Bent Knee bassist Jessica Kion and guitarist Ben Levin discuss the new LP, sexism in the media, the importance of Kendrick Lamar, and many other intriguing topics.

Founded in 2009, Boston-based sextet Bent Knee is steadily building a strong reputation for its unique blend of ‘“art-rock, avant-indie, [and] progressive” styles. Having newly signed to Cuneiform Records and released its third studio outing, Say So, the band is more poised than ever to spread its colorfully complex concoctions to as many ears as possible. I recently spoke to bassist Jessica Kion and guitarist Ben Levin about the new LP, as well as sexism in the media, the importance of Kendrick Lamar, and many other intriguing topics.

Hey, Ben and Jessica. Congrats on the new record. It’s fantastic.

Ben: Oh, cool. Thanks.

Jessica: Thanks!

Sure. So I suppose the best place to start is to ask how you’d describe the sound of Bent Knee. It’s a bit difficult to place into a specific genre, not that you need to, of course. It reminds me of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Frank Zappa, Emanuel and the Fear, and King Crimson. It’s catchy yet abstract.

Ben: Yeah, those are definitely influences, especially Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Frank Zappa. The sound changes a lot, and it’s changing now; I’m sure that the album after Say So will be more different from Say So than Say So is different from our previous album, Shiny Eyed Babies. I think our rate of change in style is changing faster, so it’s hard to say. You know, we’re committed to being, like, a heavy alt/prog thing; I don’t think our sound is ever going to reliably stay put, but the idea behind it is to just make songs that we like and that reflect how we feel in the moment. That’s really the first priority, so being complex or musically sophisticated isn’t something that we worry about very much. As a result of everything we like to listen to, though, it does turn out to be a little bit more challenging than your average rock or pop band.

It’s sort of like avant-garde and pop music mixed together.

Ben: Yeah, we don’t look at those two things as mutually exclusive. If you look at a lot of the greatest moments in pop music, they come from some pretty outside the box characters and zany moments, so it just becomes normal after the fact. Then you have a lot of people trying to copy it [laughs].

That’s very true. Another band that Bent Knee reminds me of, in a way, is Knifeworld, which is a group on Kscope. There’s a similar sense of experimentation and eccentricity there. My point is, there are too few bands like yours, who aren’t afraid to be so bold and distinctive and refute being pigeonholed into any expectation.

Ben: It seems like a lot of the Kscope artists are of that mindset; their process isn’t based so much on what their style “should” be.

Yeah. As long as it’s what the band wants, it works. Speaking of labels, though, this LP marks your first outing on Cuneiform Records. They’re sort of known for supporting unclassifiable and adventurous artists, so I wonder what made you sign with them, and what it was like working with them.

Jessica: You can tackle this one, too [laughs].

Ben: Oh, okay. What happened was that we toured a lot last summer. We had a three-month tour and when we got back, a journalist named Anil Prasad [founder of Innerviews], who’d been writing about us, started pitching us to different labels. He was really enthusiastic about our music and he started helping us a lot. He helped us write a letter to Cuneiform about why we’d be a good fit there, and it turned out that the fact that we’d just been on tour for all that time was a big factor in what Cuneiform liked about us. Bands usually sell most of their albums by playing a lot of shows, so we seemed like a good fit with a good point of view.

That’s great.

Ben: Yeah. Working with them has been cool, too, because they have a lot more experience than we do in terms of handling the album release side of things. Their history is long and their roster is large, so it’s been really good. They let us do some really nice album art and gave us complete freedom with our music. I just feel like they’re out pals rather than, like, a force we have to fight with. They’re definitely on our team.

Jessica: It just feels like our team has expanded with some new people who are really into crazy, cool music. They happen to be into us, and that’s really nice.

It is. It’s refreshing to hear about a label that’s on the band’s side, rather than the stereotypical relationship of a bunch of men and women in suits focusing on marketability, profit, and the like.

Ben: They’re not like that at all. They just wanted what we were doing and what we already were, which, to us, is really exciting. There’s a process of being an indie band that’s tiny to becoming an indie band that’s less tiny but still tiny. It’s a bit scary. You look at what you’re doing and you wonder if it’s really working because maybe you see a lot of promise in how the audiences react to the shows, but you don’t see a lot of promise in your finances or—

Jessica: I feel like there’s no clear cut path to what we have to do. There’s never any obvious next step. It’s more like, “Well, I hope this helps!”

