Record exec, promoter, producer, manager, musician – Chris Kniker is a man of many talents, and he now speaks with ReGen on how he came to form the hot new industrial ‘supergroup’ Primitive Race!
An InterView with Chris Kniker of Primitive Race
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Chris Kniker’s name may not be known to the general public, but within the ranks of the music scene, he’s a well known figure. Having earned a formidable reputation as a record executive, promoter, producer, and a manager for numerous acts across the board, it was in 2013 that he officially made the transition out from behind-the-scenes to initiating his own musical project – Primitive Race. From the beginning, Primitive Race had been heralded as just the kind of manic supergroup the industrial music scene has been missing for quite some time. Featuring an all-star assortment of musicians, Primitive Race made its debut with the Long in the Tooth EP, signaling the return of PIG’s Raymond Watts after a considerable period of silence. The self-titled album followed soon after, with the likes of Erie Loch (Exageist, Blownload), Mark Gemini Thwaite (Peter Murphy, The Mission UK), Josh Bradford (Stayte, RevCo), Dave “Rave” Ogilvie (Skinny Puppy, Jakalope), Graham Crabb (Pop Will Eat Itself), and Tommy Victor (Prong, MINISTRY) making their own distinctive marks on the Primitive Race imprint, all with Kniker spearheading the proceedings. The result is a style of music that runs the gamut from industrial to alternative, metal, techno, and all points in between. Speaking with ReGen on the band’s formative roots, touching on his experiences in the music industry, and offering some insight into what the future holds not only for his band but for music as a whole, Chris Kniker invites us to join him in running the Primitive Race.
Let’s start with a little background about you – before Primitive Race, you were doing management for several bands, including (perhaps most notably) Lords of Acid. How did you come to that position?
Kniker: I’ve been working in the music industry for about 20 years. I’ve worked with several labels over the years – Priority, TVT, MCA, Thirteenth Planet, Noise Records, to name a few. I did pretty much anything they asked me to; I wanted to learn it all… radio promotion, retail tracking, publicity, label manager, executive producer, producer, A&R. Over the years, you meet a lot of people and network. Off and on, artists have asked me for managerial help.
In what ways do you feel your managerial work benefited you as a working musician with Primitive Race – or to put it another way, what sorts of decisions do you feel you’d have made differently had you not the experience you had as a manager?
Kniker: I didn’t really lean on that experience per se. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have that knowledge; especially now that we’re in the cycle of promoting the record. It helps mapping out timelines. When I’m working with the label, publicists, radio, and press, I have an understanding of what the needs and challenges are. I think during the creative process, I used my experience as executive producer and record producer more to navigate. It was like putting a puzzle together – what pieces fit where, when to push and when to sit back and let a song evolve.
You’ve stated that you ‘wanted to learn it all.’ It seems the managerial side of things appealed to you, but what other aspects did you learn and what do you feel benefited you and your approach to music, both in terms of listening and in writing your own?
On a wider scope, what advice would you give to up-and-coming musicians and managers?
Kniker: Work hard, be thankful, stay humble, and have fun. Remember to treat everyone well. The guy you think is just the janitor might own the club you’re about to play. It’s a small world. Enjoy the moment. You’re creating memories that will last a lifetime and if you don’t enjoy it, there’s no reason to be doing it.
What was the process of recording the Long in the Tooth EP and the self-titled album? Given that you have a number of notable guest musicians, how did you determine which tracks to work with them on?
What did you find to be the major challenges in incorporating their own individual styles with yours to create a definitive Primitive Race sound?
So, with so much freedom granted to yourself and the guest performers, is it even a concern for you that the sound of Primitive Race as its own entity would be overtaken by the guests? For instance, if people hear a song like ‘Long in the Tooth’ and identify it as PIG with no thought or mention of Primitive Race, is that a concern for you at all?
Kniker: Not really. You have to embrace what it is. Raymond is amazing and his fans have so much fervor for everything he does. It had been over 10 years since he had released anything so of course his fans were going to go mad for it. I’m glad I got to play a part in that. We’ve even kind of chatted about teaming up again. He’s incredibly talented and it’s a lot of fun to work with him.
There is a notion that since sales of music are lower than they once were, a band truly survives only by playing live. What are your thoughts on this?
