Chinese food goes everywhere and gets stepped on and everyone’s crying…
The Isle of Man is a miniature country that carves its own way in the world. Parked out in the Irish Sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland, part of the British Isles but no member of the United Kingdom, it has its own government and makes its own laws, but its currency is on a 1:1 exchange rate with the British Pound, and its population still technically owes allegiance to the Queen. The annual TT motorcycle race meeting is a highlight of the calendar for petrolheads worldwide, and a number of famous names in the music industry settled there after their heyday, as diverse as Norman Wisdom, Rick Wakeman and John Coghlan of Status Quo. Moving there as a prosperous retiree is one thing; being born there is something else though, and the nation’s small size and isolation can be frustrating for musicians wanting to make a name for themselves. Enter Davy Knowles, front man, singer and songwriter of Manx band Back Door Slam. “The Isle of Man is spectacular, it’s beautiful and I miss it tremendously,” he says,“ but there’s no way – and I knew this early on – that I would be able to do this for a living being based there.”
Back Door Slam were formed straight out of school, and the fresh-faced trio released their only full-length studio album in 2007 named Roll Away, which was released in the Isle of Man and North America, where it gained a fair bit of traction. Intensive gigging, some high-profile support slots, and an EP and live album followed, and the hard-working band were lucky enough to tour the States. Knowles moved to California, which may have been a Mecca for chilled-out hippies in the ‘60s, but is a cut-throat world for anyone entering the entertainment industry, as he explains: “The touring went really well, and it seemed like our path of least resistance if you like; I ended up moving originally to Los Angeles, but I met my future wife who was born and bred in Chicago, and ended up settling there instead. It suits me a lot better, I prefer Chicago as a city. It’s a little friendlier, and a little less stressful especially for a musician; you know it’s very competitive in Los Angeles, and I’m not that kind of person.”
He played under the name Davy Knowles and Back Door Slam, with a completely different line-up, for a while; this combo released a single album in 2009 named Coming Up For Air, produced by (and guest starring) no less a luminary then guitarist Peter Frampton, but since then Knowles has toured and recorded under his own name. His first pukka solo album, The Outsider, was released in 2014, followed by Three Miles From Avalon in 2016, and an acoustic EP named 1932 the following year. The title references the year of the classic 1932 National guitar that’s featured on the album. A bit of a break followed, decreed in part by the Covid crisis that has forced many a touring musician into hibernation, but he’s back this year with his new full-length set entitled What Happens Next. I ask him to explain about the title. “Well, I felt like musically it was a little bit of a departure. I felt like this was more of a re-introduction really; it’s been a while since I’ve released something. And then with Covid and all that stuff too, it poses a bit of a question, like ‘What the hell do I do now?’ So it kind of came together in two different ways.”
As far as being ‘a little bit of a departure’ is concerned, I asked him if that entailed maybe a bit less guitarist and a bit more singer/songwriter? “I’d say that’s fair, yeah,” he says.“It’s less about getting to the guitar solo quickly, and more about letting the song dictate what it needs. I think it’s a surer record for that, and I always like to try something different with any record. I don’t think it’s beneficial for anyone involved to write the same record over and over. You have to try something different and push yourself a little bit.”
It’s a brave move, as Knowles has built his reputation largely on his axe-man skills. After a support slot with Chickenfoot in 2009, Chickenfoot’s shredding legend Joe Satriani called Knowles his “new favourite modern-day bluesman” in a Sunday Times article. And fear not, What Happens Next is a very guitar-based album, but the accent is definitely on the troubadour aspect rather than the six-string warrior. The cover art is deliberately vintage, looking like a well-thumbed 1960s LP, and the whole sound is decidedly retro. I ask him whether that is a core part of his aesthetic. “Oh yeah, I mean it depends what era of retro you’re talking about. Obviously I get a lot of influence from ‘70s and ‘60s stuff, which I grew up idolising and listening to, but I’m just a massive fan of music history in general and so it’s definitely a part of the aesthetic, definitely a part of the record. And the feel of our music has always been like that. If you go back to the other records, they’re probably me pretending to be a lot older than I am, whereas this is borrowing more of an aesthetic of pretending to be my age! That’s the best way I can describe it.”
