What’s a nice Post Rock band like EchoKnot doing in a place like Queenstown?
THE LIST OF ECHOKNOT’S THREE MEMBERS TELLS YOU A LOT. JOE BARRON-COWIE IS ON “GUITARS, KEYS AND PROGRAMMING”, SCOTT KENNEDY DOES “GUITARS, KEYS AND VISUALS”, WHILE ANDY PATERSON TAKES CHARGE OF “BASS AND NIHILISM”. CHECK. THERE IS NO LEAD SINGER, THERE ARE LARGE AMPS BUT NO DRUMS, COMPUTERS ARE INVOLVED, FEEDBACK WILL HAPPEN, AND THINGS MAY GET DARK, THEMATICALLY SPEAKING.
The band is best-known for their performances and installations at Queenstown’s annual LUMA festival, an event EchoKnot call their “artistic home”. One year, they played inside a two-storey tower of scaffolding wrapped in translucent material, surrounded by projected light. In 2021, they performed front of a huge boulder lit up with streaks of colour, stars, abstract figures and words that popped off the stone in white neon: “We came here in pieces / when birdsong drowned our words / at dawn’s roar we named the mountains / with mussels shell / we ripped away the harakeke flesh / and revealed infinity in our distance.”
EchoKnot define their sound as Post Rock. Think of bands like Mogwai, Swans and Explosions in the Sky: long instrumentals, guitars fused with electronica, unconventional song structures, astute lyrics laid over a carpet of sound. When I first heard them, they reminded me of Slint, an American band who made the remarkable album Spiderland in 1991, then promptly broke up. There were whispers of psych wards and recording studio punch-ups. Dubbed cassette copies of that record were traded and treasured by music-geek-girls of a certain vintage for years.
Which is to say, Post Rock isn’t the first genre you might associate with an alpine playground like Queenstown. But pop in a pair of earbuds and go for a walk with EchoKnot’s debut album, 2019’s Under a Mountain. Like nature, it’s music that feels anarchic, yet beautiful. It builds, resolves, takes strange turns, builds again, the guitars coming to the fore and pulling back like weather. It’s the soundtrack to a slog up a long hill above a big lake surrounded by ridges and sky. Mountains are written in the notes. As if to confirm this, the album charted in Switzerland.
“poetry, glockenspiels and something called a whirly-tube”
What’s EchoKnot’s songs are not made for is the Spotify algorithm, which favours tracks that kick off with a vocal hook and finish in less than three and a half minutes. Five of the songs on Under a Mountain last more than six, and the final track, ‘Saints of the Gutter, Pt I & II’ clocks in at 17 minutes 28 seconds. Which is both refreshing, and further proof that Spotify is probably the enemy of art.
The band formed in Queenstown in 2015, and, in a scenario Joe describes as “classic Scott”, booked their first gig before they had any actual songs written. Scott, who was then mostly performing covers, posted on Instagram about looking forward to getting into the studio to work on some original music. The musician Anthonie Tonnon, who does the programming for the Queenstown venue the Sherwood, saw the post and invited Scott and his band to play.
“I said, I’ll tell the fellas,” Scott recalls. “There were no fellas.” But a few of them got together for a jam and it went pretty well, so they scheduled a show, despite not having a singer. To make up for this, or maybe to distract from it, Scott explains, “we set up a bunch of screens and projected stuff – flowers, contemporary dance, stars.”
“After the show, a friend said she loved how everything synched up, which we hadn’t planned. And I thought, if it was good when it happened by accident, how good would it be if we did it on purpose?” EchoKnot evolved from there – both as a band, but also as an art collective, one that works with waves of both light and sound. As for vocals, “the visuals are our lead singer.”
There was a lot of figuring it out as they went. Scott did photography at art school and has a background in film-making, while Joe studied audio engineering at the Southern Institute of Technology. They say they were all interested in set design from the start – the way big artists like U2 and Taylor Swift use visuals to grand effect – and had ambitions bigger than their wallets. I don’t want to give away any trade secrets, and you would never know it from the quality of the experience, but let’s just say there have been more than a few $10 parts from Mitre 10 on stage with EchoKnot. As Joe says, “we’re high-tech DIY.”
Budget or not, it looks and sounds great. The music feels cinematic, like it was made to be watched as well as listened to. Scott notes that, while there are very few lyrics (though there is sometimes singing and spoken word in the mix), the songs do have a story arc, with different instrumentations speaking almost as characters. “It can be more universal that way.” Unlike, say, knowing that Taylor Swift’s song ‘Out Of The Woods’ is about her ill-fated fling with Harry Styles, instrumentals leave space for listeners to insert their own narratives into what they hear.
And, while cities like Wellington and Dunedin are more obvious as places with thriving music scenes, living in Queenstown has its advantages for a band like EchoKnot. Joe, who is originally from Winton, moved to town with his younger brother when they returned to Aotearoa after a stint living in Australia. “We were deciding between Wellington and Queenstown. We came here, started gigging, and got busy right away. Now it’s like a comfy jumper. I can’t tell where the jumper ends and I begin. I’m used to living in the mountains now, and I love that proximity to nature,” Joe says.
He adds that a small town offers both a population of supportive locals, and a liberty that comes with being removed from the centre of the music industry. Scott agrees, explaining that being based in the far south means “there is no expectation for what we are doing. We are creatively free.” For both of them, EchoKnot is not a career move, but an expression of the relationship between the band members. “The music making is the point of the band,” Joe says, “which comes from the friendships of three guys, who trust each other.”
The evils of Spotify aside, technology does help. EchoKnot records to a highly-professional level in a home studio set up in Scott’s garage, tucked in with the tool bench and home gym equipment. And the internet lets them reach fans around the world. They have followers everywhere from Tunisia to the Philippines.
Also, as Scott points out, online listening means music is no longer “bricked up in silos”, which is just the thing for a band whose sound is the result of both curation and creation, a landscape sketched with guitars, bass and synthesisers, but also samples, synthetic drums, poetry, glockenspiels and something called a whirly-tube. The internet is post-genre. He likens it to kids in New York in the sixties and seventies, wandering around the neighbourhoods and hearing different kinds of music coming out of different windows. “Now we are all walking down that street,” he says. Or up that hill.
EchoKnot’s second album is currently brewing in Scott’s garage and will be out this summer.