Ben: For example, going on tour the way we do, we’re in a soccer mom minivan and we have those sliding automatic doors that break. There’s six of us and our gear in there, and we stay at people’s houses and sleep on their floors and we’re only alone when we shower, and even then, sometimes we’re not [laughs].

Well, that’s certainly a struggle, but it seems like you guys handle it with good humor. You really show how dedicated you are, too.

Ben: Totally. When you go tell your family—not necessarily your parents, but your extended family—what you’ve been up to on tour, they look at you funny, like, “That’s not a very productive way to do it. It seems torturous.”

Jessica: Or they think it’s like a vacation, like, “Oh, wow. That must be so much fun!”

Ben: So when we became a somewhat obscure band instead of an incredibly obscure band, I think that was one of the first times when we felt like the process we have is a good one and we should continue with it. We’d been doing it for five or six years before we had this compelling, objective step forward.

I’m always so happy when that happens for a band that deserves success. So many deserve a leg up in the industry, compared to so many who are so famous for being carbon copies of each other.

Ben: For us, it still feels like we’re very much underdogs, but now we’re not alone.

Exactly. I’d heard about Bent Knee way before Chris [Baum, violin] and Stephen [Humphries, music writer] put us in contact. My friend Ian Beabout, who hosts an internet radio show called Prog Rock Deep Cuts, posts about you guys on Facebook all the time, so that caught my attention a long time ago.

Ben: I think our drummer, Gavin [Wallace-Ailsworth], was on that show a few weeks ago. He said it was a great time.

Absolutely. Clearly, your band is getting some recognition, so you’re not as much of an underdog as you think. Anyway, moving back to the cover art, it’s very striking. Who designed it and how does it fit in with the themes of the album?

Jessica: Well, Greg Bowen designed it, and he and Ben went to high school together, actually. He became a really incredible artist and he has a whole production team called Human Being Productions. He makes videos and—

Ben: He made our “Leak Water” video.

Jessica: Yeah, and he’s a great guy and super creative. We love working with him.

Ben: I did a graphic novel score with him, and he illustrated one of my pieces, called “Pulse of a Nation.” It’s about fifteen minutes long, and he illustrated it so that you can follow the story and notes. It took a long time, and he did a great job. It’s pretty neat.

Jessica: The imagery on the cover kind of relates all of the ideas discussed on the album, and the title itself, to each other to find a common thread. We found that there are a lot of characters who either have a secret or have something hard to deal with and are keeping it to themselves. We settled on the title Say So as way of saying that it’s okay to let this out. You can escape from it, so the character on the front of the album is walking out of this scary woodland scene into the openness. It looks like either sunrise or sunset, or even the moon.

Ben: There are a lot of opposing forces on each song, so part of it is, like, “If you say so,” like the obedient follower, versus the “Because I say so,” like the powerful, dominant creature. For instance, in “Counselor,” it’s a character vs. his environment, friends, and city, whereas “Black Tar Water” features this person who’s moving beyond depression. She is the “because I say so” aspect because she’s pushing it all out. “Leak Water” is the kid vs. the parent and vs. being forced to conform to a certain way of being and talking and acting. All of them have this nemesis character, but it’s not always a person or a place. It can be an idea.

That’s an interesting approach. I’ve read that people have interpreted the final song, “Good Girl,” as a commentary on the objectification and oppression of women. If that’s true, it’s very relevant and necessary, as our culture, among many others, still perpetuates that in many ways. It’s disgusting.

Ben: I agree. There’s so many layers to it. It’s like with racism: you can see the obvious stuff, like someone yelling, “Women can’t drive!” Sometimes someone is saying it as a joke, to show how ridiculous it is. Then you start to learn about the more insidious and subtle kinds of sexism, which many people don’t even notice. Being in a band with two women who are incredibly powerful people both inside and outside of the band, I notice how some of the questions they get asked and the ways their addressed are just not as respectful. Sometimes, they’ll ask Jessica, “Are you in the band?”

