Torabi (center) / from High/Aflame video

Bottled Out of Eccentricity: A Conversation With Kavus Torabi of Knifeworld

Knifeworld mastermind Kavus Torabi discusses the positive rewiring effects of LSD, Gong's late Daevid Allen, and Knifeworld's newest, Bottled Out of Eden.
Bottled Out of Eden
InsideOut Music

One of the most treasured parts of the latter half of the ’60s is its prevalence of luscious and colorful music. Of course, many great artists have evoked that era over the subsequent decades, but few have ever captured it with the same level of wondrous peculiarity, compositional depth, and distinctive charm as English “delirious psychedelic pop” octet Knifeworld. In fact, the band’s newest effort, Bottled Out of Eden (InsideOut Music), is its best culmination yet.

As the mastermind behind the endearing ensemble (as well as a key contributor to several other outfits, like Gong and Guapo), Kavus Torabi is expectedly joyful and earnest in discussing how Bottled Out of Eden came together, as well as several other topics (such as the influence of LSD on creativity and how Gong will continue without its seminal leader, Daevid Allen). In many ways, 2016 represents the realization of everything Torabi has strived for since he became a professional musician.

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Congrats on the new album, of course. As you know, I think it’s fantastic. Maybe even my favorite record of 2016 so far.

Oh, well thank you. I think yours is the first review, too. Let’s hope your 5/5 rating sets a precedent [laughs], although I suspect that as always, it will have its haters.

It just goes to show how much of the popular music on mainstream radio and MTV is derivative and lifeless, whereas albums like yours are the complete opposite.

Well, does MTV still even have music?

That’s a good question. I don’t think so.

The last time I saw it, which was a few years ago, it seemed to be all about these, what would you call them? “Docu-soaps”, I guess. “Real life” stuff.

Exactly. I know that a lot of artists hate being pigeonholed into a specific genre, but I have to ask: How would you describe the sound of Knifeworld? I hear a bit of Syd Barrett and the Flo & Eddie era of Frank Zappa’s catalog, for example.

I’ve been asked this in the past, even before Knifeworld, with my previous band, and I never really have a very good answer. I should’ve gotten one together by now. I always like “psychedelic” for a number of reasons. If you think of the psychedelic era, it seemed to be when musicians were really experimenting with very different styles and modes, like Indian modes. It stopped being so focused on the blues, and you had elements of showtunes and, at least in the UK, old musicals.

Also, a lot of avant-garde ideas. That’s why I’ve always preferred [the label of] “psychedelia” to “prog”. Not that I have anything against prog, but at least these days that term seems to be more about a technical standard as a musician. I certainly wouldn’t say that I’m technical in that way; I think I have a unique style, but I’m not a particularly technical player. I don’t think anybody in the band is, really. They’re all very good at what they do, of course.

That’s true.

Also, I like the connotations of “psychedelia” and the idea of making music that makes you feel like you’re on psychedelic drugs, rather than making music like the band is on drugs. It’s overwhelming and delirious and that kind of thing.

Here’s the funny thing, though: I tend to write in a mode called the Lydian mode. I only found this out about five or six years ago. Pretty much all of my music seems to be written in that mode. If you write in the blues mode, which is just a few different notes, then you get to be labeled “prog”, and because nobody really knows about the different modes, we can’t really call ourselves Lydian rock. If we could, I’d call us that.

That’s a good description of your style, and it seems like a fair amount of musicians reject the “prog” title because of those implications. I know that Steven Wilson and Ian Anderson do.

Yeah, and I wish it didn’t have those meanings because the actual phrase for what it is, is a nice idea. I can see why people liked it in the ‘70s; I guess bands wanted to differentiate themselves from the likes of, say, Free or something more traditional.

Unfortunately, the very problem with the term “progressive rock” is the first word of that, right? It implies that a band should always be progressing and pushing boundaries. It’s not necessarily the fault of the bands, but I think that a great degree of the music that falls under that blanket is not really doing that. Instead, it leans very heavily on what people did in the ‘70s. I mean, that’s fine. Why not, right? I lot of modern bands lean heavily on the new wave stuff I grew up listening to as a kid in the ‘70s and ’80s. Post-punk, too, and that name itself implies that nothing new needs to be done with it, you know?

Totally. Punk was a reaction against forced intricacy and pretension. I love a lot of modern prog, but yeah, much of it sounds like Genesis and Yes and King Crimson.

What they do is fine, and realistically speaking, I feel like rock is on its way out in general. It’s certainly reached its jazz phase.

When I was younger, it really felt like rock music was a force for uniting people and being sort of anti-establishment. It no longer has the kind of currency; it’s very much part of the establishment. I really doubt that there will be another guitar-heavy rock band post-Radiohead that has such a big impact on music. I could be wrong, but I feel like Radiohead was the last band to do something like that in the mainstream.

