“I think at that point, we kinda knew the end was coming…”
David Knudson is casting his mind back to the last time we spoke. The interview in question was back in 2017, when Minus The Bear were touring the UK in support of what would become the Seattle band’s final studio album, Voids. Both Knudson and frontman/guitarist Jake Snider were generous with their time that night, but there was a noticeable tension that would make their decision to call it a day after 17 years in 2018 somewhat unsurprising in hindsight.
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“Y’know, Voids barely got finished?” Knudson admits to us down the Zoom call from his home studio, a weariness coming into his voice as he confronts the memory. “There was a possibility that it wouldn’t have even been completed at all. So the fact that we were over there touring it was remarkable in itself after Erin [Tate, longtime MTB drummer] leaving the band, and then there were some personal issues. They’re great guys, but being in a band and travelling for so many months – half the year, or more – sometimes it just zaps the spark?”
It wasn’t just fatigue of each other that was sapping the energy from the indie-rock band and their hugely influential and inventive guitarist. When the band started out as Knudson’s volte face after the dissolution of mathcore trailblazers Botch back in 2001, things were a lot simpler, life wise. 15 years later, that was not the case.
“Before we all had families, we were all just total road-dogs right?” Knudson chuckles. “We’d start in Seattle on the west coast and tour out to the east coast, and then fly out from the east coast to Europe for five or six weeks and then back across the states! But then once kids and families start happening, it was like, ‘Well, let’s figure out how to do two or three weeks and then go home for two or three weeks… and then even that can still get stressful! Especially with partners being understandably like, ‘Why aren’t you here?! The kid is throwing up on me! I need help!’
“So there was definitely a massive amount of appreciation for being home, and realising all the little things that add up to make having a family wonderful. We spent so many years on tour that we had our fill of that, and it was time to just come home and settle down.”
The end of Minus The Bear also saw Knudson admitting his relationship with alcohol had gotten out of control. He’s now happily two and a half years sober, but given all of that, it’s no surprise that he focused on enjoying being a dad and a husband for a few years – at least from the outside.
On the quiet, the wheels had been turning on a solo album for a while. But the focus and drive of sobriety saw Knudson dive into the creation of the aptly titled The Only Thing You Have To Change Is Everything, working alongside Voids producer Sam Bell with a host of guest vocalists – including Snider for their first post-MTB collaboration.
“There would be a lot of times that we’d be sound-checking for Minus The Bear and I’d come up with stuff and y’know maybe make a mental note and store it away,” he reflects on the early ideas for the album. “I’d be like, ‘Ooh this could be pretty cool. But it doesn’t really seem like it’s gonna fit for Minus The Bear’. Or where we got to the point of knowing that there most likely wasn’t going to be another Minus The Bear record.
“So a lot of that stuff that I wrote on the last couple of tours, I always knew that I wanted to use that for a solo record, and I started recording this all the way back in like 2019 with Sam. we started in this vast studio where MTB had recorded a bunch of stuff, and then after a couple of days there we realised, we don’t need this huge studio. We’re not tracking drums. We’re not tracking a full band!
“So then, we kinda paused and I built this studio in the basement of the house, in the spare bedroom, and we just recorded the whole thing here. It was pre-pandemic that we decided to do it at home – but it was such a great decision! And timing-wise it worked great because I was already set up and ready to go, when Covid stopped everything.”
The months of lockdown and isolation gave Knudson a chance to reflect on the album so far, and realise that his original intention wasn’t quite working out, and gave him the time to make a radical left-turn.
“The record originally was just going to be instrumental, but having that time over Covid made me reconsider,” Knudson says. “And then I sent a couple of tracks to my buddy Bayonne, Roger Sellers, and once we heard what those songs sounded like with a vocal over it, we were kind of like, ‘Okay, let’s reevaluate this!’’
“Instrumental stuff is great and there are bands that can do that super well and tell a story with instrumentation. But I felt the songs would be better served if we added a vocal, and lyric and a melody. It’s easier to get an earworm stuck in your head that’s a vocal hook rather than a guitar part for instance, right?