Jessica: “Are you in the band or are you with the band?”

Wow. Those have two entirely different connotations.

Ben: Music isn’t for men; it’s for everyone. That’s an obvious thing to anyone who’s involved with music, so the fact that there are fewer women in rock bands, or at least at one point there were, is just bizarre. I think that’s left over from the old-fashioned notion of what a woman’s role is. Jessica is a bass player, and a lot of people are like, “My god, you have a female bass player?!”

That’s a really stupid reaction. There are many examples of female bass players, like Tina Weymouth from The Talking Heads.

Jessica: She probably got so much more shit than I do.

Good point. It’s all so unjustified. I’ve been asked why I listen to artists like Tori Amos and Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom and Sia, etc. Um, because they’re really talented and special? I don’t understand the question.

Ben: That’s so strange.

It really is. Going back to the concepts within the record, though, it’s not a literal narrative, right?

Jessica: I think it’s more about obscure concepts, like Ben was saying. Opposing forces. Basically, we all write the songs, so all of the elements are coming from six different brains with six different experiences. We didn’t set out to write a direct storyline; we just tied all of the strings together and realized that there is are common ideas there.

Ben: Any time you have a close group of people making an album together, if it’s a truthful reflection of where they’re at, you’ll find the concepts in it because they’re sharing the same time and life and events. Shiny Eyed Babies was truly a depression album, like a deep, deep pain and sadness, whereas Say So is about clearing away the leaves and moving forward. Even though there’s a lot of depression and darkness on it, It’s not all hopeless. That’s reflected in our lives, too; we’re learning how to be better people together and how to cope with hardships together and how to have more perspective on our problems so that we can deal with them from an enabled position. To have some element of control. I’m not saying that we’ve got it down, though.

That’s great, though. The music and the vocals are so empowered. It’s not quite operatic, but it’s very rich. There’s a great sense of defiance against depression and oppression throughout it. You mentioned “Black Tar Water,’ which is probably my favorite song on there. The way it builds from a very quiet ode to a bombastic outcry, with the instrumentation punctuating the chorus, still blows me away.

Ben: I love that song, too, and it really is a power song. You’re right. There is defiance there. Sometimes you’re just covered in dirt or there’s some weight on your shoulders, and then you make the initial effort to clean it off. I think that’s where “Black Tar Water” starts.

Something subtler that I noticed is that both “Leak Water” and “Eve” begin with this sharp guitar note repetition. It reminds me of The Beatles’ “Getting Better,” to be honest, and I adore conceptual continuity like that. It’s a very subtle way to give the record a better sense of cohesion so it feels like a true statement.

Ben: There are a lot of little aspects that reappear throughout the album, so it was all intentional. To me, it’s like the signaling of a new chapter or phase in the album. I’m a huge fan of Kendrick Lamar’s last album, To Pimp a Butterfly, and I really love how he threads things throughout it. We were trying to copy that a bit. I think everyone takes from The Beatles, anyway. It’s impossible not to, right?

Pretty much. I’m not really into rap and hip-hop, but I’m trying to discover the best of it. That album is brilliant, and it seems to have circumvented boundaries and left an impact on everyone who’s heard it, no matter what style of music they typically like.

Ben: It’s my favorite album of all time. It made my world better and it raised the bar for what an album can be. The first listen of it was the best first listen I’ve ever had of anything, and then I learned more of the lyrics and instrumentation with so many repeated listenings. I never got sick of it; I just felt more of a connection to it. I’m no longer turning it on every day, but whenever I do, I still feel that same excitement. It proves that albums can be better than the ones most people are making.

Jessica: It started this necessity to make even the most accessible pop music more complex. Like, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is way weirder than what she would’ve done if To Pimp a Butterfly didn’t exist.

Agreed. I think a lot of people dismiss rap and hip-hop as focusing solely on superficial stuff, like money and bling and women. There’s definitely a lot of that in there overall, and that’s fine for certain situations, like when you’re just hanging out at a club or with people, but there should definitely be more intricate ideas and approaches, too, like what Lamar is doing.

