Interview: Davy Knowles, Blues Singer-Guitarist

Photo: Edwin Birkhoff

By Kevin Porter

Davy Knowles is on a roll. Earlier this year, he released an EP of acoustic blues guitar, 1932, where he plays a 1932 National guitar that he purchased on his first tour. The EP comes on the heels of Three Miles from Avalon, an excellent blues-rock album released in 2016 that garnered good reviews, and The Outsider, released in 2014. He tours frequently, all over the U.S. and the world, and has toured or played with the likes of Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, The Who, Warren Haynes, George Thorogood, Peter Frampton, Joe Bonamassa, Kid Rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rhythm Devils, and Chickenfoot. His live shows are high-energy affairs not to be missed if you are a fan of blues rock with a heavy dose of lead guitar. The energy of his live shows is captured in a monthly series of eight-song discs that are compiled from that month’s concerts and available for purchase from Davy’s web site.

Davy is back out on tour and brimming with ideas for new projects. He kindly took the time to talk to us by phone from his residence in Chicago.

KP: Davy, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I came across this EP you put out this year of acoustic blues (1932) with you playing a 1932 National guitar. How did that all come about?

DK: I’ve had that guitar for a long time; I bought it on my first U.S. tour when I was 19 or 20. It’s made an appearance every now and then, but it’s such a unique instrument and has such a unique sound. I thought the time had come to do a project specifically focused on that guitar. Anthony Gravino (co-producer and engineer of Three Miles from Avalon, Davy’s most recent electric blues album) has a two-track recording machine, and he thought they should rent a cabin in the woods somewhere and just record it. We found this great A-frame cabin, not too far from Chicago near the Wisconsin border. We just brought a bunch of gear, a couple of bottles of booze (laughs), and it was great. That’s how we did it, all live, all to tape, no overdubs, just bashed it out. I think that approach really suits that guitar and that material. It was a fun way to record.

KP: What other guitars do you play besides your ’32 National?

DK: My main electric guitar is a 1966 Telecaster. I also play a 1963 Gibson Melody Maker, and I’ve got a newer Martin that’s about 10 years old. I’ve always aspired to the older guitars, I think they feel and sound a little better.

KP: Are you that way with recording too, such as analog vs. digital?

DK: Definitely, and as I get older, more so. I’ve always found the studio quite hard, and recording the album previous to this one (The Outsider) took so long and we did it the new way, using ProTools and everyone playing separately. I’m proud of the record, but I felt slightly removed from my own process, if that makes any sense. When we did Three Miles from Avalon, we rehearsed the songs before going into the studio, then stuck some mics up and started recording. That is a more rewarding way of recording for me. It doesn’t work for everyone.

KP: What do you mean by being slightly removed from your own process?

DK: Sometimes you feel like you can’t see the woods for the trees because you’ve been so close to it for so long. A big part of this music when you are playing in a band is the interaction with other musicians, and if you do parts separately, you lose that human connection. When you’re playing live, I think it forces you to make good decisions, as you don’t have that much time and it kind of forces your hand. For a lot of my favorite records, sometimes the vocalist isn’t perfectly in tune, sometimes the guitarist bends the string and it wasn’t quite the note but sometimes that tension and those things make it human rather than just perfect. I think perfection is a dangerous thing to chase.

 

KP: Do you have any thoughts on what your next project is going to look like?

DK: I want to do another acoustic EP. I don’t know when it would come out, maybe record it in September sometime. I really love playing acoustic, and it’s something I want to do a little bit more, whether it’s finger-style blues or something a little more folky. Sometimes, you have to just get stuff down and figure out what to do. Then, before the end of the year, I’d like to record another electric record. Again, I don’t know when it would come out.

KP: Would you keep that same sort of live sound, or maybe be more in the middle between Three Miles from Avalon and The Outsider?

DK: Definitely keeping that live sound works for me. It’s always going to be a little bit different because I have another year of touring, playing and writing under my belt, but that approach is the right one for me. It’s a more enjoyable way of working.

KP: Are you writing some songs for it now? What’s your approach to song writing? Do you do the lyrics first? The music? Ad hoc?

DK: Absolutely, I’m always writing. My approach is to collect as much of either one (lyrics or music), like writing little phrases down, titles, writing kind of stream of consciousness. It’s the same with the music side—normally, it will come out when I’m sitting on the sofa messing about, just having a riff pop out, a sequence of chords that sound quite good, and then you record it quickly and keep it. Then you think that music might suit this lyric that I have and then you’re off to the races.

KP: Do you see a theme forming as you collect all these ideas?

DK: I think so, yeah. You try to figure out which ideas fit with which. Sometimes, it’s a really slow process, and something might be knocking around for even a few years, or sometimes it comes really fast. On Three Miles from Avalon, there’s a track called “What You’re Made Of,” and I wrote that when I was recording Back Door Slam’s (The band Davy was in before he went solo) second album, Coming Up for Air, in 2008 or 2009. It never really sat right, but I played it for the lads in the band now, and it really fit. The song, “Three Miles from Avalon,” was written about two weeks before we went into the studio. It just depends.

KP:  Are you going to do some covers on the new album? I know you play some covers live.

