Michael Stein of School Knights on dressing up in drag and having a hotel slumber party
School Knights in drag for their new music video
courtesy Michael Stein
School Knights (due tonight at the hi-dive with Force Publique and Mombi) started two years ago in the wake of the dissolution of experimental guitar pop band Weed Diamond. Michael Stein started the project in the waning days of that group as a two piece with Zack Roif. Though the duo's initial sound was far from short on exuberance and punky energy, Stein and Roif felt like the sound could be expanded, and so they brought in Ben Donehower and Morris Kolontyrsky, Roif's bandmates in the Octaves, to add a grater dimension to the songwriting possibilities.
Fortunately, when the two joined the line-up, Donehower also brought in a great deal of songwriting ability of his own. Currently the foursome is releasing the video for the song "Powerslut." Lest there is some misunderstanding of the title, Stein explains in detail below the idea behind the song and the unusual video that goes along with it. We had a chance to sit down with the affable and thoughtful Stein to talk about the band's history, his time with Weed Diamond and the double standards society places on women.
Westword:Where did you grow up?
Michael Stein: I grew up in Long Beach, California through high school. Came out here to go to CU Boulder. I didn't get into Berkeley, and that was the only school I wanted to go to. I got a scholarship to Boulder, so I visited for a day and it was fine. I didn't want to go to school in L.A. because it was too close to home. I went to Boulder for a year and then dropped out -- or I lost my scholarship and was forced to drop out. I was studying psychology for some reason. I don't know why. It was mundane. I took some Nietzsche class that was taught in German, and I don't speak German, and I didn't know I enrolled in it, and got an incomplete. Took Composition 1 twice. Now I'm going to UCD in the Music Business and Recording program.
Growing up in Long Beach, what were your early experiences with live music like?
I played guitar before I started going to shows when I was like eight. I forced one of my best friends to start playing bass when we were in sixth grade. I'd been to two White Stripes concert before I started going to local shows. But my friend Brian, who I'd always been in bands with until I moved out here, started going to see bands like Epsilons, which was Ty Segall's first band. So we started going to shows in Orange Country because we were between L.A. and Orange County.
One time we saw Mika Miko and we were like, "This is the best band that we've ever seen in our lives." So we just started going to every Mika Miko show and started going to the Smell. No Age, Mika Miko and Abe Vigoda would do breakfast shows. Not that often, but in my memory, it was every week because we would we would say we were going to AP review sessions, and we would just go to The Smell.
In Orange County, there was a place called Sol Art, I think and the Plush Cafe. We played there in our really shitty, New Wave, dance, pop, punk band that was awful. We had like ten names, but it was first called Cowboy Vs. Indian, because we were fifteen. We changed it to Business Cats because of the Mika Miko song, and shortly after, we broke up. Then we were in a way better band for like two years called Rizzo, and then I moved. It was garage-y, Black Lips-y. It started growing a little bit, and we recorded a five song EP with Aaron Embry, who was in Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. It was beautiful but it's hard to do shit in L.A.--it's really hard to get shows and take your music out there.
What made you want to start playing music?
Like I said, I got a guitar when I was eight and I took private lessons and learned music theory and I always hated that. I like it now and I'm glad I'm going to go learn it again. But I was in jazz band and all of that. But I've always liked writing songs, and I would write really lame rip-off songs of what I was hearing on the radio when I was younger. I had Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever and that was one of the first CDs I bought and I learned all those songs and wrote Tom Petty rip-off songs. I got super into Nirvana for a while in seventh grade and I still love Nirvana.
When you moved out here, did you get involved in music right away. What was it like for you being here early on?
It was rough. In my head I envisioned college was going to be like me playing in warehouses all the time, you know? That was my frat party dream. Like finding a place like the Smell and living there. I made posters and flyers on my computer and would post them all over the Boulder campus and they said, "Let's start a band!" and it would list of every genre I was okay with, but I would only get calls back from dudes in nü metal bands and jam bands, because it was Boulder. Seriously, the entire time I was in Boulder, I didn't really play with anyone. I tried playing with some DJ one time but it didn't work.
Then I saw a Weed Diamond track online and he had a song called "All Of Denver is Wasted" posted. I thought, "I live kind of close to Denver." So I emailed him and said, "Do you want to start a band?" He replied, "No. It's just a one-man thing right now." But we exchanged numbers, and I got a call from him probably three months later, and he was like, "Hey, do you want to go on tour in three weeks and play SXSW after that?" And I was like, "Fuck yeah."
