An Interview With Knives of Spain's Gwen Young

Performing under the name knives of spain, Gwen Young’s sophomore EP Telluric is transcendental. The record utilizes everything from analog synths to flutes to create a captivating, almost mystical sound. Knives’ sound calls forth comparisons to goth-rock goddesses like Kate Bush or Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins; bestowing these comparisons feels like a rarity, but I am unable to think of someone else more deserving to coexist in this gossamer world. Hooligan spoke with Gwen Young over email about the benefits of cassettes and the timeless appeal of Brian Eno. You can read the interview below and stream Telluric over bandcamp.

Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?

They’re so numerous, but some who’ve stuck with me the longest are Talking Heads/David Byrne, Brian Eno, Stereolab, Sugarcubes /Bjork, Cocteau Twins, Arthur Russel, Moondog, Smog, XTC/Andy Partridge, Throwing Muses, Leonard Cohen, J.S. Bach, Astor Piazzola, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, and a huge variety of non-Eurocentric music.

What is it like to work with Hairy Spider Legs? (The label that released Telluric)   

The best! Telluric is my second album, and since my first (Opening Sequence) was a self-release, this is my label debut and I think it’s been very productive.  I reached out to Patrick Holbrook (who runs H.S.L.) for this album because he was one of the very first folks outside my immediate network to take notice of what I was doing back in 2012 when I released Opening Sequence, and I’m elated that my follow-up is on such a great label. 

We have the same DIY ethic and therefore we have a very compatible working relationship.  I feel lucky to work with someone I know genuinely appreciates and identifies with how much goes into being the sole creator and executor of a project, as Patrick not only manages the label himself but has an active solo project called Well Yells. Hairy Spider Legs works with an outstanding roster of unique, genre-defying acts and I’m thrilled to be one of them! 

Where did you learn to play the accordion? 

At home!  I’ve managed to teach myself enough on accordion to use it in my compositions, and the same applies to all the other instruments I play except for flute.  I earned a bachelor’s degree in classical music with a focus on flute performance, so in college I got some rudimentary keyboard instruction that gave me a good foundation to approach accordion.  But I may have never taken it up if it weren’t for pure chance; a while back, my dad gifted me an accordion he happened upon for an irrefutable deal at a flea market.  It hadn’t occurred to me play one before then, and it was love at first sight! 

What do you like about cassette tapes as a medium for distributing music?

Distribution these days is a bit of a conundrum.  Our consumption of music increasingly favors the digital format. To some degree, analog releases present a tangible form of resistance to this by preserving sound in the physical realm.  There’s also a warmth in analog that’s very tasteful to the ears.  Vinyl continues to reign in analog, but it’s pricey to do a quality, good sounding vinyl pressing. Cassettes are a way to get you the next best thing in analog sound for an extremely nice price.  Plus they look really awesome, and if you have an ancient car like I do you can pop them in your tape deck! The Telluric cassette comes with an accompanying mp3 download as well so listeners can also load it straight onto their listening machines. 

What is the best and worst part of your songwriting process? 

The best part is probably the moment I see something forming, when I’m taking the chisel to the block. The worst part is having time constraints that prohibit me from working on new material whenever I feel like it, and I imagine that’s a pretty common complaint for most folks. 

Describe your dream collaboration. 

Oh gosh!  Collaborating would be change of pace for knives of spain since my modus operandi has always been to do it all myself; I record, produce and mix my own work, and play all the instruments (classical guitar, flute, accordion, analog synth, zither, toy piano, and lots of hand percussion).  But collaborating is definitely something I enjoy, and since this is a dream I’d have to bring in some dearly departed talent along with others who are fortunately still with us doing their magic.  I think I’d ask Moondog and Lou Harrison to collaboratively compose for flute, strings and percussion.  Then I’d mesh David Byrne’s quirky guitar lines on top and throw in some crazy samples from his collection of vintage world music.  I’d get Leonard Cohen to pen some delicious words and we’d do some crooning.  Then I’d pull in Brian Eno’s electronics and production to tie it all together.  I guess the result could potentially be titled My Afterlife in the Bush of Ghosts.