Finding Hope Amidst Failure with Kowloon Walled City

It’s now been six years since California’s Kowloon Walled City released Grievances, a record that, alongside 2012’s Container Ships and 2009’s Gambling On The Richter Scale, solidified them as one of the finest modern metal bands. Their sound, a poignant amalgamation of clanky noise rock shot through with the gritty materiality of sludge metal, is a uniquely evocative affair merging melancholy music with the impassioned vocals and poetic lyrics of Scott Evans, who is also responsible for recording and mixing the band’s releases. The time since their last album came out has been tough for many, including the band members themselves, and as I sit down for a Zoom chat with Evans, there’s a sense of relief that the release of latest full-length Piecework is finally at hand.

When writing, Evans and his bandmates Jon Howell (guitar), Dan Sneddon (drums) and Ian Miller (bass) found themselves running up against multiple creative walls. “Writing new records for us always seems difficult and this was the same,” he tells me. “We had some ideas and they kinda pushed back. So some of the stuff we set out to do I think we basically failed at but you know that’s okay, like sometimes you set out to do things and it takes you on a different route.”

Evans uses the word failure a couple of times in our chat, largely when reflecting on Piecework not being as outwardly hopeful as he intended, but he doesn’t use the word in a wholly negative sense. Failure is of course a word with a lot of negative connotations, and for obvious reason, but failure is also an opportunity to reassess and reflect, and when it comes to artistic endeavours, missing the target you set for yourself is not always synonymous with a lack of success. It can simply mean that the process took you down a different path than the one you first envisaged. “What I’ve found with a lot of creative things that I do is that it seems to help me to have rules, but have kind of a flexible mindset about them,” explains Evans. “Like you go in with a set of guidelines or restrictions, and like I said, you can go in with these things and fail at them and that’s okay. If something takes you elsewhere, be okay with that.”

After the music finally started to flow, the album was still left without lyrics. The band even opted to record the music without the vocals ready, partially in the hope that the pressure of a deadline would spark some inspiration in Evans. “Instead, I just froze up,” he reveals. “I was really struggling with trying to understand how much space I wanted to occupy, you know? And do I have anything interesting to say? It was a very weird time. I slowly got through that and in the end I am actually super happy with the result. I would hope we don’t have to have the process be that painful again.”

That agonising writing process is part of why it has been six years since the band’s last album Grievances, double the length there was between that record and its predecessor Container Ships, but there’s no singular cause to blame for the wait so much as several issues coalescing in that period. “The funny part is we never stop being a band during those gaps, we still practise regularly and play some shows and do some tours,” says Evans. “Even three years is longer than we would like and six years is ridiculous. It’s just how it worked out. I think this particular gap is a little bit unusual, I think both because of the writer’s block that I went through and, I had sort of a personal mental health – I don’t wanna overstate it and call it a crisis, but I had to take care of my mental health a little bit during that time.” Ultimately they’re a band who are comfortable with, as Evans puts it, “shit taking as long as it has to.” The most important thing for the band is that they’re happy with the end result, however painful the record was to make.

The band’s music has always seemed to be a unique sort of experiment in restraint, with songs that saunter without wallowing, reaching some incredibly heavy depths but never feeling like they need to reach those depths in order to justify their place on an album. Piecework takes this experiment one step further, making use of negative space in each of its seven tracks and yet also displaying concise songwriting as opposed to the lengthy ten-minute tracks you might expect from a band so content to let each riff ring out. There’s a sense of emptiness that is vivid throughout Piecework, effortlessly captured by the album cover – an image from photographer Melyssa Anishnabie of a desolate room in a building that was likely once a home but is now just a house. It seems to suggest the inherent loneliness of a place that once held significance but is now barren.

That approach of restraint, of a style that’s not quite minimalist but certainly eschews the metal genre’s tendency towards all-out noise, is a hallmark of the band’s sound. “Contrast is a great tool,” Evans agrees. “You can do like a Full Of Hell record or something like that where it just goes the whole time and it’s exhausting but you can also do something that is I guess a bit more traditional where you’re using more contrast and dynamic shape and I think for us, that does work, it does tee up the big parts really well.”

