“It’s A Jazz Group, But…” A Conversation with Kneebody’s Kaveh Rastegar
The musical quintet Kneebody gets called "genre-bending" quite a lot; the New York Times may have improved on that by camming them "resolutely un-pindownable." The point is, the bicoastal group refuses to make music that's easily defined. The instrumentation and basic feel comes from jazz (and that's how the band sees themselves), but with large elements of rock, funk, hip-hop, punk, some world music, and whatever else strikes their fancy. It makes them unpredictable, but a hell of a lot of fun.
It also makes them ideal musicians for an experimental art festival; they perform Sunday in the CapitalBop showcase at the G40 Art Summit. Ahead of that show, Kneebody bassist Kaveh Rastegar (center in the photo above) spoke to Washington City Paper about the band's music, live and on record, and their workings as a band.
Washington City Paper: You guys go in so many different directions that it's hard to pin a definition on you. Do you guys within the band see a particular concept at work?
Kaveh Rastegar: You know, I would say that the real concept in the band is the members, and the fact that we can do a lot of different things on our instrument—and the fact that we all like and feel very comfortable playing in a lot of, you could say, styles on our instruments.
A lot of us play a lot of different instruments, but we pinned down the instrumentation of our band at one point. For instance, Nate [Wood], our drummer, plays amazing bass and amazing guitar, and sings. And I sing and I play guitar. Shane [Endsley], our trumpet player, is an incredible drummer. [Keyboardist] Adam [Benjamin] plays good drums too. [Saxophonist] Ben [Wendel] plays great piano and is a bassoonist. But early on we made a decision to limit our voices, and say "This is our palette." Fender Rhodes, electric bass, trumpet, saxophone and drums.
Also, everybody brings in their songs, and the composer teaches their songs to the other musicians; that's a concept right there. It's all taught orally: You teach the music, but you don't ever bring a chart.
I would say, for better or for worse, there isn't an overriding concept in the presentation per se, except for "This song counterbalances that song, because the one song is heavier hitting, and then this one is more melodic or peaceful or open." And stylistically it's just across the board; we try not to frame our stylistic thing too much, we just kinda try to do it as best we can.
WCP: The other thing it's hard to get a handle on is what each person brings to the whole picture. Just when you start to get an idea, you guys go in a completely different direction on the next tune.
KR: Compositionally, people have tendencies in their writing that [are] pretty unique to themselves. Ben Wendel is a strong writer with a very traditional compositional style: There's themes, there's countermelodies, all of it's really fleshed out. And he tends to orchestrate pretty fully. That voice has always been consistent. Adam tends to write songs that also have rich harmony, but also have a real quirky edge to them. They're often through-composed, interesting vignettes. Shane's got a voice that's so clearly him; his music is so great. He's got the most banner elements that you can really tell are him. My songs tend to be more of a rock song, or softer, simpler songs.
And everyone has their own influences. We all came from—we all met in more of a traditional conservatory world, though I met Shane a little before that. Classical, rock, punk, hip-hop and jazz and reggae, everyone comes from different backgrounds, and everyone brings in a lot of stuff. Everyone just likes so many different kinds of music, and that's why you have songs that sound like they might not be out of place on a Squarepusher album, or a Bill Frisell record, or a Ron Miles album.
WCP: With so many influences, do you guys have to have ears everywhere, just to keep up?
KR: We don't really think about it like that. I think there [are] a lot of musicians like that now, that aren't really stuck to one style or genre. They pull from a lot of different things. We're definitely that, as individual musicians; we all make our livings, in addition to Kneebody, in a lot of different settings. I do a lot of recording and writing in the studio in a lot of different settings. But it's something I love to do, and enjoy having the ability to do. Shane got to do some sort of horn project with David Byrne a couple years ago—we're all just really into music. And different kinds of it.