I met with him a week later and learned the songs and went on tour. That was in 2009 or 2010. It was Tim Perry, Danny Boatright and J.T. Schweitzer. They had played one show and weren't too stoked on how it went. Danny and J.T. couldn't go on tour so it was me, Tim and this guy named Chad who played bass. We used another drummer from the band Tan Dollar. It was the first time I'd been on tour and it was rad. We played SXSW two weeks after that.
That was the luckiest band. Everyone in the band was really talented and the songwriting was awesome but after being in high school and being in a band for two years, I still like those songs, and we would send them out to people every day and try to get songs. And Tim just put five, poorly-recorded songs on Myspace and the first message he got was from Transparent Records and instantly they asked if he wanted to do a seven inch.
When I listen to that stuff now, we got so much more developed. Everything Tim is doing now, when he does do stuff, is always awesome. He just has a knack. I think it's because he's always stayed detached from any scene that's going on that whatever he's doing is what's coming, in a way.
Oh yeah. When he started doing guitar music a few years back, it was a style not a lot of people were doing yet but now it's all over the place. Not that he influenced anyone outside of here, because he probably didn't, but it is an interesting parallel development.
Did you record on any of the releases?
I wasn't on the early stuff but the first seven inch we did with Transparent, "Snowmelt" and "Oklahoma," I co-wrote and for the former, I sang on it. We wrote half and half, pretty much. We had a cassette that was supposed to come out on this little label called Leftist Nautical Antiques that disappeared right before it was supposed to be put out. It was a bigger one and just dropped off the face of the earth.
When we reissued the old Weed Diamond stuff on Bridgetown, "Carry On" was a song I wrote. We only played in Denver like six times ever. Twice at Larimer, I think. We played with Bear in Heaven at the hi-dive and Twin Sister, and that was our last show. The SXSW showcase we played was small in the parking lot of this Ethiopian restaurant, but it was us, Cloud Nothings, Pure Ecstacy and Diamond Rings, who is now touring with Robyn.
Did you leave Weed Diamond before it broke up?
Kind of. Basically, after our second tour on the west coast with Dash Jacket and Tan Dollar, it was a month long in a car and we probably got sick of each other a little bit. We had a lot of momentum and the rest of the band, not including me, has all known each other for a while and grew up in the Springs together and they were all moving home with their parents to save money. Tim wanted to record a bunch.
I moved down there for two weeks and I don't know...it kind of seemed like it became clear to us that we were all not in the mood to record at that point or write together. I wouldn't say it was for sure that we were breaking up but we definitely weren't working on stuff when I moved down there. I was living down there and there's not much to do in the Springs and I couldn't get the job. I wasn't twenty-one and there was shit to do.
I didn't move and quit but that was right after I started writing the School Knights stuff. Originally Danny was going to drum but he was busy with school. I met Zack [Roif] and practiced with him once and he was excited about it so I kind of just called him one time when he was going to pick me up from the Springs to practice and said, "Empty out the back of your truck because I'm just going to move on to your couch."
Not because I wanted to get away from Weed Diamond, but I just wanted to fucking record and write music. We were taking a break so I figured it was safe. But after that it kind of dissipated and we've been talking about doing new stuff. Tim's always writing shit and sending it to me and everything he writes is awesome. Same with J.T. Just so far, we haven't gotten around to reunited. I'm not sure what the form would be if we did.
How did you meet Zack?
Through Astroland. We played there once with Candy Claws. It was out of the blue because our show got canceled because some touring band we were playing with at Larimer got stuck in the snow. And the same thing happened with Astroland. I think like Jeff the Brotherhood was going to play or something. So we got a call and we played there instead.
I met Zack that time but only talked to him for about a minute. Originally I got the number for Trevvor Yawner from Thee Goochi Boiz and I was talking to him about doing drums. I tried to describe what I was trying to do and I had made three recordings of just guitar shit and I had a couple of bands for reference for the kind of drumming I wanted. I showed it to him and he said, "I can't fucking play this. Talk to Zack." I called Zack, practiced with him and his drumming was pretty much exactly what I was looking for.
He was running Astroland?
He owned it. It was him and two other people. The other people would book the hippie shows and the Communikey kind of thing. And he would book Ty Segall and all the garage bands that played through there. It wasn't even Communikey stuff so much, more like weird art shows and Drunk Poet Society.
