Going Home: An interview with Kowloon Walled City

Kowloon Walled City interview

Scott Evans makes a point not to think too much about how Kowloon Walled City‘s music is perceived. In his words, he just likes making things, and the process of creating is something that’s reward enough on its own. He tends to dismiss any idea of expectations, noting that a lot of music that’s been important to him over the years probably isn’t that way for other people—an idea he’d find incredibly flattering if someone felt the same way about his own music.

“I have a lot of records that mean a lot to me that mean very little to most people,” Evans says. “They’re records that a thousand people bought. Or they have 350 plays on Spotify, and those 350 are me.”

Yet the process of creating Piecework, the Bay Area band’s fourth album and follow-up to 2015’s Grievances, proved more complicated than usual. Over a span of six years, the group’s lineup underwent several changes, other members of the band took on side projects such as Less Art and baseball-themed grindcore band Puig Destroyer, and Evans took a necessary mental health break before they were able to pick up work on the album. Whether related or not, he also underwent a period of frustrating writer’s block and self-doubt that drew out the process of making the album even longer.

Piecework didn’t come easy. Kowloon Walled City never broke up, never officially took a “hiatus” or even really stopped playing shows, save for the restrictions brought upon by Covid-19. But the road to getting to the finished product ended up being a circuitous one. The finished product, however, is the band at their most elegant—heavy, spacious, open. It’s Kowloon Walled City as refined as they’ve ever sounded.

It’s also a work that’s more intimately personal in subtle ways. Its title, Piecework, is a reference to Evans’ grandmother, who sewed shirt collars in a factory all her life: “It was pre-OSHA, but they were paid by their throughput. So if you work for this company for 25 years and your back hurts, you get arthritis, you’re gonna get paid less if you make fewer shirts that you’ve dedicated an enormous part of your life to.” And while the band was at work on the album, both Evans and a friend of the band experienced the passing of their fathers, and taken together, even if in an indirect way, the album feels like a meditation on family, both the one you’re born with and the one you choose.

“I’m not a good storyteller, and I’m not really a very interesting person,” Evans says. “I don’t think my life or my perspective is particularly novel, or worth relating, so I think one way I can tell a story that is at least somewhat mine and authentic, is to look at people I know and love, friends and family, and try and extract something from that about their challenges or the effect they’ve had on people and try and turn that into something.”

We spoke to Evans about overcoming writer’s block, defying genre and paying tribute to loved ones.

Treble: Six years have passed since Kowloon Walled City last released an album. What’s happened during that time?

Scott Evans: It was a weird time period for all of us. Our drummer Jeff [Fagundes], who started the band with me, left the band. Our friend Julia [Lancer] played drums with us for a year then she moved away. Then our friend Dan [Sneddon], who was in Early Graves for years, has been in the band with us ever since, and it’s a great fit. He’s really amazing. But we wrote a record—I actually went back and looked. It took about a year, maybe a year and a half to get a record written. And that was a few years ago. I had some mental health stuff that I had to sort of detach from everything for a while and take care of myself, and I hit some really—I don’t know if it’s related or not—but I had some legitimate writer’s block. We wrote and recorded the record without any vocals written. Which we had never done before. The idea was just, like, everyone needs a deadline, everyone needs a push, and Evans has been slacking on this, but obviously he’s gotta do it now, right? Mostly I just stared at a blank page for a year or two after that. Part of that was me wondering, does anyone even need to hear from me? Maybe we should call this. Nobody needs to hear another middle aged white dude yelling. Eventually I kind of pushed through all that stuff, and finished writing all 600 words that the lyrics ended up being, and finished the record. It was no fun, and I’m hoping that we can write another record in 20 percent of the time that this one took.

Treble: Even though it took some time to finish, was there a particular direction or overarching idea that you were following while you were making it?

Scott Evans: When we start writing a record we come in with a few goals or rules or ideas or things to try to fix or change. We were trying to write shorter songs, we were trying to change the rhythmic feel that we use. There are a few things rhythmically that we fall back on a lot. So how do we get out of that comfort zone? Mostly, we were just trying to tighten everything up. Everything in there has to defend itself. Every part of a song has to have a really good reason to be there. Lots and lots of revision and editing. We’ve got demos I’ve gone back to, and you hear the songs taking shape as we hacked away at them. I think they don’t sound like pop songs, they’re still pretty slow and intense, but they take four minutes instead of six and a half minutes. 

Treble: There’s a quote from you in a press release about “restraining ourselves into oblivion”…

Scott Evans: Just anything to get to oblivion. [Laughs] Whatever it takes. 

Yeah. Definitely. I think originally a lot of the ideas that John and I came in with at first few months of writing were more stripped down than this. We were really trying to go very naked with this stuff, and that was hard. When you bring it into the room with everyone, it’s loud and there’s drums and you’re trying to make it sound like our band. So the first 20 percent of writing this record was … grappling with that. Just trying to get comfortable with how sparse and how stripped down can we make this and do the other things that we want to do. We were definitely trying to remove. 

Treble: Kowloon Walled City’s music seems to exist in a space of its own, not strictly metal or noise rock or any identifiable thing in particular.

Scott Evans: Good. When I was younger, there were certain genre tropes like, if it was doing this, I want to hear it. But over time I realized, just give me everything that’s good. We’ve been doing this band long enough that the only thing we really compare ourselves to at this point is us. I can point to a lot of my favorite records and say “What genre is this?”

Treble: There are so many albums that are great because they kind of ignore those rules.

Scott Evans: I’m not putting us in the same category as any of these artists, but I think about PJ Harvey or Radiohead, or Pile. What genre are any of these bands? I keep mentioning Big Brave because I think they’re so great. What genre is this? But yeah, that’s cool with me.

Treble: Is making music a cathartic thing for you?

Scott Evans: I think only in hindsight. A lot of people I know characterize music as their escape or a place for catharsis, and I have never thought about it that way. I think about it as building stuff. What I realized is that it probably is important for me in a lot of ways. One of the things I value the most about this band is that it is a way to make things with people I love. I don’t think that’s exactly what you’re asking, but it’s very therapeutic. It’s hard. There’s a quote from an author I heard a while back, which is “I don’t like writing but I like having written something.” 

Treble: The record ends with the line, “You want to feel like you’re going home,” which is such an evocative way to close the album. Where did that line come from?

Scott Evans: That’s a reference to a Willie Nelson lyric. The last two lines of the record: “You want a wheel to hold, you want to feel like you’re going home.” They’re very direct nods to “Hands on the Wheel.” “Lampblack” was the last song I recorded and really getting to the end of it felt like falling through the finish line at a marathon. Like “fuck!” That song was partially an apology to my bandmates for making them wait so long for this, which they really were amazing about. I owe them one, because it’s not a cool thing to do. Also, a really good friend of the band’s, his dad died while I was writing this song and he wrote up a beautiful memorial piece for his dad who meant a lot to him, and one of his dad’s favorite artists was Willie Nelson, and so he said these are the lyrics to one of my dad’s favorite songs. And it really struck me. I just wanted to include that there as a nod to my friend, and his dad, and all our dads that we lost. It felt like a good way to walk out of a room and close the door, which is how finishing a record feels.


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