From the ashes of one of dance music’s biggest ever bands, Knife Party have swiftly risen to become the most exciting new DJ/production duo on the planet. In their first ever interview anywhere, Rob Swire and Gareth McGrillen lift the lid on their incredible new project.
Words: Thomas H Green
Photos: Kevin Lake/Rudolfo Lamaestra
The hills are alive with the sound of giant beats. On an autumnal evening at the foot of the South Downs outside Brighton the air is growing chilly, but a crowd is gathered in front of the Shakedown Festival’s main stage, checking out Katy B. However, more action is occurring at the huge Supercharged Arena. There’s a 20-minute queue snaking round its perimeter – one in, one out – and inside it’s a rave cauldron. A jammed-in, sweaty crowd, all aged around 18 to 22, are wriggling and undulating like a single organism. Most have pupils like black dinner plates and vast grins, fluoro-tubes knotted in their hair and are chewing gum, many clambering onto the shoulders of their friends. Onstage, making them move, are two men perhaps more used to slaying crowds with their old band – but they seem stunned and excited to be doing so as a duo. One has a goatee beard, the other a baseball cap, their visual signatures. They are Rob Swire and Gareth McGrillen, aka Knife Party.
The howl that goes up when they drop their remix of Swedish House Mafia’s ‘Save The World’ is followed by a roaring sing-along. Zane Lowe, on before them, had the place jumping – but this is something else. The pair look at each other and pump the air with their fists. No longer restricted to the template of their old band, Pendulum, here electro-house crashes into dubstep, trance and who knows what else. It’s clearly making them – and everyone else – very happy indeed.
We are not here to talk about Pendulum, the band for whom Swire sang and McGrillen played bass. We know their story: Australian d’n’b outfit blow up so huge they’re able to headline festivals at equal ranking with The Prodigy. Pendulum has been on hiatus since June last year, and may even be finished. Its story is well documented, but Knife Party’s has only just begun.
By the time Pendulum officially closed down Swire and McGrillen were already putting together music that sidestepped their previous drum ’n’ bass-meets-rock blueprint in favour of a fresh, madly energised, club-slaying sound. The duo put in appearances in Ibiza last summer, sneaked Annie Mac a selection of lethal new tunes and then dropped their first EP, ‘100% No Modern Talking’ last December. It threw down the gauntlet, making it clear the ‘P’ word was not relevant here, that Knife Party were as happy attacking house music’s 4/4 kick as any evil bass wob. It also contained their twisted fan favourite ‘Internet Friends’. If that and its follow-up, this year’s ‘Rage Valley’ EP (with stand-out tunes ‘Centipede’ and ‘Bonfire’) introduced them, it was ‘Antidote’, made with Swedish House Mafia, that sent their profile skywards and put them in the UK charts.
Now, with only two releases under their belts, plus remixes of Labrinth and Nero, they’re on the cusp of much bigger things, working with Skrillex and Steve Aoki, embraced by America’s exploding dance music scene and touring the US with their own Haunted House package, featuring a Who’s Who of their favoured acts and DJs (they’ve just sold out 8000 tickets for the first date of the tour, a pretty formidable achievement after only one year as Knife Party.
They’ve also been keeping a studied silence on the matter. Following the full rock ’n’ roll promotional whirl that life with Pendulum entailed, Knife Party have avoided doing a single interview. Until now. Mixmag cajoled, wheedled and eventually persuaded them to respond to a few questions so we could get an insight into their world…
When and how did you know what Knife Party were going to sound like?
I think between the ‘Save The World’ remix and ‘Internet Friends’ we really figured it out. Before that it was just “not like Pendulum”, but we knew we wanted to try more house and dubstep.
With a full band it can take ages to sort the stage sound out but a DJ just plugs in and plays. How much did this influence your ideas of what Knife Party would be?
Well, we had just come from touring extensively with Pendulum and initially we were just taking a break. We started putting tracks together and realised that none of them fitted the Pendulum mould, and that we certainly couldn’t ever play them in a band format – so Knife Party was born. After travelling with truckloads of expensive equipment for so long, it’s very refreshing to be able to turn up with an SD card and a laptop and play a show.
With the video for ‘Centipede’, the “Now you’re going to die” line from ‘Internet Friends’ and the title of the Haunted House Tour it’s clear that a horror film aesthetic is important to you. Why is that?
It really wasn’t intentional, although Rob is a big fan of cheesy 70s and 80s horror flicks so maybe that’s where it comes from. More often than not, we’ll just stumble across a sample or YouTube video or some retarded idea, and that basically sets the scene for the whole song. The dialogue from ‘Internet Friends’ was almost directly paraphrased from some of the creepy shit that super-fans had said to us over the years. We just wanted to take something that seemed scary and serious – the use of social media for intimidation and erosion of privacy – and have fun with it.
There’s a line in your tune ‘Sleaze’ that goes, “Until they kick us out people move your feet”. When was the last time you were kicked out of somewhere?
Last Tuesday, at some club for Gareth’s birthday.
And when was the last time you had a really good dance?
Probably also last Tuesday. Neither of us remember anything about it.