Sounds as if he feels maturity coming on, as well he might – he has gathered a ton of gigging and front man experience and put some miles under his wheels, having rubbed shoulders with a veritable galaxy of stars: in addition to Peter Frampton and Joe Satriani, already mentioned, his band opened for Jeff Beck as far back as 2009. He’s still only in his early thirties now, and I ask him how come a young lad from an obscure island gets to share a stage with such stratospheric names. His response is disarmingly honest. “As soon as I find out, I’ll let you know! I just really feel so lucky. I believe in a degree of ‘get your head down and work hard’, but I do feel I have had a disproportionate amount of luck compared to the effort put in. I got really lucky meeting some lovely people like those folks. Moving out to the States really helped with that; it was a huge part of it. Endless touring, and then we supported some folks and a booking agency got us on some things, and really those guys were kind and generous enough to give a young kid a bit of a shot, and a huge education as a result.”
I hear this quite a lot – so many big names had the fortune in their early days to meet someone famous who gave them something of a leg up. But for Knowles, it’s not even about the fame. “Yeah, everyone needs a mentor, right? And it doesn’t have to be a celebrity or what have you, but those who have a bit a platform using it for good to help up and comers, I think that’s beautiful, and that’s such a necessary thing.”
Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be assumed that Knowles’ career is just a fluke. He has put the work in and paid his dues; it takes balls for a small-town boy to get on stage and front a band, let alone move halfway across the world to do so, and he deserves whatever success is granted to him. But sometimes you just couldn’t make it up. There’s a story doing the rounds that Knowles was the first person to play live to the International Space Station from Mission Control in Houston, and that is one story I have to get straight from the horse’s mouth. Turns out it’s all true. “It was totally mad! It sounds really strange saying it out loud; it’s quite surreal, but a couple of astronauts took a couple of my records up to the space station with them, which was kind of bizarre. I was sat on the sofa with my wife one evening and my email goes off, and it’s a picture of one of my CDs floating about in the cupola of the space station. Our Chinese food goes everywhere and gets stepped on and everyone’s crying…”
Surreal is definitely the right word. Who were the astronauts? “It was Nicole Stott, and another one was Ron Garan. So from the CDs, Nicole requested me to record a song for her as the alarm on the beginning of a mission for her, while she was up there. And from there it turned into, well, come down to Houston and let’s play. We’ll play live to her. So it really was absolutely magical. A hell of an experience.” Again, we find the Isle Of Man generating its own luck. It doesn’t take much Googling to find out that Nicole Stott’s husband is a fellow Manxman. But still, how cool would it be to see a video of something you’ve recorded, written or painted or whatever, floating around in zero gravity? In Knowles’ case, it blends the retro and the futuristic quite nicely.
Speaking of which, he is often spoken of as a blues guitarist, but this new album does not include much of what a purist might call blues. I wonder how he designates his own music? “Well it’s difficult, because I like all sorts of music. I think everything was sort of marketed towards blues, but on the first record there was a Celtic song – obviously growing up on the Isle of Man, Celtic music had a huge impact on me – there’s acoustic singer/songwriter stuff on there, but yeah, it’s predominantly blues-based music. But I also count classic rock as blues-based music too, so it contributes hugely to the make-up of the sound. And influence-wise on guitar, people like Rory Gallagher, and the early Eric Clapton stuff. I started playing guitar because of Mark Knopfler, who plays a lot of blues-based guitar but is not blues-based in his writing, so I’ve been all over the place, genre-wise. Blues, to me, gives you a wonderful framework to jump off from, and bend and manipulate how you like.”
It’s a valid point. In fact there is a whole raft of young (and not-so-young) singer-guitarists who are touted as blues players, whereas in fact they have already diverged into rock, soul or pop. To Knowles though, it makes no odds either way. “In fact in fact I think that’s the way it’s always been,” he hypothesises. “What we think of as purist blues now, was not purist blues when it first came out. And I think that’s just the nature of folk music in general, developing and growing.
