“I think when we first started we wanted to make some real over the top psychedelic guitar duo thing. That was the idea,” says Lucy Phelan – one half of Knitted Abyss.
“It’s changed so much because when we started out, it was a little bit kind of folkie as well, and we had some sort of songs, and we’ve just really switched between songs and jams. Songs. Jams. And now we’ve introduced a virtual drummer,” continues Anna John, the other half – introducing me to their drum machine, aka the honorary third member of Knitted Abyss.
Come this winter, it’ll have been two years since their first show together, at Akemi, in the Blue Mountains, just outside Sydney. In that time, they’ve released two tapes (one on Lucy’s label, Intense Nest, and then last year’s Winter Barn cassette on Shawn Reed’ Night People label in the US), played a bunch of shows and steadily developed, through improvisation, a sound unique to their recordings – a sound that Reed describes as “a real hazy, foggy, nocturnal set of sounds for a new mutant world.” It’s a description not entirely aligned with what the two-piece started out with, but they’re happy to roll with it.
“Pretty much from the first jam, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is really awesome,’ and that it just worked. We talked about being a trippy guitar duo – we both just wanted to play guitar and have lots of pedals and stuff, and play around with them,” Lucy recalls. “And primarily we’ve kind of kept with that psychedelic, improvised vibe.”
Anna agrees: “That’s exactly what it was: trippy guitar duo. Trippy guitar.”
The past tense is apt. Their collective music making has found nuanced guitar sounds to develop, explore and expand within the boundaries dictated by two guitars, a tonne of pedals and the dynamic structure that a jam – intensely built – necessitates.
In terms of a creative genealogy, the two have a similar sonic path informing their styles. Both make music with other people (Lucy with experimental goth-pop duo Naked on the Vague, Anna with tropical/psych dance band Holy Balm). Each has a strong DIY aesthetic that flows through genre and form. They’re both active members of a burgeoning outsider musical community. Lucy was a pivotal member of the Chooch-a-Bahn collective and curated nights as Intense Nest, as well as hosting short-lived, long-loved radio show ‘Down the Drain’ on FBI Radio in Sydney. Anna currently hosts a weekly celebration of lo-fi underground with ‘The Modern Dance’ on 2SER FM, also in Sydney, and spent a lot of the last few years circulating experimental and independent records through her online store Cloth Ear Music. On paper, the two seem made for musical collaboration. The reality has pretty much followed suit.
As we’re talking, Anna remembers one show in particular, at Locksmith – a gallery space in the Sydney suburb of Redfern.
“When I looked up, we’d had this intense, heavy, and really quite spontaneous jam. We went on this complete tangent that we’d not really ever done before, and it was just perfect. And when we stopped we were both really really excited, because we, or I, hadn’t gotten over the hump where I could fully, freely improv and with that one we really let go and it was awesome. It was completely synched up.”
“That’s the amazing thing with Knitted Abyss – I feel like we really synch up. We work really well together – it’s just like cosmic alignment,” Lucy agrees. It’s hard to not smile at the perfect cheese and charm of the idea of a musical cosmic alignment.
“I think when we’re playing one of us might start playing something that hints of something that we both like, and then I will respond to that, or Anna will respond to that – ” Lucy starts.
In perfect cosmic alignment, Anna finishes Lucy’s spoken sentences with as much perfection as her musical ones: “And you just know. Because it’s from months, and nights out, or nights in, of just sitting around and listening to records. That all stocks up and I think maybe that’s why we started a trippy guitar duo. Because we were listening to so many trippy guitar bands.”
More pronounced than with most other bands, the way that Knitted Abyss’s sound evolved has been an intriguing and involved sonic development. With both of them having other bands, this initially started as an addendum, and for that reason there’ been an overriding reluctance to prescribe a sound or a style to what they do. Instead, the two have spent months jamming, and recording each jam. This process has resulted in countless tapes – two of which are now the aforementioned releases, one being slated for future release with revered UK cassette label Bum Tapes – and a review process that builds up a collective creative memory; or, in other words, a cosmic alignment that capitalises on like minds and like record collections. This, of course, has a flow on effect to their other projects.
“With Naked on the Vague, I constantly think I’ve got to keep them different. Last time we played, I brought along my guitar. When we had practice in the afternoon, I was playing my guitar and was thinking, ‘Oh, this is sounding very Knitted Abyss now,’ so I was kind of like – I don’t know if you can box things off like that. I think that – also how I sing as well – I want to make it different. And it is very different,” Lucy says.
“I experience that too with Holy Balm, with the way I play with my keyboard or whatever. But then you sort of think maybe this isn’t me bringing Knitted Abyss, or Holy Balm to Knitted Abyss. Maybe this is actually just the way that I play, so I’ve developed a style. And that’s a feat, right?” The self-awareness Anna suggests is impressive.
“Personally, I think Knitted Abyss has been an amazing musical platform, and – ” Anna says, pausing, ” – Experience. Journey. And like friendship for me, with Lucy, because for most of last year it was the only real band that I was working on and I feel I’ve learnt a lot about playing music and stuff. I don’t know if Lucy feels the same way – but it’s been a really fruitful learning experience. And that might explain, or something, not that it needs to be explained, but that’s why our sound has developed heaps because it’s always being reinvigorated.”
The process of improvisation that so entirely defines the musical interaction these two craft has been core to their sound. It’s this process that enables the Knitted Abyss level of experience for both punter and performer to be a great deal more appealing than any other self-defined “trippy guitar duo” with a modus operandi that could quickly develop into a poor pastiche of outdated psych-culture.
Anna says it’s that lack of structure that creates an intimacy in communication. “You bring to a crowd something that you’ve been working on intimately, but I suppose – and maybe that’s like with any improv-y bands – it’s a lot more personal than a song that’s been written and set. And even if you’re working on that in an intimate setting in your home it’s all kind of mapped out and planned out, and it’s to communicate directly with people. Because it’s like lyrics, and things. Whereas [with]a jam it’s more sort of this thing that we’re all going to go on together. So I guess it’s still communicating that, or involving people into something you’d usually just do.”
Lucy agrees: “It’s almost a more intimate form of communication when you’re not bound by the structure of the songs because then you’re really feeling vibes. I always pick up on the vibes of the room – both Naked on the Vague and Knitted Abyss – the vibes of the room affect us so much. Sometimes there’ just a feeling, where you can feel what people are thinking.”
Anna returns to that show at Locksmith gallery, the one where their improvisations became a full and free communication between the two. Contradicting the affectation Lucy draws from the vibes in a room, Anna brings it back to the conversation between just the two of them.
“I remember looking up halfway through and seeing that there were pretty much just our friends sitting on the window sill and one or two people just standing there. And you could see through the window out to the street front, and I could see people I knew sitting on the bench talking, but that didn’t upset the vibe for me at that point – I was just like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ And then got back into it.”
The ‘What the fuck’ isn’t built on malice – far from it. Ultimately the process of jam-record-review, jam-record-review has built up a confidence in the way Lucy and Anna make music together. That shared experience translates into the confidence that their music had and continues to have; well worth the stage it’s given. You’d be foolish to ignore it.
“You can only gauge your own success,” Anna says. “If we’re happy with jam XYZ and we’re happy enough to put it out – that’s got to do it.”
Photo by Blake Thompson
Winter Barn is released through Night People.