Published in PM January 2010
People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Non-stop touring and rave reviews have garnered Davy Knowles some serious Stateside attention. Having collaborated with Peter Frampton on his last album, this young Manxman is understandably starstruck.
A large bus pushes along one of the seemingly endless roads that intersect the Sonoran Desert. Like an ant crawling along a mountain path, it is dwarfed by the sheer size of its surroundings. Inside the bus a mobile phone rings. A young man called Davy Knowles answers and hears the first question inevitably asked in these modern times, “Where are you?” — as opposed to the now old-fashioned and decidedly sentimental “How are you?” “Im in the middle of nowhere,” responds Knowles, “on a tour bus. Were on our way to Phoenix, Arizona.” Knowles, a 22-year old from the Isle of Man, is travelling to his next stop on his mission to conquer the US. The blues-rock guitarists approach is to relentlessly tour America, trying to impress the locals with a musical style they, themselves, have invented.
This may sound a tad grandiose, and leads one to wonder how the chops and life experience of a young man who grew up in one of the tiniest nations in the world register with the Americans. As Knowles pursues his American dream, he definitely sounds a little overawed by it all, remarking “There are amazing guys here that just blow me out of the water. As soon as you think that you are getting somewhere you meet somebody who completely shatters that illusion and makes you realise that you still have an enormous amount to learn.”
Knowles continues to sound starstruck and overawed during the entire phone conversation. Thats when hes not yawning and apparently having trouble keeping his focus — life on the road ostensibly is taking its toll on him. Yet titbits of information drop out that indicate that theres more than meets the young-Manxman-out-of-his-depth-abroad eye. Knowles and his band, Back Door Slam, have, for instance, opened for the Who, Buddy Guy, Chickenfoot and Jeff Beck. Cue another expression of starstruckness, “It was a huge honour to be opening for these guys. And again, you learn so much from watching them up close. It was just wonderful, a dream come true.”
Well yes, any teenager, or post-teenager, would testify to that. However, one does not end up being support act for the Who, Buddy Guy or Jeff Beck purely by being an eager-to-learn upstart from the middle of nowhere. Instead, Davy Knowles has some serious guitar chops, and reviewers in the mainstream American press havent hesitated to wheel out the superlatives. “I heard the spirit of Jimi Hendrix,” wrote the Seattle Times. “A guitar God in training,” remarked the LA Times, equally exuberantly. Joe Satriani, meanwhile, has called Knowles his “new favourite modern-day bluesman,” no less.
Clearly, Davy Knowles is impressing quite a few people in the land of endless possibilities. This is also in evidence from the reactions to his second album, Coming Up For Air, released last summer. Its co-produced by him and the great Peter Frampton, and mixed by (with one song also produced by) the legendary Bob Clearmountain. Cue more Manx awe. “Can you imagine that? Im such a big fan of Peter and playing with him was like wow, wonderful!” Frampton himself, meanwhile, echoes the enthusiastic US press praise, stating “Lets face it, Davy Knowles is the next gunslinger. He is wonderful.” The young man himself utters more starstruck words when asked about working with these two, perhaps not appreciating how much grit and determination (to borrow some football vocabulary) on his part have gone into getting where he is. For instance, hes lived out of an American tour bus for two years now and visited 47 states in the process. Before that, he spent most of a decade locked in a room with a guitar.
Press releases and the biography on Knowles website make a lot of his discovery of music at the age of 11, when his father put a cassette in the car stereo of Dire Straits Sultans Of Swing. Apparently this affected the youngster so deeply that he started practicing like crazy, eventually achieving the previously described results. When queried, Knowles asserted that his story was indeed as linear as this. “Absolutely. When my Dad put in the cassette I was like, Wow, whats this? I hadnt really listened to his music before because, well, it was like... Dads music! But Sultans of Swing just blew me away, and that night I started playing the guitar.”
“My Dad showed me some basics, like barre chords and stuff, and I had some classical guitar lessons, but I was too stubborn for the poor classical guitar tutor to teach me properly! Mostly I learned by listening to records and also I had a DVD of Mark Knopfler playing live and I used to watch where his fingers were going and I tried to copy him until it sounded right. I was too excited about learning to play to be intimidated and I was so taken by it I did nothing else during my teenage years. I didnt go out, I didnt have a life, and my mum was worried about my school results! I finished my A-levels at age 18 and then took a year off before going to university. During that year I got signed.”
