INTERVIEW with SHAWN KNIGHT of CHILD BITE by JGilbert
If you’ve spent any appreciable amount of time around Detroit’s punk and metal scenes lately, you probably know Shawn Knight. If you’re not familiar with the name, then you probably know him by his shock of grey facial hair and Mr Bungle tattoos. Or by his annual multi-day Berserker festival, which has hosted bands such as Voivod, Ringworm, and GWAR. Maybe you know his supergroup, Shock Narcotic, featuring members of Dillinger Escape Plan, Black Dahlia Murder, and Battlecross. Today, the prolific multimedia artist is promoting the fifth album of his longtime noise rock band Child Bite. Shawn is an intense-looking man with wide eyes that look like they see the world in ways that don’t make sense to most of us. His band, Child Bite, is a unique mishmash of oddball Detroit rockers known for over-the-top performances that have in the past featured violin, saxophone, extensive vocal effects, but the one constant has been a healthy influx of unpredictable chaos provided gratuit with each ticket.
We caught up with Child Bite singer and graphic artist Shawn Knight a few days after the release party for their new album, Blow Off the Omens for a Moshpit Nation exclusive about DIY work ethos, the state of Berserker Fest, and weird Michigan bands.
JGILBERT: I’ve been looking forward to talking with you for a while now; I’ve been following your projects for some time. I’d like to start with your recent record release at The Loving Touch. How was the show?
SHAWN KNIGHT: The show turned out great! It was one of those things where all the bands we picked to do it said yes and felt great about it, the only unknown was if there would be any no-shows; it feels cheesy saying it but that’s always a reality… but it was a packed house and it turned out great!
JG: So you have the new album out, Blow Off the Omens; playing shows; what else is going on with Child Bite?
SK: The new album is the main thing at the moment, it’s the end of the year so we’re like “that’s that…” But we’re booking some things into the next year in the form of shows and other things to look into; probably not writing or recording much, that was this year: writing and recording the new record. We also wrote and recorded a 7” with Ringworm, so I think we’ll try to take a break from the heavy-duty writing and play some shows to support the record!
We had the record finished just after the last tour we did with Black Tusk so this is technically the first outing for this record. We have some other things in the works for next year… we were talking this morning about making some music videos because we feel like if a band puts out a song with a video it means they feel strongly about it and want to give it some extra “oomph” into society; I feel like that’s something we could do, especially considering how good video has gotten on our phones. Sometimes the thing that kept us from wanting to do videos was concerns about expense and production and it’s going to be too much of everything but then we thought “you know what, some of our favorite movies are super low-budget and embrace being rough around the edges” so we’re going to go in that direction.
JG: Child Bite seems to be more vertically-integrated than most bands; with all your merch and graphic design done in-house, a close relationship with booking and label; would you be doing the video all in-house as well? What are your thoughts on the business side of Child Bite?
SK: Sometimes you get told the lesson early on… Many years ago we sent some of our music to Jello Biafra at Alternative Tentacles. His label had been influential for us and we thought “that’s who we should work with” or whatever… and I remember getting a nice letter back where he said “no, we’re not signing anyone at the moment but when we were first starting out, the best option for us was to do it ourselves.” It was kind of a letter of encouragement, like “we always recommend that to everyone, to do it themselves” and we’re like “yeah, but…”
It’s hard to get a brush-off or a nice rejection but there’s a lot of truth to what he said and maybe it takes time or maturity to learn that. As far as doing things in-house, it’s something I learned a long time ago: nobody is gonna care about your dreams as much as you do. Unless you’re paying them! [Laughs] But then it’s a job! And then they get something out of it. So that’s one thing. We have found people to work with that have formed great relationships and gone above-and-beyond and we’re very fortunate for that, but there’s some of this stuff that you try and… maybe they’re right. You look at these old bands that we looked up to and they DID start their own labels and that’s how they became something. They probably tried to get somebody else to do it and it wasn’t gonna happen and they did it themselves out of necessity. And it’s the only way to know if things are being done the way you want them to be done and not being slacked on or mishandled. If you can and if you have the effort in ya, it’s a great way to go. The other artistic byproduct is that what comes out is very much YOU and it’s unique and not filtered through other people. Like when somebody buys a Child Bite record and reads the lyrics and looks at the artwork, that’s all coming from one creative entity and there’s probably not anything out there that could have the same sonic and visual aesthetic as that. So when somebody’s looking for something unique, which is certainly one of our wheelhouses, it’s a positive thing for them.
