Reviews

Euphemystic

Author: Tim McMahan
02/08/2001 | Lazy-I | www.lazy-i.com | Feature
I first met Joe Knapp a little over two years ago when I was interviewing Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame just after his Letting Off the Happiness album was released. Oberst and I talked sitting sideways on either end of a ratty blue sofa, next to a scarred coffee table covered with empty cans and half-burnt candles, surrounded by all the junk that one would expect to find lying around a college kid's dorm. Upstairs someone practiced on an electric piano. Halfway through the interview, up sauntered Knapp smiling, with a couple other slacker-looking characters in their late teens, apologizing for interrupting us, then asking Conor where he'd be later that day.

"That was actually the second place I lived after I moved out of my parents' house," Knapp recalled from his current home in heart of an old south Omaha neighborhood. Smaller and more crowded with junk, the house has the same lived-in, thrift store feel. Dusty sound equipment is balanced along a wall next to sofas, chairs and assorted bric-a-brac. Band posters and artwork hang haphazardly on the walls, including a few striking original paintings by Doug Koepsel, the artist who painted the cover for Knapp's new CD, Oh Holy Fools - The Music of Son, Ambulance and Bright Eyes. Upstairs two people practice on an electric piano, trying to fine-tune a song.

Two years passed and not much has changed. Knapp and Oberst no longer live together, but appear to have an even stronger connection. What better way to get your music heard than to have it grafted to the release of an already established artist? As Son, Ambulance, Knapp shares half of the real estate on the recently released split full-length with Bright Eyes. Oberst's last CD, Fevers and Mirrors, enjoyed quite a ride on the indie-music rollercoaster that included nearly breaking the College Music Journal's top-20 thanks to college airplay and widespread touring in the United States, Europe and Asia -- which included Knapp on drums for most of the dates.

In its first month after release, Oh Holy Fools has already been reviewed in SPIN and Entertainment Weekly. Can Rolling Stone be far behind? How many first-time recording artists can make such a claim, especially from Omaha?

"The split is the perfect way for people to find out about me," Knapp says, adding that there was no magic formula or hidden theme behind the CD's concept. "Conor picked his songs and I just sort of picked my four best. I'd stand behind any of his lyrics and he'd say the same about mine. The CD sort of represents our friendship."

Knapp offers me a cup of coffee and I watch as a badly stained coffee machine pores black java into a squat, metal, bean-pot-shaped lidless pan. "We broke the decanter," he says, pulling the steaming pot from the machine and with two hands carefully pours coffee into the mugs.

Unlike his Saddle Creek Records' labelmates, Knapp doesn't have emo-indie rock star style. He's tall and lanky, with a pale complexion and dry, staring eyes, all pulled together by a head-full of dark, wiry, Brillo-hair. His clothes aren't stylish at all -- he's un-hip in his baby-blue collared pull-over and brown wrinkled pants. If you go to the Saddle Creek website, you'll find sullen, angsty photos of the label's other acts -- The Faint, Cursive, Lullaby for the Working Class. Knapp's webpage features a photo of him kneeling next to his son, Neal, who's busy working on a bottle in a highchair. Another, larger photo shows Knapp alone, broadly smiling, standing in afternoon light next to a window.

It's not only appearance that sets Knapp apart. His music is decisively un-Saddle Creek like. There's nothing dark or moody in any of his songs. Instead of arch angular rock, fashionable Neu Wave or droll, minor key folk confessionals, Knapp treats listeners to upbeat piano-driven pop that's a throwback to the simpler, melody-rich folk rock that he grew up listening to with his dad and fellow musician, Kyle Knapp.

"My dad is probably my biggest influence," Knapp says. "He does his own folk rock project, just him and his guitar. He's been doing it for 20 years. I grew up listening to him sing and play. So music is something that comes natural to me, it's in my blood."

Knapp, 20, started playing drums when he was nine at the church his family attended; first picked up a guitar at 11 and started writing songs at 15. More known for his drumming, he played in a number of punk bands (who remembers Moloko Plus?) while still attending high school. It wasn't until 1997 that he first started playing with "the Saddle Creek guys."

He met Oberst through Dave Sink, owner/operator of The Antiquarium Record Store in Omaha's trendy Old Market. "Conor was in Commander Venus at the time, and we became friends and did all kinds of different projects together. I was playing with Bright Eyes before Letting Off the Happiness was released."

In fact, Oh Holy Fools is not the first Son, Ambulance recording with Oberst. Last year the two recorded a homemade-sounding 6-song split CD as part of the Insound.com Tour Support Series. The CD features Bright Eyes on the first three tracks, and then, after Joe scolds his son for dropping a microphone (resulting in a rash of crying), Oberst introduces Knapp's three songs in sort of a Bob and Doug McKenzie style, saying "My roommate Joe's band, Ambulance, is really good so I asked him if I could put some songs on the CD. So the next three songs are by him. And thanks for listening."

Back then, Knapp's band was simply known as Ambulance. He changed the name to Son, Ambulance late last year after legal questions arose over who owned the name. Knapp said the name change, however, had more to do with defining priorities in his life than lawsuits.

"I like the name Son, Ambulance better," he said. "I wanted the name to encompass everything going on in my life. I made a list of things that are most important to me. First on the list was my son, Neal; second was my band, Ambulance. I have to keep the two separated in some ways. Maybe that's why there's a comma in the name."

