Q&A: Religious Knives' Michael Bernstein On Noise-Rock Critics, Walking Around In A Daze, And Playing Ambient Music For His New Daughter
For Brooklyn foursome Religious Knives--guitarist/organist/singer Michael Bernstein, guitarist/organist/singer Maya Miller, bassist Todd Cavallo, and new drummer Ryan Nadieau--gloom, shadows, and lapidary repetition are the foundations that monoliths are built upon. While early singles comps Resin and Remains (both issued via No Fun) found Bernstein and Miller attempting, somewhat uncertainly, to distance themselves from the hailstorm drone of their prior project--serpentine noise legends Double Leopards, whose lineup included Hototogisu/Zaimph wunderkind Marcia Bassett--subsequent releases evinced a curious coherence, stretching intoned poetry over fuzzy, minor-key chords. It's the kind of music that accrues intensity and profundity over time despite seeming entirely too dark, dank, and simplistic to have much of an impact at first.
The new parents: Michael Bernstein and Maya Miller of Religious Knives
On Smokescreen (Sacred Bones), this aesthetic is expanded further, with jittery, filleted keyboard and organ parts that wink at reggae, artfully distorted surf guitars, martial drum flourishes, and a general sense of disappearing ever-so-slowly into an undefined wormhole. A perpetual vacillation of see-sawing riffs and discordant keys, "Big Police" sounds and eats like a paranoiac's fever dream, while "Private Air" lumbers and lunges like Confusion Is Sex-era Sonic Youth slaughtering The Strokes' "Juicebox." Little sunlight illuminates Smokescreen, and it's a better, more robustly hypnotic album for it.
Shortly after Smokescreen was completed, Miller and Bernstein welcomed their first daughter into the world. We caught up with Bernstein over email to discuss Smokescreen, his solo work, and underground-rock parenthood.
I understand that Religious Knives has a new, possibly underage member. What instrument is she playing, or is she on vocals?
It's true. The Religious Knives/Heavy Tapes family has a new member: Opal Mollie Bernstein was born on August 16, 2010, a few months after we put the finishing touches on Smokescreen. She's currently working on her vocalization skills, although she shows early promise in the realm of free percussion and minimalist xylophone playing.
You guys also have a new drummer, Ryan Nadieau. Is this a temporary or permanent change in personnel?
Our previous drummer, Nate Nelson--also of Brooklyn rock caveman-titans Mouthus--moved to Baltimore a few years back, after our last big tour together. We heard of Ryan through a friend he worked with at Academy Records and decided to bring him onboard, even though he claimed to already be a fan of the band, an obvious sign of dubious taste. Ryan worked out great on both a personal and musical level, and we're proud to work with him for as long as we can keep shit together to do so.
Is keeping a band together and progressing difficult?
I guess it depends on your ambitions. For us, we never expected to do more than tour occasionally, make a few records, and have some fun. By all accounts, that hasn't been too tough.
How weird has it been for you as a band--but especially for you and Maya as parents--to kind of reemerge from the nu-parental cocoon and return to thinking about music, in terms of creating and presenting and editing? Or were you able to kind of weigh and juggle both aside from touring, which had to be out of the question at a certain point?
Honestly, we tried our best to get the album done before our baby was born so that we wouldn't have any standing commitments. We had heard from family members and musician friends alike that having a bay severely shifts your perspective, and that has been the case even more than we anticipated. In other words, we haven't thought much about the band since Opal was born. I've been working on some solo music and Maya has been pursuing her usual artistic avenues, and Ryan and Todd both have other side projects that they are focusing on. Our band has always been about expressing ideas and exploring things that happen to us over time in our "regular lives"; it has never been the thing that defined us solely.
What does the name Religious Knives mean or symbolize for you, and how did you come to choose it for this particular project?
"Religious Knives" was on the list of items that the TSA banned passengers from bringing on board airplanes immediately after September 11, 2001. I spotted it at an airport on our way out of town and it just struck me. I turned to Maya and proclaimed that this should be the name for the new-at-the-time duo project she and I were working on, and she agreed. It's taken on more meaning over time in terms of themes we have explored and textures that we show interest in, but at first it was just something spooky and original sounding that we felt clicked for us somehow.