interview by Gordon Downs
It was sometime in January of 2002 when I first encountered the band 31 Knots.
I was living in Long Beach at the time, freelancing for whatever zines and web-zines that I could, while working at an on-line head shop in North Hollywood (formerly known as Omni Lounge) during the day. I can recall the day I received the batch of mail, which contained 31 Knots’ sophomore release, “A Word is Also a Picture of a Word” quite distinctly. It was a brisk winter afternoon within the ghetto of the L.B.C. – I had just gotten paid, and my Rastafarian roommate at the time had just procured a copious amount of high-grade “Sensimilla.” After several healthy bowls and a few tugs off a brewskie, I declared myself ready to plug in my headphones and find out what the hell this “31 Knots” was all about? I threw the CD in the player, and sunk back into my sofa with a freshly packed bowl. Then I began looking at the press sheet that accompanied the CD.
“Jen Zarick? Who the fuck is she? And how did she get my address in Long Beach? I just moved here?” I thought to myself.
Then the music began playing into my headphones, and all the thoughts that were occupying my stoned and paranoid mind took a back seat to the music I was experiencing. I took another quick toke, and sat enamored with the frenetic energy that was being pumped into my head. I played the album several times in a row, going back to a few favorite tracks more than once.
I was exhausted after a couple of hours of listening to the album. 31 Knots’ sound was exactly what I had been waiting for. Something to fill the void of brilliant groups that used to exist under the radar, (e.g. Modest Mouse, Don Caballero, The Maroons?) It was a great listening and smoking session, and I vowed to myself that I would call Jen Zarick the very next day to tell her thanks and find out some more info about the band.
Several days later I’m on the phone with Jenny Z. Her Public Relations Firm (Negative PR) was, at the time handling most of the bands on the (54, 40 or Fight!) label. This was and still is the label 31 Knots calls “home”. Jen seemed thrilled to hear about my exuberant interest in the band, and informed me that they would be playing in the LA area within the next few weeks. ” Put me down for the show, por favor,” I asked Jen. “Gordon Downs +2 please.”
She agreed, and we exchanged our pleasantries and goodbyes. I have not heard from Jenny Z. since that phone call in January of last year. (Sigh…)
A couple of my female “friends” came up from San Diego to catch the 31 Knots show at Spaceland with me. After a few healthy cocktails and plenty of ganja smoking at my apartment, we headed off to the club, deep within Los Angeles’ barrio.
Upon our arrival I handed the attendant at the box office my I.D. – “I should be on the 31 Knots guest list,” I said. “Gordon Downs plus two?”
The woman in the box office looked at me quite puzzled for a moment or so, gave a scan over her sheet of paper again, then alerted me that there was only one ticket under my name. I had to actually PAY for the two whores I brought along with me, solely to: A) drive, B) buy me beer, and C) for coitis. And just to quote the great Meat Loaf, “Two out of three ain’t bad!”
It was the weekend, and I imagined the club to be gleaming over with hipsters and indie-rockers. Instead, it was merely a sparsely filled room with only a handful of hipsters, some “riot girrrls” – and the two whores I brought with me.
We drank through much of the first bands’ set (drinks compliments of the whores, thank you) and though I thought 31 Knots would be headlining that evening, they were given the second slot on the bill, as opposed to Check Engine – the evenings’ closer.
As the band set-up their equipment, I became nostalgic of the equipment I would see in my friends’ garage or basement.
A small, shoddy four-piece drum kit; duct tape wrapped around the neck strap of the bass, as if it had fallen off a million times during practice and shows – so much that the bassist finally decided to just wrap the fucker in duct tape so as to assure that it wouldn’t ever fall off again.
As the whores I’d brought along ordered another round of drinks, 31 Knots took the stage.
The drums were jazzy, yet extremely rockin’, the bass flowed easily through the air complementing frontman Joe Haege’s frenetic guitar stylings. Then something strange occurred. The guitarist started attacking the bass player right in the middle of the second song! I was tripping! It was pretty surreal! They ran back and forth across the stage the entire set! Consistently coming within just inches from whacking their instruments and each other. I was enthralled to say the least.
Their music is definitely technical, and to jump around and dance and attack one another while performing is certainly something all indie-rockers and hipsters (and whores in general) should see at least once, if not twice.
“Shoegazers” stare at their shoes, “Screamo” guys jump into the crowd. How’d 31 Knots come to have this violent yet extremely engaging on-stage demeanor?
“I dunno?” ruminates singer/songwriter Joe Haege.
“Both [Jay and I] were just kind of fucking tired of just trying to calmly play our music, and play it note for note perfectly. I think the main thing is like, we realized that when you go out and play a rock show, people are there to see a performance of the song, and it’s also kind of fun to see a performance.”
“So we kind of just got to this point – ya know we’re really tight, so we can pretty much do anything to one another. So we’re just like ‘Fuck it!’ We make a game out of it and just kinda, [pauses] it’s always fun to see how close I can get to smashing his head in without actually doing it!”
