By: Eamon Foley
"Fame? We don't have any fame!"
That was the chuckled response of Davy Knowles, lead guitarist and singer of Back Door Slam, a precocious, young blues band with a fast-growing reputation. Drawing comparisons to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, they demonstrate a maturity and skill that belies their average age of 20 years.
| Back Door Slam by Adrian Cowin|
They hail from the Isle of Man, a Celtic island nestled between Ireland and England, and take their name from a funky Robert Cray track from 2003's Time Will Tell. Along with bassist Adam Jones and drummer Ross Doyle, Knowles is part of a trio of talented young musicians with a sound that suggests an altogether older band. Over the last few months they've been promoting their debut album Roll Away (released June 26 through Blix Street) with heavy touring across the United States and at home, including a gig supporting The Who.
Knowles is the undisputed star, backed by a solid rhythm section that underpins his fast, nasty licks. After a few years spent gigging, they're a tight unit that's gradually building a following.
"We're a live band more than a recording band. It's where we feel most comfortable, what we've been doing the longest," says Knowles. "All three of us have been gigging for a long time. It's where we are represented best and where we get the biggest kick."
"We all went to school together. I had been playing in bands since I was 14, always as a member of other people's bands but I wanted to have my own band. Ross, I knew was a jazz drummer, and I thought that was close enough! The original bassist left the band in order to attend university, and that's where Adam came in."
That might sound haphazard, where three friends got together to pursue the dream of being rock stars, but they've worked hard developing their sound and putting in the long, lonely miles on the road.
"Music has always been my focus, always my dream," offers Knowles. "So it was an incredibly easy decision. I've been fortunate enough to work with people who improved me and still do. I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to do this. A lot of kids ten times more talented than me don't get this chance, and it's sad."
| Davy Knowles - Back Door Slam|
By Adrian Cowin
This humility - and a fine sense of humor - shone through during our chat. Knowles is excited and is clearly enjoying the ride he's on. On more than one occasion he mentions being grateful for the opportunities he's had and this past "incredible year." On stage, he acknowledges applause with genuine, almost sheepish appreciation, delivered in a mumbled, English brogue. It's almost as if he struggles to grasp his situation and how he's gotten there, despite his obvious talents and the energy he's invested.
"I was lucky and launched into it straight out of school. We took a year off to get our head around things and see if we could do it. Me, Ross and the original bassist moved to England, moved in with our manager and toured for four months. After that things took off for us."
BDS has set out to do it the old school way, clocking up live gigs while slowly building a reputation and a core of fans. Unlike the many bands winning run-of-the-mill competitions and getting lucky on the web, it's nice to see a group busting their balls and getting success from having worked for it.
I first came across BDS while wandering the grounds at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Liking what I heard I stopped to check out a song or two and ended up watching their entire set. They have an amazing, honest energy that grabs you upon first listen and refuses to let go. That day, in the unforgiving Texas heat, they jolted me from my lethargy better than any coffee hit. Their set-closer was a powerful, fresh version of Hendrix's "Red House" (a regular part of their live repertoire), which they rammed home in a way the man himself would have approved of.
Onstage, there's more than a hint of stated influence Rory Gallagher in Knowles' lightning fast fingers, and Hendrix is present in the unpretentious focus on his craft. Having said that, he's not the flashiest frontman around, lacking the panache of either Jimi or Gallagher. Instead he keeps it simple, letting his vocals do the talking and his fingers glide all over his strings. For such a young man, his vocals convey a surprising depth, emotionally vivid like Ten-era Eddie Vedder.
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Mark Knopfler. Hearing the "Sultans of Swing" was a turning point for me. It was then that I decided I wanted to play guitar.
Besides, Rory Gallagher, he cites an eclectic mix of influences. "Mark Knopfler. Hearing the 'Sultans of Swing' was a turning point for me. It was then that I decided I wanted to play guitar," offers Knowles. "Also early Eric Clapton and John Mayall. He was a really aggressive guitar player, different to the style of Knopfler, who was very laidback. When I found Rory it was a huge thing for me. The guy had everything – the acoustic folk, the Celtic influence, the rock."
These influences are clearly heard on the band's debut. There in the classic blues longing of "Real Man" to more mellow, Clapton-esque acoustic numbers like "Too Good For Me" and "Roll Away." The album is predominately a demonstration of Knowles' songwriting abilities but a gritty, rollicking version of Blind Joe Reynolds' "Outside Woman Blues" is a standout - all wailing licks that spur you to dust off your air guitar and best frontman grimace.
| Back Door Slam by Dave Armstrong|
However, it's not all down-and-dirty blues. Live, their sound is driven but the album suggests they're comfortable playing acoustic, too. "I love playing the acoustic guitar. It's such a pure instrument. What I like about it is that if you screw up everyone hears you. You can't hide behind distortion or effects," Knowles says.
Being a live band first and foremost, they struggled a bit to transfer their sound to the studio. "It's very difficult. We've done our best but there's definitely room to improve," says Knowles. "It's really hard, you've got to concentrate and try and get the same adrenaline buzz. A relaxed environment helps. The best thing is when we're confident and know what we are going to go in and do. It comes off best then."
Their sound appeals to older blues music enthusiasts, while their age should attract younger fans that may be unfamiliar with Stevie Ray Vaughan. "Absolutely, it's the nature of the music that older fans are drawn [to it]. It's the kind of thing they're into," comments Knowles. "We're lucky where we've been playing to quite a mixed, fantastically varied audience, but we have to be kind of careful not to lose the younger side."
His humility stems in large part from the impact the death of two friends in a car crash in 2004 had on him. The day we chatted would have been the 21st birthday of Brian Garvey, the original rhythm guitarist. In the aftermath of that tragedy he wrote the acoustic "Stay," an emotional, heartfelt tribute.
"It was horrible. It changes everything. They were two of my best friends. It's a very emotional song for me still. We've been playing it for three years and it has never lost its meaning. Ever," comments Knowles. "It made me grow up and realize that if I want do something I have to go ahead and do it. I've got to do it and work to do it because as quickly as it has come about it could all go. It has helped put things in perspective."
| Back Door Slam by Dave Armstrong|
Music is often at its best when it offers us a comforting shoulder; a place to rest when life is mean and it seems no one is around for us. His ability to transmute his life, even at its hardest, into music shows Knowles understands this. "I'm still feeling my way, really," he says. "I've been playing guitar now for nine years, singing for four, but writing is still fairly new to me. I'm still trying to get better."
It's not all tough though, judging by the band's manner on stage, they're enjoying the journey.
"It's definitely good times. The novelty does wear off, being cooped up in a van, but it's good fun," offers Knowles. "I got to meet Steve Earle backstage at ACL. I was carrying my mandolin and he said to me, 'Is that a mandolin case, boy? Are you sure you want to play that? 'Cause you're never gonna be rich and you'll always be out of tune!'"
Knowles has many years of the grind ahead of him before he'll be considered a great but his talent and nature suggests it's just a matter of time before Knowles can quote Cray's lyric from the track that inspired their moniker: "And when I play guitar, they all know my name."
"We want to go on creating our own sound and gathering a fan base so that we can make a proper living," says Knowles. "That's what we're working towards."
Back Door Slam tour dates available here...
JamBase | Isle of Man
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