“So then we rethought what the record should and could be, and that’s when we started collaborating with different vocalists, and Sam took a few songs on and said, ‘I have great ideas for this that I’d love to explore’. So we just went down that path and ended up where we are now.”
Given that the options always seemed to be either an instrumental album or working with guest vocalists, and nothing else, we can’t help but ask if there was ever a moment where he was tempted to step up to the mic…
“Well it’s funny!” he says with a laugh. “When I was demoing Spaldo at home, I think I was in my kitchen, and I sang those ‘Ohs’ that happen over the chorus. Then when we came to record it, Sam was like ‘These are great! I’m just gonna use those!’ So actually my voice is on there! But I’m not a lyricist, and my voice isn’t good. I can shout an ‘Oh’ and a producer can process it, and that’s about it! I’d rather just play guitar and write music, and leave the vocals and lyrics to people that really have that as a craft.”
The chance to hear Knusdon work with Snider again is a treat for MTB fans without doubt, but it was also a fun moment for the two friends to reconnect..
“It was so great working with Jake again, because there was no pressure,” he explains. “With Minus The Bear at the end there was just so much pressure to tour and write, or meet expectations set by the label or the booking agent, or by ourselves, or by the manager, or whatever.
“But this was just, zero expectations, zero pressure. It was just such a joy to be able to write with him again. I think, taking away all that band dynamic and that pressure, it let him fly creatively and I think you can hear it in the song because he just sounds so relaxed and at ease.”
Going it alone
Doing a solo album might be the obvious thing that people in bands end up doing when they’re no longer in one, but as someone who’s been in a successful band of one form or another since he was 17 years old, the reality of going it alone for the first time at the age of 43 was something of a culture shock.
“Oh man, it’s so weird,” he says. “It’s totally, totally different. In some ways the creative freedom is amazing, right? Because there’s no one to say, ‘Eh I don’t really like that…’ I can just go with my inspiration and not have anyone throw up a stop sign.
“But the thing that I do find myself missing is some of that camaraderie. There is something about being in a room with multiple people, where you’re writing something and you don’t even have to speak to the other person? You’re just playing, and you know when you make eye contact that you’re onto something, and you know what the other person is going to do next even though you’ve never done it before, y’know?
“The collaboration with vocalists and stuff is great, but it’s not like we’re in a room sitting together doing it as we’re writing the song. It’s more of a ‘Dropbox this back and forth’ sort of thing – which is cool! It’s amazing that we can do that. But I do miss the communal aspect of the writing. But, there’s pros and cons to both. And it’s interesting looking back and appreciating what Minus the Bear and Botch were in terms of, of ‘the band’ kinda thing. But it’s rewarding in different ways.”
Being the sole arbiter of everything on the record is going to push you out of your comfort zone, and for Knudson it pushed him down… right down…
“I’ve never spent this much time thinking about low-end in my life!” he exclaims. “I’ve just been guitars, guitars, guitars and then, y’know, here I am having so much fun recording bass and programming drums and doing synth-based things.
“I’d never played bass really, but it was so much fun to move my brain over there and try to write some drum and bass grooves, and then put guitars on top of it. As opposed to being like, ‘Here’s a guitar part, let’s work on the drums, starting with the bass and the drums first was kinda fun for me. Especially on a song like Varv – it’s got that super distorted bass with big fat drums underneath it and then there’s a ton of DL-4 craziness over the top of it.”
Varv is one of the most ear-grabbing songs on the album, and as one of just two instrumentals is a suitable statement of intent as the opener. It’s also a mind-bending distillation of everything that has made Knudson’s guitar playing such an influential touchstone for so many modern players – with chunky riffs, musical tapping, chopped up and wildly manipulating guitar loops, searing leads… it’s no surprise that it’s a standout for Knudson too.
“I love Varv… some of that DL-4 sampling stuff on it is what I’ve heard in my head for so long… it feels like a big exhale! Because I’ve been feeling this for so long, and now it’s an actual piece of music, y’know? There’s such a sense of relief about some of these things, that I feel that I’ve wanted to say for a while or that I’ve wanted to write for a while, and now to have them out just feels so nice.”
