Great Escape 2018 Interview: Knightstown (Part 1)

By on Thursday, 14th June 2018 at 11:00 am

There’s that saying that you can choose your friends but not your family. In Michael Aston’s case, it was a family connection that paid off huge dividends for the direction of his pop music career. His producer cousin Thomas is one of four children “all super talented musicians, but Thomas was the only one who wanted to pursue music as a career.” Good thing, too, because if it hadn’t been for Thomas, there might never have been a Knightstown, or at least the Knightstown that we have come to know. Aston sets the stage for us: “I started playing some of my songs to him years and years ago on the piano when he was down for a family reunion. He said, ‘oh right, cool, we should go into my studio and lay down some tracks.’ I said ‘great, let’s do it!’ And we did, and it just developed from there. That’s how we first got together.”

We’re sat in a pub in the Laines after Aston’s opening set at the FatCat Records showcase Saturday afternoon at The Great Escape 2018 in One Church, amusingly during the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle off in the distance in Windsor. He is a friendly giant (hey, I’m little, remember?), an extremely affable sort. “I also tend to get on well with producers. Then tend to be organised, and laid back, and friendly, and they don’t get into a flap about things. They’re meticulous. They bring their own influences to the table. He introduced me to the likes of James Blake and Sampha. Electronica was a mystery to me until I really starting working with Thomas. And then I got steadily more into it. If you scratch below the surface, you realise people are doing incredible things. There was a lot of listening to a lot of stuff and thinking where we want to sit in that world.”

But before we delve deep into that part of his career, it’s worth noting his musical activities before he became a solo artist. Following the completion of his undergraduate degree at Oxford, Aston headed north, to Glasgow and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now known as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It was like night and day for the young, musically-minded Aston. “The Composition Department at the Conservatoire was actually extremely open-minded. It only gradually dawned on me how open-minded it was compared to my undergrad [studies] at Oxford, which was the opposite, with very strict ideology. Pop music is just seen as the scum of the earth.” He chuckles. “Around that time, I started listening to Stevie Wonder, Elton John and the Beach Boys and I went, ‘I like this!’”

During his time studying for his M.A. in Composition in Glasgow, he was surrounded by loads of people doing loads of different, interesting things. “At the Conservatoire, there was a lot of composers doing electro acoustic, a lot of composers who are just acoustic classical, and others like Chris [Duncan, aka C Duncan] that branch off into other areas. There’s a really wide, nebulous spectrum of stuff. It was really encouraging, but that’s only rubbed off on me in retrospect.” He was given the opportunity to compose for his folk harpist friend Haley Hewitt, which we could say is where his freelance composition work first began. “Haley asked me to write a suite for pedal harp of all things, which was a cross between folk and classical. That actually got published in the States (as ‘The Valentia Suite’). It was nice to do that, it was really fun writing, as when she was out, I used to play on her harp, with her permission, of course. All of this made me realise music isn’t just one thing or another. It’s such a diverse discipline.”

Also during this time, he was recruited by fellow student Duncan to join the live band, as keyboardist, for the performance translation of C Duncan’s recorded, one-man-band music. As I often say, things happen for a reason, and nothing is coincidence. Having heard that Duncan had signed to Brighton’s FatCat Records, Aston took the chance and submitted a demo to them. “The record was written as a very studio record…I wrote the album with keys and string arrangements. We recorded them in his [Tom’s] studio, and then he went off and did his stuff. Then we sent it to FatCat. Dave Cawley (co-founder of FatCat Records) signed us and liked it.” And so it began.

Knightstown Saturday the Great Escape 2018

The next practical thing to tackle was to figure how exactly Knightstown, the recording artist was going to be translated to Knightstown, the live experience. Cawley had very specific ideas on how to go about this, and things turned out overwhelming positive for Aston. “When it came to live stuff, he [Cawley] wanted the live experience to be different than from record. He knew Matt [Hodson] because both are based in Brighton. He said, ‘I’ll ask Matt if any of his students were keen’, as Matt is a senior lecturer at BIMM [Brighton] in sound engineering and he really knows his stuff. Matt had a listen and decided he wanted to do it himself, which is such, such a win early on. The biggest worry early on was how we were going to translate these intricate arrangements in a live setting. But then once Matt came on board, he’s the perfect combination of sociable, lovely guy and absolute expert at the technical. And laidback as well, but also super organised. So he ticks all the boxes. I’ll be holding on to him for dear life for many years to come!”

Aston gave Hodson the song stems and “he started adding extra bits and worked on extending the tracks. Some of them had been a bit short. We wanted to make them more spontaneous for live sound.” He commends Hodson’s transformation of what he originally envisioned with his cousin in the confines of the studio. “He beefed them up as well, as most of them were quite minimalistic electronically in that respect, mellow. So in the live context, we also thought about Dave’s advice, as he wanted something more dynamic, beefier. So he (Matt) did that and he did such a great job: some of the tracks didn’t need much treatment, some really need a lot for live.”

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview with Michael Aston of Knightstown, which posts tomorrow.

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