26 Feb 2020

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Secret Knives - Interview with Secret Knives

14 Nov 2019 // An interview by Mike Alexander
The year was 2010 and almost out of nowhere another of Wellington’s best kept bedroom secrets emerged from the rugby grassroots ruck of suburban Poneke, with Affection, a cutting edge pop album released under the guise of Secret Knives.And then its creator, Ash Smith disappeared down a rabbit hole only to emerge recently with the glorious pop symphony Snuff. Mike Alexander from Muzic.net.nz caught up with Secret Knives to find out where he’s been hiding all these years and talk about his new album:

Snuff has been a long time coming. Where have you been?

After releasing Affection, I needed to focus on some of the non-music parts of my life. So that meant finding better work, going back to school, travel. Then I would also get drawn into other people’s musical pursuits: I performed in a couple of Nik Brinkman’s projects Over the Atlantic and Junica, played in The Shocking Pinks for some years, and helped here and there with some of Grayson Gilmour’s live shows. So yeah, there was still lots of music and shows and touring, it just often wasn't Secret Knives.

Were there moments when you doubted yourself?

Definitely - and that’s a part of any creative process. There are always moments when things aren’t fully cooked and you’re like “ugh, this sucks and I’m over it”. But also, confidence is something I’ve had extreme difficulty with since forever. That’s threaded throughout the lyrics of Snuff too.

That said, in some ways it becomes a motivator. Like, that idea that I couldn’t do something makes me more determined to do it. Starting and not finishing the record, personally, for me, would be more disappointing and more painful than the self-doubt endured trying to make it.

Was there a turning point in the creative process?

When I started I had this other idea for an album - another title, another theme - but it really wasn’t working. I wasn’t in a healthy headspace and I couldn’t write whatever that record would’ve been. I really value honesty in music and whatever I was trying to do, it wasn’t honest to where I was at the time.

We’re conditioned to not speak frankly about sensitive things for fear of making others uncomfortable or exposing our vulnerabilities. At some point I realised I would only progress if I got over that - if I made something sincere, if I was willing to properly examine some dark stuff lyrically and stopped worrying what people might think about that. I really admire when people are unapologetically honest and frank.

Another turning point was when I started mixing the record with Jon Lemmon. It was quite rough around the edges before he got involved. He could hear what it was supposed to sound like and was willing to take the time to get it right with me.

There’s some great guitar work. It almost seems as if you cut yourself loose?

Thanks! In the past I didn’t really know how to make noisy and distorted guitar sound good. It often sounded sloppy and messy when I recorded it so I would defer to dreamier, softer sounds. Since then I kind of found a way to make it work, so there’s more flavours in Snuff - a bit more drama, some uglier sounds and some more violent moments.

Has there been any particular artist who has influenced you over the past nine or so years?

Well, across nine years there would be many. To me anyone that stakes out a territory particular to them - an idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves - is an influence, because that feels like the aim of the game and that’s what excites me most: peoples’ interior worlds manifested and brought to life.

When you are not making music, what do you get up to?

I make or work on video content - normally for musicians or on music-related projects - and for the last few years have been teaching video/content/media stuff at Massey as well.

Snuff features a select cast of collaborators including Grayson Gilmour, Charlotte Forrester and Cory Champion. What did each one bring in your own mind to what you were trying to achieve?

Well with this record it was very much a ‘can you do this for me’ kind of relationship because I normally have clear ideas of what I’m trying to do. It’s just I don’t have their same expertise with performing the instrument, engineering or mixing.

I’ve always tried to do everything myself but that can be a real minefield - it’s so easy to get lost in the process or get stuck not being able to pull something off. This was my way of introducing others into the process and tentatively cracking the door open to collaboration, which is something I’d like to go deeper with in the future. You learn a lot from being around others, seeing how they work, discussing the work with them. It’s a good way to learn and grow and helps make the process less isolating.

Will we have to wait another nine years, for the follow-up to Snuff?

God I hope not. Snuff was really finished two years ago. Then it took a long time to do the other stuff - mixing, mastering, artwork etc. I started working on a follow-up a while ago now and have a clear idea of what it is and where it’s going.



Year: 2019
Type: Album
My Capriccio
Year: 2017
Type: EP
Black Hole
Year: 2012
Type: EP
Year: 2010
Type: Album
The Wolves
Year: 2008
Type: Album

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