Young Knives interview: Barbarians is the soundtrack to a turbulent world

“I like music that’s exciting, cathartic and can hold your interest too”, says Young Knives’ Henry Dartnall when breaking down their new album Barbarians. “It was trying to make something that was the music I wanted to listen to.”

That’s exactly what you get from the brothers Henry and Thomas Dartnall’s first full-length record since 2013’s acclaimed Sick Octave. From start to finish, Barbarians is an assault on the senses; throwing you into an visceral landscape of cutting guitars, industrial electro beats, and sonic experimentation.

It couldn’t have come at a more fitting time as humanity comprehends and navigates the storm of a deadly pandemic and political divisiveness. The world is teetering on the edge and Barbarians is its soundtrack.

Stylistically, Barbarians is Young Knives at their experimental best. Society for Cutting Up Men is a dystopian anthem as they chant the “who built all the towers?” over a marching drum beat and sinister synths, Red Cherries is an industrial rock stormer while Jenny Haniver and I Am Awake represents the more melodic side of the album’s coin.

“It was a very pure, let’s make that weird record thing” adds Henry. “Let’s mix up the things we wanted to mix up. Let’s mix up something that’s like Stevie Wonder and Suicide. Something that’s enjoyable but also cathartic.”

Inspired by themes in John Gray’s book Straw Dogs, the album tackles the idea of what it means to be human in an advancing society, exploring the idea that “if cruelty to others is just part of who we are – how do we live with that?”

Henry told Daily Star Online: “The book was almost like a description of the depths of humanity and you can remove all of humanity from the human being.

“There’s this discussion about things that are hard on people bring out the best in people, like lockdown or the Blitz spirit. But there are places on the Earth where a human can lose sense of anything human. Like the gulags. The only reason you’re not killing yourself because you literally don’t have the energy to do it.”

Young Knives have truly evolved since releasing their first EP The Young Knives….Are Dead in 2002 and breakthrough single Weekends and Bleak Days (Hot Summer) four years later. They’re the epitome of an act not satisfied unless they’re breaking the mould. Barbarians is one of the sharpest and cathartic listens of 2020, and one we all need right now.

Daily Star Online’s Rory McKeown caught up with Henry to talk about Barbarians, its cathartic style, its Straw Dog influences, why they want the Spotify algorithm changed, and their hopes ahead.

Hi Henry. How’s lockdown been for you? What’s it like having to release when everything is so closed?

“I always do that thing where a situation has occurred to me a long time after they’ve happened. I tend to just roll with the punches. I remember when it happened and we were all like ‘OK, we’ll start doing that then’. You’ll probably look back on it in a few years time and think ‘f****** hell, that was intense, wasn’t it?’. Some people are really sensitive to it straight away but I was like ‘I’ll be in the studio for a while’.

“We had gigs and stuff planned, so that was quite intense. We had to switch direction really.”

Have you had time to work on material?

“Not really. I was thinking I’m going to get loads done but we’ve been doing weekly live streams and a bunch of stuff for the launch of this (Barbarians). People would be amazed how long and boring the process of releasing an album is if you want to do it properly and you’re only a small team of people doing it.

“We do these live streams but they end up taking two or three days prep to get them to work, and even then they sometimes don’t work.”

I’ve caught some of them. Are they good fun to do?

“Yeah they are. Some people take to it naturally. The generation below me f****** love it. You see kids these days and they’re quite happy to go ‘hi, everybody’. We were more like ‘what is this that we’re doing? What’s the point?’ Then you realise that if people enjoy it it’s a platform to play music.

“There’s a lot of po-faced Instagram boring live streaming going on. It’s the same with everything, there’s always a load of people doing it and not necessarily doing it well. I was aware that we wanted to do it well within the limitations we had.”

What’s it like connecting with fans in that way compared to a human interaction at a gig? Is it more inclusive?

“It’s a completely different thing. I think they’re a thing that we’ll keep doing to an extent. I think people will. Having that direct connection with people, you’ve got to be like this is what it is to be a musician now.

“I can’t remember who it was but someone said ‘what we do and what anybody as an artist does is almost entirely unmonetisable'. If someone says there’s a new band and they’ve got some music, there’s a lot of ‘what, why do I care?’ It’s very difficult to make it something you can live off and if you add into that a disdain into the sales and marketing process you’re on a hiding to nothing.

