KNIFE GOING IN (PT. 1–5) for NPR
by Matt Sharp
KNIFE GOING IN (Part One)
Something interesting happened, one day, on the way to my forties. Like a Gravitron ride at a pop-up amusement park, the floor suddenly fell right out from under me. The fiercest, most debilitating, wave of the depression struck my mind with such a violent force that it left me spinning for months, clinging to the padded walls of this rickety carnival ride. On the days that followed this unpredictable, undetectable storm, I found myself curled up on a well worn maroon couch (made with a coarse fabric like an old family bath towel), gasping for air, drained of all positive life force; weeping uncontrollably.
With the last serious bout of personal tragedies so far off in my rearview mirror, it was impossible to put a finger on the source of all of this pain. What was there to be so damn sad about? I had a life filled with wonderful friends, a healthy family; living in a modest, but pleasant duplex that I was renting in the hills of Silverlake and there was even a slight, but positive resurgence of interest in the music I was making, at the time. With all external systems running normal, it made it all the more difficult to try and understand why I was suddenly being leveled by this ferocious, crippling sadness.
As much as admire people that have the courage and intellectual curiosity to enroll themselves in some form of therapy, and even though I romanticized Whit Stillman and Woody Allen movies, throughout my twenties, where every other character is a bookish cosmopolitan that has a meaningful relationship with their analyst, the fear of being prescribed a lifetime of medication for what may only be a brief stay in psychological purgatory has stubbornly kept me off the couch, with no great sense of pride, since 1969. The only empathy I sought out for this inexhaustible sorrow was with the main character that sat at the bottom of deep, dark well in Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Toru will forever be linked to this tragic time in my existence. And to cheer myself up and let a little sunshine in, I would binge watch this three-part documentary on the Battle Of Stalingrad, over and over. “The Attack”, “The Kessel” and “The Doom!” Good times.
With over a decade of distance and perspective, I sometimes think maybe there was some kind of subconscious battle raging inside me where the hardwired, primordial instincts that man has always had, for hundreds of thousands of years, to have a child and start a family came up against the harsh reality that I still, at 37 years of age, I had no interest in passing the baton to the next generation of Sharp’s, and in the not too distant future, my father’s side of the family line would unceremoniously die with me. Whether that was really the deal or not, I cannot say. All I can attest to is that it felt like the tic-toc of some master biological clock had detonated a suicide bomb in my mind and thrust me into the most brutal, although it brief, period of inconsolable anguish and pain.
It was in this state that I found myself, when a small, tan, bubble-wrapped envelope arrived in the mail containing a couple homemade gold CDs adorned with casual handwriting and smiley faces, letting me know that my dear friend, Sara Quin, had just written a couple new songs…
KNIFE GOING IN (Part Two)
Somewhere in the back roads of McLean, Virginia, late one night, my sister flipped her car. I must have just started high school, at the time. In the aftermath, she forgot nearly everything just before, during and immediately following the accident. Sometimes, when you need it most, your mind will turn the lights off to protect yourself from your own memories. And just as her mind blacked out the destruction of her hot pink mustang, my mind has also protected me by lowering a sheltering layer of fog around the time that I spent in the Gravitron.
Although, my memories are now untrustworthy, I can still recall opening Sara’s letter, reading the medium sized post-it note that was lightly fastened to a broken jewel case from Staples, with the gracious invitation to listen to her new home recordings and collaborate on the music that would eventually go on to become one half of The Con.
Maybe it was the mournful dissonance of her reflections, the minor key, and disjointed nature of her more abstract writing in the early sketches of, “Floorplan”, “Knife Going In” and “Like O, Like H” that was hitting too close to home, or the discordant tone at the center of those songs that was rubbing up against the constant cacophony of noise that was already screaming in my ever more discordant brain, but the chords and melodies assimilated themselves in the war torn landscape of my parietal lobe, and in the aftermath of Big Ben’s terrorism, her words became an accomplice in the corruption of my everyday thoughts.
If I don’t recover, sell this house and find something lost outside your window
Not forever, but on the night I die, I swear I’ll fall asleep outside your window…
I kept listening; hour after unproductive hour, hoping to come up with some meaningful way to contribute to what would undoubtedly be a remarkable next chapter in her already incredible, creative life. But, I came up with nothing. What needed to be said, in my unwavering opinion, had already been said. It spoke to me and it spoke clearly. So with great embarrassment I surrendered, I put in a call that I truly wished I hadn’t had to make, but felt had no choice. I tried to elicit her sympathy with toned down, comedic tales of my grief stricken state and then I hemmed and hawed and hemmed and hawed and moaned and moaned and moaned some more until I finally got past the procrastination and spit it out, “There is absolutely no way I will be able to make it up to Portland.”