JG: The new album sounds great from a production and recording standpoint. It also sounds like Child Bite; it makes me kinda seasick but in an awesome way. Does it come naturally to you guys to be this weird or do you have to work at it?
SK: Oh, it’s natural. It was a slight tweak of the mind for us to NOT make this one as weird. There’s a song called “Vexed Life” that’s a little slowed down and to us it’s a very straightforward song; we’re like “this is us toning it down and being normal” but I was watching some metalhead review the album on youtube and he specifically mentioned that song and how disorienting it was so we’re like “oh, okay, I guess there’s no accounting…” Whatever the “Child Bite” style is, it’s pretty well ingrained in us and the only way things are changing at all is just a matter of we;ve been doing this so long and we’re kind of an ADD type of band and music and we don’t want to settle anywhere. I’m happy you think it still sounds like “us” but at least there is some evolution going on.
JG: I feel like you’ve carved out a personal niche in the music and arts world by just doing what you guys do and being so authentically you. There are always so many interesting bands and artists you’re working with; I feel like every time I go to a Child Bite show or see one of your splits it’s with someone I’ve NEVER heard of and I walk away going “wow I want to hear more!” How do you find all these guys? And how do you continue to find interesting artists to work with?
SK: I think weirdos just attract each other! We naturally gravitate towards one another or end up on the same bill or whatever. Since we’ve toured a lot, that’s a good way to find these bands, whether we played with them or just heard about them while we’re in town. And then you check ‘em out or hear some songs online, maybe a promoter who’s putting on our show says “I have the perfect local opener for this” or maybe that band is even asking to be on the bill. I dunno, it’s very much a case-by-case thing but I’m very happy we’ve been able to make a lot of friendships with other musicians and there’s definitely a mutual respect to keep things interesting.
There’s a part on the new record that… I don’t usually take direct influence from anything for particular parts in the music; my influences aren’t immediately apparent to me in the moment, it’s kinda afterwards when I’m reviewing it and I go “oh that reminds me of whatever” anyway there’s a part on the new record that reminds me of this band we liked who aren’t around anymore called Big Bear out of Boston; they were only around for a few years and not many people know who they are and I probably haven’t listened to them since back then but there’s a part where I was listening to our new album and I went “oh wow, I think I got the idea for that part from Big Bear!” It was a seed planted far back in my head somewhere.
It’s cool that we get to do stuff with all these unique bands and I feel you’re right that we’ve carved out our own unique thing but that can be a double edged sword. We can play with anybody but at the same time we fit in nowhere. It’s kinda hard when it comes to tours or shows in front of less “open minded” music fans. We can go out on some metal tour and sometimes it really translates for their audience and sometimes it’s like “naw, this does not make any sense” but at the end of the day, what we’re doing IS “authentic” and I’d rather do that than try too hard to make something palatable to a certain kind of people. That’s fine if someone wants to do that but if I tried to live that way I’d end up on my death bed with more regrets than necessary.
JG: Why do you think there’s so many weird bands in Michigan? Between you, and Acid Witch, and Cavalcade, and Drink Their Blood… we could go on and on and on. What’s your take on why so many oddball bands around here have that staying power to keep being weird for so long?
SK: Yeah! I don’t know man! I think it’s a midwest thing and that each region has their own flavors… although “with the power of the internet” anyone can be influenced by anything from any time anywhere so maybe regional styles were more of a thing before it was so easy to access stuff from around the world. But yeah, there’s a lot of weird stuff in Ohio, man. A lot in Illinois, and Milwaukee has its own kind of strange bands; Minneappolis, too. I feel like it’s a Midwest thing of being literally in-between and not really getting your influence directly from other places. Being sort of backwater, small-town, out-of-touch outsider art.
JG: I always felt like because nobody ever gets famous from out here, there wasn’t pressure to be like anybody else who had been successful out of these markets; so artists just do what they want to do because they want to do it that way.
