Houston Calling

Ten Questions for musician Chris Knudson

December 8th, 2004 · No Comments

This year, due to the national election, many musicians spouted off about their political candidiate of choice, and organizations like MoveOn threw concerts in an effort to educate the young masses about voting.

A local musician threw his hat in the ring earlier this year with a call to action song of his own. Chris Knudson, who was in the band Val Holler and whose current project is called Knudson & Clarke, wrote the song “Stand Up and Be Counted.” You may have heard it on some of the independent stations here in Houston–or you can listen to it at his website here.

Knudson & Clarke will play downtown at Dean’s Credit Clothing this Sunday, 12.12.04, as part of the Sunday Sessions (which you can read about in an earlier entry).

I recently asked Chris a series of questions for Houston Calling. Enjoy.

Ten Questions for Chris Knudson

HC: How did you first get started as a musician?

Chris: I started taking piano lessons in grade school but became disinterested after a few years, not being encouraged to improvise and compose which might have kept me with it. After stopping formal lessons, I continued to play the piano on my own, creating instrumental pieces on my own and dabbing in music as a teenager. Unfortunately my sight reading suffered, but I explored the instrument in my own way. I even formed a short-lived post-Kurtis Blow, pre Beastie Boys rap trio called “Grandmaster Funk” with a few school friends utilizing a old childhood turntable and a friend’s Korg DDM-110 drum machine.

I also played in a school cover band for a time. Later I composed for Robert Rodriguez’ first feature El Mariachi in Austin and played keys in an original band in New York. I switched to guitar in New York and have stuck with that as my main instrument compositionally and performance-wise since then.

HC: What do consider to be your musical influences?

CK: My dad’s musical tastes would be my earliest influence. He has a pretty stellar collection of early Rock and Roll 45s, Elvis, late 50s stuff. There are pictures of me listening on big white headphones to reel-to-reel tapes of the Beatles, Peter, Paul and Mary, Byrds…mostly folk and folk rock tunes when I was an infant. My dad also had lived in Hawaii and played the Ukelele and some guitar for my little sister and me. My mom played the piano occasionally, but was basically limited to playing a few pieces that she knew, like “Ebb Tide” and “Clair de Lune” and the “Theme to Romeo and Juliet.” As I didn’t have any older brothers or sisters, I discovered other bands through school friends, one of which was guitarist Adrian Schoolar who plays guitar for Mark Junger and the Whistling Mules who are based in and around Austin, Texas. Some of my early LPs were albums by Kiss, Elton John, Queen, and later albums by Rush, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and lots of new wave and 80s bands…The Police, Elvis Costello and the like.

After moving to New York I became part of the early-mid 90s scene and played clubs like Sin-? where Jeff Buckley was an acquaintance and big influence. The whole Grunge scene was hot and also I discovered Jazz and the whole NYC punk-post punk music. But I love all sorts of music from Django Rheinhart to Joni Mitchell and have come to appreciate singer/songwriters like James Taylor, Townes van Zandt, Richard Julian, Bruce Cockburn…a long list for sure.

HC: You’ve written a timely song for this election year. What prompted you to write something like “Stand Up and Be Counted”?

CK: After I came back from living in Berlin, Germany for close to 3 years, I settled in Houston where I grew up and have been immersing myself in Texas Music past and present. Having lived abroad during 9/11 and the 2nd Gulf War, I gained a lot of perspective about American politics and people’s perceptions outside the US. Even though the song is really a pro-America election stump song, it really leans toward my idea that we have to get away from what I believe to be an anachronistic view that we need to protect our interests through war and aggression, even if it seems as if we haven’t initiated it.

John Lennon said from his Toronto bed-in in 1969, “Everybody’s talking about peace, but nobody does anything about it in a peaceful way. It doesn’t help murderers to hang them, it doesn’t help violent people to be violent to them. Violence begets violence. You can’t kill off all the violent people or all the murderers or you’d have to kill off the government.” I have been working on getting the song out there through Rock the Vote and to the Kerry campaign. The mp3 and lyrics are available on my homepage.

HC: You could do some namedropping with people you know and/or have worked with over the years. What’s one of the best experiences you have had as a musician (inside or outside of Houston)?