Seeing as the record has been released under Knowles’ name, effectively as a solo album, I wonder whether he uses a regular band, or just drafts in whoever is available at the time. He seems to be appalled by the idea. “No no no, we go out on the road like this. I think that’s important, to have a chemistry with the players on the record, rather than some hired guns – who will do a very fine job – but I think it’s important to have some sort of chemistry. So we have Jeremy Cunningham on drums, Tod Bowers is the bass player, and we have Andrew Toombs on keyboards, and I’ve been playing with those guys for a good while now.” I know he is credited with playing the mandolin on some of his records, so I ask whether any exotic instruments are used on this album. “Well, a xylophone makes an appearance! But no, this was more of a straight-ahead, guitar-based record; there’s acoustic stuff in there, but mainly it’s guitar.”
One band member you won’t find on any of Davy Knowles’ records is a rhythm guitar player, but not because he has anything against the breed; in fact Back Door Slam had a rhythm guitarist named Brian Garvey in its earliest incarnation, all too briefly. “It was awful. We were very young; this was before the band had broken out of the Isle of Man. But yeah, Brian and a friend of ours, Richard Brookes, were in a car accident and we lost both of them. And after that, I never felt like I wanted to have a rhythm guitar player in the band; it kind of felt like it was replacing him. We were 16, 17 at the time and I’m 34 now and I feel like I’m carrying that with me; it still doesn’t really feel right.”
It was loss too, that motivated the song that, to this reviewer at least, is the highlight of the album, the closing song, an acoustic ballad named If I Ever Meet My Maker. It is clearly written from the point of view of someone who has lost a parent, but the emotive lyrics run even deeper than that, as he explains: “It was written for my dad, and also for my first daughter, Emmy. In the space of three years, I lost my dad, I got married and we had our first kid. And I’m not saying that’s a unique situation, it was just a lot, emotionally. And it was based on really wishing Dad was here to experience this. This is hard for me, and I’d like to know how you managed, ‘cos you did this too. It was the idea of never really getting to have that conversation with him.”
It’s an extraordinary song, autobiographical as it is. Several of the other numbers on the album deal with turmoil and negative emotions, but this one coming right at the end turns it on its head; the emotion is strong and positive, but the hurt is just as real. I mention that the singles on the album, good though they are, are not necessarily the ones that jump out at me; neither of my favourites, If I Ever Meet My Maker and the rocky, up-tempo, Wake Me Up When The Nightmare Is Over have so far been released as singles. Knowles sees this as positive feedback more than anything else. “I can totally understand that, because sometimes I feel it’s my job just to write anything I can, as best as I can, and it’s up to other people to kind of figure out what they want to put out; what they feel is going to help. Sometimes I’m not objective enough to do that, so it’s nice to know. I want to make an album right? Not just some singles. So it’s nice to hear the other ones get a bit of love too.”
With the pandemic crisis starting to ease a bit, Knowles is already out on the road, touring North America; when I catch him, he is ‘somewhere in Pennsylvania.” Like so many other artists, it’s a world he has sorely missed. “This is our first foray outside of our individual little caves, trying to poke our head out and see if the world’s still out there.” He enthuses. “We’re trying to navigate that, and it’s nice to get back playing again and touring again, and remembering. That’s everything to me, live music, playing live. It’s wonderful to have a bunch of new songs to play, to re-interpret as well. I feel like, as soon as you get them on the road, you really start to find your way into them. You kind of record them to document them, and then you elaborate on them as you go.”
Never having been in that position, I’ve always thought that bands must go out touring their new songs, then six months later wish they could record the album again. I ask whether he finds that in his own case. “Yeah! Exactly! Entirely, yeah. I would get nothing done if I let myself do that though. You’ve got to make a decision at some point!” Well that’s one reason for the existence of live albums I guess; we get to hear the numbers once they’ve been glossed and polished, then roughed up again in the live environment. For now though, it’s just great that people like Davy Knowles are starting to get back into the studio and back out on the road. Long may it continue.