“Yeah,” explains Jay Winebrenner, bassist for 31 Knots and Joe’s closest childhood friend.
“He actually hit me in the nuts a couple of nights ago on accident.” Ouch!
“It didn’t hurt though,” he proclaims. “He just kinda grazed my nut.”
It’s those “nut shots” you must look out for!
“Yeah,” Jay concurs, “it was a nut shot.”
“I dunno?” adds Haege. “We just kinda naturally went with whatever went with us, and that seemed to be something that was fun and people enjoyed it. And for us, it’s not like we’re doing a ‘shtick’ but it’s like, ‘Fuck it! We never said, ‘what would be unique to do? Let’s run toward each other with our guitars!'”
“I think it was this one night when we were drunk or whatever,” Winebrenner explains of 31 Knots aggressive stage presence. “We started attacking each other or something, and the people were like ‘Yeah! That was neat!’ So okay, maybe we should start attacking each other [on-stage] more often! It comes naturally, it’s not premeditated by any means. ”
Winebrenner seems to be the quintessential bass player. A somewhat well educated, lanky/tall fellow; he claims that he learned how to play bass from the late great Cliff Burton, by listening to the early Metallica records over and over again when he was a kid.
“I don’t know man?” ponders Jay. “I play the bass high – ya know what I’m saying? So I can have full access to the neck. I don’t understand all these fucking bass players holding their basses down by their knees?”
Good question Mr. Winebrenner? I’ll definitely remember to ask Mr. Burton that when I overdose this Christmas! 31 Knots’ latest offering, “It Was High Time To Escape” picks up where they left off on their previous record. Only this time around they seemed to have progressed into a seriously tight unit. Which is strange, because their longtime friend and drummer (Joe Kelly) left the band in the midst of recording “It Was High Time To Escape.”
“He officially left [31 Knots] last fall.” Haege explains of his friends’ decision to leave the group. “His last gig was that tour you saw us on. Probably a week after that. He quit before Christmas; Steve at (54, 40 or Fight!) really wanted us to go on that tour. So we did it, and Joe – it was his last tour, so it was kind of our last hurrah together.”
“Joe [Kelly] was just kind of getting tired of it, and I know he wanted to start doing different kinds of music. So I think along with being broke, and not getting much reward from it, and not being totally into music anymore – he was just ready to quit.”
This same scenario is happening within a million “indie” bands across America. Sure there’s a chance that one nineteen-year-old hanging out by the stage door might blow you after the show for a t-shirt or something; or there’s that glorious feeling of being interviewed by a drunk and stoned “journalist” from some obscure fanzine. Not exactly the type of media outlets most bands would take pride in: a whore’s mouth and a stoners’ drunken words.
“It’s not music that’s gonna be all over on MTV,” says Haege. “And it’s really hard to tour when you’re unknown, and on top of it, we’re playing music that’s a little challenging.”
Although Jay seems to have a different prospective on the situation.
“I guess it was for the best. I’m fine with it.” Winebrenner declares. “It’s a bummer, because like ‘Old Joe’ and ‘New Jay’ have completely different styles. I think ‘Old Joe’ is more rooted in a more sloppier/jazzier kind of thing. Whereas Jay has more of a rock sensibility, which I think works better. It kinda creates a different sound.” Winebrenner pauses and thinks about it for a moment, then proceeds to say, “Well, not that much different.”
The “New Jay,” Winebrenner speaks of is drummer Jay Pellicci. A denizen of Oakland, Jay Pellicci was recruited into the 31 Knots line-up whilst assisting in the production of “It Was High Time To Escape.”
“More or less, it was just like ‘I’m in’.” Pellicci says.
“The biggest issue is just the traveling part. Where they practice in Portland and I live in Oakland. So I was wondering how often do I have to travel up there to practice? I play in two bands (Dilute & Natural Dreamers) in the Bay Area, and I just wanted to make sure that [playing in 31 knots] wouldn’t make it so I wouldn’t be able to participate in the other two bands.”
Being both an engineer and a musician lends a certain quality and ethos to Pellicci’s character.
“He clicked amazingly well,” exclaims Haege. “He’s an amazing drummer and he’s just really excited about music, so that makes a huge difference.”
Before Jay Pellicci’s arrival, there were two “Joes” in 31 Knots. Know the tides have turned and there’s two “Jays” instead.
“I call him Pellicci,” Haege says emphatically. “Because I don’t even like to mess around with the ‘Jay’ thing! It’s a nightmare waiting to happen!”
A task like learning the percussion sections for a mathematical/jazz/punk trio such as 31 Knots would’ve taken a “regular session drummer” months to analyze and execute the eclectic rhythms which former drummer Joe Kelly had laid down as the blueprint for most of 31 Knots’ rhythmic schemes. Jay Pellicci however, ain’t no “regular session drummer.”