Knowles is quick to acknowledge the enormous support he received from his home island. “I would absolutely not be doing this if it were not for the Isle of Man. If I had grown up in London or in New York City I probably would have gotten lost, but the Isle of Man really helped me and nurtured me. Im eternally grateful for that. It was so easy to find like-minded people and join a community. Once youre in youre embraced and lifted from rung to rung, it was beautiful. I started gigging at an early age and there were a lot of people there who really went out on a limb for me. My parents were also very supportive of the whole thing.”
Davy Knowles began Back Door Slam (named after a Robert Cray song) in the Isle of Man with two school friends: bassist Adam Jones and drummer Ross Doyle. The trio signed with the Seattle-based label Blix Street Records, which released Roll Away in 2007. Produced by keyboardist Dave Armstrong its an auspicious debut with a full-on, in-your-face sound, yet at the same time remarkably sophisticated. While the music is decidedly American, the bands Isle of Man origins permeate the album in other ways: it was recorded there and many band photos are taken in the majestic Manx outdoors. Judging that the bands mixture of rock and blues would go down best in the US, Blix Street asked the band to cross the Atlantic to tour and try to beat the Americans at their own game, which is how Knowles ended up, eventually, on that road in the middle of nowhere in the Sonoran desert.
Knowles and Back Door Slams non-stop US touring over the past two years has paid dividends, with a loyal and fast-growing following. Building on these foundations, the guitarist and his management must have felt that the time was ripe to step up their campaign. As a result, Knowles two former schoolmates were shown the door and new and more experienced live band members were rolled in. Coming Up For Air was recorded with not only Frampton and Clearmountain at the helm, but also featuring an all-star studio band with the celebrated Benmont Tench on keys and Jackson Browns rhythm section — consisting of bassist Kevin McCormick and drummer Mauricio Fritz Lewak — accompanying. This presumably amounted to more than any Dire Straits-entranced 11-year-old could have dreamt of.
“Sure,” admits Knowles, “Im a huge Peter Frampton fan and it was a thrill to work with him. We ended up working together because a mutual friend mentioned that Peter might be up for co-writes. So I contacted him and he checked me out on YouTube and liked what he saw. A while later we got in a room together and started writing and there was an immediate connection. We wrote three songs and when we were talking about how we like records to sound, we thought exactly alike. So I asked him whether he wanted to produce my album. Recording was a wonderful experience, and the players — gosh — Benmont Tench from the Heartbreakers was incredible. I stopped working with my previous band because we had done an awful lot of touring and had done some wonderful things, but it was just time for me to learn from different people in different situations. I felt that things had gotten a little stagnant. Sometimes, no matter how good the people you are playing with are, you have to move on and do some different things. I felt that I had learned all I could and I needed other people to show me things.”
In some quarters, Knowles recent moves (bringing in big-name producers and a new band) have been described as a selling out towards rock and a move away from the authentic blues he was supposedly playing — the first album purportedly being superior to the second. But while Roll Away is indeed more immediate and rough and ready than its successor, Coming Up For Air is undoubtedly the sound of a young man exploring his possibilities and developing his craft. Knowles clearly never was a blues purist, nor did he stay long with the influence of the clean-toned, finger-playing Mark Knopfler. Instead hes today more of a blues-influenced heavy rock player in the tradition of Clapton in his Bluesbreakers days.
“Yeah, Dad also introduced me to the album of John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, and that had songs by Freddie King and Willie Dixon and others and was a good jumping off point. I also listened to Peter Green, Rory Gallagher, Mick Taylor and many others, and started reading guitar magazines and learning about the people that these players had been listening to, like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson. I saw how Rory Gallagher combined a pick and playing with his fingers, and thats what Im doing as well now. But I was pretty conscious early on of the fact that if I wanted to make it I could not just religiously copy anyone. Even though I do (laughs)! I think this is an ongoing battle to listen to as much as I can and combine it into something thats totally my own.”