CK: I’ve worked with some great people over the years and continue to do so. Film composer Eric Guthrie and I co-wrote the soundtrack to El Mariachi in Austin. In New York, Brad Albetta (Mary Me Jane) co-produced my Val Holler record “Versicle,” which featured drummer Tobias Ralph (Nena, Duncan Sheik, Plexus), flutist Richard Worth (Groove Collective), Allen Towbin (Plexus), Tim Bright (Lisa Loeb, Samsara) and sampled material from my friend Bachir Attar of the Master Musicians of Jajouka from Morocco. Drummer Adam Chasan (Freeloader, Adam Green, Supple) played quite a lot with me during that time as well. In Los Angeles I collaborated on some demos with Theo Mondle who had toured with Beck, and in Germany I played with a number of musicians on the scene in Berlin.

HC: Your current project is Knudson & Clarke, with singer/songwriter Kristin Clarke. How’s that going? What can you tell me about it? Local producer/drum tech extraordinaire Robbie Parrish is co-producing it, right? How does it differ than your stuff with Val Holler?

CK: Kristin is a formidable young singer who has been playing in Los Angeles over the past few years before returning to her old hometown of Houston as well. She get hooked up with Robbie through a mutual acquaintance, and he has helped steer the ship on our recording project as the venerable Sugar Hill Studios. Robbie’s played and tuned drums for tons of people including Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana), Bowie, and Smashing Pumpkins. Our first sessions included Paul English on keys, Anthony Sap on bass, Robbie on drums, and Galveston guitar legend Bert Wills on guitar. Keyboardist Rick Thompson, formerly of Moses Guest, has also signed on, as well as Michael Poulos of Tody Castillo’s band and Libra 3, and drummer Greg Morrison. We’re heading back into the studio in October to cut the rest of our track for the album.

HC: What’s your take on the state of the music industry? Are you for or against the MP3 “revolution”? How do you use the internet as a tool to market yourself?

CK: I’ve had some form of a website up now since 1996. I don’t think it’s translated into beaucoup record sales. I’ve pretty much been in charge of my own promotion and distribution, with help on the distribution side from The Orchard, a company in New York founded by Richard Gottehrer who worked with Blondie, and more recently the Danish band The Ravonettes. After Phillips brought CD burners out to a mass market without any compensation to record companies and artists it was a real blow, followed closely by the free digital downloads epidemic that the internet spawned.

I know in Germany, GEMA, which is the equivalent of ASCAP and BMI here, collects a royalty on all blank media and media recorders (VCRs, CD-R, DVD, etc.) which helps to offset the loss of revenues. There was a Digital Media Bill passed in the US in 1996 I believe, but I don’t think any of that money trickles down to “middle and lower class” musicians. Lots of acts have been successful at utilizing the web and chat rooms to get their careers going, John Mayer in particular. But it still takes a champion or champions in high places to get you to the next level. Touring and music conferences don’t hurt either if one can manage it, although big conferences like SXSW have become a difficult place to get noticed for mom-and-pop level acts.

As for touring, I’m a vegetarian, and find it difficult to tour on a shoe-string budget. But it looks like the tide is turning on digital music, thanks to iTunes, Rhapsody and similar ventures. My girlfriend has a Rhapsody subscription, and I think it’s incredible being able to search for and pull up an amazing selection of music which shall only get better and more comprehensive over time.

HC: If you could have any band cover one of your songs, what song would it be and what band?

CK: That’s a tough one. Honestly, I love to have the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, even Jeff Buckley cover any song of mine they wished, but that doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen. I suppose I love to have Coldplay, Norah Jones or The Neville Brothers. God there would be so many I could list, depending on styles and range. Most likely it will be someone in a year or two I’ve never heard of.

HC: What is the one description that you hate to hear about your music?

CK: That it’s too complicated or uncategorical. A strong reaction, either positive or negative is always best.

HC: What’s next for you? Any grand plans for 2005?

CK: More of the same…Hopefully more time on the road (with support!)

HC: What is in your CD player right now?

CK: Prince’s latest, Maroon 5, Scissor Sisters (which drummer Paul Valdez turned me onto), Ryan Adams. Also I dug out some old vinyl and have been listening to Queen, Joy Division, Supertramp (my first concert in 1982), and such.

Thanks to Chris Knudson for taking the time to answer these questions. Be sure to check out his music here and keep an eye out for his shows.

Now Playing in My iPod: Matthew ShawGhosts in the Concrete

Tags: Music