“You’ve got to find a way to do it that you’re comfortable with. We weren’t comfortable with doing live streams at first but it’s second nature now. I don’t feel like so much of a massive show off as I did at the beginning. You’re doing an entertainment thing, stop being so self conscious, get in front of the camera and start playing your songs. If people don’t dig it, they’re not going to come. The people that are there are the ones digging it.

“It’s not like when you’re at a gig and someone’s paying to see you. I’ve been to plenty of gigs where I’ve thought ‘oh no, I’m not enjoying this’, and I’ve stayed until the end and thought it was a waste of money. There are so many people who don’t go to live shows so it’s a whole different audience as well. I think it’s a great turn-up for everybody, that people have had to start doing it. If you can’t make it a gig, don’t make it a gig.

“That’s why we do things like talk in between. Sometimes it can be boring because we waffle on like idiots or whatever but I think it’s more of a community. It’s less one-sided. How can we bring some of that into the live show? There’s definitely a fourth wall with the live show and that’s completely gone with live streams.”

You’ve returned with Barbarians, your first LP since Sick Octave in 2013. What was the writing and recording process like this time? What made you go in this direction? When did you start putting it together?

“The Sick Octave record we did was probably quite a reaction to the music industry where we found ourselves in it, which is a little bit of a self-obsessed reason to write the record. It was a reaction to being told things like you need to buy your freedom by writing a hit and almost being sucked into the idea of it briefly. We did a record I was really not pleased with before that.

“Human beings are pretty suggestible. When people are telling you stuff often enough you start to believe it. You like to think you wouldn’t and that you’re an individual that is not suggestible but that’s what happens to a lot of bands and musicians. When you get to the point where it’s a business, people start saying ‘we need them to do this’.

“You start getting advice and Sick Octave was a reaction. We got rid of people and we needed to hunker down and make a great record. Once we’d done that we could worry about how people listen to it and who releases it and stuff. It’s a continuation of that.

“This time I didn’t want to be so reactionary. We’ve always listened to stuff that’s weirder than the music we make. Me and my brother are both fans of things like Throbbing Gristle and Suicide. A lot of people quote them you always think ‘if you’re quoting them, why are you doing music that’s not pushing stuff as much as that?’. I like Throbbing Gristle but I also find some of their albums boring. I have to be in a specific mood.

“I like music that’s exciting, cathartic and can hold your interest too. It was trying to make something that was the music I wanted to listen to. It was probably the purest time we’ve ever done that apart from the first record, when we wrote it before anybody was interested.

"That’s how bands work. They write all their stuff in a shed somewhere and someone gets interested in their second album, and then everyone’s interested. We tried to not worry about it. We didn’t have anybody looking after us. We didn’t have any label that we knew we were going to do it with.

“That’s why it took so long. We finished writing it and we needed to find the label. We started with a very traditional approach to finding labels and then realised the music industry isn’t the same as it was even when we released the last record. It took quite a long time to find a good, trustworthy way of putting it out. We learned quite a lot on the way of doing that.

“It was a very pure, let’s make that weird record thing. Let’s mix up the things we wanted to mix up. Let’s mix up something that’s like Stevie Wonder and Suicide. Something that’s enjoyable but also cathartic.”

Like its name, Barbarians is hard-hitting from the get go. Swarm is a sonically big, rousing number with space age bleeps and pummelling drum beat, Society For Cutting Up Men is almost a dystopian anthem, marching in a sense, Jenny Haniver is awash with synths, Barbarians is an assault on the senses. What was it like creating something so vastly experimental, and so industrial? How did you get into that mindset musically?

“It’s a very long process. It’s very, very different. We make basically bedroom records now. We saw the way things were going.

"When we made a record 10 years ago in LA with a producer and it cost £30,000 and the rest, we were like ‘this is just stupid’. We should be able to do this. It’s basically saying I’m a painter but I’m going to get someone else to mix the colours and put the paint on the canvas.

"You go to a studio, you get a producer, and the producer is the expert in sound. We thought we could do this. We’ve been able to do it in B-sides. Our demos don’t sound that bad. It’s a learning curve but it’s not insurmountable. Let’s surmount it, as it were. Let’s get a desk. I don’t want to go to a studio for six weeks and record a record like that. I’d rather have a microphone set up here and on an evening think I’ll do that vocal again.

“It’s a recipe for disaster in that you can keep going. You’ve got to make a decision at a certain point. I think that’s just self discipline. We did do things a bit too much. But I think that’s the record it was. It was the record of that moment, where we found the time to do it when we had time to do it and fit it in around being human beings.

