Pop Goes the Formula

The Knit Separates have audiences asking: What was that?

Here's how the Knit Separates make a song:

Jason Honea thinks up a title, something like "Jangle in Skulls." He tells Glenn Donaldson.

Donaldson keeps the title in his head for a couple of days, and thinks of pop songs from earlier bands.

The pair go into their studio, a little room next to Donaldson's garage. One of them picks up a guitar and tries out a riff, while the other whacks on any handy percussive instruments. They record.

Next, they listen to the take, and overdub a keyboard or guitar part onto it.

Then they listen again. Honea thinks up lyrics -- this may require the help of a nearby e.e. cummings poetry collection or a Bobby Vinton song title. If completely stumped, he strings together other song titles, ponders failed romances, or thinks back to 12 years of Catholic school. (Donaldson calls this "turning rejection into Bible verse.") Finally, Honea sings the lyrics in a voice that suggests Robert Smith fronting the Chi-lites.

And voilà.

Pop music is about formulas. There's one for lyrics (girl meets boy, boy falls in love, girl dumps boy for girl, boy, or vibrator), one for sound (melody and repetition and harmonic stick-to-itiveness), and one for success (play live, tour, record, play live, tour, etc.).

The Knit Separates know all this. If there's anything they know, it's pop history. And if there's anything they are, it's a pop band. But they aren't like any pop band you've heard. Their love songs feature U-boats, swords, and cobras; their melodies go from pretty to potty without warning; live, they try their damnedest to make audiences scratch their heads rather than tap their toes. With apologies to Green Day and their ilk, the Knit Separates are the punkest pop band this town has ever seen.

This isn't surprising, considering lead singer Honea's past. The Sunnyvale native was the singer for seminal hardcore band Social Unrest from 1983 to 1989. Initially a strict Darby Crash-styled shouter, Honea developed a more melodic singing style that won him both approval and derision within the hardcore community. During the last few years of the band, he lived mainly in Germany. It was there that he discovered a whole new kind of pop music.

"I met this guy who wanted to start a band," Honea recalls. "I told him I liked the Replacements and he said, "Look at all these great bands like the Jesus & Mary Chain and Creations Records groups.'" But Honea's biggest revelation came upon seeing the Television Personalities perform in a closed-off train station. "There they were, playing this kind of clumsy but beautiful, straining music and it was the best thing I'd ever seen."

When Honea returned to the Bay Area in 1990, he began singing with a punk band called 10 Bright Spikes. Then one day, he saw an ad placed by Donaldson and Steven R. Smith's band Mirza on the Rough Trade record store bulletin board. The group, which would eventually become well known for its loud and spacey psychedelic rock, was looking for a singer who was into the Fall and Birthday Party.

"Jason was the only one who answered it who knew who the bands were," Donaldson recalls.

The group only played one show together, a benefit with Frightwig and the quaintly named Cum Dumpster. Though the show went well, the band decided to dispense with vocals altogether; Honea took time out to go on the road with the Social Unrest reunion tour.

As Donaldson and Honea continued to hang out, they found they had many of the same obsessions -- not just '80s pop artists, but also California coastal nature, religious writings, and World War II history. By mid-1997, Honea had convinced Donaldson -- and occasionally Smith -- to record music under the name of the Knit Separates. His idea was to take pop music and "dirty it up." Over the course of three years, the duo has released two singles, a split 7-inch with the Lies, and two full-length albums, the most recent of which, Love's True Cross, is available in a limited, vinyl-only edition of 300. And they already have another 25 songs ready for release.

"I started off doing loud, fast, experimental music," Donaldson says, "but now I'm writing pop melodies. ... If Jason can sing pretty and melodic, I can do 12-string solos. That's what's so great about there being only two of us -- we can indulge all our fantasies."

There are two pictures on the foam-covered walls of Donaldson's Glen Park studio ("Serious Crips territory," Honea confides in a hushed tone) -- one of the Monkees and one of former Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn performing live in Golden Gate Park after assuring concert organizers that his band sounded "just like Fleetwood Mac." If you've listened to the Knit Separates' records, the two photos might strike you as an odd combination. That is, until you realize that the band is actually pretty funny.

At a recent record release party at the Tempest, the Knit Separates thoroughly perplexed the audience. For performances, Honea and Donaldson are joined by guitarist/keyboardist Smith and avant-garde drummer Loren Chasse (Donaldson was initially afraid to ask him to join their "retarded pop group" but Chasse loved the concept of "playing like you're falling down the stairs"). At the Tempest, it was Honea everyone watched. For the show, he wore a tight, long-sleeved, white-and-black spandex shirt that begged for comment if not outright guffaws. From off to the side, a friend projected slides of maps and drawings onto him.

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