“I sent him a CD of the songs we wanted to record with him, that I had been working on.” Haege expounds. “And he had the old albums to practice, and we’re like ‘we wanna play this song, that song, this one.’ And he flew up here [Portland] to practice, and it was unbelievable! He had all the songs down! He was playing some of our older songs better than Jay and I were! It was ridiculous!”
“I like him a lot,” sates Winebrenner. He’s got a good equilibrium. He’s been in the scene for a while with this bitchin’ band called Dilute! He records bands for a living, he knows the drill.”
Haege agrees, “He is THE ‘Recording Engineer!’ He did our record, he pretty much just records bands, (Deerhoof, Erase Errata) and he’s been on tour a couple of times and has done live sound for a couple of people. But his main thing is being a recording engineer.”
Former drummer Joe Kelly actually played on some of, “It Was High Time To Escape.”
“He played on half of the album.” Haege says as he reminisces about his old band mate. “There’s definitely been times [on this tour] when I think to myself, ‘Joe would be the biggest baby right now!’ I’ve thought about him – We’ve talked to him a couple of times on the phone. He’s happy, he’s doing well, he’s hanging out with a girl; he’s in ‘love’. I think he’s just a lot happier in life, and it feels good to still be friends and know that he’s happy doing what he’s doing.”
“I still hang out with him a lot.” Winebrenner says whole-heartedly. “He’s still my buddy; it’s no big deal. He just got burnt out with touring, and honestly, he just wants to make money.” And certainly not even the staunchiest of punks or indie-rockers can argue with that!
31 Knots have been on and around the indie-rock scene for about four years now, and have yet to garner the attention of the national or underground entertainment media. With the caliber of their several albums – “Climax/Anti/Climax”, “A Word Is Also A Picture Of A Word”, their “Rehearsal Dinner EP” and most recent album “It Was High Time To Escape” – 31 Knots should be receiving the accolades which have been bestowed upon bands like The Mars Volta and the late Don Caballero. When asked how he felt about his band existing under the radar for as long as it has, Haege’s thoughts come across as gray as the Portland skies.
“There’s a part of me that’s totally egotistical and kind of just a little baby,” describes Haege. “Like, why the fuck hasn’t the ‘indie-rock’ community noticed us more? But at the same time, I feel a lot of the ‘indie-rock’ world is getting co-opted into homogenized garbage just like everything else.”
“Ever since the success of punk rock crossing over and the creation and advent of ‘indie-rock,’ people realized there’s a weird little niche where you can make money. You don’t have to be huge, you don’t have to ‘sell-out’ and you can still make some money. But the catch is, you’re still gonna have to be accessible. And I think a lot of people go for that. I feel like in this day and age, not as many bands are pushing the boundaries. I might sound totally bitter or jaded, but after working in a rock club for two years I saw a lot of shit! And it’s really sad.”
Winebrenner’s take on the media situation is a bit more laconic.
“I’ve been doing this for so long so I don’t even think about it.” Declares Jay. “We’ve been touring for like, fucking four years, ya know!? It becomes like, old news after four years of doing it.”
Spoken like a true bass player. Don’t go out and seek the media. Let the media go out and seek you! The music speaks for itself. Cliff would be proud. And as this most recent outing winds down to a close, Haege’s thoughts on music take an introspective turn.
“I always really wonder if I’m doing the right thing with my life? Because you drive across the country, you see shitloads of bands trying to play their music and get out there. And you see old friends who are graduating from whatever field of studies they are pursuing, and they’re getting jobs and they’re having kids. You have these opportunities to get these little brief glimpses into so many different lives when you’re on the road. And ya kind of just sit there – at least I do. I wonder ‘what the hell am I doing? Is this worth it?’ Then you play some stupid shows, and ya know it’s like, ‘I am wasting my life.'”
“But then, when it comes down to, it I just feel like I can’t even control it anymore. I do it because I have to. I want what’s next to be better. So far I feel like I’m not totally jaded yet,” laughs Haege. “I may be tired at times and a little cynical, but I’m definitely not jaded!”
And rightfully so! Joe, Jay and Pellicci are living the dreams of a lot of people who are reading this. Touring the country, playing in various cities in front of totally different crowds. Carburetor trouble isn’t much fun – but hey! It’s a part of the gig! With several albums already out and definitely more to come, 31 Knots seem to be teetering on the verge of crossing over. Not to the mainstream of course! But just high enough above the radar where fans and critics will finally have a chance to notice them, and their unique brand of prog/math/indie-based-rock. And no matter where the nickel may land, 31 Knots’ music is most definitely unique in its’ sound and delivery. After touring the states extensively in support of “It Was High Time To Escape” – 31 Knots will shuttle off for a headlining tour of Europe.
“Yeah! We’re ‘headlining!’ laughs Haege. “Bands on our level don’t call it ‘headlining.’ We call it playing last!”