There’s tons of interesting stuff being made in guitar music now, but it’s very much in the underground, and I think it’ll stay there.

I agree. Maybe Muse could count, but even they are sort of playing off of what Radiohead did before them.

In a sense, I’m in no position to cast any negativity on bands who sound like the old days. I’m sure people at the cutting edge of electronica could listen to what I’m doing and say, “Listen, granddad. You’re no better than that”.

I think it’s nearly impossible to make music that’s totally original these days. Even Knifeworld wears its influences on its sleeve, but the distinction is that you guys still work them into a largely unique collage.

Yes, exactly. Thank you.

Going back to the album itself, where did the title Bottled Out of Eden come from? What’s its significance?

Well, I’m always coming up with titles. Little phrases that I like the sound of, and this was one of those. It kind of stuck around. About three years ago, as a joke, when we were doing the last Gong album with Daevid Allen, we were doing an email chain about what the title would be. A couple of members suggested things that I didn’t think were particularly good, so I suggested three or four jokey names, and one of them was that. I just liked the sound of the words, and it’s a funny image.

Daevid said, “That’s a great title, but no, we’re going to call it I See You”. So I thought, Well, Daevid like that, and that’s good to know [laughs]. A year or so ago, I started thinking about the phrase again and realized that it could have a few meanings. Like, it could mean that you’ve been ejected from Eden, or that the music itself has been bottled out of Eden.

That’s clever.

Or it could mean — there’s a notion in England, if not America, too, that to be “bottled out” of something means to be too scared to do it. So you’re too scared to go to Eden. Once had those three phrases, I started to consider it for the Knifeworld thing. It gave me a good circle in which to write the lyrics. Everything had to be revolved around either being bottled out of Eden or having been bottled out of Eden, if that makes sense.

It does. Going along with that, is the album conceptual, be it narratively or in terms of several themes?

It’s kind of conceptual. They all are, in a way. They never had a narrative or a conceptual story, but they’re all generally about a thing. I think it makes it more cohesion. I tend to write a lot of stuff, so it helps me identify what’s going to live on each album.

I guess that the previous album [The Unravelling, 2014] was so much about what happened to my dear friend, Tim Smith (Cardiacs), and the impact that had on me and all of my friends. It was a very melancholy kind of record, so with this one I wanted to make something very up and positive. Although when I started, as I may have said in the press release, four of my friends had died last year, starting with Daevid Allen. Two of them from cancer.

Oh, wow. I’m so sorry to hear that.

Thank you. Given just how enlightened Daevid was, it wouldn’t have been right to do this sort of dark exploration of death [on Bottled Out of Eden]. I wanted to find a positive in his death and write something about death and loss that was somehow joyful as well. Obviously, a lot of it is still melancholy, but I felt like I wanted to make an up record even in spite of these deaths.

That definitely comes through. In the press release, you also say that in comparison to the last record, this one is “rawer, more live sounding”. To me, it’s like Wish You Were Here in contrast to The Unravelling as The Dark Side of the Moon. It doesn’t seem especially simpler, but it’s more accessible and warm.

In a way, I wanted it to be. Basically, we just wanted to change all of the variables, so that whatever The Unravelling was, this wasn’t. That album took so long to write and record, and everything had to be rerecorded several times. I got really, really tied up in the details, and I’m glad I did because it turned out how I wanted it to, but it was such a difficult journey getting there.

With this, I wanted to change everything and get the whole band rehearsed and knowing all the songs. We played pretty much the entire thing live, before we ever recorded it. Then we went down to Bob Drake’s place and more or less recorded it in nine days. For me, doing that with Knifeworld was a miracle.

Definitely. That’s really impressive and quick. As you said, the album is a mixture of sorrow and joy. It opens with “High/Aflame”, which was chosen as the opener because of how joyful it is, right?

Yeah, yeah.

What is it about?

I suppose it’s about being celebratory. It was the second song I wrote for the LP, and I wanted to write something that sounded almost spiritual. I’m not particularly a spiritual person; however, if I was going to think about the most life-changing, profound, mind-altering experience I’ve had, it was my experience with psychedelics, like LSD, in my early 20s and late teens. It really changed me and rewired my mind in an incredibly positive way.

I never really talk about this stuff in interviews, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but for me it came at just the right time. I could’ve had this very, very miserable life, given the upbringing I had. In a way, it [LSD] completely allowed me to turn my life around. That’s the nearest I’ve come to a religious experience and something supernatural. Thoughts that seemed to come from outside of me.

In a funny way, “High/Aflame” is like a hymn to psychedelics, but also to Daevid Allen as well, who was very much dying at that point. He’d accepted his death, which I just thought was extraordinary. So it was inspired by both of those things, really.

