Despite the menace of the name, Knifeworld is a happy place. Over the last five years, the London-based band have slowly but surely become adored in prog and alternative circles for their jubilant live shows, all eight members crowding onto stages to present their unpredictable, life-affirming and unique take on avant-garde psych rock. At the centre of it all is former Cardiac Kavus Torabi, an enormously gregarious character with a Cheshire cat grin and a mop of hair that seems to have a life of its own.
Life At The Sharp End
Even by prog standards, Knifeworld swim against the tide. And as they turn tragedy into art, it looks like more and more people are ready to dive in with them.
But for all the positivity that tends to follow them, Knifeworld are about to head into the shadows to reveal their darker side on new album The Unravelling. Written in the aftermath of his best friend and chief Cardiac Tim Smith’s series of debilitating strokes in 2008, which have tragically left him in need of 24-hour care, Torabi admits that the record finds him examining the overwhelming sadness of a horrific situation.
“There was no way the spectre of what happened wouldn’t cast itself over the record,” he says with a sigh. “Lots of dreadful stuff has been happening; dreadful, grown-up stuff has been happening to my circle of friends around me in the last few years. I think it’s a kind of realisation that when you reach a certain age, it becomes a process of continual loss. I’d never really written anything so blatantly about something before, but these lyrics came out and this is the whole theme of The Unravelling. You feel so secure when you’re younger, and full of joy. I’m still full of joy, but that was definitely the theme of the whole album. But you get through it; you soldier on somehow. It’s a really sad record. I’ve never made one like that before. And hopefully I won’t make another one like it again, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
If you’re expecting an introverted slog from the subject matter, fear not. Even in the midst of all that sorrow, The Unravelling still bursts with a kaleidoscope of influences, pinging madly from one to another, post-punk and 70s rock bursting across Stooges-style garage rock and tripped-out psych. Echoes of Syd Barrett and Ray Davies shimmer into view, the whole thing drenched in saxophone blasts. Combined, it truly sounds like nothing else – a bizarre, chaotic and yet immersive universe of their own making, crammed with stories and characters and sound.
Torabi himself puts much of their sonic derring-do down to his own 80s upbringing. “I thought it was a wonderful time for music,” he smiles. “I grew up listening to XTC, Sonic Youth, Slayer, The Smiths, Cardiacs obviously, Voivod. It seemed like every few months you were hearing records that sounded like nothing that had ever been made before. Who’d ever made music that sounded like Slayer before them? Who’s ever made music that sounded like The Smiths? Or Sonic Youth? It’s just so exciting, genuinely progressive music.
“So I grew up at a time where it just seemed like anything was possible and the whole idea was just to be original. People didn’t want to sound like they were somebody else – they wanted to sound new. And while I appreciate that in Knifeworld we still use bass and drums and guitar, we’re not trying to sound like a band from the old days at all. I know we’re not reinventing the wheel, but we are genuinely trying to do music that doesn’t sound like anything else.”
Torabi has been pushing the boundaries for the last 20 years. A self‑confessed control freak, he first appeared in the 90s as the guitarist and vocalist of psychedelic one-offs The Monsoon Bassoon. Since they disbanded in 2001, he’s reached for the outer limits with Cardiacs, Guapo, Gong and Chrome Hoof – each band committed to bold sonic exploration.
While Knifeworld started out as a solo project, it’s grown and spread, eventually morphing into the eight-headed beast we see today. The first album, Buried Alone – Tales Of Crushing Defeat was released through Torabi’s own Believers Roast label in 2009, and he’s still running it today.
“It’s the most bizarre label – I don’t make a penny out of it,” he says. “To release stuff on the label, it’s me saying, ‘Yep, I really like this, I’d like to put it out.’ Everything on it is in a different genre – there’s no one sound.”
This time, though, he’s allowing German label InsideOut – home to the likes of Transatlantic and Bigelf – to release his new album. “I thought it was going to be like, ‘This is brilliant! I’m not going to have to stuff envelopes or do promos,’” Torabi says. “And it’s awful! I’m sure I’m being a real pain, ringing them up and going, ‘What are you doing? What’s going on?’