But it’s not all about the contrast. Unlike some post-rock bands who may only use quieter moments in order to build towards an intense crescendo, Kowloon Walled City’s tracks ensure that the soft moments don’t exist purely to serve the heavier ones. “I think we just find a lot of these quiet cleaner type things really beautiful. Jon’s a really interesting guitar player in his chord voicings and the way he thinks about guitar is really unusual, and then I just do my best to keep up with him. We write a lot of the stuff without distortion, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff that we wrote that is too pretty or too sparse and we couldn’t make it work in this band. So it’s not just about the contrast. I think we love all the individual parts of the whole. I’m just as happy to be sitting there with some weird chord rattling for uncomfortably long as I am to be driving a bulldozer over everything. Both are fine.”

This approach plays a key role in the unique, gloomy atmosphere that sits over the band’s music. Like many of their contemporaries there is a sense of tension, but the impetus isn’t always on building the tension to ultimately offer a release so much as it is finding the moments of beauty or pathos within it. Piecework’s standing as perhaps the band’s most consistently quiet record yet may be a result of Evans wanting it to feel more hopeful, but paradoxically it is also a source of the bleakness that does sit over the album.

“Everyone’s always like ‘oh that’s the band that does the bummer jams’ and I think that is where we gravitate to,” laughs Evans. “It’s funny, I was just thinking about this, like five or six years ago I was sitting on a chair in our house working on a little guitar thing and one of my kids, who was pretty young at the time, said “Dad, when are you ever going to write happy music?” And that’s a pretty heavy thing to hear! I’m not an unhappy person. I’m kind of a tense person and maybe a glass half-empty person, but I’m not unhappy. I’m not nihilistic, I’m not misanthropic. This is the kind of music we’ve always tended to write but I’ve never been able to intellectually figure out why. One of my goals with this record was to try and inject a little more hopefulness. I think I totally failed.”

Evans did approach the creation of the album’s title-track with a positive concept in mind, one that reflected on the tough life that his grandmother led but also remembered the warmth and love that she radiated in spite of that. “She had a pretty hard life, she had five kids, she worked in a shirt factory for, I don’t know, 30 or 40 years doing one job. This is before labour laws really. She sat at a sewing machine and sewed collars for 40 years, and had a husband who wasn’t super present and was difficult in a lot of ways. The thing about her is despite all that she was wonderful. She was still strong, and she just radiated love. She drove people to vote on her days off and all kinds of great stuff like that.”

The tale Evans wanted to tell, then, was one of positivity and kindness in the face of adversity, but as Evans admits, that message is not front and centre on the track itself. “I mean it’s in here,” he says, pointing to his own mind. “And when I sing the song I think about that stuff. But I’m not a very natural lyricist and finding my way with that has been a challenge.”

Interestingly, though, there is a certain sense of hope in the band’s music, even if it’s not as present as Evans originally intended. For one thing, there’s a catharsis palpable in the music that the listener is invited to share in. And not only this, but whilst the sparsity of their arrangements and an album cover of a seemingly abandoned building may entail a sense of something being missing, the building is still standing, and still has value beyond its original purpose – even if it is only as a hotspot for photographers. I suggest to Evans that there is in fact a hint of hope in his band’s music. “It might just be a lack of hopelessness,” he grins. “There is plenty of heavy music that really is hopeless and I think at the very least what we’re doing isn’t that.”

The album cover seems a perfect encapsulation for the record and the sense of emptiness and perhaps longing that hangs over it, but the band don’t plan any kind of thematic focus for their records, and the choosing of an album cover is in fact a good example of the ways in which the band allow the creative process to take them wherever it may. “With the album covers for the last few records, I’ve gone off searching for a specific thing and as I sort of look and research, I think pretty much every time something has taken me on a new turn and I’ve followed it and it’s worked out great,” explains Evans. “So it’s good to have ideas but it’s good to realise that those ideas may actually just be waypoints to a final destination that you didn’t originally conceive of.”

With each of the band’s records, Evans reflects that by choosing a title and a cover they do end up feeling thematic, and not just to listeners but the band as well. “When we talk about Grievances we all feel like there’s a theme to the record but the truth is if I go back and I read the lyrics it’s just a disparate set of songs,” he admits. “Maybe there are two or three that touch on a theme but it’s not remotely a concept record. So the choosing of an album title or cover art is trying to pick something that is evocative and makes sense as a title for the whole collection, but it is in fact still a collection of short stories and not a novel. And I guess if you’re gonna do a collection of short stories you’ve still gotta put a title on it.”

