Schools Of Thought; An interview with Jerry Dirr of Knife The Symphony

Cincinnati, Ohio’s Knife The Symphony owes a considerable debt to the music of SST, Touch & Go, and Dischord Records. The band has consistently released energetic, abrasive, rhythmic-work garnering comparisons to Hüsker Dü, Drive Like Jehu, Jawbox, and Unwound.
Since Knife The Symphony’s formation in 2006, the band has toured quietly, albeit steadily, throughout various portions of the U.S. and Canada. KTS has performed with bands such as Mission Of Burma, The Bomb (feat. Jeff Pezzati of Naked Raygun), 7 Seconds, Don Caballero and more.
During this time, the members of Knife The Symphony have also successfully organized a handful of benefit concerts and countless shows for touring bands coming through Cincinnati.
We recently spoke with KTS’ Jerry Dirr about the band and his Phratry Records label. This is what he told us.
Next year is KTS’s 10th anniversary as a band. Will there be fanfare regarding that milestone?
We don’t have any plans as of right now. We haven’t really even discussed it, to be honest. Jeff Albers and I have been with the band since the start, and we sometimes talk about how long we’ve been doing this, but as a band, we’ve been very focused on moving forward, and not so much looking back.
What are the predominant lessons you’ve learned over the last 10 years as a band?
It’s hard to quantify. Even after twenty-plus years of playing in bands and touring, you still learn something new at every show. But in Knife The Symphony, we’ve definitely learned that it’s important to work with others and to have a real understanding that even existing in a DIY subculture, you cannot do it all by yourself. You have to branch out, you have to network, you have to return favors and simultaneously team up with other bands, or else the experience of playing music and traveling is just kind of empty.
We pride ourselves on continually playing out of our comfort zone(s) and putting ourselves in front of new people in new cities on a regular basis. Trying new things is the only way to keep the experience fresh, and it really does allow you to grow as a band and as individuals.
What is KTS’ association with Phratry?
Phratry Records is my label. I started it back in 2004 at a time when I was in between bands, but I wanted to continue doing something creative and productive with music. In the first few years, before Knife The Symphony was even a band, I put out a few full-length albums and an EP for four or five different bands and I was able to land a digital distribution deal as well as some exclusivity for physical distribution. So, by the time Knife The Symphony had become an actual band, with songs that we felt like we wanted to release, the label was already a little bit established and we were able to just release our material through Phratry. Y
ou recently released both a 7-inch and a 12-inch. How do those releases differ from your previous releases?
Well, I don’t think these last two releases necessarily differ a lot from each other, but if you were to go back and look at everything we’ve released in the last five years verses the first five years, I think it’s safe to say that Knife The Symphony has evolved a lot over the years.
Our first EP, which came out in January of 2007 was very much a studio-recording and the songs were more of a mid-tempo approach with big drums, bass and layers of sound and overdubs. We released our first full-length called, Crawler, about eighteen months later and that was a more stripped-down, full-on, pedal-to-the-floor assault that we recorded mostly in our practice space.
A year after that, we released our second full-length called, Dead Tongues, where we kind of combined both schools of thought from each of the first two releases, but we incorporated a more mellow, contemplative approach as well, frequently delving into stretched-out, spacey, quieter moments.
Additionally, our friend Robyn played bass on all of those records and so there was always an interesting male/female vocal dynamic at work as well. Shortly after Dead Tongues, though, Robyn left the band for other career and life pursuits. So, by 2010, Knife The Symphony underwent a lineup change which has resulted in a more muscular, chaotic and aggressive approach. We’ve always approached song-writing as a group, and so dependent upon the lineup, and gear, we’ve just naturally evolved over time.
Where and with whom did you record those efforts?
We recorded both the 7-inch and our newest 12-inch here in Cincinnati. The 7-inch was recorded digitally by our then-bass player, Andy Perkins, at his home studio. Our newest 12-inch was recorded and mixed to analog tape by Shane Chaney of Phratry Records’ Swear Jar at their practice space and in his home studio.
What is your writing process like and how soon after writing songs do you start talking about taking them into the studio?
Our writing process is fairly simple and pretty down-and-dirty lately. We basically just hammer-out parts at practice until they morph into some kind of structure that we can identify as an actual song. This could take anywhere from just a couple of practices to several writing sessions over the span of months.
We typically start playing new material at shows knowing that the song, or songs, are not actually finished. But by playing them live, in front of an actual audience, it really helps us to make additions or subtractions to the compositions. As far as recording our work, we generally move pretty fast and record shortly after the composition has been nailed down.
As a result, we sometimes find ourselves changing parts during the recording process or ever shortly after the recording process which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it keeps the process fresh for us and it’s fun to create something in the moment and be able to play it back on the spot. But it’s a curse because there have been times when we just can’t seem to replicate some of those moments in a live setting, or we just naturally get better at playing the song and wish we had waited to record.
Do you find that there are many bands in Cincinnati with a similar sound? Who are your kindred spirits there?
