’s frustration with their current circumstance. The California reference seems like it might be personal to me since I lived there and moved away, but it’s supposed to be about more generally about an idealized situation that is never realized perpetually. It’s futile–like a walking dead person or ghost. The song is written as a character, not me. A “gold widow” was a woman that was left a widow after losing her husband in the gold rush days of the American West. We still live in the wild west in a way. A lot of the Survival Knife lyrics stem from my interest in the American West and the environment– both geographical and psychological.
Brandt Sandeno was in Unwound too in the early years and on the last tour as far as I know. What about Kris and Meg Cunningham. What’s their story and how did all four of you end up playing together?
BS: I had played with Meg and Kris in a variety of musical projects before Survival Knife began, officially. Many of them centered around a shared love for 70’s rock bands (Blue Oyster Cult, The Groundhogs, King Crimson etc…)
JT: Since Kris doesn’t like doing interviews, I will speak of him here. He has a long career playing drums in bands both in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Most recently he was playing in a band called Western Hymn in Olympia. Brandt and I started writing material in early 2011 and then he had the idea of us playing these songs with Kris and Meg. I had no real ambition to have a band but once we started playing I realized how much I missed it.
Meg Cunningham: I’m a local from Olympia and have been in a couple of local bands pretty briefly before Survival Knife. I still consider myself a newbie in the grand scheme of things. The first time I played a show in my first band IN BED I realized that I found something I loved. Learning how to play, sing, and everything all at once was really exciting. It was good to have a fresh mind, and just wing it.
What does each of you bring to Survival Knife?
BS : Justin and I are both songwriters and guitarists. Justin has a strong sense for structure/strategy/concept where I tend to work more intuitively and reductively (what does and doesn’t belong). We both enjoy collaborative music making/songwriting.
JT: Songwriting is unique to every band or musical project–for this band it all comes together as “arranging”. The song idea comes from an individual usually and then goes through a series of filters and gets arranged into it’s final form. To me a song is not finished until it is mastered. After that you must live with it. For comparison, Unwound was a much more “jam” derived songwriting effort until the later days. We practiced many, many hours! Survival Knife has much more limited time together, so songs come together more slowly and outside of the practice space. Song songs are born out of conversations we have.
I have a couple of questions more specific about the record Loose Power. First of it’s a really impressive album, and the songs really unfold the more I listen to them. It’s both pretty straight forward rock’n’roll but it has also got the energy of hardcore and the curiosity and weirdness of prog rock. How did you end up sounding that way? I don’t know if that is a question you can easily answer…
BS: All of us have pretty broad tastes in music. I think that just comes out more directly at this particular time in our lives than it might have in say our 20’s. I think the perception of Survival Knife being “straight forward” is usually a product to people’s comparison to the noise/art-rock textures of Unwound. We create the kind of music we create because that is what our ears like to hear which emanates from a mixture of life experience, influence and whatever else.
JT: Part of this band is myself and Brandt having a long songwriting history (25 years or so), and that entity meeting Meg and Kris. It’s true that compared to Unwound, Survival Knife sounds more straight forward. Kris is a more straight forward drummer and he drives the rhythm section. In terms of myself and Brandt, this is the first band that we have had the opportunity to both play guitar and much of the inspiration comes from being able to interact with two guitars.
How has the process been writing and recording Loose Power? Even though you’re veterans in many ways I guess it’s always a new situation and a different experience with a new band and a new constellation of people around it.
BS: We put a lot of time, effort and money into the making of Loose Power, but it was very much worth it. We decided early on that we weren’t going to cut corners on this records and I think we stuck to that. I trust all the members of Survival Knife musically and personally, so I didn’t have any reservations or apprehension. It came off really well and we are all really happy with the finished product.
JT: Loose Power, from a recording process perspective, is unique for us. It is the first all computer/digital record I have done. We recorded and mixed most of it on analog equipment to a computer in four different studios. We approached it how we know it–“old school” but embracing current technology. So we designed it be in a vinyl format–sequencing and length, etc. I’ve grown to like digital recording, I don’t really see the utility in being an analog tape purist.
A theme in the lyrics for Loose Power seems to be alienation – losing power as an individual in a complex world. That’s the way I’ve understood it anyway. Is there a message on Loose Power?
JT: I appreciate the basic idea you propose of an individual losing power. Alienation is the norm though. We are alienated from other humans, nature and our own bodies. Is the world complex? It seems like that is a given. The political norm is justifying the reality between the individual and the state. If there is a message, other than acknowledging the dialogue we should or could be having everyday within media and our normal social circles, Loose Power is about watching democracy fail and trying to hold onto compassion for others. Harness the energy within your reach and use it to do the least amount of harm.
Is Survival Knife also a tool useful for reclaiming the power?
BS: It can be. A knife can either be a helpful tool or a weapon used to inflict pain/suffering. It all depends on who’s holding it.
JT: Although Survival Knife is “tongue and cheek” as a title, conceptually getting into the words of “survival” and “knife”–they are great words to play with. As I said earlier, a survival knife is not just a knife, it is a tool that your life depends on and this is not a realistic idea for survival. Self sufficiency is a good thing to know, but we need other people to survive.
If we just take a step back. Having been in such an influential band as Unwound, paving the way for a lot of great bands, been away from it all for a decade and now returning to where it all started again. How does it feel to be back?
JT: I love making records. The camaraderie of bands and touring can be fun too. Everything else about being in a band I can take or leave. It is interesting to see how it is unfolding now. I’m older and the world is different, but the essential elements that I enjoy remain the same. Music will always be fascinating and beautiful.
Compared to the 90’s before internet and GPS, how is it touring today? Is it as thrilling, is it easier?
BS: Touring is generally easier now than it was in the 90’s. Things are a lot more organized, which I really appreciate. You have to set things up a lot more in advance, but it seems worth it because things tend to go way more smoothly.
JT: It feels the same to me. You still have to drive a long way and show up early and wait around for the fun to happen. Technology makes things a little easier to organize. The cost of gas is prohibitively expensive though. Places like Olympia still charge very little for shows, so trying to make it all happen financially is tricky if you are totally DIY. That being said, you can get paid better if you get involved with booking agents and the like. There are a lot more business people (“professionals”) in the indy music world now; more people taking a cut from a smaller piece of pie. It is a very different world than the 90’s! But that should be obvious, right?
I know you’re touring quite a bit. Are you considering crossing the Atlantic to do some shows in Europe? We would love to see you in Denmark.
BS: We would love to come to Scandinavia. Justin and I both have family roots there and have both visited there and enjoyed it quite a bit.
JT: We aren’t touring that much outside of the Pacific Northwest, which is a large square mile area but small “market”. So far we only tour about two weeks a year. Don’t hold your breath for a northern European tour–but we would be happy to visit.
Meg: If we can make it happen someday it would be great. I also have family there.
Thanks a lot for taking the time answering these questions. Any last words?
BS: Nope. Thanks for your interest in Survival Knife. Maybe see you in Denmark sometime.
JT: It is a privilege to be recognized for our music, so thanks to you for taking time to support it. We have a new EP coming out this November called “Survivalized”. And hopefully recording a new record next spring.
For a copy of Lappland Zine # 2 write to email@example.com
After our zine came out Survival Knife released the EP “Survivalized”. Listen to it via this link.
//Troels W Thomsen