That’s fascinating. It’s great that you could channel both of those inspirations into such a catchy song.

One of the biggest moments I had on LSD was the decision to move to London and to really take music seriously. That also relates to another piece on the disc, called “Vision of the Bent Path”. It’s the short instrumental.

Around the time of my late teens, I was getting into this kind of very “bent” music, if you want to call it that. Things like Gong and Cardiacs, both of which I ended up joining, you know? Also, Henry Cow and elements of King Crimson and Stravinsky and Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. All this sort of stuff, this “bent” music.

I remember tripping one night and getting this vision about the road that I was on. Like, this is the kind of music that I’m going to be making now. By sticking to that, I ended up being asked to join Gong and Cardiacs and met all of these wonderful friends. I even met my wife, and we started a family. All of these beautiful things that’ve happened to me have happened because I’ve stuck to making this weird ass music [laughs].

Well what more could you ask for, right?

Totally. I mean, it hasn’t worked out amazingly in a financial way, but in terms of positivity, it has.

I’m glad to hear that. It’s great you’re doing what you want to do and it’s been so beneficial. In regards to LSD, who knows if Revolver or Sgt. Pepper would’ve been made without it, or even Brian Wilson’s SMiLE.

From what I’ve heard, there’s a debate about what LSD does. Does it make people hallucinate, or does it actually open up parts of the brain that are usually blocked off so we don’t go insane with sensory overload? In other words, it may make you experience things that are really there.

What it’s done for me is it’s allowed me to step outside of myself and outside of my own mind and all that kind of bullshit circular thought. Sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re doing circular thought, which brings in resentment and negativity. It really allowed me to almost take my mind apart and reconstruct it without the things that I didn’t need. The unhappy experiences and the general behaviors that weren’t doing me any good.

In terms of music, as a compositional tool, it’s second to none. It absolutely makes music go totally three-dimensional. You can see behind the notes. With arranging and writing. I haven’t taken it for about 15 years, but in my 20s I was always taking it and writing music with it. It’s an incredibly powerful tool there.

If you’ve never taken it, it’s kind of hard to understand what it’s like. It’s absolutely mind-altering in a very literal sense.

That’s what I’ve heard. I even heard the notion that, you know, John Lennon kind of led the Beatles through Help, or even Rubber Soul, but then got into LSD so much that he lost his ego a bit, which let McCartney have more of an equal presence.

Yeah, well, whether that was for better or worse is up for debate. [Laughs]

That’s true. Moving onto the video for “High/Aflame”, though, I wonder what inspired the direction of it. What was the motivation for how it came out?

It was made with Ashley Jones, who we used for the last few videos, actually. It also does our photos. Mel [Woods] and I talked about it and that idea was to have a simple visual representation of the song. It’s such a colorful track, so wouldn’t it be really nice to have this slightly overwhelming and colorful video for it? I’m really pleased with how it turned out, too; it really looks lovely.

It really suits the song. In contrast, there are some darker songs on the record, like “Foul Temple”. It’s still very complex, but it’s also very haunting and down. What’s that track about, and would you say that the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow is a major attribute of Knifeworld overall?

Yeah, I’ll answer that last point first. Here’s the thing: all of life is agony and ecstasy, right? I talk about losing four really good friends last year, but I can’t say that 2015 was a terrible year because wonderful stuff happened as well. Life is just completely a mixture of both, and I really want that from my music.

I think that all of my favorite music does that, which isn’t to say that I don’t love the purity of an artist that captures just one atmosphere. If you take something like, I don’t know, Godflesh, which makes very brutal music. I love that music, but I don’t always want to dwell on those feelings within myself. They’re completely there sometimes, but I also feel very happy a lot of the time. Also, I’m constantly feeling the icy winds of the grave on my neck, so every day is a mixture of separation and guilt and worry, too. I’m just trying to get all of that, all of the human experience, into Knifeworld, I suppose.

Speaking of a band that sort of focuses on one shade of life, I’m sure you’re aware of Anathema. They’re last few releases are exceptionally beautiful and earnest considerations of love, loss, and life. That said, that don’t really offer overtly happy sentiments.

I know some of their stuff, yeah. And maybe they’re doing the right thing, even though it can be difficult, at least for me. I’m the guy who can’t do just one thing like that.

You mentioned “Vision of the Bent Path” before. It’s a 30-second interlude, so I wonder why you decided to keep it as a separate track instead of putting it at the beginning or end of another track. I guess that speaks to a larger question about how you decided on the sequence of the collection.

Normally, I would know the layout of the songs even before they’re recorded. It wasn’t like that as much with this one, though. I thought I had an idea of how I wanted it to run, but when we got the rough mixes back, I realized that it just wasn’t flowing right. It took about three attempts to get it, and the biggest surprise was the realization to end with the poppy track, “Feel the Sorcery”. It was going to be the second or third song in the order, but it wasn’t working like that. Then we stuck it at the end and it had the feeling of watching the credits roll after a film. It comes after “Secret Words” and closes it well.

