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"The only truth is music." ~ Jack Kerouac

Columbus Bands

Embracing Brevity with Alex Mussawir of Kneeling in Piss

Earlier this year, Kneeling in Piss released their excellent EP The Mob, the first in a series of shorter-form projects from the Columbus lo-fi band. Their latest EP, Music For Peasants, continues this series, but in a different fashion – for it was conceived and produced in dramatically different circumstances from the first. But despite the limitations of quarantine and fewer personnel, Music For Peasants contains some of the group’s finest work thus far, further displaying bandleader Alex Mussawir’s knack for straightforward but affecting music and lyrics.

I was delighted to conduct an email interview with Mussawir last month, and to preview the EP before its release. After my review of The Mob for MIMC earlier this year, I was very excited to get some insight on his creative process when writing for the band, the pandemic-era recording of Music For Peasants, and what the future may hold for live music in the city. His correspondence, much like his writing, uses brevity to great effect.

(It should be noted that you can now buy the band’s album Tour de Force in a lovely LP edition from Anyway Records, which Mussawir promoted with a continuous 12-hour livestream of the record playing. A physical release of Music For Peasants is forthcoming in 2021.)

Your songs suggest little worlds unto themselves – like short films of other places, or short stories within a larger collection. Do you go into each project with an idea of how you want it to turn out?

Alex Mussawir

When I record all of the parts myself, the song usually sounds worse than I envisioned, but when I record with the band, I think it usually sounds better. Music For Peasants I recorded mostly alone. Alex Blocher helps with a lot of the technical stuff and the two of us spent a lot of time in the practice space making sure the songs sounded how we wanted them to. 

What makes a song a Kneeling in Piss song to you? The writing voice seems to unify all the material even if the arrangements are different.

So far, 12 different people have played on a Kneeling in Piss recording using just as many instruments, probably. The songs are never structurally complex. There aren’t very many choruses. A lot of the songs sound very different from each other, so I try to create some consistency with the lyrics. I think about the sentences a lot; I try to keep them simple. Sometimes I try to tell a joke in the lyrics.

I do like all the little details and Columbus references you sprinkle in.

I think the best Columbus song is Down To High Street by Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. I’d like to write one like that someday.

Is there any distance between your authorial voice in these songs and your real self?

Fundamentally I view each song as a piece of fiction. When I write the lyrics, I don’t think about “expressing myself,” but rather I try to focus on “accurately describing something.” At the same time, occasionally I’ve included very specific details from my personal life in the lyrics… people’s names, places. I guess that is a literary device. The narrator in one of the songs is a 51-year-old man.

Is Pervert Today that song?

I was thinking of a song called Feeling Romantic from the first album, Tour de Force, but I don’t want to rule that out either.

Are there any particular non-musical pieces of media that have impacted the way you write music?

Music For Peasants album

Yeah, I usually spend much more time reading and watching movies than I do listening to music. Yesterday I started reading The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker for the second time, which is one of my favorite novels, although I’m not sure how it has concretely impacted my writing style. I’ve also very slowly been watching Peep Show this year, which I think is great, but my girlfriend dislikes it, so I only watch it while she is at work.

Do you tend to seek out non-musical inspiration?

When I listen to music, it is usually through headphones while walking, and usually it is an album I’ve already heard many times. I typically read in the morning and watch a movie, or sometimes television, at night. Looking at Twitter is the worst type of media I consume. It often causes me to feel angry or depressed and sometimes I do it for many hours per day.

On the last Kneeling in Piss EP, The Mob, it seemed like you were driven by the energy and urgency of the times. What’s driving the way you write now?

The Mob was written and recorded months before the COVID shutdown, even before the Democratic primary began. If it seems to correspond to a cultural or political moment, it’s coincidental, I think. I recorded Music For Peasants in April and May, at what felt like the height of quarantine. Bernie had suspended his campaign. I was unemployed. I was exercising a lot, not leaving my apartment much otherwise.

What was your writing process like during this time? Did you document anything from early on in quarantine?

I went to the practice space alone a few times a week and recorded something every day. I get rid of maybe 25-percent of the songs I record. I leave my guitar there so I never work on music at home. Around that time I started a blog called “pervert olympics” I was posting in regularly. I think that is the closest I came to “documenting” anything. I stopped blogging when I went back to work, but I intend to update it soon.

I love the drum machines on this record – it’s a whole different feeling from The Mob. How did you arrive at these arrangements?

I recorded the first couple of Kneeling In Piss songs with a drum machine, keyboard, and an acoustic guitar in my bedroom, so in a sense it felt like a return to form. I make most of the drum beats myself using an Alesis SR-16, but sometimes I use the prerecorded “rhythms” from one of the cheap, toy keyboards I have. The drum machine in Sofia, Baby Please for instance, is just a beat called “dance” on a Yamaha keyboard I bought for $15.

What was your technical setup for recording the EP?

I try to avoid recording with a computer. I have two Tascam Portastudios. One is digital and one records onto cassette tape. I use one or two Shure SM-57 microphones at a time. Sometimes I play the keyboard through a distortion pedal.

What do you see the next few years looking like for live music, for the band, for you?

I think Kneeling In Piss is going to be the last band to play a show again. I don’t want to play a 30-percent capacity, “wear your mask when you use the restroom” type of show. I don’t want to play outside. I don’t want to live stream a set. Timing is important. I think going without things is okay. The socially distanced punk show feels like a cheap substitute of the actual thing, and I imagine everyone leaves something like that feeling non-satiated, still desiring the thing they, in theory, just experienced.

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