Photo by Scott Evans.

With a lot of records an overarching theme can seem so strong that it feels almost prescient, but such themes are often only imposed retrospectively as a throughline is noticed after the tracks have been compiled. It’s only natural, after all, that a record written by one person or band in a short space of time is going to have a certain perspective. “It was only well after I wrote Grievances that we realised we had basically written a labour record,” Evans offers as an example. “I guess I wasn’t politically aware in the right ways at that time to realise what I was writing, because it was all coming from personal experiences and experiences of family members and friends. So it’s like this very naive view of it instead of a more informed, activist-type view but in the end it was like ‘oh look what we wrote, how about that’.”

It’s interesting, then, to have Evans try to analyse why exactly Piecework came out the way it did, as an achingly poignant listen but one that differs from his original vision. Why is it not the hopeful album he aimed for? “I mean I don’t know. I have pages and pages and pages of words for each of these songs of me trying to work it out…” he admits. “I’ve got pages of words and pages of little rhythmic diagrams of me trying to work out what sits on the page well lyrically and then what sits in the song well. In the end the thing that I made fit is the words that are there. So it wasn’t like giving up [on my goal], it was more like trying and trying and trying and not quite getting there and just being open to where you do end up. I feel like this is a thing I want to keep working on, if I have to keep fucking writing lyrics, but on this record that was a tough goal for me and I don’t know that I exactly succeeded. In fact I know that I didn’t exactly succeed.”

Piecework was written and is now released in a time where things feel particularly tumultuous, and you have to wonder whether what’s been going on in the world has had an impact on the album’s outcome, whether consciously or not. Things do feel bleak right now, I suggest.

“Yeah, but things are always bleak,” replies Evans. “I’m actually reading a book by this famous journalist Rebecca Solnit, she’s awesome. The book is called Hope In The Dark. I’m only a quarter of the way through but a lot of it is about perspective during difficult times. Things are awful right now in lots of ways but also, compared to a hundred years ago, lots of things are in order of magnitude improved, and a lot of that has to do with activism and people looking for results and not just wallowing in the negativity of the moment but in fact trying to effect change. I think that’s the thrust of the book, it was written actually during the Bush administration in the US but remains relevant.”

Photo by Scott Evans.

As far as current events, whether it’s Covid or the Trump administration, the band broadly speaking don’t broach such topics. “I don’t think I’m smart or insightful enough to speak about that stuff well,” offers Evans. “I have lots of opinions, I try to do things that have some effect in my world but I just don’t have a lot of confidence about writing about that kind of stuff so more of the songs are about I guess bigger longer-term things – people I’ve known, family members, interweaving with books I’ve been reading or experiences I’ve had, that kind of thing. But they all try to pull back a little bit.”

The music and particularly the lyrics that make up Piecework are essentially an amalgamation of all these influences, and it’s in that sense that Kowloon Walled City’s music is innately hopeful, whether that hope is tangible in the music or not. It is a means of catharsis for both band and listener, and the communities that form around music are a way to connect with something bigger than ourselves. “Music has been one of the most defining, most important things about my life since I was probably six years old,” says Evans, unable to stifle a big smile. “All of my long-term friends are musicians. I realise again and again what a gift playing music is, just the people and community. I take it for granted too. You and I can talk for three hours right now about records or about guitar strings or who knows what – that’s incredible. And the other thing that ties into that as someone who has spent a lot of his life making music is that I love making things.”

He points the camera down to show me the insides of an equaliser he’s currently building, and continues: ”I just love making stuff and I really love making stuff with my friends, and that’s the other thing that music has given me – decades of things to make. So if that’s not a source of hope, I don’t know what is… The last tour we did before Covid, every day we looked at each other and were like ‘man we are really lucky to be doing this, this is really something’.”

Bummer jams or not, Kowloon Walled City’s music is, in a certain sense, innately hopeful. 

Piecework is out 8th October on Neurot Recordings and Gilead Media. Order here.

Words: George Parr

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