Q&A: Religious Knives’ Michael Bernstein On Noise-Rock Critics, Walking Around In A Daze, And Playing Ambient Music For His New Daughter


For Brooklyn foursome Religious Knives–guitarist/organist/singer Michael Bernstein, guitarist/organist/singer Maya Miller, bassist Todd Cavallo, and new drummer Ryan Nadieau–gloom, shadows, and lapidary repetition are the foundations that monoliths are built upon. While early singles comps Resin and Remains (both issued via No Fun) found Bernstein and Miller attempting, somewhat uncertainly, to distance themselves from the hailstorm drone of their prior project–serpentine noise legends Double Leopards, whose lineup included Hototogisu/Zaimph wunderkind Marcia Bassett–subsequent releases evinced a curious coherence, stretching intoned poetry over fuzzy, minor-key chords. It’s the kind of music that accrues intensity and profundity over time despite seeming entirely too dark, dank, and simplistic to have much of an impact at first.

On Smokescreen (Sacred Bones), this aesthetic is expanded further, with jittery, filleted keyboard and organ parts that wink at reggae, artfully distorted surf guitars, martial drum flourishes, and a general sense of disappearing ever-so-slowly into an undefined wormhole. A perpetual vacillation of see-sawing riffs and discordant keys, “Big Police” sounds and eats like a paranoiac’s fever dream, while “Private Air” lumbers and lunges like Confusion Is Sex-era Sonic Youth slaughtering The Strokes’ “Juicebox.” Little sunlight illuminates Smokescreen, and it’s a better, more robustly hypnotic album for it.

Shortly after Smokescreen was completed, Miller and Bernstein welcomed their first daughter into the world. We caught up with Bernstein over email to discuss Smokescreen, his solo work, and underground-rock parenthood.

I understand that Religious Knives has a new, possibly underage member. What instrument is she playing, or is she on vocals?

It’s true. The Religious Knives/Heavy Tapes family has a new member: Opal Mollie Bernstein was born on August 16, 2010, a few months after we put the finishing touches on Smokescreen. She’s currently working on her vocalization skills, although she shows early promise in the realm of free percussion and minimalist xylophone playing.

You guys also have a new drummer, Ryan Nadieau. Is this a temporary or permanent change in personnel?

Our previous drummer, Nate Nelson–also of Brooklyn rock caveman-titans Mouthus–moved to Baltimore a few years back, after our last big tour together. We heard of Ryan through a friend he worked with at Academy Records and decided to bring him onboard, even though he claimed to already be a fan of the band, an obvious sign of dubious taste. Ryan worked out great on both a personal and musical level, and we’re proud to work with him for as long as we can keep shit together to do so.

Is keeping a band together and progressing difficult?

I guess it depends on your ambitions. For us, we never expected to do more than tour occasionally, make a few records, and have some fun. By all accounts, that hasn’t been too tough.

How weird has it been for you as a band–but especially for you and Maya as parents–to kind of reemerge from the nu-parental cocoon and return to thinking about music, in terms of creating and presenting and editing? Or were you able to kind of weigh and juggle both aside from touring, which had to be out of the question at a certain point?

Honestly, we tried our best to get the album done before our baby was born so that we wouldn’t have any standing commitments. We had heard from family members and musician friends alike that having a bay severely shifts your perspective, and that has been the case even more than we anticipated. In other words, we haven’t thought much about the band since Opal was born. I’ve been working on some solo music and Maya has been pursuing her usual artistic avenues, and Ryan and Todd both have other side projects that they are focusing on. Our band has always been about expressing ideas and exploring things that happen to us over time in our “regular lives”; it has never been the thing that defined us solely.

What does the name Religious Knives mean or symbolize for you, and how did you come to choose it for this particular project?

“Religious Knives” was on the list of items that the TSA banned passengers from bringing on board airplanes immediately after September 11, 2001. I spotted it at an airport on our way out of town and it just struck me. I turned to Maya and proclaimed that this should be the name for the new-at-the-time duo project she and I were working on, and she agreed. It’s taken on more meaning over time in terms of themes we have explored and textures that we show interest in, but at first it was just something spooky and original sounding that we felt clicked for us somehow.

Going back to what you were saying earlier about how your sound has changed over time, it’s been a fascinating from-the-ground-up metamorphosis to watch, from what struck me as sort of early unformed blurry songs to what you started exploring around the time of The Door and took forward into Smokescreen, this sort of gloomy, portentous Doors-esque approach. In becoming what the band is now it seems to have grown into its namesake, carving out this mystic, cultish space with spiritual overtones: the ritualistic, repetitive organs invoking church traditions in a way, the intoned vocals representing a twist on didactic sermonizing, Maya’s mysterious, transporting sleeve art. Was this evolution a conscious choice or decision, or did it just kind of happen as the band continued to experiment and quest?

It was definitely a conscious effort. Maya and I worked deeply into a bedroom “love noise” sound with the early, duo days of Religious Knives that only took us so far. We craved something different from what we felt we had been successful at and had a lot of fun doing–improvising.

We’d played tons of shows and recorded quite a bit with two other people in a dark, psychedelic improvised noise band called Double Leopards. Religious Knives developed in between Leopards practices, and as we were devoted, regular worshippers on the altar of minor key, arrhythmic drone, we played quite often. As soon as we figured we could, we tried to get a drummer, and then after that, a bass player. We tried as hard as we could to make the music we heard in our heads, and adding more like-minded people to the mix was natural, just the contribution we needed.

Has parenthood inspired you to write music specifically for your daughter? What songs, traditional or otherwise, does she enjoy? It occurs to me that at least a couple Double Leopards discs would make ideal nursery fare.

Maya and I played a lot of music together right before Opal was born, and did some recordings for her that we’ll probably never play for her. In terms of music around the house, we play records for her constantly. She’s just getting into standing and dancing, but she laughs and smiles when she hears all kinds of music, including The Kinks, Rihanna, Satwa, and anything that makes Maya or I dance in a stupid way.

We’ve played her some more experimental and ambient music as well, but she doesn’t sit still long enough to listen yet.

What did the recordings you made for her sound like?

Long improvised guitar and piano pieces mostly, with some intermittent vocals.

When you’re writing lyrics for Religious Knives, do you approach it from any particular perspective or angle or persona? I feel like Smokescreen is kind of a collection or warnings or advisements, a warped sort of life survival guide.

I think the last three LPs–Smokescreen, The Door (Ecstatic Peace), and It’s After Dark (Troubleman Unlimited)–have all been pretty thematic and from a more-or-less singular perspective. The lyrics usually start in a straight-up improvised fashion, where little fragments become part of a larger whole, using some ideas I’m interested in expressing or phrases I find beautiful, poetic, ugly, or all three. With the songs that Maya sings on, she takes license with the words I give her, fitting them into her own rhythms, often changing them or adding to them as she sees fit. It’s a very fun and rewarding part of the process for me as I’ve been writing for much longer than I’ve been playing music. The “warped sort of life survival guide” idea seems pretty close to where I’m coming from on this album, a sort of weary, plaintive take on the themes we’ve gone through with the other two albums mentioned above.

So between you and Maya, it’s almost as if you’ve written a score and she’s riffing on it, reinterpreting your baseline.

Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. That’s more or less how the songwriting goes for the instrumental components as well.

Smokescreen is a fitting name for a Religious Knives release, but what does it represent in the context of this album? Previously you’d put out stuff on No Fun and Ecstatic Peace; how’d you hook up with Sacred Bones?

I think the concept of a smokescreen, although derived from a more personal place, is a good term to describe the general techniques that city-dwelling people have to employ in order to function in such a stressful, frenzied environment. I’m intensely interested in the concept of the inner lives of human beings, and through studying science and working with computers, the beauty of the complexity of the human mind has only become more fascinating to me over time. We all walk around in a daze, focusing on things other than what’s going on around us, and I try to express some of the poetry and some of the challenges derived therefrom.

Caleb from Sacred Bones and I had several friends in common when we first met, and he was a fan of our previous records, so he asked us to participate in what was then his nascent label. Three years later, here we are conducting this interview!

You mentioned solo work you’d been doing; can you expand on the nature of that?

Sure. I have a long history of also doing work of my own outside of any group context. In fact, before I was playing with any groups or really understood the concepts of noise and free-music, I was fucking around at home with tapes and electronics in a fashion that once prompted a perplexed father who came in and saw me moaning into a tape recorder to ask me if I was “on mushrooms.” I wasn’t.

Around the time I began with Double Leopards and got into the free music underground a bit deeper, I started with a poorly named, ill-conceived sort of digital cut-up project, moving to more drone and improvised noise with an equally poor name throughout most of the 2000s. Now I’m using my given name to represent more structured, composed synthesizer work, in addition to improvised drone. I’m also working with an old friend on some straight up dance music, which has been a lot of fun as I’ve always been a big fan of all kinds of electronic dance floor music, and it is a completely different context to work in.

It’s hilarious how people tend to associate behavior they don’t understand with drug abuse.

One of the most depressing components of releasing a continual stream of weird music for 10 years is how small the imaginations are of some of the people who write about it. Instead of talking about the sounds, they talk about the drugs they think we’re on, which really does nothing to illuminate anything aside from their own prejudices, and perhaps their own desires to be partying more than writing.

Is there any possibility that Double Leopards might reunite, even for a one-off show? Or is that particular door closed?

We actually did “reunite” last year to participate in a memorial concert for our dear friend, Jack Rose, who passed away suddenly and way too early. This was after a long hiatus and it felt great to do our small part to honor such an amazing person and music colossus. In terms of the future, that door is not particularly closed, but although we do all keep in touch, it’s not something that has come up. I personally am so proud of the legacy we left behind that I’m not in a rush to fuck it up by “coming back” unless there is a truly compelling reason.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 25, 2011

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