Ben: The truth is that you could make the same parallel to rock and the theme of love. If you look at rock music on the radio, the vast majority of it is one-dimensional in terms of lyrical content. That’s just how it goes on the radio, and the same is true of hip-hop on the radio. The majority of hip-hop that I’ve listened to is super thoughtful, but that’s because of how I’m finding this stuff. These aren’t the tracks that you’ll find on the radio; they’re the deeper cuts. There’s a lot of amazing stuff going on right now in terms of musical form and instrumentation. There’s more innovation going on in that genre than in any other right now, at least with what I’m aware of. I don’t listen to that much music, but—the idea of verse-chorus-verse-bridge is almost nonexistent these days in hip-hop. It’s really impressive.

As it should be. Going back to the “Leak Water” video, what’s the concept behind it? I’m always fascinated by the visual interpretations of music.

Jessica: That one’s about a mother/daughter relationship and how the mother keeps the daughter prettied up. She wakes her up in the morning to get ready and all. Then, the build-up—“The taut strings of my family tree / Too tight to tie, too harsh to hold”—is about how family is really important yet it’s so hard to force it to work when it’s not working. Their relationship is kind of strained.

Ben: Everyone wants to be close to their families, and you see people with really great, close families. You wish that that would be the case with your family, so you make the effort but people are still people, whether they’re your family or not, so there’s different levels of compatibility. Sometimes families just don’t work yet you’re still tied to them.

You love them but you don’t necessarily like them.

Jessica: Right. Sometimes they can be great support that makes your walking even lighter, but other times they can be weights dragging you down.

It goes back to what we were talking about earlier, about having depth in your music.

Jessica: I studied songwriting at Berklee College of Music, so that must be why [laughs].

Ben: Oh, yeah, okay. That’s why. Of course.   

Naturally. Arguably the most abrasive and, well, strange track on the disc is “Commercial.” It’s so in-your-face and experimental, in a good way.

Jessica: I thought you were going to say, “Eve,” but that makes sense.

Ben: I mean, it really is like a commercial in the middle of the album; it tears you away from the flow of what you’re experiencing. You don’t have a lot of consent when it comes to watching commercials. People feel that they do, but the way our lives are structured now, you’d have to completely reject society to avoid them. I’m not saying that commercials are intrinsically bad. They’re a good way for people to make money, but they’re often pretty patronizing or maybe they make you feel bad about what you have or don’t have in your life.

Jessica: I find that recent commercials play on the idea of the smart wife who knows better and the dumb, submissive husband.

Exactly. I often teach elements of visual rhetoric, actually, and I use two essays—“Two Ways a Woman Can Get Hurt” by Jean Kilbourne and “Male Bashing on TV” by Michael Abernethy—that explore how men and women are portrayed in advertising and on sitcoms. Women are either sexual objects or bossy wives and mothers, while men are either domineering sex addicts or moronic husbands and fathers. You hit the nail on the head.

Jessica: It’s all just so ridiculous!

Ben: It seems to be really rare that a commercial assumes that the person watching it is as smart as the person making it.

Totally. The commercials from the ‘50s and ‘60s were much more concise and relevant. The spokesperson looked at the camera and told the viewers why they should buy the product, plain and simple. Granted, gender roles were still perpetuated: the actors were portrayed like either June or Ward Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, but at least the arguments for why you should buy what they’re selling were clearer and quicker.

Jessica: I’ve also noticed a trend in Chinese comedy for commercials, like trying to make a joke. The thing is, if it’s funny, it’s only funny once. It’s never funny again because jokes aren’t usually funny the second time you hear them. It’s torturous to watch a commercial that’s trying to make you laugh when you’ve already seen it.

Ben: I’m trying to imagine what kind of commercial I’d want to see.

Jessica: I like the podcast commercials. It’s a lot like the old style.

Ben: The host of the show reads what he or she wants to tell you. You always hear advertisements for something like on podcasts, but there’s always a different take on it because of how each hosts puts a spin on it. You don’t need to skip those parts cause they’re unique. I’m glad I could think of an example I like; it’s a bummer when you complain about something but you have no ideas for how it should be done. If you have the cast of the show or the producers talking about the sponsors, it’d be better.

Exactly. Back to the album, there’s “Transition,” which is literally a :49 second interlude between “Eve” and “The Things You Love.” Why section that off as its own track instead of tacking it onto one of the songs that bookends it?

Ben: There’s a pretty long ending to “Eve,” and that interlude was originally written as the opening of “The Things You Love.” We wanted it to be possible to start “The Things You Love” right from the song itself, though, so it was a cut for the sake of being able to skip through the album easily if you aren’t listening to it sequentially.

Jessica: Both of those songs need to start and end as they do.

Ben: It’s just a kind of consideration for being able to hear the tracks as individual tracks. If you want to hear “The Things You Love” by itself, outside of the context of the album, you should be able to without hearing that interlude every time, too. But really, it just ties those two tracks together.

That makes perfect sense. A lot of groups seem to do that, honestly, especially in progressive rock and metal. A lot of those songs could be dozens of minutes in length, so the artists will split them up for convenience, even if they’re all technically part of a single piece. For instance, Between the Buried and Me’s The Parallax II: Future Sequence is really a seventy-two-minute song broken into a dozen parts.

Ben: Yeah, and it makes us more money on MP3 downloads [laughs].

The album has a lot of guest musicians and vocalists. What was the process for organizing all of these extra people?

Jessica: We did a similar thing for Shiny Eyed Babies; we just scheduled sessions and then invited string quartets or horns or other extra people to play the parts that we worked out for them. The reason why we had so many extra vocalists this time is that we were filming a concert last December and we asked everyone in the crowd if they’d want to sing on our album. We needed a lot of voices for a couple parts, so basically everyone who was at the concert hung around for an hour after the show to help us with that.

Ben: Different members of the band would be responsible for writing different string and horn parts for different songs. Our producer, Vince Welch, is also a synth player, so what he wanted was to have a lot of different sonic options. What’s funny is that we had a whole string and horn section, yet we only used maybe thirty seconds of what we recorded there. We hired nine or ten people. We were kind of crafting the album like a sculpture, like one big performance. I don’t think Vince wants to do it that way anymore because there was so much extra stuff, which made mixing pretty torturous. Next time, we’ll probably just have a two week recording session, as opposed to many, many sessions. All of the parts that we play live are pretty much recorded live.

Jessica: In one day! It was really fun.

It sounds very risky but rewarding.

Ben: Totally. It’s a risky approach because you also deal with your own psychology in terms of decisiveness. You have to decide between ten good things instead of just taking the one good thing you have.

Jessica: It’s kind of like those Choose Your Own Adventure books that lead you down different paths.

Ben: You could make the story a lot worse by making the wrong decision. A lot of those books have a couple paths with the best outcomes, but you sacrifice that narrative for freedom.

Good old Goosebumps books.

Jen: Right?!

It clearly worked out, though, and that just shows your foresight and ambition for what you’re doing. Along the same lines, what exactly is the process for songwriting and arranging for a typical track?

Ben: Each song will have a song boss, someone who wrote the demo or the chords and lyrics. They lead rehearsals until we’ve realized their original idea and performed it properly; then we’ll start making changes. The result is often very different from what initially came in, but sometimes it’s very close to that first version. “Black Tar Water” first appeared on an album Jessica made [Quone by Justice Cow] and we wanted to Bent Knee-ify it. That’s a clear example of how a song can change. The two versions are really different, although I can’t say it definitely got better [laughs]. A lot of the time, they usually get better, but other times they’re just different. The incentive to bring a song into Bent Knee instead of just recording it yourself is that it represents a real comradery and care and friendship. It’s going to get a lot of care.

Jessica: I love how everyone has their own voice in the band, and we’ve really become accustomed to it. I love Courtney [Swain]’s voice and Gavin’s drums. I like imagining what the Bent Knee take will be because it’s usually different from what I expected because everyone’s so creative.

It’s great that you look forward to the new interpretations, and it’s funny that you don’t necessarily think they’re better versions. That’s a good way to look at it because so many alternate versions of songs are like that. They aren’t necessary improved; they’re just different.

Jessica: I would say that they’ve never been worse.

That’s good. That happens too often, really. So Gavin recently said that the LP is “both the most accessible and the strangest thing Bent Knee has ever done.”

Ben: I agree because there’s the most consonant and pretty and calm stuff on this album, but the tracks themselves are so varied from each other that the album as a whole is rather strange. It’s charmingly disjointed. “Black Tar Water” and “Leak Water” are a nice chapter together, and then “Counselor” and “Eve” open this weirder world. I just see these clear separations in tone during the sequence, which is often a risky quality for a record because that could make it feel less like an album and more like a collection of songs and styles. This one is pretty far on the edge, but hopefully it’s on the good side of weird.

Jessica: I actually think that our first album [Bent Knee, 2011] is weirder than this one. That one is the least accessible one so far.

Ben: This one is weirder in terms of how it’s built as an album, but yeah, the first one has tracks that are more bizarre than any tracks on the last two records.

Jessica: Yes, that’s fair.

Are there any plans to tour in support of the record? If so, with whom?

Ben: Yes, we’re going to tour. We’re doing some long weekends in the Northeast, and then in June we’re going to tour across the U.S. through the Midwest, up the West Coast and then to Canada and the Pacific Northwest. After that, we’re going to Germany and the Czech Republic before coming back to play along the Southeast Coast and Midwest again.

Jessica: And with no one [laughs].

Ben: We’ve never toured with anyone! We’re always no one!

In a way, that’s good, though. I’ve spoken to a lot of artist who’ve said that they need to bring people along for financial reasons, so they aren’t necessarily enthused about having other acts on the tour.

Ben: We’d love to be that somebody who is found. I’d be nice if we could open for a band that we like and that’s doing a little more than we are, so they could help us a bit.

Jessica: If we could suckle from what they’re doing.

If you’re stopping by Philadelphia this summer, I can definitely put you in contact with some local bands and venues and promoters.

Ben: Definitely. We may be there at the end of August, actually.

Great. Let me know.

Ben: Absolutely.

So finally, if you could work with any other artist(s), live or in the studio, who would you pick?

Jessica: I’d have to say Sufjan Stevens. I’m in love with all of his music.

Great choice. He’s a genius. Have you ever listened to Daniel Smith and his band, Danielson? Stevens came from there.

Jessica: Yeah, and I also watched their documentary [Danielson: A Family Movie, 2006] and it made me cry. You see Sufjan at our level, selling merch and trying to convince people to buy Enjoy Your Rabbit. My favorite of his is The Age of Adz. I love it.

He’s another example of someone who’s work is so unique and varied. He sticks to whatever artistic vision he has at the time, which is why his output is so unpredictable from album to album.

Ben: He makes me excited about banal things like a rodeo or the state of Illinois. They’re amazing works. Even his symphonic piece about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, The BQE, is a whole album about a highway. It’s incredible. He makes it all so personal.

Yeah, and he makes me feel okay about listening to Christian music.

Ben: Yeah! It’s all about how it makes him feel; he’s not telling you how the organization wants you to feel. It’s very spiritual.

Jessica: Yeah, him for sure.

Ben: I’d like to work with him, too, but it’d be great to make tracks for Kendrick Lamar. I don’t know if I could hang with either of them, though. They’re both so good at doing things themselves. I just want to watch and learn from it. I like what I do just fine; I don’t think my stuff is inherently inferior to theirs or anything like that, but they don’t need what I do. It’s like not I think Sufjan or Kendrick would be so much better if I were doing something on it, you know? It’s hard to really say that that should happen, but it would be fun and interesting.

Your music doesn’t need them, either, though, to be fair. They wouldn’t necessarily make Bent Knee better.

Jessica: It would be a cool mash-up of worlds.

Ben: It’d be nice to have a Bent Knee track with Kendrick on it. We do our thing and then he adds to it.

Jessica: It’s so common in rap to have other people do a verse or a production collaboration. It’s so open for that.

Ben: He has a lot of people on To Pimp a Butterfly. A lot of great musicians from both coasts popping up. I think that’s even kind of a statement in hip-hop, to be involved with people from both coasts like that.

Absolutely. Well thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Jessica and Ben. It’s been awesome, and congrats again on the record. It’s truly one of the best albums I’ve heard so far this year.

Jessica: Thanks, Jordan! Take care.

Ben: Take it easy, man.