"You don’t live in the music industry of 10 years ago. There aren’t many people who can say they’re going to take 10 weeks off to record and record and go and live somewhere.

“In a way I like it because I’ve always felt the same thing about touring. When you go on tour we used to be on a tour bus. You’re in a bubble. You’re almost in a bubble that makes you feel like a super hero. It’s actually really quite unhealthy. You come home and you have to bridge that gap between that Superman/Clark Kent existence to going back to doing the washing up, opening a letter, and being a normal human being.

“I think it’s really destructive for the creative process. For me, it was absolutely destructive to the creative process. I didn’t see it at the time but it was a certain sense of self importance. I now think that the creative process is much more democratised that it’s ever been.

“We’ve got a bit of a manifesto for the band that we came up with. Young Knives is not a band, Young Knives is not art, Young Knives is not music. You should never see yourself as I’m special because I’m a musician. I don’t like all this talk about artists because it precludes everyone else from being one. There’s this group, the artists, then there’s all of you non-artists that don’t make music. I think that’s bulls***. If you want to make music, you can do it. It’s just dedicating your time to it that makes it that person. It’s made us much more grounded.

“We can do whatever we want, which is great, so we can make the weirdest, craziest record, or if we wanted to make a 2 minute 50 pop song then we’re free to do that as well without this idea that any pressure or expectation about what it might be.”

Would you say it’s the most fun it’s been since you’ve been in a band or different?

“Fun? No. It is different. We had a lot of unwarranted fun when we were in the bubble. It’s an addictive situation which you’re frightened to lose. You’ll think you can wake up tomorrow and this will all be gone.

“But what would actually be gone? Because we did wake up tomorrow and it was gone. We got told ‘we don’t want to do your next record’ because we weren’t a major label band. We were really lucky to be on a major label in that we got the exposure that probably kept us going until this point.

“What do you actually lose? You don’t lose music. You just lose marketing budget. You need to keep these things in perspective. For me the idea of success has changed. We live in this very male dominated, rat race idea of success that doesn’t relate to stuff that’s interesting and fulfilling. It’s more fulling than it’s ever been, definitely. Like the rest of life, it’s 99% admin. It’s boring. It’s suffering with little glimpses of ‘woo hoo!’.

“The process is just like work. Give yourself a task and it should be bloody hard work. If it’s not bloody hard work, it’s not worth doing. There’s a lot of frustrations with making music but they’re not interesting to other people.

“It’s more fulfilling because the output is more what I want to hear.”

Are you already thinking about the next material? Will you be taking this process this time ahead?

“You always don’t want to repeat. We’ve had a bit of time since recording this one to it coming out. We kept writing, that was before lockdown.

“There’s probably an album’s worth of material to record, which we’ll probably do a bit quicker this time.

“I think this one is quite proggy, longer tracks. I’d quite like to do an album with quite short, snappy tracks. I’ve always wanted to do that. Simpler and shorter, something more spontaneous. I feel this is quite a laboured album. It’s been great, it’s just a lot of attention to detail. It’s quite an intricate album.”

You looked to John Gray’s book Straw Dogs for inspiration. How did you get into it and what was it like formulating ideas for song?

“Not very easy because it’s not very jolly. It was a struggle because we were definitely not into the idea of making a super depressing listen. I got quite obsessed with Death Grips for a year and couldn’t listen to normal music. It was very difficult to go back.

“I’ve always liked things like Lightning Bolt and bands like that where it’s a real joyful, cathartic experience to be involved in something like that to go and watch them. I wanted to do something like that with these dark ideas. It was an aggressive letting go. We bridge a gap between things that are quite melodic in places. That was definitely an influence.

“The book was almost like a description of the depths of humanity and you can remove all of humanity from the human being. There’s this discussion about things that are hard on people bring out the best in people, like lockdown or the Blitz spirit. But there are places on the Earth where a human can lose sense of anything human. Like the gulags. The only reason you’re not killing yourself because you literally don’t have the energy to do it.

“I wanted to do something that’s not a judgemental record. How can you not be judgemental about genocide and be indifferent about great success? I thought that was quite a good concept for a record.

“Lyric writing is bulls*** if you’ve got nothing on your mind. You can make that a personal story about how you know you can be the worst person on the planet and the best person on the planet. Depending on the day I will give money to a homeless person or I will totally blank them. That’s what art should be about, those juxtapositions. We should be saying something about the human condition and I feel quite strongly about that.