Trying to pin down what we sound like, though, that can be a real pain in the ass. We're a jazz group, just call us a jazz group. We play music that is in that crazy wide swath of what jazz can be. People have asked me—I'm in all these different musical worlds, and they say, "You've got this band, what is it?" I say, "It's a jazz group, but...it's electric and it's loud sometimes, and it's also soft, but it can also be really melodic and also it can be really rhythmic. And also there's songs..." It can be really frustrating!
WCP: So you came together in music school. What was it that brought you guys, in particular, together as a band?
KR: I guess the big part of it was that we all really liked each other. Shane and I played in a band together in Denver, and we had a close, a musically close connection. Man, I just admired him for his playing and who he is as a person. We all enjoy being around each other as friends.
We all kind of met originally at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, besides me and Shane; we hooked up with Nate when we all ended up moving to L.A. in 1999 or 2000. We were all in the same room, actually playing at a coffee shop at UCLA. It was all of us, Nate, Ben, Shane, Adam and I, and the music was pretty bad. There wasn't really a hookup; it didn't really mesh. But we had a lot of fun doing it—we would play frisbee before the gigs, and then hang out and eat afterwards.
And then maybe a year or two later, one of us got a call to do a Monday night slot at this place in LA where we all played in rock bands: this place called the Temple Bar. We got together at my place, because I had been writing a lot of music at the time, and taught each other these songs. It was so much fun, and the band kinda started right then. That Monday night went really well, and then we did the next Monday night, and it kinda turned into a regular Monday night residency. It just took off from there; that's what brought us all together.
WCP: How does the dynamic work? You've said how the writer teaches everyone else the tune. Does the writer also arrange? Or is there a group effort, where everyone works out his part?
KR: It depends. It depends on how written the song is, how dense it is. One of the songs that I contributed to the new album, called "Pushed Away," I wrote that on my computer, and I just played my guitar and programmed the drums, played bass guitar and keyboard, and sang, improvised this melody. And then I brought it in at the last minute—a day or two before the session, and they learned it.
So that's an example of a more open-ended thing. On Ben's song "Still Play," that's pretty fleshed out. It's got that sense of melody, that ostinato; I think the drumbeat he wrote, too. There's always some push and pull, where people will stretch their part or suggest different ideas; you can do what the person who wrote the song wanted, but they leave space for you to give your own ideas.
WCP: Are there concepts to the albums you release, or is it just that you record when you have enough tunes?
KR: That's kind of how it's been; at the end of a touring cycle we'll have a certain amount of songs. As of yet there hasn't been an organizational, or spiritual, or philosophical concept behind the presentation. I think some of the concept is based on a setlist: Adam writes the setlists, and they have an arc or counterbalances of types, energetic music and music that's more meditation. Tension and release. Some that are open, thematically, and some that are really through-composed. And the records tend to have that too—what you would get at that time from a show.
Usually, Nate would be our engineer. We'd do everything in house and our drummer would engineer and mix the record. That's always been great, because it kept costs down and it felt very DIY. But it's also just a real pain in the ass, especially for Nate to have any objectivity. So this last record was a really great opportunity: We got to go into Sunset Sound, which is this really great studio, and we had a great engineer track everything with an assistant. And also, Todd Sickafoose, a great bass player and composer and friend of ours, mixed the record. And we also had Chris Dunn, an old friend of ours that is senior VP of A&R at Concord. He's the executive producer of the record, so it's great to have him in the room and have another set of ears there, whereas the first records were just the five of us muddling through.
That was really fun. And right next to us was that band, Band of Horses, doing their record, and they were doing their record for three months—and there was a basketball hoop in the courtyard so we'd go out and shoot hoops with them. But it's funny, they were there for three months, and we were there for two days. So for better or for worse, we got what we got, and I'm pretty happy with it. Part of me thinks that if we went in for three months we'd come out with something that sounds like Face Value by Phil Collins or something.
Kneebody performs as part of the CapitalBop Jazz Series at the G40 Art Summit at Blind Whino, 734 1st St. SW. $10 (includes a complimentary cocktail).
Photo by Kim Fox