Kniker: Having worked with touring musicians, it’s hard to see how some bands survive at all right now. People don’t realize that not all the ticket sales go to the band, or that the venue is taking 20-30% of gross merch sales. They don’t know that a van and trailer rental costs at least $500 a night, plus crew costs, hotel, food, insurance – the liability insurance on a tour can cost $5,000 or more by itself. If the band is from Europe, forget about it. They’re paying for international flights. The work permit alone can cost $2,500 to $5,000. Many times a tour is a breakeven proposition at best, and that’s for bands that are selling 1,000 to 1,500 tickets a night. That’s why it’s hard when people think they’re not hurting a band by not buying an album. Bands can’t alienate their fans by saying something about it. Fans love the artist, but think they’re only hurting a record label. Album sales allow bands to have revenue to tour. Tickets are expensive to shows because putting on a tour is expensive. Let’s say some band from Europe wants to come out to the USA. It’s going to cost them at least $15,000 just to pay for flights, cartage (gear freight), insurance, and work permits. That’s a lot of sunken expenses and they haven’t even done a thing yet. Bottom line, if you think starting a band is a get rich proposition, go back to school and become a doctor or something. You really have to go in eyes wide open if you want to play music.
There seems to be a tendency in several bands – both new and old – to strive for what some might call a retro or perhaps ‘primitive’ sound that hearkens back to the earlier days of the industrial and hard electro genre. Similarly, ‘supergroups’ were much more common (Revolting Cocks started out as such, Pigface, even KMFDM to an extent). What are your thoughts on this?
Will Primitive Race be playing live at any point in the future?
Kniker: Some guys are really into it. I’ve had some discussions about it. The real challenge is going to be coordinating everyone’s schedule. I think it’s more likely that we’d end up doing a one-off type thing. Guys that were free would take part and maybe not others.
What are your thoughts on the progression of music and where do you feel music has yet to go (or to put it another way, what do you feel is the next evolutionary step), both creatively and in terms of the industry?
Kniker: I kind of hope we take a step back a little bit in terms of the heavy reliance on the computer. Everything is so sterile in terms of how it’s done – quantized, auto-tuned, pitch corrected, snapped-to-grid. Everyone buys the same software and sound banks; it’s all too packaged. I’ve been listening to a lot of Melvins, Butthole Surfers, and Steelpole Bathtub records lately. Those records are played really well, but they’re not mechanized. There’s an element of humanity to them. They’re not overly polished and ‘perfect.’ We need to get that human soul back into music. People need to experiment more and not just rely on picking a sound in ProTools and off they go. As far as the industry goes… it needs to figure out how to capture that emotional connection with fans again; the magic and mystique of getting a new album and really being consumed by the whole experience. Right now, music is just a data file and it is disposable – listen to it right now and then move on to the next thing. We need to reconnect with fans. There’s a whole generation out there that don’t have that relationship with music. It’s a sad thing because they’re missing out on what can be a really fun and rewarding experience.
Regarding the mystique you mentioned… there is a theory that had the internet and file-sharing and the current models existed in the ’60s-’90s, that bands like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc. might not have had audiences nearly as large. What do you think?
Kniker: I don’t know about that. It’s too hard to compare eras. I mean, that was a golden age of rock & roll. Those bands were the trailblazers and are still selling records. It’s kind of like watching any genre develop. With ‘industrial,’ you had Nine Inch Nails become this larger-than-life thing where Trent is winning Oscars now. Any fan of this sort of thing knows how much people pine for Trent or Maynard James Keenan. Not that they’re exactly ‘industrial’ to the uber fan of the genre, but I think you know what I’m saying. I think the point I was trying to make is that there’s a whole generation out there that doesn’t connect with music. It’s just something in the background. Sure they listen to it, but it’s almost just background noise. Maybe it also has something to do with schools cutting out the arts. If kids aren’t learning about it or being exposed to it, how can we expect them to have a real firm bond to it? They don’t countdown the days until the record comes out. They’re not watching the calendar for when their favorite band is coming to town. They’re not dreaming of being the next great guitarist. They’ve found other outlets… YouTube, Skype, smartphones, tablets, online gaming. So how does the music industry capture the imagination of those people and make it something that matters? We’ve got to get people excited about music again. I wish I had the answer.
Kniker: There’s an EP for Follow the Leader coming out on September 25h via Metropolis Records. It’s got some really great remixes from Ego Likeness, GoFight, Roughhausen (former Front Line Assembly guitarist Jeff Stoddard); there’s a Human League cover of ‘Love Action’ on it and a couple of B-sides from the album sessions.