“That’s definitely something to base the lyrics on and hopefully make something that’s, on the surface, has a good backbeat and is enjoyable when you put it on. That’s what you always aspire towards.”

The album and its themes seem like quite poignant and relevant for release during our current climate. Was it quite fitting for you when you had these songs and then the album comes out as we are going through such strange times?

“We’d probably finished it quite soon before Donald Trump got in. It wasn’t finished but it was mainly written by that point.

“The Swarm thing – I didn’t even think about it. Our radio plugger said we should do this one as a single. It’s got a catchy hook, it’s a bit different, it’s not verse chorus verse chorus. She said it’s so apt for now. I hadn’t really thought about it. It was always about sometimes you want to be social.

“But it’s the mob and the community. You’re part of both. When you’re part of a community, you’re also slightly part of mob rule. It’s both sides of the same coin. We have a swarm of infection and disease. It’s synchronicity or something, I guess. We will soon see if it will have any baring or impact on our success. It could be the anthem for coronavirus! Too left field I think, it’ll still be a Coldplay anthem.”

What’s the major change you’ve seen since the band formed until now? In yourselves and the music climate.

“We’ve been doing it since we were teenagers. We have been together since we were 16 and 17. I roped my brother in because I needed someone I could push around. Someone who could play bass even though he wanted to be a guitarist.

“Our drummer moved away to have a family and some people grow out of wanting to be in the band. I can totally understand that. Props to people who get out. Someone who’s got the balls to say they’re not going to worry about making it, I’m just going to live and have a nice life. There’s too much riding on being in a band sometimes when you’re playing the music industry game. We’ve got to the point where we’re very relaxed about the idea of success, that was very much pushed at the time. I always said to myself that if I don’t make it by this point I’m going to give up. Why would I think like that? That’s because you’re worried about something out of your control.

“I think the music industry is changing for the better. It’s becoming more democratised and the labels and the influencers are playing less part. It’s not the be all and end all anymore, which is really great.

“Like doing all the stuff on social media at the moment. I’ve never been a big social media person because I think it’s in its infancy and I think is terrible. I’m not going to be posting pics of my kids on Facebook – I don’t give a s***. I can’t believe people are still doing it. There are too many moments to live in for that. I’m slightly upset by the amount of time some people spend on it and how instant all the reactions can be to certain things we do on it. I don’t want to judge anyone for doing it, especially at the moment because it’s a huge connection for people to be on social media.

“I think it will get to the point where it’s a really useful and great way to get to people even if you’re not taking selfies of yourself. There are all the things that are negative about it but it’s potentially a great democratising tool I think. It can be a place where we engage with an audience if we treat them with respect and in a way where we are building a community with them. It’s a whole load of people who like your music.

“I’m just forever grateful there are people that come along and watch something like that. If they don’t like it they’re not going to stick around. I’m not trying to sell something to someone who don’t give a s*** about it, I’m just interested in finding people who do. If they don’t, they don’t.”

What are your hopeful for looking ahead, whether it’s with the band for music in general?

“It would be lovely for it to be always a step up. Really my main interest is almost dissolving the band in a way, where we use Young Knives as it’s got a bit of legacy behind it. It’s a right pain in the arse actually. If you look at our Spotify algorithm it’s a right f****** pain the arse. People who like Young Knives like Milburn, The Futureheads, The Rakes, Sunshine Underground, bands that haven’t even existed for 10 years because people have saved us on these playlists. Weekend and Bleakdays is saved on some playlist from 10 years ago. If you could please delete us off those playlists! What a nightmare. That’s the main format for listening to music and the algorithm is so important to how people get it yet it’s putting us in with a load of music, which at the time I can see why but we don’t make music like that anymore. I want to appear on the ‘It sounds like M.I.A’, that’s what I want. But again, how much can you control it? I could pay to get on a load of alternative electronica playlists or something.

“I’m hopeful mainly to have more people involved in what we do. We have to do what the farmers do, where you’re not making money off your land anymore and you have to let the theme park in. Diversification is the way forward for us. If you can find enjoyable ways of doing it then you should do it.

"I would like to do music with other people and document it and make more of a musical community out of what we do. We’re not just a three-piece insular band. Hopefully music that I feel always pushes what is possible between that kind of pop and unlistenable non-music that I like. Somewhere in that happy medium between chaos and order. Pop music formats with unexpected loud horrible bits. Something that keeps people’s attention but is always thoughtful.”

Barbarians by Young Knives is out now via Gadzooks

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