Having cleared out a load of his Botch and Minus The Bear gear on Reverb in 2020, for recording the album, Knudson relied primarily on the trusty PRS duo that accompanied him through much of MTB – a Goldtop McCarty and Tobacco Burst Custom 24. Other guitars to make an appearance were his trusty Fender Baritone Jaguar and his newest squeeze, a Millimetric MGS3 that was bought with some of the Reverb store’s proceeds (“It looks like a modern art piece, but then you pick it up and it just shreds!”).
There was also, of course, a LOT of Line 6 DL-4.
Few guitarists are as associated with one pedal as Knudson is with Line 6’s classic delay modeller, thanks largely to the revolutionary way that he pushed the boundaries of what you can do with the pedal’s looper function and made its jittery, cut-up riffs the cornerstone of Minus The Bear’s much-loved Menos El Oso and Planet Of Ice albums.
Unless you’ve been living under a guitar-rock for the last few months, you’ll know that Line 6 recently released a Mk II version of the DL-4, over 20 years since the original pedal changed the face of guitar music forever. It should come as no surprise that Knudson was one of the first people to get his hands on the new slimmed down and upgraded units, and he’s been impressed with almost everything about the Mk II… almost.
“I do appreciate a ton of stuff about it,” he explains. “Like the smaller size is great – I’m looking at the old one now and it just takes up so much real estate! The new delays sound awesome and I love the reverbs – there’s so many other delay pedals now that they had to update those sounds.
“It’s also great that it has the SD card to store loops in case it gets unplugged and you lose power – because I mean, honestly… I don’t know how many fuckin’ times that happened live! You have your sample set and it’s ready to go and you just went out for line check and you’re gonna come out like five minutes later… and then something happens and like, the upstage power goes out and the samples are gone and you’re like ‘…Fuck. Okay. Let’s do this again!’ So, that’s awesome.
“But, I will say, they totally missed the boat on one thing – it has this SD card slot to store samples, right? I was really hoping that they would’ve made more than one sample recallable. Because it only stores the last sample that you played! I think for a lot of guitarists, they’d love for that to operate like a Boss Loop Station where you can have 10 or 12 or 20 samples stored on a card, right? Because it’s not like they’re lacking storage space on those cards right? I think it seems like it’s a missed opportunity to not be able to like, go into sample recall mode and turn the dial where you select the delays and it goes like, sample one, sample two, sample three…
I’m hoping some software guy is listening! Maybe that’s a firmware update that they could do down the line, because they have the SD card to do it! I hope they do. That for me would be like the holy grail of DL-4 pedals.”
Back on the bike
One of the most visible promotional tools Knudson has used for promoting the new album is his own back catalogue of mind-bendingly brilliant guitar riffs from both Botch and Minus The Bear – every week over the last few months he’s invited his followers on Instagram to get an up-close look at home he plays and creates these hugely memorable guitar parts, and the response has been emphatic.
“I gotta say, the outpouring of enthusiasm was totally unexpected,” he admits. “I didn’t know if people would just be like, ‘Oh okay alright’. I’ve kinda been absent from posting music stuff for quite a while, so I figured it was a good opportunity to remind people of previous songs that I’ve been a part of, that they loved and hopefully entice them back to listen to the new stuff. So it’s been really fun.”
Did he struggle to remember any of these ridiculously intricate and complex guitar parts he’s committed to record over the years?
“Some of them are just second nature, and it’s just like riding a bike,” Knudson says. “I pick up the guitar and you tell me to do this and then I don’t even think about it and it just happens. But for some of them – especially for some of the Botch songs – it was just like, ‘What the hell is this part?!’ I actually had to watch part of the final Botch show footage to remember exactly what I was doing on one of the songs, cos’ I was like, ‘Where am I playing this?!’ So thanks to the Botch DVD!”
The Only Thing You Have To Change Is Everything is out now.