The nice thing about Cincinnati is that there isn’t a specific Cincinnati sound. Unlike other cities who might have a sort of, “go to” producer or “go to” studio or a break-out band that everyone tries to emulate, Cincinnati is home to a lot of different people doing a lot of unique things with their art. But even though while we might not share a similar sound with anyone, there are plenty of kindred spirits who share a similar approach to music, or who grew up listening to the same bands or going to the same shows.
What are your favorite things about Cincinnati?
It’s really affordable which means we can work, pay our bills and still have some money left over to do the things we want to do as a band.
The arts-scene in Cincinnati is extremely eclectic and has a lot to offer. The unique thing about Cincinnati, though, is that the particular things within the arts which I think make it a great city don’t necessarily jump out at you, or receive a lot of the same funding or advertising that they would in a bigger city such as Chicago, or New York. You do have to still search for what you’re looking for, but it’s there. It’s all there.
And from a touring perspective, Cincinnati is a great home base. You can hit a lot of different parts of the country all within about a 500 mile radius of this city. And so living here, we’re able to tour the South, the East Cost, the Midwest, and everything in between, all in the same year. Just pick a direction and go.
Did you do much touring in 2015?
Yeah, we’ve toured a lot this year. A lot for older guys like us, anyway. We’ve probably played close to fifty shows at this point. We’ve decidedly been approaching it in a segmented fashion, though. In previous years, we play longer stretches, sometimes up to two weeks at a time. And for us, it just didn’t always work out. It was either too much time at once away from work or families, or we’d have a string of a few bad shows and lose a bunch of money.
But in playing on the road anywhere between two and five days every month, with a few local shows scattered in between, we’ve really been able to accomplish a lot. We’ve been able to take all of the opportunities presented to us, and put ourselves in front of a lot of different people in a lot of different cities because, again, being from Cincinnati, we can travel in a lot of different directions and cover a lot of ground in a pretty short period of time. And when one stretch is over, we can just go in another direction before revisiting the same cities from the previous stretch and so on.
What is the craziest thing the band has experienced on the road?
I don’t know that there’s any one thing. It’s more like a series of moments which accumulate over time and makes the whole idea of touring kind of crazy. There’s the usual: various house shows which get shut down for one reason or another, or traveling in bad weather.
But, one time in Chicago we played a venue where a film-production company was having a viewing party for their new reality-sex show which was airing on Showtime. Before any of the bands played, this company was having a big party to watch the first episode in the series. There were people from all walks, some dressed in S&M gear, going ape-shit over a show that highlighted, among other things, an underground world of clown orgies where everyone dresses anonymously in clown make-up and costumes. It was fucking crazy.
We also stayed a total Bates Motel / murder hotel in Buffalo recently and in Detroit, as we were leaving the show to go crash for the night, we got caught-up in a crazy car chase on the highway. Luckily Jeff was paying attention and got us out of the way safely. The car being chased was flying at well over 100 miles an hour and the dozen or so cops and helicopters in pursuit weren’t far behind, traveling at the same speeds. It ended-up with the suspect fleeing on foot a couple miles down the highway. It was nuts. And we were moments away from being pummeled by the suspect.
What was the best show you ever played?
My immediate inclination to answering this question is to think of the “bigger” shows we’ve played over the years with bands like Mission Of Burma or more recently with 7 Seconds. But just because they’re bigger and more high-profile shows doesn’t really make them the best.
The best shows are always the ones where everything is firing on all cylinders. The ones where everyone is playing well and someone – wether it’s two people or two hundred people – gets what you’re doing. Shows like the PRF BBQs in Chicago and Louisville along with the old CincyPunk Fest or IronFest here in Cincinnati are always great because you get to play with dozens of great bands. The vibe is always positive and you get to do something for charity. Those kinds of festivals are always one part family reunion and one part Freshman orientation for us where we get to catch up with people and bands we haven’t seen in while as well as get turned on to new bands. And getting to go out on the road with bands we’re friends with or share commonalities with always make for the best shows!
What are your tentative plans for 2016?
To just keep doing what we started in 2015. We want to keep going out on the road and making records. We’re talking about trying to do a full-length this year, which we haven’t done since 2009, but we’ll take that day by day and see how the song-writing goes.
What is it about punk or indie music that you continue to relate to?
I don’t know, really. It’s something that we don’t really put a label on – we just kind of do what we do. I think for Jeff and I, who grew up skateboarding and listening to a lot of punk and hardcore before any of those subcultures really started being accepted by the mainstream, there’s something about that early “us vs. them” mentality that sticks with you. A chip on your shoulder or a voice inside your head which tells you that there are alternatives and there isn’t just one way. The idea that you can exist independently and make and accomplish realistic goals such as booking tours, putting out records and host touring bands in your own hometown and keep it going for twenty-plus years with little-to-no money, but somehow create life-lasting friendships and moments along the way – that’s what we relate to, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
(Knife The Symphony perform at Blind Bob’s in Dayton, Ohio, on Thursday, November 5. Ampline is also on the bill.
For more info on Knife The Symphony: