Kneebody's Kaveh Rastegar recalls the band's early Denver roots, jamming at Muddy's

Categories: Interviews

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Kim Fox

Kneebody has had many labels thrown at it, but none seem to fit. Just the same, the members of the transcontinental quintet (saxophonist Ben Wendel, keyboardist Adam Benjamin, drummer Nate Wood and Denver natives, trumpeter Shane Endsley and bassist Kaveh Rastegar) haven't exactly gone out of their way to make it easy for folks to pin down their shapeshifting sound, which is rooted in jazz, funk and rock.

See also: The best jazz shows in Denver in October

In advance of this Saturday night's show at Dazzle, we spoke Rastegar about the band's new album, The Line (released last month on Concord), how he and Endsley met in Denver, the act's name and the thirty-something musical cues the guys have developed that allows each player to tweak nearly any element of any given song.

Westword: The Line is your fourth studio album and the first on Concord. It sounds like it was a bit different making this record versus others? You did your others album in-house, right?

Kaveh Rastegar: Yeah. Exactly. We had always done our records... The band has always had a DIY kind of thing, where things have been in-house on our own terms, for whatever it's worth. Our drummer Nate is a great engineer, as well. He would always engineer tracks and mix our records. That was always really great, but then it was always such a burden on him. So it's just nice to have the luxury to be in a great studio like Sunset Sound and just kind of have it blocked out for a few days and then have another engineer -- this great engineer named Todd Burke tracked the album.

Then our friend Todd Sickafoose mixed the record. He's a great bassist, a great composer and also a great engineer. So that all around was just awesome to have them just working on stuff and doing their job. And also we had a Chris Dunn, who's our friend at Concord, as kind of like the extra set of ears who helped out to produce the record, which really helped things and give some perspective on some things that we couldn't really come up with at the moment. It all went really well. We just banged out the record really fast, actually, which was pretty cool.

In a few days, right?

Exactly.

Is that kind of normal for you guys to bang out a record pretty fast?

I guess we have kind of done things differently for each album. And I'd say each album is kind of like... It's like when you're a live band like we are, where we have this live show that we feel really strongly about, and it just feels really good live, and the songs are really complete and everything. Sometimes you can feel like that element can be lost in a studio album that you can do over how every many weeks it is. And when you go in the studio, a big part of how great that can be is getting amazing sound, and then sometimes overdubbing or making sections sound more epic, or whatever it is, whatever it need be.

This I think was a really good example... These songs are really strong, like they're just great songs on their own if you play them. I think it's a good example of how we play live. You can hear how we play. You can hear how the band sounds like. Just the tones are all really great, and Todd makes it really great.

It was pretty funny, actually, because there was that band Band of Horses next to us in the studio. They were in the next studio over with Glyn Johns, I think, doing their latest record. There's a basketball hoop and a little courtyard, and we'd be out there shooting hoops, and we'd chat with those guys. Those guys are really nice guys. A friend of mine played in that band. So we had stuff to talk about. It was funny. They were there for three months working on their record. For our record, we were there in the studio for two days. It's just funny how that works. It's obviously totally different music, and if we had been in there for three months, I don't know, maybe our album would sound like Face Value by Phil Collins or something.

Would you say it's the best representation of your live sound so far?

From a studio album, totally. We've been putting out live albums on our own for the last six or seven years. But on this one, the tones are really great, and the playing is really great. And there isn't much overdubbing at all. Maybe a couple of little things here and there. There's a track that I did that's like three layers of basses, and so that's more of an overdub thing. There's very little overdubbing. It's just mostly the band playing.

Are you guys still approaching songwriting the same way, where someone will bring in a song and you guys will just all learn it by ear? You don't really do any sort of lead sheets or that kind of thing, right?

Yeah. We don't do any of that. It's kind of just very aural. Everybody composes. Like everybody has their own composing voice, and everybody has their own different style. Like Ben Wendel, our sax player, his songs tend to be very developed when he brings them it. So he'll have parts pretty much worked out down to drum beats and stuff, and then, he'll have counter-melodies and whatever else going on. It depends on how involved it is, he'll write the song out and then just teach us, like he'll play a part from his lead sheet.

We never read our stuff because if you commit to memory, you just know it. We have all played in rock bands, and I still do. That's just, for me, the best way to internalize and get the music happening. If you can get away from the lead sheet as soon as possible, you can kind of learn the songs, and that keeps everything fresh, and it keeps everything internalized.

There's a song of mine on the album called 'Pushed Away." That was a song I had written on computers, just on Logic. I made a demo, and then I sung I a melody over the top of it. It was guitar, bass and drums. I taught everybody their parts, and then when it came time to do the melodies, the horn players just transcribed what I sung over the top. So that's kind of the vibe of that song. It just depends. But it's always taught.

Some of the songs you guys do sound pretty challenging. It sounds like it would be tricky to memorize all that stuff with all sorts of changes and that kind of thing. Is it ever really challenging for you?

It can be totally challenging. It's also an exercise in patience, too. Some songs are quicker. Some songs require less of certain people. Like there's that song "Still Play": There's a super long melody and just tons of notes, and it goes on forever. I think that one just takes longer for the people who play that melody to just internalize. Ben would play a chunk, and then you'd just learn that chunk. Then you'd learn the next chunk, and the next chunk, and just build it that way.

It sounded like a really complicated head.

Yeah. Totally. The band is kind of like a workshop in all that stuff, too. It's like any time I finish a Kneebody tour, I feel like my brain is so much stronger. You're just like in that head space of so much listening going on and so much internalization. So it's one of those kind of things where you feel like you've been on some sort of conditioning retreat or whatever it is.

Do you guys still do the cues when you're playing live?

Absolutely. We always do that. We have this cueing language that we've come up with over the years to kind of make the music move along if it needs to, and to make things change and to makes things happen. So, yeah, we definitely use that live a lot. And then on the album you can hear a little bit of it. There are sections where somebody will be taking a solo and you can hear somebody play the cue that means to go on. We definitely do a lot of that stuff live, which is always a lot of fun.

How many different cues to you guys have?

You know, we counted them at one point, and I can't remember, It's up in the thirties. Like the very first one was something that Shane came up with on one of his songs. Shane used to play with Steve Coleman and the Five Elements.

Yeah. That's where he got the idea from, right?

Yeah, I think you could fairly say that. Steve would do a lot of that. Shane could explain it better. But he would do things where the music would... He would, in the middle of something, start playing a phrase from a different part of the song and everyone would have to jump into it. So that whole idea of everyone listening really intently and being ready to go anywhere at any time was something that happened a lot.

Shane wrote a song a long time ago that we still play a lot called "The Slip." That song has just two sections, and they just cue back and forth. They have cues that make you go to the next section and the next cue is a cue that makes you stop, and then go on to the next section. The cue that makes you stop is something that we started using on different songs.

Then we stared saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could have things get faster." So we came up with a cue that did that. And, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could just make a tempo happen rather than gradually go faster or gradually go slower?" So we made a cue that did that. Now it's to the point where each person in the band has their own musical name. Like Nate is one tone -- concert B. Then I'm D-G. Adam is D-G-F. It goes on and on.

So it's like you could play people things, like, "Nate do this" or "Nate stop." Or "Kaveh stop," or "everybody stop and start." There are looping cues. And it's not to say that this stuff is always going on, but it's just basically like vocabulary that we all have at our fingertips, where we can just modulate the music if you want to.

As writers, too, we can write music that's kind of open-ended knowing that we can do these cues to move around within the music. Sometimes the music is very closed-ended, or it's very through composed, and there's never any cueing going on. They're just kind of devices to help you move around.

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Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge

930 Lincoln St., Denver, CO

Category: Music

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