“We sound nothing like any of the other acts on InsideOut at all, and they were aware of that – that’s why they signed us. I don’t know what they were expecting but they were given this album with this real sort of wringing out of emotions. ‘Here’s our album, now put that out and deal with it!’”
One thing sure to help them out is the profile Torabi’s already built. He says he doesn’t sleep, and that’s easy enough to believe: on top of running the label and playing in different bands, he’s got his very own radio show – The Interesting Alternative Show on Phoenix FM – with prog-friendly snooker legend Steve Davis.
“I love it,” he says. “I never thought I would be presenting a radio show with Steve Davis! I’ve just realised that my life is ridiculous and then gone along with it. I never thought I’d play guitar in Gong though…”
As Knifeworld’s star has risen, they’ve become increasingly accepted and beloved by prog audiences, as well as the alternative crowd, despite Korabi’s claim that “I have no idea the sort of people who like us or not – I’m just always amazed if anyone does.”
Two years ago, they played at Summer’s End, convinced they’d bomb. Suffice to say, it was a triumph. “I thought we were going to tank,” he says. “In the van on the way up I was giving everyone a pep talk, going, ‘Look, they’re probably going to hate us. We’ll just do the gig, have a quick drink and we’ll fuck off. It’ll be fine.’
“I couldn’t believe it. The minute we walked out there, there was such a nice vibe. People were smiling and we were playing pretty well. We hadn’t brought much merch with us ’cos I thought no one was going to buy anything. Within half an hour we’d sold everything. It was ridiculous!”
It’s a ridiculous feeling he should get used to. He’s already got the follow-up to The Unravelling titled and planned, and with this album set to cement their reputation as one of prog’s most interesting bands, the future is bright.
“This is the one thing I’m good at,” says the frontman, sincerely. “I’m good at being in bands. If they say, ‘Be in the lobby at 10 o’clock,’ I’ll turn up in the lobby fully packed at five to 10. If they say, ‘Learn 35 songs,’ I’ll learn 35 songs, I won’t fuck about. I can do very few things – I’m this ocean of incompetence – but one of my few abilities is I’m good at being in bands.”
As vocations go, melting minds with music is a noble one.
BAND OF BLADES
Meet the whole Knifeworld gang…
Melanie Woods: Vocals, percussion, glockenspiel
Melanie was also a member of Cardiacs alongside Kavus Torabi. “She used to play drums in an art-punk band called Sidi Bou Said, an all-girl band. She’s a brilliant drummer.”
Emmet Elvin: Electric piano, keyboards, synths
Emmett plays in experimental chamber rock orchestra Chrome Hoof, a band with even more personnel than Knifeworld. He’s also a member of Guapo with Torabi.
Chloe Herrington: Bassoon, saxophone, backing vocals
Another member of the Chrome Hoof collective. The horn section is a major component of the Knifeworld sound.
Ben Woollacott: Drums, percussion
“He’s an extraordinary drummer,” says Korabi. “He’s one of the newer members, he’s brought something amazing to it. He’s opened up the sound completely. He plays in a band called Mediaeval Baebes, which I played in.”
Charlie Cawood: Bass
“He used to come to our gigs; he had a really nice vibe. I knew he could play. I heard some of his music, some bass parts, so I asked him if he wanted to give it a go. And he’s great.”
Josh Perl: Saxophone, acoustic guitar, backing vocals
Recommended by Charlie Cawood, Josh’s arrival has increased the enormous influence of the horn section. “Charlie turned me on to these other horn players, they came in and really liked the music so we just said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Ollie Sellwood: Saxophone
The saxophonist is the new boy in the band, replacing Nicki Maher, who has left in order to complete her Phd. “He’ll be joining us as of September for the gigs – he wasn’t on the album. Nicky is going to do a Phd in music. It’s such a shame to see her go, she’s an amazing player and singer, but when you’ve got that many people all busy, what are you going to do?”
The Unravelling is out now on InsideOut. See www.knifeworld.co.uk.