Writing on the road
Knowles is not far off the mark as his playing — virtuoso, emotive, and at times as staggering as it already is — is clearly still a work in progress, as was indicated by Classic Rock magazine, which judged “[Knowles] has studied the greats and may well end up in that category”. All fair and true, but whats less written about, but significantly adds to Knowles great promise is the fact that hes not only an excellent guitar player, but is also a terrific singer and a gifted songwriter. His hoarse, soulful vocals belie his age, and songs like Roll Away or Tear Down The Walls are easily imaginable as future classics. In short, Knowles is the complete package.
“Oh, thank you!” responds Knowles to a compliment about his singing and songwriting. But when asked how he actually developed his singing, he seems momentarily stumped for an answer. “Oh, gosh. Eh, necessity. Nobody else in the band could sing. I just got thrown in the deep end and ended up really enjoying it. Its not something that Im 100 percent comfortable with, and I still get nervous about it and hide behind my guitar playing. But I love singing, and Im a big fan of Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, all the black soul singers. I think Ive tried to imitate them, and failed by a long way. But Im coming up with the best that I can do.”
As for Knowles songwriting, some of his songs, like Outside Woman Blues on Roll Away and Mistakes on Coming Up For Air, have echoes of Mark Knopfler both in his playing and writing, but for the most part his metier is heavy blues going on heavy rock with some acoustic ballads thrown in for good measure. “Yeah, thats true. Mistakes is indeed me trying to be Mark Knopfler!” admits Knowles. “It was written a long time ago, when I was messing around with a delay pedal. That song started with the guitar riff. My writing approach is a mixture of starting with riffs or vocal lines. A song like Riverbed came from jamming on a riff. I think there was some Peter Frampton influence in there, because hes such a genius melody maker. Cant Take That Back, which we wrote together, was written around a riff, but in the end the vocal melody became the main focus.”
“Because Im touring pretty much constantly at the moment, the majority of my songwriting is done on the road. Thats great because I run into a lot of situations that make for a good breeding ground of songs. Theres a back room on the bus, a lounge type of thing, that I have taken over and that I use a lot for writing and playing. I have an Apple Mac computer with Logic and an Audio Technica USB microphone and I use that to record my ideas on. Im not very computer literate, but its perfect just for jotting ideas down. I dont have an amplifier on the bus, so usually I am writing on acoustic guitar, either my 1965 Gibson J45, or my new Paul Reed Smith acoustic, which is incredible. It is called an Angelus and it has an incredible projection. Its an amazing feeling instrument with a very comfortable neck and a great pickup, which is a PRS invention. It is the loudest acoustic guitar I have ever played.”
Knowles quite naturally shifts the discussion from singing and songwriting back to his first love: guitars. In addition to his J50 he also owns a J45, which is four years old. “I dont take it on tour at the moment, but it is a wonderful guitar.” As far as his electrics go, the Manx axe-God-in-training has long played Fender Strats, mostly a 1962 reissue model, but is currently totally enamoured with Paul Reed Smith guitars. “Im a PRS guy through and through. They are fantastic. I use a variety of them, a couple of McCartys, including a special edition Smokeburst one and a Violin guitar Brazilian Rosewood neck and all sorts of fancy trimmings that Paul gave me. I also have the SE1 with the P90 pickup, which is like a Les Paul Junior and really cool. Its a Private Stock thing. Fenders dont have the same ballsyness as the PRS guitars have. I also dont like whammy bars. Im not good at using it, and if the guitar goes out of tune its a pain. I like the guitars I play to be as solid as possible. So I had the whammy on my Strat locked.”
With regards to the remainder of his gear, Knowles has recently simplified his stage setup.. Hes now getting high-profile endorsement deals from various manufacturers like PRS, DAddario and Budda. “I use DAddario on my electric and acoustics and my mandolin. I have EXL110 strings on the electric, 10-52, which is like a heavy bottom and light top mixture. The thicker lower strings give me a little bit more tension and bass response and thinner top strings are easier bending. On the acoustic guitar I use a regular 12-54 gauge and I use a 10 gauge on the mandolin.”
