Into the Mystic: Q&A with Joe Knapp of Son, Ambulance
by Dave Heaton
Yes Son, Ambulance have a comma in their name, but don't mistake that for pretension; there's nothing pretentious whatsoever about Joe Knapp and his band's style of heartfelt, artful, stylistically diverse pop-rock. Coming out of the Omaha, Nebraska/Saddle Creek Records scene, which has been getting plenty of well-deserved attention lately due to great bands like The Faint, Bright Eyes and Cursive, Son Ambulance have that refreshing air of musicians who just really enjoy making music, people who get something out of putting their feelings and thoughts into music. My first introduction to the group was via the unique split album Oh Holy Fools, released early in 2001. The album, featuring both Son, Ambulance and Bright Eyes, has some of the more emotionally forceful songs that both bands have done. Son, Ambulance's debut full-length Euphemystic is just as impressive, featuring a fuller, more varied sound. The lineup of Son, Ambulance (which started out simply called Ambulance) has included various Omaha musicians, but singer/songwriter Joe Knapp is always at its center. His songs articulate all sorts of complicated feelings in a poetic way, with music that mixes gentle pop sounds with psychedelic-tinged rock, while slipping into other stylistic outfits here and there. Their songs are filled with layers, both lyrically and musically, and demand you to listen to them closely and repeatedly, as the best songs do. Joe Knapp was nice enough to answer some of my questions about his music, over email.
I'd like to start by catching up with your musical history a bit--when did Ambulance first form? Were any of the people who are currently in the band involved at that point?
It started when I met drummer Jeff Koster in 1998. We played mostly small house parties and local clubs. Then we started opening for national acts such as Smog, Simon Joyner, and Azure Ray. In this time we formed the band line-up that would play on Euphemystic: Robert Little, Jeff Tafolla, Jeff and I. Shortly after Euphemystic came out he moved to Chicago, and each member started doing his own thing. I continued playing solo shows the next few months, but the desire to collaborate remained. So, the line-up now includes Ian O'donnell (on drums) and Daniel Knapp (keyboards), none of the original members. Also, Landon Hedges (who played bass on Oh Holy Fools) is in the band once more.
Were you in any other bands before Ambulance? When did you first start writing songs/playing music?
I started playing drums when I was nine. My family attended an all-black Pentecostal church, and after service I would bolt for the musical instruments. I took these skills and joined such bands as Moloko Plus, Ink Ribbon, and Bright Eyes. Then I picked up guitar from my dad when I was about eleven. I think I was sixteen when I wrote "The Woman in the Underpass," which I consider the first song I ever wrote.
I'm sure you've been asked this too many times to count, but what lead to the addition of the "Son," part of the band name?
My intentions were to add something I wanted to get across how important the band is to me but, also, how it is synonymous with daily life. "Son," is about the future unfolding, inheriting, as in my son Neal. Putting in the comma was less about eccentricity and more a form of perfectionism. It became less and less important to me. Now I just say Son Ambulance.
Please tell me how you ended up doing the Oh Holy Fools split album with Bright Eyes. That's seems like a unique way to introduce yourself to music fans…you don't see too many split full-length releases.
Back when it was just Ambulance, we did a split EP on Insound. I think we enjoyed this so much. It also had a non-traditional format, i.e. Conor introducing us between songs, and way lo-fi compared to Oh Holy Fools. A lot of the early Son Ambulance songs came together while I was in Bright Eyes. The split LP was sort of a little box of memories. For me it was a time to bring closure to my drummin' days and come into my own as a songwriter. This was our first recording in Mike Mogis' studio where we would return to cut our debut. Uhmm, yeah. The split did end up sounding unique, and it seems to have a timeless quality.
I wonder if you think that the Oh Holy Fools album lead people (critics, especially) to tie your music to Bright Eyes' too much. When Euphemystic came out, I was surprised at how many reviews essentially said "this is good, it's a lot like Bright Eyes" and didn't go much deeper with their descriptions. Did you notice that tendency, and does it bother you?
I just feel like the people who know know, and that isn't anybody.
One thing I really like about your lyrics is the way that they manage to both seem really personal and be fairly enigmatic. How would you describe your approach to writing lyrics, and to songwriting in general? Do you generally write lyrics before or after the music?
It starts with a melody in your head, like when you take a long walk and these notes begin to describe your walk. When you feel like writing a song, first find a quiet place. Then just strum the guitar for a while until a vocal melody forms. If there seems to be movement inherent in this structure it could be your next hit! Finally, construct lyrics containing arrangements of vowels and consonant sounds.
I love that break into the Sesame Street theme during "I Promise You'll Never Grow Old." It really threw me the first time I heard it, and made me laugh (in a good way). What inspired song that decision?
That break originally had scat vocals while the guitar chords happened to be the same as Sesame Street. It occurred to me in the studio to try a vocal melody that is also very similar to the Sesame Street theme. It is intended for a light-hearted reaction such as laughing or skipping.
What can you tell me about the artwork for Euphemystic, both the cover and the drawings inside?
The cover is an illumination of "The Man in Sapphire Blue", one of Hildegard von Bingen's visions. I was fascinated when I learned about Hildegard in a History class. Recently I read something about how her visions were the result of a migraine. As far as I'm concerned, she still saw it. The inside artwork was taken from a book of Medieval fashions. I just wanted it to be really colorful, and I liked the pictures of shoes.
What is Son, Ambulance up to these days? Do you have any releases coming up?
We want to take it to the next level. We're basically doing what the Faint did before they blue up. They performed locally almost every-other night, so much that you wouldn't go see them play every time (they are our heros!). Booking shows left and right, getting our live show where we want it to be. Plans to release another full-length this year.
Have you done much touring, either alone or with the band? The one time I saw you play live (in summer 2001 in Lawrence, Kansas, opening for Pedro the Lion), I kept hearing that it was your first show outside of Omaha, and I couldn't figure out if it was just your first show on that particular tour, or your first show with that particular band, or what.
We really haven't done much extensive touring. There have been plenty of little weekend outings: playing in Denver (w/ Pinback), Minneapolis, a solo show in Chicago (open for Damien Jurado), etc. The embarrassing truth of the matter is we don't have a tourable vehicle. We had to borrow the Cursive van for our One east coast stint. The show in Lawrence you mentioned was the first night of that particular tour. Pedro had some constructive criticism for us concerning our set list, which was greatly appreciated. If anyone has a van they want to give us, just mail it to our practice space. The address is…
If my memory is correct, you played a show in New York City not long after September 11, a show that ended up being a benefit of some kind. What was that like?
The whole city was like a ghost town. You could find parking easily. It was supposed to be CMJ, but that was cancelled of course. The whole spirit of "rock'n`roll" and being on tour was destroyed. Still there was a total sense of community I had not ever experienced. The magic of NYC was still intact.
Here's one last question for you: If there's an album, movie or live performance that has blown you away recently, please tell me about it.
Ed TV was on the "Superstation" today. It was a pretty alright flick. Uhmm, yeah. I saw Kaito from UK play the other night in Omaha. They had kind-of a Sonic Youth noisy-pop sound. I love the November EP by Azure Ray!