Like the Insound CD, Oh Holy Fools features both Son, Ambulance and Bright Eyes on separate tracks, but this time, the songs are feathered one after the other. Oberst's desolate personal confessions are in stark contrast to Knapp's more peaceful, easy-feeling folk rock.

It opens with the joyous, keyboard-driven romp "Brown Park," a celebration of childhood overshadowed by the line, "They never taught us how to play/We learned to flow like wind in waves." Knapp sings with his high, hollow though slightly muted voice about how his little boy likes the swing. "I'm sorry I swung so high if I brushed your hand/Just shake it off." In fact, it's Neal's voice that's heard at the beginning of the track. When Joe asks, "Do you wanna say something?" Neal says, "Yeah."

Track three, "The Invention of Beauty," is a light, '70s acoustic-funk love song by way of early, happy Simon and Garfunkel, sporting raindrop electric piano, laid-back bass and kick drum before shifting gears a minute from the end into a lightly pounding repeated mantra: "You know it's beautiful/It's your own invention."

Track five, "On the Concourse" opens with Knapp's muted Kermit the Frog voice and an acoustic guitar lightly driving out a 6/8 ballad about a meeting in an airport. When an echoing bass drum and a lovely piano augment the slow, somber arrangement on the second verse you get the sense that he's singing about his son as he laments "I love you more than this heart could ever show, but you won't remember anything." Knapp, however, says the song's lyrics sprung from watching an encounter between a little girl and her parents while he waited for a flight in an Atlanta airport. "It's about meeting a stranger that you'll never see again and how they can impact you."

The seventh and last Son, Ambulance track, "Kaite Come True," is the CD's high-water mark, opening with a simple, acoustic rock guitar line that reminds you of early Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell. In his plain, pale, honest voice, Knapp sings a love song that sounds like an ode to a movie starlet he's trying to coax from the silver screen.

"Kaite, will you come true for me?
Come by sometime when I'm awake?
Everyone else just lies to me;
Yeah they say you're a dream.
Will you step into the light from the screen
So that I can make out your shape?
You don't need to tell me anything
Because I know what you mean."

But Knapp says the song was written with his former girlfriend in mind, who he tried to hold onto after having a child with another woman.

"I tried to stay with my high school sweetheart and tried to make her still fit into my life with all these changes. That's what the song's about," he said. "It was too much and too hard for her to deal with, me having a kid. I talk to her occasionally, but I think we need distance right now."

Neal, who will be three years old in April, was a completely unexpected addition in Knapp's life. "I never thought things would turn out like this, but I've really learned a lot by having a child," he said.

Knapp's not married and has no legal agreements with Neal's mother. "We're just friends and we both love Neal and we want to raise him as best we can. I can see him whenever I want to. My parents help out a lot. They understand what the life of a musician is like. They believe that circumstances shouldn't keep you from what you want."
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He's never been one to let circumstances get in his way. Frustrated by its limitations, Knapp dropped out of Omaha's Central High School his junior year. "I just wanted to go to college right away and have something that would challenge me," he said. "I hated high school and the boundaries it puts on you. I think it's amazing that people get through it."

He was told, however, that despite having a GED he'd have to wait until his graduation class finished classes before the University of Nebraska at Omaha would accept him. "I ended up getting back on track with my age group, but meanwhile I was having problems getting along with my parents. I started living on my own pretty young (at age 16). I had to do some growing up, and then Neal came along and it was kind of scary and I wanted to run away from all my problems. But at some point I made a decision based on how I was raised that I wanted to do the right thing and not just take the easy way out and wind up in more trouble later."

He's managed to balance his responsibilities with hard work and help from his parents. A sophomore at UNO, he's taking classes at Metro Community College and also works as a paraprofessional at The Jackson Academy. Knapp continues to tour with Oberst when possible, including dates this month in Chicago and Minneapolis where Son, Ambulance and Bright Eyes will perform on the same bill as separate bands. "I could play drums with Bright Eyes, too, but it takes a lot of energy, and it'll be nice to be able to sit back and enjoy watching Conor's band."

Knapp is neither na´ve nor takes for granted the benefits he receives from recording and touring with an established band such as Bright Eyes. "I think it's a great advantage and I'm really lucky," he said. "I love Bright Eyes. I think Conor's realized that this is what's important to him, so he's going to start acting like it. Watching him get serious about music has brushed off on me and makes me want to give my best and try to be professional."

But despite their teamwork, Knapp will soon strike out on his own. He begins recording his solo full-length CD in March with Jeff Koster on drums. Bassist Landon Hedges, who performs on Oh Holy Fools, will likely be replaced. "Landon's in The Good Life (a project with Cursive's Tim Kasher), has his own band, Little Brazil, and a new band with members of Bright Eyes. Robert Little, a friend from high school, will take over on bass for now.

With Knapp as the driving creative force, Son, Ambulance appears to be fated to having a constantly changing supporting band, just as Bright Eyes' rotating players support Oberst. "Ideally, I'd like to have a solid band that would always play together, but that's not easy to do," Knapp said. "A lot of times your line-up depends on who's available to go on the road."

Regardless of Son, Ambulance's direction, Knapp says he's going to keep recording, going out on the road when he can, keep Omaha as his home base, finish school, and do his best raising Neal, who will always come first.

"If I like the way it feels after I finish this next album, and if I get a good response, I'll just keep doing it," Knapp said. "I think music is something I'll always do."
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