Sandy McKnight – Voicetracking the Soundtrack
Written by Liam Sweeny on October 24, 2019
The modern world, in many ways, is a created thing. Not getting religious or philosophical, just saying that every graphic, every jingle, every eight-thirty a.m. pre-work cranker was created. Yes, yes, your favorite band, but more than that; the world as we know it is propped up by names that appear in the liner notes of history.
Sandy McKnight is a personality in his own right, but just like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, most of his accomplishments are beneath the surface. His past experiences in the world that props up the cool one is best told in volumes.
Today I sit down with Sandy and discuss the state of creation and other fun things.
RRX: You just released a book called Kid 69. I’ve got my eye on it at the River Street Beat Shop, though I’m sure it is other places to, and probably available at the standard listing of retailers. So what is the scoop on the book? Give a taste to the word-starved.
SM: Actually, that’s one of the few brick and mortar places it can be found. Physical distribution isn’t my priority, so much as making it ubiquitous on the internet. Amazon is king, especially for books. My own merch site, sandymcknight.com, is also a good place to find it, although I love supporting local shops like River Street Beat. Problem is, some shops don’t particularly support local artists, whether they be musicians or writers or what have you (my category).
‘Kid 69’ was something I had to write, because it was getting annoying repeating all the anecdotes at parties. So now, when things get dull in social settings, I just pull out the book and hand it to people. When one gets older (which I understand is inevitable), one has stories. Not always ‘book-worthy’ ones, but experiences that are unique to them. Mine happened to take place in a backdrop of societal chaos, sea-change (doubloons?), and iconic events like Woodstock. So, on the 50th anniversary of all this important stuff, I felt the need to give a new perspective to the oft-discussed, oft-misunderstood era. Instead of stepping back and pontificating from a historical perch, I decided to tell it as it happened, and let the reader bring their own judgement, and decide about my behavior, and the behavior of my peers, in the context of the times. Some people who read it seem annoyed with me afterwards, because I did some ‘bad’ stuff. Some book it’d be if I only wrote about the good! But some readers mistakenly take my description of my misadventures as some sort of endorsement of those behaviors, 50 years later. To those readers, I say ‘what were YOU up to when you were 15?’. I dare you to write about it, without fictionalization, PC rethinks, or excuses. That was my goal, and as such I think it’s an honest book about a well-meaning but dopey 15/16-year-old kid in the midst of a time of world-altering change, along with his own ‘coming-of-age’ tribulations, who is me.
Look for the major motion picture, coming soon.
What was the question again?
RRX: I love your videos. It’s funny how they shape the perception in a way, like those who watched the Kennedy-Nixon debate thought Kennedy won, but those who only heard it thought Nixon won. That said, would you rather someone come across one of your videos first, or the song for that video first?
SM: I’d rather they make the videos! It’s very time-consuming, and not what I want to be doing. But, having said that, I recognize that in today’s competitive music scene, one must share their vision on as many levels and platforms as possible. And for the techies out there, I use freeware to edit, and, like any limited tool, it forces you to be creative in different ways, like George Martin and the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper. In fact, at one point, I linked 2 computers together, cut the hard drives into tiny pieces. flung them in the air and reattached them, changed the speed on one, and…
RRX: To bounce on the music videos again (sorry, I love videos,) your composition, with that vintage forties-fifties footage mixed with modern film cuts, interspersed with the playing; it just complements the groove that I hear in your songs. I mean, some of that footage is just out there. Is there a story or a method to the cuts, and how they fit with the playing?
SM: Thanks for your kind words! When creating a new video, I try to envision a narrative concept that expresses the subliminal as well as the ‘liminal’ (is that a word?) meaning of the lyric, along with the musical vibe, and then find ‘found footage’ (as opposed to losing it) online that I can steal utilize creatively. Rhythmic synchronicity occurs mostly by accident, or maybe due to some inner mechanism I don’t fully understand.
RRX: You wear a lot of hats, and you’ve been everywhere. You can throw a sessions crew like a dispatcher can send out cabs on New Year’s Eve. I think most people know that musicians aren’t exactly Buddhist monks. Creative people in general have big personalities. So how do you wrangle all the stars into working constellations?
