THE RED BULLETIN: You have a big gig coming up tonight. Five Knives is playing the Troubadour in Los Angeles, a legendary venue where artists from Joni Mitchell to Radiohead have performed over the last twenty years. Are you nervous?
NATHAN BARLOWE: I’m always nervous because we have so much technology running on stage. We’ve practiced and we’re ready, but those things like computers and keyboards are out of my control.
Do you guys have pre-gig rituals?
Usually we have a shot of vodka, that’s our pre-show ritual. And we listen to a lot of hip-hop in the dressing room. Stuff like 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song” gets us amped up. The sillier the track is, the more fun we have.
Your debut album Savages contains a lot of different musical genres, from rock to EDM. But one threat that runs through all your songs is a high level of energy. Would you agree?
Totally. It’s funny because Anna and myself, we come from a rock ‘n’ roll background. I grew up playing punk rock, so for me rocking out on stage feels natural. When I’m in the studio I always ask myself: ‘How is this going to come across live in a performance? What feeling do we as Five Knives want people to have at our shows?’ We decided a long time ago that we want people to have fun and dance and forget life at our shows.
In that sense, do you think EDM is the new punk rock?
EDM is the new everything. It’s in so many rap songs today and it’s in pop music too. I think we just decided to take it that way, because that’s what we know best. But in the end we’re songwriters first and foremost. No matter how we dress up the songs, my goal is to have really great songs. Not just cool beats and cool sounds.
Most of the current EDM artists are based in Los Angeles. You live in Nashville. How come?
It’s surely not the most obvious place for an electric band to come out of. Honestly, I moved there 15 years ago from North Carolina. My band and me, we wanted to go to Los Angeles but we were so broke that Nashville was as far as we got. We were like, ‘it’s a music town, so maybe we could get something going here. Then we’ll save up enough money and go to LA.’ But we just never left.
You fell in love with the place?
Exactly. Nashville is a great city to live in. It’s not as expensive as New York. For that same amount of money you live in a tiny little apartment there, you can afford a nice house in Nashville. Once I got there I fell in love with the people, the food and the energy of the city. I think Five Knives have always benefited from being a standout band in Nashville because we’re so different from anything else happening there.
Considering that Nashville’s known as the home of country music, I reckon making electronic music there must be a bit like swimming against the tide?
I think so. In recent years Nashville has become a lot more accepting when Jack White and the Black Keys moved there. But I don’t know of any other electronic band that has come out of Nashville. It’s taken a while for the local press to warm up. Some people are still like, ‘what the hell is this?’
Is that because people in Nashville are used to see performers wearing cowboy hats?
When we first came out we were even weirder. We wore silver masks and black leather outfits on stage. We only played basement parties downtown, right next door to the country bars. You got to have a password to get in. I think that confused a lot of people. But it was a good way to get people writing and talking about us.
How do you develop unusual ideas in a partly inhospitable environment?
I think for me, I’ve never really given a shit what people think. If there’s something written about your band that’s less than positive, then you can take it two ways.
You can get depressed about it and say, ‘oh, maybe we are not very good.’ Or you can use the negativity to your own benefit. Bad reviews have always made us work even harder, because we believe in what we’re doing. We’d be like, ‘guess what, critics? Our next gig is going to be even weirder and bigger!’ Even on stages where people are cheering for us, we still think, we have something to prove.
You probably dumbfounded a lot of your early critics by going on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins and being nominated for Grammy Award before your first album has come out.
Right. I think some of that made people mad too. We got our record deal on our third show. Next thing we’re on an arena tour with Smashing Pumpkins, which was our very first tour.
This outlaw mentality is reflected in your single “Savages”. It feels very much like a ‘live for the moment’ anthem. Would you agree?
Absolutely. That’s how our band lives life. That’s how we operate. We all believe in this band so much that we will stop at nothing. I think that comes across in some of the songs on the album and “Savages” is definitely one of those.
Savages is about to hit the shelves. What’s the right environment to listen to it?
There are lot of different vibes and feelings on the record, but overall I think it’s good to listen to it while you’re getting ready for a night out. When I’m getting ready in the shower I crank music through the house and our album feels like it’d be a good record to do that.
Your drummer Shane’s dad is an Elvis impersonator. Which artist would you impersonate if you had the choice?
Depeche Mode. I’d be their singer Dave Gahan, because I would want all the attention on me. Like, being in the front, moving around like he does. (Laughs.) I’ve always been a huge fan and I respect them so much. If I ever started a cover band that’d tour around, I would definitely play Depeche Mode songs, for sure.
If the album turns out to be a big success, are you going to help Shane’s dad to retire from his impersonator duties?
You know what? I think Shane’s dad loves it. He’s been doing this for over 20 years. I don’t think we can get the jump suit off of him. He just wears it around for fun all the time. He lives in Las Vegas but he’s coming to our show tonight. So we’re going to see him and I told him, you better be wearing his outfit. Because I want to be able to say, Elvis was at our gig.