How was it working with Swedish House Mafia?
We knocked ‘Antidote’ out in one day in Sydney and Steve [Angello] played it the following night at the Future Music Festival to around thirty thousand people. While we were making it, we had the news coming through about the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan and were watching it live. It was pretty surreal. We were like, “Is this the apocalypse? Is music still relevant?”
Too many Skrillex stories to mention. He lived with us for a month. We got drunk once and snorted like pigs into a mic to make dubstep sounds.
Tell us about Zane Lowe, who was on before you at Shakedown and who’s playing the Haunted House Tour with you.
Zane has always been a big supporter of ours and of new music in general, and since he’s branched out into his own production and DJing career, we’re supporting him back. The guy is way more musically gifted than people realise – though I get the feeling that’ll change in the next year or two. We’ve also got Tommy Trash on the tour, a fellow Australian whose work we’ve always loved and played, plus our good friend Jake [Stanczak], aka Kill The Noise. Basically we haven’t thought anything through, we’re just bringing everyone whose music we love and play. Plus it’ll be a testing ground for the new EP.
Has your sound been affected by the way the electronic dance music explosion in the US is genre blind, so that a trance act can follow industrial dubstep monsterism, and so on?
It probably has been affected by that, yes. We’re much less afraid of doing whatever we want than when we were in Pendulum. In the drum ’n’ bass scene there were so many taboos – you couldn’t use trance synths, you couldn’t have white male vocals, you couldn’t use guitars. If you played house in your set, people would throw things at you. I remember seeing [industry] people on AIM with messages like “DON’T SEND ANY DRUMSTEP SHIT”. Considering drumstep is basically just half-tempo drum ’n’ bass, you get an idea of how picky people were. We really hated that and almost consciously ran against it, which was probably one of the reasons why Pendulum were ostracised from the scene to an extent. Things are much better now – any sample is OK, any instrument is OK, you can play six different tempos in a set and the crowd appreciates the contrast, especially in the US. We love it.
What was your favourite festival experience from summer 2012?
EDC Vegas [Electric Daisy Carnival] was incredible – although we didn’t get to enjoy it to the full because we were so exhausted and hungover from the night before. However, the show was incredible and it was an honour to play to so many people. It’s like the Glastonbury of dance music, very well-organised and with a line-up that makes other events look silly. That and Ultra Festival [in Miami] have definitely been the highlights so far.
‘Bonfire’ has a real reggae flavour. What were you listening to when you made it?
We honestly can’t remember. We were probably listening to Cocoa Tea – everything we’ve ever done in that reggae style has been influenced by him and by early Shabba Ranks.
What was the feeling moving on from Pendulum at the peak of its power – nervousness and trepidation, or a sense of confidence?
Slight nervousness… but maximum conviction. We really felt we had done everything we could with the band at that time, and it was so exciting and liberating to start almost from scratch.
What are your feelings about the speed at which Knife Party’s reputation and profile has soared?
It’s always a welcome surprise when something explodes rapidly, but we were already very aware of the power of the internet. We’ve done no interviews bar this one, no press or press photos – we simply let the music create its own hype. It’s almost an experiment against the age-old model of “Whore yourself out to mass media and corporate brands to get attention”. We don’t think people need to do that stuff any more, so we’re not doing it – although our manager hates us for it!
How do Knife Party’s pre- and post- performance rituals and behaviour differ from Pendulum’s?
We drink a lot more in Knife Party, which we really couldn’t do in Pendulum because it was so physically demanding on tour. We’re trying to cut down, though.
The name ‘Knife Party’ has caused consternation in some quarters due to its violent implications, – especially given the issue of teen knife crime. How do you respond?
It’s just a name, and we stole it from a Deftones song. I think people sometimes look too deeply into it – we’re not advocating any type of knife-related crime any more than Swedish House Mafia were advocating organised crime.
After all your years together, what is the relationship between you like?
Loving and asexual.
What do you have coming up?
At the moment we’re just trying to maintain a steady stream of EPs in between touring. Aside from that, we don’t really have any immediate goals. We found goals to be quite counterproductive with our previous project, so at the moment we’re just trying to enjoy ourselves and make music.
The “steady stream of EPs” will be added to shortly with the ‘Haunted House’ EP on their own label, Earstorm. Judging from the reaction as their Shakedown Festival set hits its stride, there will be plenty of takers for it. Where Knife Party started with four-to-the-floor thump, testing the boundaries of the seething marquee crowd and gauging where they were willing to go, now they head hard into huge juggernaut waves of bangin’ bass. The assembled freshers’ week students, local kids and ravers who’ve travelled across the country to see them start to pogo. When ‘Bonfire’s heady skank and toasted lyric suddenly transforms into a double-speed rhythm and gargling bass riffs that sound as if they’ve been wrenched from a cataclysmic event at the centre of the earth, there’s a massed explosion of crazy dancing, people throwing themselves about as if they may never have such a chance again. On stage, Swire grabs the mic and tells them he approves. McGrillen jogs behind his laptop, his ever-present baseball cap shading a wry smile. This is what’s happening on both sides of the Atlantic for Knife Party, and this is only just the beginning.