SM: Well, the hat thing started when I developed a bald spot in my 30s. But, all seriousness aside, I wear hats out of necessity, not egomaniacal-ness. When I started out recording, I was offered free studio time in a great facility in Brooklyn. So, being broke but with a wealth of free opportunities, I learned how to make records. I eventually learned the art of producing, though much of the craft still eludes me. I really don’t care about knobs and meters (or waveforms and virtual sliders, for your younger readers). I’m old school in the sense that it’s my vision that clients pay for not my technical expertise. I figure techies are a dime a dozen (although really good ones are rare), but visionaries can always find a gig. As far as having been ‘everywhere’, again it was only because I wasn’t making much headway in New York, so I tried London, and when that didn’t work I tried L.A., and so on. Persistence is even more important than vision, in terms of eventual success. In terms of stars working with/for me, I’ve been lucky to have access to some of my favorite players through the years. The trick, once you get them, is to not keep them hanging around too long. Have an idea before you enter the studio, and ask them to realize that vision. It’s usually a pleasure working with great musicians, because whatever you can hear in your head is bound to be even better when you put it in the hands of skilled players. If I may drop a few names, I particularly loved working with Graham Maby, my favorite bassist, and John Platania, who is Van Morrison’s guitar guy. Some time, privately, I’ll tell you which players I didn’t enjoy working with.
RRX: Sandy, you’re such a high-output person. Over five-hundred recorded songs, writing, directing, graphic design, radio, labels… This list doesn’t really do justice. I’m nowhere near where you are, but I understand the urge to branch out, both in expression and vocation. What area is the “hat you wear,” and what areas are the pins on that hat?
SM: If I understand your question, my real thing is songwriting. Everything else I do comes from that. Producing, because, as I explained earlier, I had to. Writing musicals was a way to find new outlets for my songwriting. Directing my own TV series ideas, which usually have a music component, was also out of necessity. I even became a radio DJ in the late 80s, thinking I might find some satisfaction curating music soundscapes. I started ‘22 records’, my label, in order to learn the biz from the inside out. I got into graphic design because I didn’t want to pay for visual ideas I wasn’t in love with. The only exception to the songwriting connection was when I started writing sketch comedy. I did that because I’m just a goofball.
RRX: This question piggybacks off of the one above. Being multi-focused doesn’t necessarily mean you have a video-recording memory. We have devices, tricks, whether they’re notebooks or computer programs, or they’re some daily schedule. Would you care to, if not reveal your organizational toolkit, at least explain a thing or two that might help someone else?
SM: Sorry to disappoint, but I have no organizational methodology whatsoever. Because of this weakness in the lobe that controls those talents, I’ve had to learn new methods to realize my visions. For example, most film directors storyboard, do a shot by shot breakdown of the script, etc. I have no patience for such structure. And so, I’ve learned how to use other tools, like instinct, fearlessness of failure, and collaboration. In the studio, I often rely on engineers who aren’t afraid of trying unorthodox approaches to recording. Depending on the project, I gauge my approach by my sense of what would work for that particular artist. Some artists want a lot of input, while others simply want to have me around to communicate to the engineer, or to coach vocal performances, or tell them how great they are. Since they pay me, it’s their call. I don’t force my vision on anyone, but it is important to have an idea at the ready, even if it isn’t used in the end.
I’ve also been around enough well-organized people in the arts to have gleaned some techniques from watching them be methodical. Having that framework in my head, even if I don’t follow it strictly, allows me to be a little more fearless when winging it.
RRX: We live in a world that’s struggling to catch up to the rapid advancement of media. Somewhere I heard that the human brain hasn’t evolved much past the hunter-gathers, yet we have virtual reality about to go big. In your experience as a ‘one-stop-shop’ creative, do you ever see the strain in what we can do creatively versus what we can appreciate creatively?
SM: I feel lucky to have experienced the creative freedom of the 60s, as a listener/audience member. The beauty of that time, when no rules were being obeyed, influenced my approach to a great degree. People like Frank Zappa inspired me to take chances. He used the latest technology, but seemed to always have his own way of using it to present his unique vision. His mix of ambitious arrangements, non-conventional composition and instrumentation, and his willingness to be serious about not taking himself seriously, all taught me that art is not a science. In fact, most technologically-driven projects bore me, whether it’s music, film or whatever. One of my favorite movies of all time is “Putney Swope”, a 1969 film by Robert Downey Sr. It is one of the sloppiest, most chaotic, and weirdest movies ever made, but it’s got that ‘vision’ thing, and I’m a sucker for that more than anything. Is Ringo a great drummer? No. Is he one of the best drummers in rock history? Yes. See my point?