DK: I don’t know. We’ve been doing these kind of bootlegs for our web site where we record in a Grateful Dead kind of fashion from the live shows. It’s a little rough and ready, but I like the character of it. Every month, we compile what we think is a really good collection of tunes, and we put them on our web site to download. We make sure there’s a couple of covers in there. On a regular album, I’ll have to see. Sometimes, a cover is a good point of reference for people, hearing a song they might recognize. I’m not quite sure yet.

KP: I was going to ask about the bootlegs—how did that all come about?

DK: I always felt that we’re a live band, and we’re better represented live than anywhere else. It’s so easy to do these days. You don’t have to worry about pressing physical product, you don’t have to carry this massive mobile recording gear, it’s all miniaturized. It just seemed like a no-brainer to show what we do live, have something different available every month, and hopefully get people to talk about it. It’s good fun, and it also puts pressure on me and the band to play something different and stretch and expand so we’re not putting out the same crap every time (laughs).

KP: Do you mix up your set lists a lot, or is it a pretty standard set list with a wrinkle here or there?

DK: I don’t make set lists; I’m not really good at set lists. I have a master list that I’ll go through and make sure we’re not neglecting some stuff or overplaying some stuff. I’ll decide on the first three tracks with the lads and then from there, I’m just calling them, because it’s kind of weird to predict your audience before you’ve met them. If they’re not responding, you don’t want to just follow a list blindly. You want to read the room and recognize what the audience liked and try to get an ebb and flow. It’s easier to do that when you don’t have a rigid set list.

KP: I really like your band. How did you come across them?

DK: We’re all based in Chicago. I met Michael Caskey, the drummer, about four or five years ago, at a session I did for a songwriter in town. I did some shows out of town and asked him to play with me. I also met the original bass player, Bryan Doherty, through Michael, and they recommended Andrew Toombs, the keyboard player. Bryan is in this incredible band called Hood Smoke, and he’s quite rightly focused on that, so Andrew recommended Marvin Little to me.

KP: I read in a previous interview that you’re a big fan of Mark Knopfler and Rory Gallagher, and that in describing your style, you aim to be right between those two. I thought that was interesting because they seem to have such different styles.

DK: Yes, very different. What I’ve always loved about Mark Knopfler is that you can sing his guitar solos, they’re so melodic. He’s such a great writer, and his guitar playing is intertwined with his writing rather than the focus of it, although he’s such a great player that his guitar playing shines through. I defy anyone to write a more emotive song than “Brothers in Arms” and have all those beautiful intertwined guitar parts. For Rory Gallagher, what I love about his playing is just the raw aggression, the foot to the floor, let’s go kind of energy. There’s absolutely no pretension about it, just honest, hard-working music. He also had this Celtic inflection that I identified with, growing up where I did (the Isle of Man, an island between Great Britain and Ireland), and hearing those trills and other flourishes with the blues was a revelation to me.

KP: Has the Celtic flourishes been a part of your playing?

DK: Not so much with the current record, more with The Outsiders. It’s creeped in as I’ve gotten a little older. It’s more about the little inflections than a whole song or a whole genre.

KP: I saw you play at a music festival in Virginia. What it’s like playing at a festival as opposed to playing in a club? I assume it’s very different.

DK: It is different. It’s a little less stressful at festivals, you just plug in and play. People pay good money to go to festivals, they’re there to hear new music, and that is exciting as well. There is also less pressure for us to sell tickets to draw people at a festival as compared to a club. It depends on the club, too. Sometimes, people are forced to sit down and it feels a little formal, and what you really need is a packed small sweaty room, and that’s always the best. It is what it is, but we’re still playing music and it’s enormous fun.

KP: I wanted to ask you about your vocals—is there any particular singer you model yourself after?

DK: Singing has always been frightening for me. Some of my favorite singers are Paul Rodgers and a Scottish singer called Frankie Miller. I also like some of the old soul guys—I’m a big Sam Cooke fan, huge Marvin Gaye fan, Jackie Wilson too. So many great singers out there. The first record I bought was by Billy Joel, and I still love him.

KP: I saw you had Peter Frampton produce one of your earlier records. You had some of Jackson Browne’s band and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty playing keys.

DK: It was really incredible, such an education. Peter is such a kind and patient man, and we stayed really good friends from that. It was just a lovely experience and we worked really well together. He taught me a lot, and I’m really grateful for that. That’s been a real highlight of my life.

KP: What do I tell people who have never seen you live?

DK: Hopefully, it’s high energy and without pretension. It’s just an old fashioned rock and roll show with quite a bit of guitar.

KP: Davy, thank you for taking the time to talk to us, and good luck with the tour and with your future endeavors.

DK: Thank you, it was a pleasure.

Tour dates for Davy Knowles are available at davyknowles.com, as are the monthly “bootleg” discs culled from Davy’s shows for that month.

By | 2018-01-29T10:14:41+00:00 August 16th, 2017|Interviews|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Marcus mclendon August 16, 2017 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    Epic guitarist , super interview

    • Kevin Porter August 22, 2017 at 6:05 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the nice words, Marcus. Much appreciated.

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