SK: Yeah, that sounds like you might be on to something there.
JG: How do you feel that the area: the Midwest, Michigan, Detroit, how has that changed in the time you’ve been doing Child Bite and why have you stayed here?
SK: Um… yeah, i dunno? We’ve got friends and family and other things that tie ya down that keeps us from moving away, but personally I’ve found that from the perspective of a small touring artist, Detroit’s a great area to be based out of. Even though things are getting fancier now, it’s such a sprawling area that there are still plenty of places to live for cheap that gives you more time to work on your art.
As far as touring, it’s right between Toronto and Chicago and Cleveland. If you’ve got a show in New York you can literally leave early in the morning and be there. That kind of geographic advantage gives us plenty of places within a few hours to play and even more within a day’s drive. I think the combination of the cost of living and the geography makes it a pretty good place to be. And, like you said, there’s so much interesting art going on! There’s endless other creative minds to bounce things off of, be inspired by, play shows with, whatever. And metro-Detroit has so many venues for this stuff, we got tons of places to play. There’s so many good venues, it’s funny how we’ll be travelling to big cities like Philly or New York and there’s like… two places that everybody plays. That’s strange to us.. We don’t know why…
JG: Meanwhile we have like four places in Hamtramck alone that do this kind of music!
SK: Exactly! Yeah!
JG: Like, I just saw you at the Immortal Bird show at the Sanctuary
SK: Yeah! They’re good friends of ours and we got to put them on Berserker a couple years ago. Like-minded Midwestern weirdo punks!
JG: Speaking of like-minded Midwestern weirdo punks, tell us about your relationship with John Brannon. You guys seem to do a lot together between Negative Approach and Easy Action.
SK: Yeah, he’s a huge Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop fan; they’re real old school but they’re working hard these days! It’s cool that there’s been a rekindled interest in Negative Approach and they’re hitting it hard, man, those guys are playing 60 to 100 shows a year and that was not the case ten years ago. So they’re back at it and there’s still plenty of people who want to see them; it’s a rare thing to get to see an authentic hardcore band from that era who are, obviously way older now, but they are still so powerful live and it’s an experience and I think they’re just loving it; they keep going out and getting this positive response.
But after Negative Approach, which was only around for a few years in the early 80s, John started another band called Laughing Hyenas, which was a more traditional sort of blues-y rock band. He did that until the 90s when Easy Action popped up. I think Negative Approach is his young teen years, that’s where he was at; but his real love is this Stooges hard rock punk-y kind of stuff so it’s really cool to see him doing that. And what’s REALLY cool now is when you go to see them now, it’s the same band. That’s the same bassist and drummer, guitarist… When you go to see Easy Action, that’s Negative Approach up there, they’ve just made the decision to play different songs that night. That’s why we had them play as Easy Action for our most recent record release show; we had played with Negative Approach and it was awesome, we toured with them and we were both from Detroit, we had seen them around at shows and then I did some artwork for one of John’s projects a while back but then we went on tour with them and when you spend 3 weeks on the road with the same group of guys you get to know each other. That’s where our friendship really took hold but that was also a few years back now.
Somewhere along the way we got it in our head that we really needed to play with Easy Action and this record release show was perfect timing and perfect timing for them as well; they had just finished up a big run of tour dates and had come home and plus John just bought a house within walking distance of the venue so he was just like “this is great, I’ll just walk home!” The stars aligned and we couldn’t have been happier about how it all worked out.
JG: You do a lot of graphic design work for a number of different artists; where do you look for ideas in your visual arts?
SK: My parallel path of art and music started in my early teenage years; I was the more artsy of my bandmates and so when it came time for someone to make the flyer, that job sorta fell into my lap from the beginning. It’s cool doing my own thing but it’s also fun to take a stab at doing something for somebody else. That’s how I got into doing poster art. After I’d done a few album covers for various bands and it was cool but, I found out that when somebody’s doing an album, it’s like their baby and it’s such a big deal to them and YOU’RE creating the face of their baby! Surprise, surprise, whatever you were imagining is not what they were imagining; it’s a more difficult process because there’s a lot more on the line, especially for the band that wants this to be perfect. Whereas, doing posters for a band, it’s only one night of a tour or one show, maybe it’s the whole tour but it’s ONE tour out of their entire career. It’s really not even that big of a deal compared to an album cover that’s gonna be with them forever, so the pressure’s off and it’s kinda like “hey, we like your art, so a poster for us!” It’s quite a bit more freeing.