“The only pedals that are remaining from my previous setup are my Boss tuner and my Fulltone Super-Trem tremolo. I now also have a Budwah wah-wah and a Keeley boost pedal. I dont want to have a huge pedalboard, I like it nice and simple. Ideally Id just have a guitar and an amplifier. The overdrive comes from the amplifiers now. Im a big guitar tone nerd, and sustain is a big part of that. The PRS guitars have a wonderful natural sustain, and I need an amp to complement that. I now have the Budda Superdrive Series II 30W, with Budda 2 x 12 and Marshall 2 x 12 cabinets. The Superdrive overdrives pretty early and I get my distortion from that. I dont use my Fender Twin anymore. Im too frightened to take it on the road and its unreliable and sounds too clean.”
Davy needed only one acoustic guitar for his most unusual US gig so far, which took place at NASAs Mission Control in Houston. The husband of one of the astronauts there, Nicole Stott, is from the Isle of Man and had introduced his wife to Knowles music. She requested a space concert and so Knowles played an acoustic version of Roll Away.
Perhaps mindful of not becoming part of the increasingly long list of performers from the British Isles who get famous abroad but are largely ignored back home (see PMs Charlie Winston piece in September 09 issue), Knowles recently returned to these shores for a few concerts, including a gig at the Borderline in London. “Ive been touring for a long time now, but I still feel as if Im at the beginning of the whole thing,” Knowles comments. “Im learning so many new things and am being pushed by so many different people, its wonderful. When I was 11, my ambition was to go out and play live. Now my whole goal is to keep that up. The biggest challenge is to keep up with friends and family, because when youre moving around so much you get disorientated. Ive lived out of a suitcase for three years and everything that you normally take for granted when staying in one place is not there when you live in a bus. I dont really have a place anywhere anymore. It must be my room at my parents place!”
“The US has become my second home and I just take things one day at a time. I am just so happy being on tour. I know how I want to develop my guitar playing and I know how I want to sound, but I cant quite get there yet. Im sure that the celtic influences in Rory Gallaghers playing will also surface for me. I have a stylistic vision for my guitar playing, and another thing Im working on is not to overplay — I kind of do that a lot of the time. I love it when people can play with restraint and hopefully as I get older that will happen for me too. Finding my own style is a lifetime mission really.” 0
Peter Frampton — showing Davy the way
The legendary Peter Frampton, whose 1976 album Frampton Comes Alive! is still one of the worlds all-time best-selling live albums, currently lives in Cincinnati in the US. Originally from South London, he naturalised as an American in 2004. His most recent success was the Grammy Award he received for his instrumental album Fingerprints (2006). Hes currently working in his studio on a follow-up, which is earmarked for release in March 2010. Frampton became aware of Knowles a couple of years ago when he was asked to co-write a song with him. The rest, as told by Frampton, went as follows.
“I listened to his first CD and watched some stuff about him on YouTube, and realised what an amazing talent he is. Its all bluesy rock stuff, right up my alley. So, fast forward probably another nine months to when we were both free and in the same city at the same time, which was Los Angeles, and we got together and we wrote three songs, two of which ended up on the CD. We had such a good rapport and it was so easy and enjoyable that I suggested I try producing the songs we had written. A week later he asked me to produce the whole album. I had produced other projects a track at a time, but never a whole album. But it was an honour to be asked to work with such a great up-and-coming talent.
“My main role in producing Coming Up For Air was to use my experience in having recorded quite a few CDs during my career to make the whole process as easy as possible for Davy. Most of all, I wanted him to feel like he was on stage in the studio. That was the bottom line. I did not want a portrait shot, I wanted a snapshot of him when he was not thinking about it. I wanted him to be very off-the-cuff and relaxed. For me thats one of the main jobs of a good producer; making sure that the artist feels comfortable enough to be himself so that his full potential can come through and be captured. I also suggested that we use some different musicians on the CD because I thought that he needed to be pushed to reach that potential.
“In order to make sure that the album had as much of a live band sound as possible it was important to have a ready-made rhythm section, and the one we had, from Jackson Browns band, was great. There is not a track on the album that was not recorded with drums, bass and Davy at the same time, and when I played with him it was four of us at the same time. He also sang guide vocals, which were very good, but pretty much all the lead vocals were done again. He has an amazing voice and has such potential as a singer that I wanted to make sure we captured his absolute best. Hes still developing and God knows where hes going to get! I did not have to tell Davy anything about the music and his playing. He is his own best quality control. He is like me: I can do a better one than that!”
Published in PM January 2010
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