Chris Knox

by Philip Matthews / 17 July, 2004

TV1 viewers who stay up late - or is that an oxymoron? - might have seen Chris Knox present old films from the vault in an impressive season that TV1 has dubbed The Vault. It's a great gig for a film nut such as Knox, who spends more money on DVDs than CDs these days - which doesn't necessarily mean that music has got worse, rather that Knox is enjoying the second adolescence that the DVD revolution can provide. "I'm finally getting to see all the movies I wanted to see when I was 12, which were totally inaccessible to a New Zealand 12-year-old," he says. The Listener caught up with Knox at home in Auckland's Grey Lynn and began by wondering what he made of Rolling Stone's recent announcement that rock'n'roll has just turned 50.

Apparently because July 2004 is 50 years after Elvis "laid down" the song "That's Alright" at Sun Records ... So rock'n'roll is two years my junior. I'm older than rock'n'roll? That makes it feel quite young. I suppose the fact that it is 50 justifies the presence of us old folks who are still out there doing it. But it's meaningless. Maybe rock'n'roll as a music using amplified guitars has been around for 50 years. But it's an ancient form.

It's funny - I would have picked you as anti rock'n'roll. I'm anti-rock. Love "roll".

When did rock'n'roll become rock? About 1968 to '70. It became pretentious and lost the swing. The prog stuff and so forth, some of which had its moments, but they were generally a lot more anal than what I think of as rock'n'roll.

Anyway, what are you working on musically? I've just finished doing an anthem for the Engineers and Print Manufacturers Union, which may see the light of day. I'm looking at doing another solo album, but this time I'd like to at least start it in a studio, with a band, rather than doing it all at home by myself, because I'm sick of that. I'm just such a bad engineer and technician and I worry more about that than the actual music half the time. It's getting to be a pointless exercise.

While more and more people are recording at home. So I figure, I've always been completely out of step, so I might as well step out further.

Apart from the Tall Dwarfs, have you played with other musicians recently? I've done gigs with Stefan Neville drumming. Fabulous drummer. He trades under the name Pumice. He used to be a one-man band with guitar, keyboards and drums. Now he's a one-man band with harmonium and drums. My dream line-up would be him and Lesley Paris both on drums, the Checks bass player and ... some guitarist.

Do you think you've run the totally solo thing into the ground? I started recording a new album. I put some drum tracks down. I put the rhythm guitar tracks down. I thought, this is sounding like everything else I've ever done of that type. It's boring. And the room I record in is a shocking-sounding room, and there's so much building going on around here that it's really difficult to find time when there's no noise. The people I've told about this idea have been very enthusiastic, so I guess the few fans I still have are pretty prepared for some change, too.

What's the status of the Tall Dwarfs? We did two gigs in March in Arras, France. It was a collaboration with a bunch of arty music makers, including Pierre Bastien, who's in Auckland for the alt music festival. He makes music out of Meccano. The others we played with were Spaceheads, an English trumpet and drums duo, and Mrs Pilgrimm, who plays cello and sings. So between the four units, we had to work out one another's songs and work out new ones, and play two nights in a wooden circus tent like the one that was in Aotea Square a few years ago. We had four days' practice and worked out two sets. It worked remarkably well.

But Arras - urggh! Forty-two thousand people, no cinema. Tough town.

Then you and fellow Dwarf Alec Bathgate went to Paris and saw Brian Wilson play the legendary, lost Beach Boys album Smile - we know because we read about it in this magazine. The album is actually coming out in September, which is a bit exciting.

Won't that blow the legendary aura, though? But the great thing about this is that it's a totally new recording. It's a studio version of what Alec and I saw live, so it's pretty stunning. It will be a Smile, but not the Smile. The Smile is absolutely lost. And the bootlegs are still out there for those who really want them.

And your Friend project? Friend's a name I have used and intend to further use for projects of even less commercial value than the normal stuff. The one record I've done so far is stuff collected on an old Sony Walkman and dumped into a computer, chopped and changed, cut and paste, reversed and inverted, until something completely different comes out. It's music I've been interested in for years ...

Musique concrete? Musique concrete, yeah. Ever since the Beatles' "Revolution 9" and, about the same time, 1968, I got an album that had a big John Cage piano piece on one side and a bunch of musique concrete on the other. People like Henri Pousseur. I just loved these seemingly formless, unstructured collages of sound. Always wanted to make some myself.

What are you finding as you watch these old horror movies that were inaccessible to you 40 years ago? You find out that they were crap, anyway - the stills were the best things about them. Actually, there are very few Hammer movies that don't have a great moment. And B horror movie fanaticism is all about great moments. Those wonderful, luminous moments that make up for 80 minutes of stodgy dialogue and bad performances and so forth. I forgive a lot more in horror movies than in any other genre, just for the flashes of brilliance that are like your nightmares come to life.

It's been really interesting doing The Vault, which started as a bunch of RKO noir movies, but suddenly shifted gear into six Universal horror movies. Very few of them stand up as completely wonderful movies, but the good bits have never been beaten. Nothing, for me, has beaten the original Frankenstein - Karloff's make-up and performance. There's something that doesn't look like make-up about that and there's a beauty to it that I don't think has been matched by any another film.

How long does The Vault run after these horrors? There are six Bob Hope films, at least, after the horror season. Then there's another 12 movies of which we have no knowledge as yet. I'm just amazed that TVNZ is putting reasonably good movies on, in a season, and paying someone to present them. Nobody seems to be complaining. Oh, except for one guy in Tauranga who complained bitterly about the first movie having a link that said something about pour yourself a stiff whisky and soda and settle back ...

No, you can't have drinking in film noir. Drinking, smoking, crime ... Hell, no! That's why the reference was there in the first place - there were so many whisky and sodas in that movie.

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