01/29/2001 | | | Feature
For many bands, the rush to get onstage and before an audience may be their greatest obstacle in their earliest years. After the excitement of a new band sets in and confidence grows in the practice room, impatience may take its toll: every music fan has been graced with a set put on by a fledgling band so caught up in the rush to get under the lights they forget the importance of slowing down and making sure its songwriting is up to snuff.

It's almost odd, then, to picture any band that delays its debut appearance as it combs over lyrics and arrangements, subtlety revamping and reworking them in a picky quest to get them just right. As rare as perfectionism is in new acts, it's the sole purpose Son, Ambulance took so long to establish itself in any form.

"I had this thing about lyrics, sort of a perfectionism that kind of stopped me from doing what I wanted," says singer/guitarist Joe Knapp. "I think I started to realize that it's just making it sound like the sound of your voice and the way you sing that's more important. I think I've kind of loosened up."

Kanpp's reverence for the Word isn't so surprising after hearing the songs he offers on Oh Holy Fools (2000, Saddle Creek), a split EP where Son, Ambulance shares space with Bright Eyes. As songwriter for Son, Ambulance, Knapp shows the sort of veneration for lyrics that's common in the singer/songwriter style his band dabbles in, though Knapp's formative years as a songwriter were marked by a much larger respect for well written lyrics. It'd take Knapp years to break out of the grasps of perfectionism that constrained him as a songwriter.

Overcoming anal-retentive perfectionism wasn't the only thing that kept Knapp from emerging from anonymity in his Omaha, Neb., home. As with many touched with musical talent, Knapp was at first unsure whether he wanted to throw it in with a career in music, especially when financial security is incredibly more difficult to achieve when chasing down one's muse.

"I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, or if I really wanted music to be my main occupation," Knapp admits. "It kind of struck me that I wanted to do that. I guess it was already going in that direction, but it was a slow growth."

In fact, Knapp has been writing songs since his early teens, many of which still make it into his set lists when playing live. Though Knapp would write songs for a while, the story of him emerging to perform them is, like every other part of his story, is marked by hesitancy. Though he slowly piled up a catalog together, it would take Knapp a while to gather himself to start appearing as a solo artist. It wasn't until 1998, when he eventually crossed paths with drummer Jeff Koster, that the roots of Son, Ambulance took hold.

It wasn't that Knapp didn't take his music seriously, however. Like anyone with a perfectionist streak, he always took his art seriously, though it'd take the idea of putting a band together to spur Knapp from moving his songwriting and performances from the world of hobbies to that of bona-fide musicians.

"I hadn't recorded anything," Knapp says, reflecting on his long career. "I was still writing songs that I was serious about, and playing them in Omaha. I hadn't become very professional with it until just recently."

Since then, however, Knapp's broken free of the hesitancy that marked much of his formative days. With the band's creative axis formed between Knapp and Koster, Son, Ambulance quickly began taking shape. Eventually the idea of laying a proper band would emerge, and Son, Ambulance was born; Landon Hedges would step up to play bass in the trio.

Knapp also emerged from his shell as a songwriter as the pieces of his band were falling into place. While much of his previous work suffered from heavy editing and foot-dragging, a new-found maturity as a songwriter would blossom in Knapp. Looking inward, Knapp saw much of his perfectionism stemmed from a lack of resolve and confidence when it came time to put his lyrics into the public arena to judge. A slow shift in priorities, where Knapp's own enjoyment of the songwriting process is paramount, has freed the songwriter to explore a much wider world in his songs.

"I guess I was just trying to give myself freedom," Knapp says. "I think earlier I was worried about other people's opinions and stuff like that, and sort of realizing it's just for me. I'm just going to sing because I like it. That sort of opened me up to get myself more freedom."

The buzz that's beginning to surround Son, Ambulance's hometown probably helped to put a bee in Knapp's bonnet and get moving as a songwriter. With other singer/songwriter acts who call Omaha home, such as Bright Eyes (who Knapp was briefly a member of) and the Good Life, as well as deep local scene that includes acts as diverse as the Faint's new-wave pop to the post-rock of Cursive, there's certainly an atmosphere that's conducive to Knapp's growth as a songwriter.

Though Knapp hasn't traveled as extensively in the Omaha music circles as many of the others who now make records out of O-Town, he's been along for much of the ride. Seeing each band come into its own, develop a style and cultivate an audience, Knapp saw a scene grow up first hand.

"We've all been playing music together. Not me so much, I've played with Conor (Oberst of Bright Eyes), but there's kind of a group of musicians that's been making music and growing together and going off in their different directions. There's definitely an Omaha thing."

If there's an Omaha thing going on, Son, Ambulance only partially falls into its trappings. While bands like Bright Eyes and the Good Life have put a premium on lyrics similar to Knapp's, they are without much of the pop considerations that mark the Son, Ambulance tracks on Oh Holy Fools. It's a subtle difference, but one that gives Knapp's songs a subtlety less oppressive feel. Not harping on life's down moments, Son, Ambulance gives off a decidedly positive vibe.

Knapp couldn't be happier with that vibe. Instead of the put-upon, downtrodden songwriter, Knapp wants to connect with listeners in times of happiness as well as despair.

"I guess I really want to show people that I really appreciate life," Knapp says. "It can be hard sometimes, but I want to get a good feeling across, not just relating to people in their times of sorrow. It's just trying to bring out the joy."


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