JG: That sounds like more fun
SK: Yeah and it’s something a little quicker so the project’s done in a few days and you’re on to the next one. As far as where I get ideas from? I like a lot of old art from the 60’s through the 80’s, a lot of it music related. When I was getting into this stuff; Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Metallica… this was the early 90’s for me, they each had this sort of artist or… like even Misfits; people don’t really think of Glenn Danzig as a visual artist even though he was collaging stuff and finding stuff and doing the best he could, he was doing all the art for that early stuff and that influenced me; the thought that someone who has a vision and the fact that they couldn’t draw didn’t stop them from making that vision come true. But yeah, with Black Flag having Raymond Pettibon and Winston Smith doing all the art for Dead Kennedys and Pushead on all the old Metallica shirts and posters… that’s where all the influence started and continues.
But nowadays it’s really from everywhere, man; that’s one of the good things about the information overload of things like instagram, like sometimes you’ll just be zoned out watching the feed like a zombie, which we all do from time to time, and you might see something awesome that jumps out and I’ll find some really good ideas to glean from it or take influence from. I take a lot of screenshots; it might be a different artist or photographer… a lot of old stuff, brand new, too. I guess that’s the day and age we live in now like we talked about earlier with influence coming from anywhere everywhere all of the time and we’re getting so much of it shot into our faces that’s it’s maybe a matter of recognizing the gems when you see them and trying to weed them out and set ‘em aside because otherwise you’re like the guy at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, just completely overwhelmed with the lights and colors.
JG: We have a particular focus on Michigan artists and events on our website so my readers would love to hear the story of Berserker; how it came to be, what you guys accomplished with that, and where it stands now.
SK: Yeah! That was a lot of fun. The origins of Berserker really start with a poster art show called Flatstock and the poster shows… one of the big ones is South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, they do one in Chicago, Seattle… I did one in Barcelona once at Primavera music festival there. So Flatstock is a cool thing to do if you’re into the poster thing, a cool way to spend a weekend hanging out with your peers and seeing what they’re doing, but it’s also a good way to show and sell your work. People come to those things, they call them “poster collectors”, come to those things with a big tube in hand ready to make some purchases and take them home safely. So we had done a few of these and had a lot of fun and we thought about starting our own poster thing. We did one and it was a success so we kept doing them and it’s called “Postergeist” nowadays– just like a poltergeist but with posters–and we didn’t do one this year but it’s gonna happen again next year and it’s been going for six years or so. It was just a thing I realized I could make happen, like “I’ve got enough buddies around Detroit and the surrounding areas and it’ll be a big thing; we’ll just get a big tent and we’ll all fit in there.” That was the idea and we did it! And it was cool.
Very soon afterwards, after the first one, I was like” hey, maybe I could do something like this only for music! Throw together a thing with local bands and maybe some bigger ones from the region. That was the seed of Berserker and what became Berserker. The other key thing back then was we wanted to do it in the winter when nothing’s going on because everybody’s hunkered down and bored. We thought we could give people something to look forward to in wintertime without as much competition as the summertime when there’s other things going on and your friends all say “oh, I would have come to your show but I went to this instead” and really this was a way to bypass that excuse… So we came up with Berserker. The first one was in that same area we were talking about, at The Loving Touch and the WAB; the bar next door, it’s a two-story bar with stages upstairs, downstairs, and then the big one at The Loving Touch. We did the first one and it was cool, and everybody had a great time. Although from the business side, we could have done better; it was financially harsh. Turns out the problem when you throw one of these festivals with fifty five bands over four days and most of them are local; they’re all gonna be in there for free anyways! You might have a packed room, but none of them paid to get in there because they all played!
