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.
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.
Songs started with riffs and chords and harmonies, only to devolve into noisy improvisations. When Honea wasn't falling off the stage, he was singing with his back to the audience. Then he was striking a messiah pose and singing about "the cup of Christ" and an "eater of wounds." Donaldson laughed and shook his head, then scowled. Chasse spent as much time dropping finger cymbals onto his drums as playing them. Smith tried not to be noticed. When songs ended, very few people clapped, mainly because there was still music playing -- Honea and Chasse held tape players up to their microphones, playing the Lettermen and other old vocal groups. The show ended with an audible, "What was that?"
"It's supposed to be confrontational," Donaldson explains. "You're not supposed to think, "Oh, this band, they're good.' For me to play chords over and over is no fun -- to me the best parts of songs are the flubbed notes, the atonal guitar over something pretty."
"I think of the Knit Separates as a punk band," Honea says. "Those weepy chords are just so sad and convoluted. We think of [British Sarah Records mopers] Brighter as Motörhead. There's just so much pathos to them."
Of course, not everyone gets it. When the band played on the radio recently, a listener called to ask, "Why are you wasting my time with this crap?" And on the Knit Separates' one and only tour -- a two-week sojourn through Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands -- people who'd talked excitedly with them before the show were long gone afterward. In Aachen, one audience member was even more blunt. "I don't think I like this," he told them. "It's very depressing."
Still, sometimes it works. In Essen the band performed at a Socialist Labor Union municipal center. The audience consisted of five people -- one skinhead, one hipster, and three hardcore punks throwing beer and insults.
"We're getting fucked up," Donaldson remembers. "I'm playing the chords to this Durutti Column song "Party.' Jason's singing in German ... "This is a party/ How'd I get here?' He ends up knocking over Loren's DAT player and breaking it and I break this cymbal stand. It was like the Knit Separates go wild. It was ridiculous. But at the end of it, this German skinhead kid comes up to us and says, "This is the best show I've ever seen! You think you're going to see some band and then you get this!'
"It's supposed to sound good sounding bad, but sometimes it just sounds bad," Donaldson says with a laugh. "But then other people will look at it and go, "Those guys were fucked up,' and it affects them. They'll take something home with them, like the way [Jason] looks or how a song just seemed to disintegrate."
"I think of the Birthday Party," Honea says. "The first time I heard that band, they made me really self-conscious. That's the kind of energy they stirred up. And that's what I think our music does too. People think it's stupid and lame, and get embarrassed about it. I think that's kind of cool."