When Guy McKnight suggests we meet for this interview at The Garden café in FACT at 10am on a Tuesday morning, I’m surprised. It’s a sober time and place to interview any rock star, let alone the man who led The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster, a notoriously riotous group responsible for debaucherous anthems Celebrate Your Mother and Mister Mental. A dingy practice room or basement bar would surely be more appropriate? However, the more we speak, the more the time and setting make sense.
We’re here to talk about his new project, THE DSM IV. Attracting big crowds and landing support slots with Drenge and British Sea Power, the electro rock trio are establishing themselves with McKnight’s communal sense of performance and explosive set meaning they are already transcending the Mersey locale. A quite different proposition to McKnight’s former charges, The DSM IV’s sound is driven by synths and drum machine rather than a punishing psychobilly clatter, albeit with the singer’s familiar Nick Cave-esque dark howl as prominent as ever. Aesthetically there is also much disparity, 80s-style tracksuits and mullets (trailblazers in this respect, McKnight insists – more of this later) replacing the gothic garb. I’m intrigued to find out what else has changed for McKnight.
“The last band did insanely dark… [a moment’s pause to recalibrate]. It was really about the pain of being a young person. There was a lot of pain there and we didn’t try and mask that. [There was] a lot of emotion driving it and that’s what made it so exciting,” McKnight explains of Eighties Matchbox. “But with this band it’s multi-dimensional, more colourful, and I think this is perhaps more observational about… [long pause] life on Earth in the 21st Century.”
This morning, over a couple of black coffees, there is a focused, considered approach to McKnight. Each sentence is constructed with the utmost care, the tempo of speech creeping up almost imperceptibly when he excitedly talks of his new band and the worldview they are keen to put across to a new generation of music fans.
The singer speaks fondly of the band with which he achieved so much, proposing that on their day they were a match for any group. Many would agree. Darlings of the NME (vanguards of one of many 00s scenes which the paper hastily flung together if more than two bands shared a similar cut of trouser), with a track finding its way onto a Nike advert for Euro 2012 and a multi-national fervent fanbase, Eighties Matchbox were a force. However, the glint in his eye suggests McKnight is just as excited about his current gang: “The DSM IV is based on a wish to remove suffering with joy and try and inspire people to be free. I’m confident that that determination runs throughout the music and is translated into everything we write together and record.”
Such determination is represented by the band’s schedule. I meet McKnight on the eve of The DSM IV playing a run of shows in Brighton, Manchester and Sheffield. They are also in the midst of recording at The Echo Chamber in Wallasey with McKnight wanting to share some recorded material with people soon so they can “get a taste of what it’s all about”. In July they headline the Bido Lito! Social at DROP The Dumbulls.
McKnight is impressed by how quickly crowds have warmed to his unusual performance style – the singer regularly taking leave of the stage to join the crowd is a hallmark of a DSM IV show. “It’s good to confront people’s expectations, but I think that goes back to the stage being a unique platform where people will accept things that they wouldn’t normally accept. As a performer you have an opportunity, a right, to cross those boundaries and engage face to face with people, whereas otherwise it would be considered inappropriate or rude, invading people’s space.”
McKnight seems to be settling into life up north having moved up to Liverpool with partner and now-bandmate JJ three years ago, where they formed The DSM IV while working in a vintage clothes shop. However, there is one sartorial issue which he wants to get off his chest. “I’d not seen anybody at all sporting a mullet when I got mine. I figured I would start a kinda renaissance! There’s a kid in another Liverpool band who’s since got theirs chopped. I’m not surprised I’ve influenced them, just shocked at how shamelessly they’re trying to stake their claim that it’s ‘their thing’ by mentioning it ad nauseum on socials. Stop plagiarising my mullet! They’ll probably ditch live drums and invest in drum machines and synths soon, to find ‘their sound’!” His tongue is in his cheek, but McKnight is keen to get this bugbear into print, insisting it’s a matter of principle: “It ain’t cool for people to behave so unscrupulously.”
In the Bold Street vintage shop, McKnight was determined he would meet the member who would complete the band’s line-up. He was right. “I was impressed by how skinny his legs were.” McKnight says of discovering DSM IV drummer Pav. “I asked if he’d be up for coming for a jam with me and JJ and he was just brilliant and one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with.”
With the administrative necessity of the ‘how we met’ part of the story out of the way, McKnight looks to get onto weightier topics. Fastidiously clean and sober for eight years, there is a drive and determination about the singer that is inspiring. McKnight has a lot to say about society, issues of mental health and the relationship between the two. The band takes its name from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Volume Four, the publication used by medical health professionals in the States to classify and treat psychiatric conditions. Through researching his own mental health, McKnight has seen the manual come up repeatedly and is interested in the intersection between mental health, pharmaceuticals and commerce. “I am sure it has helped some people,” McKnight says of the book, again choosing his words with the excessive care. “[But] it’s a way to pigeonhole people and dehumanise and tell everyone there’s something wrong with them and therefore prescribing drugs and making money. Therefore it’s a kind of ironic name.”
It’s a subject the singer is keen to talk about. As with everyone, mental health issues have had a huge effect on his life and those of the people around him. “Suicide in young men is on the rise and music has definitely saved my life too many times for me to remember,” McKnight tells me, the morning Americano kicking in. “We live in a confused, sick society that values money, success and a narcissistic, materialistic status driven culture, celebrity worship culture [it all] makes people really unhappy and ill.”
For someone who has already achieved a level of success and fame, it is interesting to hear McKnight’s thoughts on how people with a platform can go about affecting change without being subsumed into a culture he sees as so poisonous. “It can feel confusing, counter-intuitive to want to be in a band. Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding between wanting to create music and wanting fame for fame’s sake. I think social media, Instagram culture, is making people ill but what do you do? Turn your back on society, or do you just throw stones at the wall, demand that it change? Or do you change yourself? I think that maintaining your integrity in life and still exist[ing] as a musician in this shallow animalistic music industry… you can affect positive change by standing up for what you believe in and, if your dreams and aspirations are connected to altruistic aspiration, you can be free and live as you please and not be egocentric.”
He turns to me and smiles, satisfied that he has got to the crux of a core belief. While McKnight is obviously troubled by the subjects discussed, there is a contentment about him. We turn to the subject of inspirations and influences on his current project. Rather than namechecking the usual pantheon of rock and electro greats, McKnight cites Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms, a fascinating author who wrote the briefest of what now may be called flash fiction about old ladies smashing to pieces upon falling from windows and bizarre conversations between off-the-wall characters. Arrested on charges of spreading “libellous and defeatist mood” having feigned insanity in 1930s Russia, the now-celebrated writer wound up starving to death in a Soviet gulag. “He didn’t share the same ideologies as the state,” explains McKnight. “I’ve always been encouraged, fascinated by the surrealists.” This is another theme the singer is clearly passionate about, the intersection of official outlooks and outsiders’ perceptions of life, “I like the idea [of] transcending what’s expected. I think that transcendence is just liberating oneself from one’s own lesser self. It’s refreshing and I think that’s what art and music is for; it’s for reminding us that all is not as it seems and that there’s always hope.”
The DSM IV play the Bido Lito! Social on 19th July at DROP The Dumbulls.