Did you go through different names or did the name come to you right away?
Danny came up with the name. I showed it to him and he said, "Have you heard of this band Weekends from Baltimore?" I said, "No" and he said, "This sounds exactly like them." Then he showed it to me and I was like, "Fuck!" He said, "It's alright. You've just to call it Weeknights." We kept making jokes and then School Knights with a "K" came up so that's what it was.
You started out as a three piece and a four piece now?
We were a two piece for the first eight months or something. We did one tour as just the two of us. Zack is in another band called The Octaves, that just plays parties. They play surf standards and some originals. Ben [Donehower] and Morris [Kolontyrsky] were the bassist and the guitarist of that band so we just kind of slid them over. We had tried out one or two other people just because we wanted to add another guitarist. I think I can do it now, but I couldn't play most of the shit I was doing and sing at the same time. Now Morris is the guitar player and Ben plays bass and he writes a lot of the songs too--he's an awesome songwriter.
All of our old songs, until our new recordings, we recorded in two sessions with just me and Zack and we would do the instruments and I would go record vocals in my house on the Mac Book and I started plugging in my guitar, making it go down an octave and do bass parts too. It filled it out a bunch, as bass does, so we just wanted a bassist too. We had Tom [Johnson] with Thee Goochi Boiz play bass for a bit because Morris had gone to Prague.
What releases do you have up to now?
We have the Bridgetown release with just four songs with just me and Zack. Then the cassette with Pacific Pride on Crash Symbols and our full length called All Dogs Go to Heaven. It was me and Zack and Ben did like two guitar parts on it. But we just recorded seven songs at Mighty Fine Productions with Colin Bricker. It's like a live recording with all four of us and it's better than anything we've done before. We have no release schedule and we're trying to shop it around because we all want to do something on vinyl even if it's just a seven inch. We're all broke so we're trying to find someone that's willing to pay for it, which is hard these days.
Tell me about the video and what song is it?
It hasn't been put out yet, it's called "Powerslut." It's a really fun video that we shot ourselves with the help of a couple of our friends from the Boulder film school. We basically got a hotel room for a night and then got in drag and it's like a girl's slumber party. We had a massive pillow fight and we cut open an old pillow we bought at Savers to get some feathers going and almost ruined that room. We had to vacuum it for hours.
What's the significance of the song title?
That's good you ask that because I'm almost worried we're going to get some feminist backlash because of the song and the video. That song, and a lot of the songs on the new recording that I wrote, are kind of just about the double standard that people are held to in their early twenties when you're hooking up with people and that sort of thing. I've done my fair share of stupid shit but don't get held accountable for any of it. I feel like girls get unfairly held accountable for stuff they're only half responsible for in general.
"Powerslut" is kind of just about dealing with who you are in relation to what you've done and how you're being perceived. That was kind of the whole idea of dressing up as girls for the video and having this sort of cliché girl slumber party and we're actually men. The second you think about your actions in relation to other people's actions, it's really easy to see that men are not held to the same standards as women as far as all that goes. It's a little deeper than most of our aesthetic but that's kind of what it is.
So that theme runs through the other songs you wrote on this new batch of material?
The last few years for me have been change after change. I've lived in Boulder, Denver, Colorado Springs, back in Boulder, back in Denver in too short a period and I've gone to two colleges. I dropped out of school for two years. It's just about being lost and you find things that are important to you. Everyone I've met out here is a new friend and you feel like they're your best friends. And it all changes so fast so this song album, Ben's songs too, are about figuring out who you are in relation to the people around you. There's also a little bit of our normal partying.
The weirdest thing is that during the video, we got a bunch of make-up on--foundation, mascara, everything. It was weird because we had this mini-breakdown because we were there for hours. Like probably eight at night until six in the morning just doing shooting: lights on us, hot and sweating. We all started looking at each other at one point and getting really restless and fidgety and irritable, and I think I pinpointed it down to the fact that...I have a lot of sympathy for females that wear a lot of make-up now.
You put all that shit on and you look in the mirror and go, "Alright, I look good." Then from that point on, you just start looking shittier and shittier throughout the night. Every time you look in the mirror from that point you go, "What is going on. My face is falling off. I'm sweating, and I can't do anything about it." It's stressful. That shit's intense.
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