That was a weird one. I never expected to have all of the gentler songs bunched together at the end, which is what we’ve done. I always imagined that we’d have an intense one and then a gentler one and kind of follow that pattern, but it seems to work to have the album go towards gentler passages as it ends. When you write a song, you get an initial sense of where it should go.

That’s interesting. It definitely works as is, but I’m curious to hear how it would work as you originally planned it. That also speaks to a larger point about the loss of viewing an album as a cohesive whole.

I think my generation, if not the generation after mine, is so used to digital culture and buying a favorite song from iTunes and forgetting about the rest of the record. The art of the album as a singular statement has been lost.

Yeah, I always think of music in terms of whole albums. I grew up in the era of the album, and what we make is quite detailed music, which requires a certain level of attention to really get what’s going on. I think the 40- to 50-minute duration is nice, and having a story or a semblance of a narrative is nice, too.

I agree. Perhaps the hardest question yet is: Do you have a favorite song from Bottled Out of Eden? I know it’s kind of like picking a favorite child.

It really is, more so this time than in the past, even. They were all written in a relatively short period of time, which I’ve never done before. I’ve always had a few new ones and then a few older ones that I rework. This time, everything was brand new, so I really think of it as a whole. I have a few favorites for different reasons. I absolutely love “I Must Set Fire To Your Portrait” because it felt like I’d crossed some type of new front as a composer, and I very loosely call myself a composer. I’m just so pleased with that one. Of course, I really like “High/Aflame” because it means that I managed to write a somewhat straightforward pop tune, which I’ve been trying to do for years. I also really like “Secret Words” because it feels so plaintive and gentle, yet it seems to make its point. To be honest, I really don’t have a specific favorite, though; I really adore of it.

Me too, although I’d probably say that “High/Aflame” is my favorite as of now. Who knows if that’ll change, though. Are there any plans to tour in support of the album?

We’ve got a few dates in dates and festivals in the UK, and then we’re going to Europe in September.

Oh, okay. Great! So as you’ve said already, you’re also a major part of the modern incarnation of Gong. I have to ask how the death of Daevid Allen changed the trajectory of the band moving forward. You’re working on a new album, correct?

Yes, actually I was working on it up until twenty minutes before you called [laughs]. I was recording vocals in my studio. Anyway, Gong is a weird one. Daevid wanted us to carry on with the band, but I kind of didn’t. My opinion was that I was already the frontman of Knifeworld and that doing it without Daevid just seemed wrong. Even the Gong fan in me thought, We’ll, why would we do that? I was very much against it until we did the tour in support of the last album, I See You. Daevid was still alive, but he couldn’t talk because he was so ill. We had a few dates that we had to honor, and when we started touring the material, it just felt so magical. I mean, I’m forty-four now and I’ve been in bands since I was about ten, so I know how rare it is to get a dynamic that’s so explosive and amazing. When we finished touring Gong as a five piece, I really thought that we should actually go forward, and the rest of the band agreed.

That’s great!

Yeah. Prior to that, I think everyone involved was a bit cynical about carrying on without Daevid. He really was Gong, and we knew that some fans might not accept it. Really, the ones who won’t accept it are gone now anyway, and that’s fine. Okay, so they’re gone. The fans who are supporting us now want a new record, and I have to say that it still sounds like Gong, but it also sounds like my stuff as well. If you like that kind of stuff, you’ll think it’s fantastic. I’m so excited about it.

I can’t wait to hear it. Finally, I have to ask what drives you to be a part of so many musical projects. Do you ever feel like you can’t handle it or that you’re stretching yourself too thin?

I have wondered about that, yeah. Really, it’s Knifeworld and Gong as the main focus, and then a bit of Guapo on the side. I’m always really busy. I can’t say that I know what drives me, but the tunes keep coming out and I don’t ever feel like I’m scrapping the bottom of the barrel. I put 100% into everything I do, and I can segue between, say, Knifeworld mode and Gong mode and Guapo mode. So maybe I am stretching myself too thin, but I don’t feel like the material is suffering. I don’t feel like I’m bringing any less than 100% of what I should. And really, it’s all part of the same body of work, right? It’s all part of the same thing.

Exactly. It’s your legacy.

I became a father in 2009 and I’ve become incredibly busy since then. I wonder if that’s because I don’t want my daughter to grow up and think I’m a loser [laughs]. I can say, “Well, I did all of this”, and then I’ll hand her a stack of LPs.

It will be quite an impressive body of work, for sure. Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me, Kavus. It’s been great.

Thanks, Jordan, and thanks again for the great review!

My pleasure. Take care.