Mile High Music Festival Q&A: Davy Knowles

In an industry littered with tween pop stars and Disney Channel minions, it's refreshing to come across an artist whose work isn't a medley of foot-tapping drivel swathed with AutoTune. Equipped with awe-inducing guitar skills and a hauntingly intense wail, 22-year-old Davy Knowles is quickly making a name for himself in the world of Blues. With the help of his band, Back Door Slam, this Isle of Man native is producing an old-school sound that invites comparison to legendary bluesmen like Stevie Ray Vaughn and B.B. King. In support of Coming Up for Air -- his sophomore album, produced by Peter Frampton -- Knowles is making a stop at the Mile High Music Festival, where he'll perform in the Westword Tent this Saturday. We caught up with him and asked him a few questions in advance of this weekend's show.

Westword (Joshua Espinoza): You've been on tour since last month; how has it been going?

Davy Knowles: It's been wonderful, thank you. We've had some amazing gigs and some really goods we're looking forward to. We're having a great time.

WW: What is your favorite and least favorite part about touring?

DK: Oh my gosh. About 99.9 percent of the touring life is my favorite. I absolutely love being out on the road. All I ever wanted to do was tour -- more so than making a record or anything like that. I love playing live. It's just amazing, and it's the best job in the world; however, sometimes you get really tired. But the biggest part is that you really don't get to see the places you're playing in; you just kind of see the back of the bus, the gig and then you're gone. So, it's tough sometimes.

WW: How'd you get on board with the Chickenfoot tour?

DK: Oh. I was opening up for Jeff Beck, doing an acoustic set. It was the last gig. We were in, in Oakland, California, and Joe Satriani and Sammy Haggar were there, and they heard me play, which led me to do a few shows with them. I guess they liked our performances, because they invited me and the full band to go on tour with them later this summer. I'm very excited about it.

WW: Often in the music biz, many young musicians experience pressure from industry professionals to fit a certain image or sound. Have you experienced any of this?

DK: Not at all. I've been really lucky with who I've met and who I've worked with. My manager I've known since I was sixteen, and he's like my second dad. I'm lucky enough to be in the position where I'm not really forced to do anything to make a quick buck. I'm lucky to be working with some really great people.

WW: Since splitting up from the original members of Back Door Slam, in what ways have you evolved artistically?

DK: Really, just from playing with different players, I've learned new things: new guitar licks or new directions. I don't think the actual style of music has changed too much, but it has definitely affected my guitar playing and singing.

WW: How does Coming Up for Air differ from your first album Roll Away?

DK: Well, I don't think it's quite as straight-blues as the first one. For me, it's more grown up. I've recorded and wrote a lot of music before I was eighteen, and a lot of that is cringe-worthy for me now. [laughs] But I think Coming Up for Air is just more of a grown up album. I'm a better musician now than I was. I put a lot more time and thought into the lyrics because they're more important to me now, which is why I put more effort into them this time.

WW: What inspires your lyrics?

DK: It could be all sorts of stuff: stuff that someone said, something I saw on TV, or even a guitar lick that came out when I was warming up -- that's normally how things get started for me, lyrically. There's no specific thing that inspires my lyrics, however. It's too important to mix things up and stay fresh, so I try not to write about the same things.

WW: Who are your guitar influences?

DK: Well, the whole reason I play guitar is because of Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. But I'm a huge Rory Gallagher fan, early Eric Clapton stuff and Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac is another one of my heroes.

WW: How does living in cities like LA and Chicago compare to living in your birthplace of Isle of Man?

DK: Oh my gosh. They're completely opposite. I never saw anything like it until I came here. I love it here, and I absolutely adore it. The sheer sizes of American cities are incredible. When you're in New York City and you look up, it's just so huge, and it makes you feel small, but in a good way; it humbles you.

WW: Prior to moving to the U.S., did you have any preconceived notions about Americans or their way of life?

DK: Not really. I'd always wanted to come here, ever since I was eleven-years-old. For a while, I was just concentrating on getting here, and now that am, I'm just really happy about it. You know, I got obsessed with blues, and I just wanted to move here because this is where all my heroes come from, really. Most of influences are American, so, yeah.

But before coming out here, I heard that Americans were very, very friendly people, and I found that to be completely true. Everyone here is very warm and very gracious with their time; it's just wonderful.

WW: How was it working with such a legendary musician like Peter Frampton?

He's such a lovely, lovely guy. I just learned so much from him. It was just an honor to have him produce the album and play on it.

WW: How did you get him to produce and play on the album?

We actually have a mutual friend in Nashville who told me that Peter was doing co-writes, and he asked me if I would be up for that, and I was like, 'Uh, yeah!' [laughs] It took a little while for us to actually get in the same room together because we were both out on the road, but when we did, we got on so well instantly. We wrote three songs together, two are on the album, and I asked him if he wanted to produce those songs and he agreed. As we started talking about the sounds and feel of those three songs, he was just describing exactly how I wanted my album to sound, so I asked him to do the bulk of it, and so we cranked out an album.

WW: Did he have any advice about the industry or general life advice?

DK: He basically said that following your gut is absolutely the best thing to do in every situation. He said he found himself in so many situations where people basically decided things for him, even though he felt it was the wrong thing to do.

WW: Your latest album has been getting great reviews, and critics have been comparing you to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. What do you think of all this success?

DK: It's really nice and really flattering, but it's complete lunacy; it's crazy. I don't know. I just try not to read anything about my music. I just kind of put my head down and keep going, and if people like it, that's great.

Right. I mean, people have called you the next great guitar prodigy. Does this kind of praise put pressure on you?

DK: Uh... I don't know. I'd say no because, again, I just try to ignore it. People will put labels on you no matter what because that's what people do. But I just try to avoid it.

WW: Why Blues? Have you considered exploring any other genre?

DK: Absolutely. I'm a fan of all sorts of music, but Blues is the one that has just really stuck with me, and it's the kind of music I get the most feel out of. But I really do enjoy all sorts of music. I'm a huge, huge fan of the American '60s/'70s songwriter movement, when they started mixing American folk with acoustic guitar music. I'm a huge fan of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, James Taylor and people like that. I think that music is just so beautiful because it is so raw. There's no fancy production on that stuff, it's just beautiful song craft, and I really get off on it.

It's interesting you mention that specific genre because that's the exact kind of sound I was reminded of when listening to the track "Amber's Song."

DK: Exactly. When we were recording it, I really wanted that '60s-'70s acoustic thing. I didn't really want to go crazy on the production of it.

WW: You have a very mature and intense voice that is pretty impressive, but you've said vocals have always been a tough thing for you. Why is that?

DK: Well, I've been playing guitar for so long, and I haven't been singing as long. It's tough because if people don't like your guitar playing that's cool because, you know, there's a piece of wood and six strings between you and the people. But if people don't like your singing, it's almost as if they don't like you (laughs), because that it is you... it's completely you, and there's nothing you can do or change about that.

WW: Have you gotten a little more comfortable with your singing?

DK: I don't think so. [laughs] I don't think I ever will because it's such a tough thing to do. It's frightening.

WW: If you weren't making music, what do you think you'd be doing?

DK: [laughs] Probably living out of a cardboard box somewhere.

Davey Knowles & Backdoor Slam perform at 12:15 p.m. this Saturday, July 18 at the Mile High Music Festival in the Westword Tent.

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Josh Ezpinoza