But despite its logistical flaws it was still worthwhile and still a great time and everybody wanted to do it again. So we made some tweaks and every year we kept improving the formula a bit just to see if we could make things work better in terms of the kinds of bands, the time of year, the location… all that stuff morphed over our five year run. It kept getting bigger and bigger and the one constant was that everybody who played it and everybody that came to it always had an amazing time. We always got the best feedback, and that was very rewarding that’s what encouraged us to keep doing it, that feeling like there really IS something good going on here.
It was a really cool thing and at the moment it is hibernating; I don’t know if it will ever come back or not. It’s one of those things where it got SO big that it’s hard to keep knowing if you’ll be able to do it again if the numbers aren’t adding up after so many years. It was a really positive thing and it’s great that so many people had such a great time at those, but as far as making it something that was sustainable… we never got to that point. So after doing it five years in a row, it seemed like the right idea to give it a little break… We’ll see. But we’re always keeping that door open for the future; there’s always a possibility of going back to it or even taking some of the ideas from that and applying them to something else. You’ll see that in a lot of the smaller festivals, and even some of the huge ones. My wife and I went to Orion fest years ago, that fest in Detroit?
JG: Yeah! I went to that one with some press buddies. I remember that one.
SK: You were at that thing? That was on…
JG: Belle Isle! That was wild.
SK: It was… Yeah! And if you ask anybody who went to that, they all had a good time but…
JG: I heard they lost SO MUCH money!
SK: Exactly! It’s almost like the bigger they are, the harder they fall, and that’s what we were experiencing. Every year it felt like financially we would fall a little bit but it was never so much that we were down and out, but as the numbers got bigger and the falls got bigger… it really felt like that. But it gives us solace when we feel bad about not keeping Berserker afloat to go “well, Metallica wasn’t able to do it either” type of thing. So many fests that happen and are a great time are actually really complicated and there’s a lot at stake.
Just the nature of a “fest” really means “a very very big show” so you need an audience to warrant its existence and you can never guarantee how many people are gonna buy tickets and make it to your event, it’s always a gamble. Some people seem to have certain formulas to make it sustainable or have learned certain tricks, like Maryland Deathfest, they’re into their 15th or 16th year or something like that.
JG: They do seem to have a formula to their success. We’re friends with one of the regional spinoffs and the amount of planning that goes into one of these multi-day festivals is just overwhelming. They had a definite structure to getting one of these kinds of bands and one of those kinds of bands, and schedule a date-by-date theme… I did a writeup of what it’s like to put on his show and it was a whirlwind.
SK: Yeah, it’s tricky to work all that stuff out! You think “okay do we book all over the place and hope we pull enough people from different genres OR is that TOO diverse and then it’s not compelling enough?” Like if somebody’s really into grindcore, and we book Pig Destroyer, are they gonna buy a ticket if they only really love one band on the bill? It was always a concern for us how much or little focus we wanted to have in the booking and the kinds of bands. That was also possibly one of the reasons things ended up as they did. There were always suggestions that we should book some swoopy-haired scenester bands because they would “bring in the kids” and it’s like “yeah they might bring in a few kids but are they gonna turn other people off?” We don’t want to turn people away because half the bands are something they aren’t into. It’s a constant tightrope to walk as a festival promoter.
JG: To wrap things up here, Child Bite just released their fifth full length with Blow Off the Omens, your singles, splits and EPs are in the double digits, you’re about to mark 15 years as an active band… what keeps you going?
SK: Oh… mental illness? I don’t know… Ya know, in a way, things–for the most part– keep getting better and better for us as a band and that’s the thing. It’s not like we were some first album one-hit-wonder who hit it off the bat and then had to hobble along as a sad shadow of ourselves type of thing. Little cool things keep popping up for us here and there and every time it feels like the swamp of sadness is gonna suck us under something new and interesting comes along for us that makes us deem it worth pursuing and making it still rewarding and I think that’s why we’re gonna keep doing it for the foreseeable future just because it’s something we enjoy and we get something out of it. It still feels like we have something to contribute.
JG: Well we’re certainly glad to hear that and we’ll be paying attention to your next moves here on Moshpit Nation!
Child Bite’s fifth full length, Blow Off the Omens is available now on Housecore Records.