KNIFE GOING IN (Part Three)
Some cultures believe if you drive fast enough, you can actually outrun your soul and if you really put the hammer down, it will take some time before it eventually catches back up with you. In the past, when my ears were ringing from some minor, music fatigue burnout or from the constant hum of the air conditioner filling the silence of writers block, I would just get in my car, turn off the stereo, roll down the windows and start driving until the ringing went away. Sometimes, it would take just a couple of hours, sometimes it would take a couple days, but if I stayed calm and just meditated on the wind and the engine, I would eventually make a full recovery. This time I knew there would be no recovery, but I held on to the dream that somewhere between LA and Portland, like Churchill running from his black dog, I could temporarily outrun my contaminated soul, behind the power of an age appropriate sports wagon.
A recording studio can often be its own hermetically sealed, micro-universe where the collective chemistry can easily be influenced and affected by adding or subtracting one individual to its tiny population. And by adding my noxious, potentially cancerous compound to the mix, I feared for Chris Walla and all the innocent citizens of Conville. As I slowly navigated my way through the dense fog of Grants Pass, this preoccupied thoughts for nearly all of my journey’s 962 miles.
Like a little red balloon follows a poor French kid, my personalized set of rain-clouds faithfully followed me all the way, straight across the Multnomah County line and patiently hovered above The Kennedy School Hotel, as I checked in at the front desk. Kennedy was a former elementary school that was built in the early nineteen hundreds and has since been converted into this spooky hotel where you must sleep in these ghostly classrooms amongst the dusty chalkboards and stacks of musty children’s books. It was here where I spent the majority of my time during the The Con sessions, alone, holdup with a boombox, listening to Walla’s rough mixes, desperately trying to get my head around the evolution of something that I still struggled to just barely understand. I quarantined myself in that haunted hostel, until the call finally came for me to zip up my invisible HAZMAT suit and enter the Kung Fu Bakery.
Even in the earliest stages, the demos I received were already layered with these brilliant keyboards that Sara had played at her apartment in Montreal. They had a very distinct point of view and you could tell those sounds were going to color the album in a way that was very unique to her. And although a couple years before, I scattered a few atmospheric synthesizers here and there in the background of So Jealous, it became pretty apparent that those same ingredients wouldn’t be helpful at this northwestern pastry shop. The executive Quin decision was made for me to try and add a little bass guitar, instead, to be the barbaric yang to Mr. Burgan’s more masterful ying. The only thing that slightly complicated aspect of that idea was that many of Sara’s keyboard parts already filled the songs with boundless amounts of comforting low frequencies. So off I went taking the first steps on an adventure that I rarely make above the twelfth fret.
I can remember sitting, with my old mongrel, at the mixing board next to Chris. He had this Raymond Babbit ability to keep track of each time I was slightly ahead or behind the beat. Then he would ask me to play the same part one more time and with savant-like precision, he would “punch-in” and “punch-out” as the song rolled along on this glitchy, antiquated digital recording system that, for some reason, he seemed to love. His mastery of this obsolete machine was like watching Steve Wiebe effortlessly reach the kill screen in A Fistful Of Quarters. After just one or two additional passes through whatever song we were working on, Chris would say, “Got it!” to which I would ask “Got what?” followed by an economical reply “Oh nothing.” Then we would roll it back and listen. By God, the little miracle maker had the gift to make us all sound like we are one-take wonders. Walla was, indeed, a very good driver.
And before I knew it, I was on my way back home. 5 minutes to Wopner!
KNIFE GOING IN (Part Four)
In some way, The Con is that album that most of us secretly hope our favorite band is just about to make. In the raw desire to share their story there is an urgency that leaves things a little rough around the edges. Albums like this don’t usually find you and you may even struggle a little along the way to find the connection with them, perhaps it’s because they are unsettling, a little off center, a bit odd in tone and even difficult to understand, at first. But once you get there, after moving through the dissonance and making it to the other side, the bond that you share with that music can become so meaningful that it just might stay with you forever.
KNIFE GOING IN (Part Five)
Shortly after returning to my home on the foothills of Redesdale Avenue, my mother called…
“Am I getting you at a good time?” …”What are you doing, right now?”
“Well, Ma it’s a long story, but I’m barbequing a book.”
“You’re barbequing a what?!”
“A book, Ma. I’m barbecuing a book.”
With each additional squeeze of the white plastic bottle, the Kingsford lighter fluid soaked the open pages and blackened text, as the flames shot up higher and higher under the cloudless sky.
“What did you say you are barbecuing again?”
“It’s called The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Ma. Like I said, it’s a long story.”
This was written for NPR Music on July 18, 2017. For the complete story by Daoud Tyler-Ameen go to: