Formidable, subtly majestic surges of ensnaring energy define Piecework, the new, full-length album from the Oakland, California area’s long-running post-metal group Kowloon Walled City.
The noisy but atmospheric record—out this October from Neurot Recordings and Gilead Media—proves immensely weighty, in terms of both its physicality and the starkly compelling nature of its compositions.
There’s an intricately crafted, personal perspective that looms at its center, as Piecework sounds massive, but it’s not overwhelming. Instead, the album settles on (metaphorically or literally!) looking out across an expanse, as though pondering existential limits and becoming, in a perhaps surprising way, at peace. There are moments of profound stillness on the album, at least in terms of the glacial, doomy music with which Kowloon Walled City work.
It’s a remarkably full sound. The compositional breadth contained within Piecework and the bulky tones with which Kowloon Walled City perform suggest comparisons to natural environments, as though they’re soundtracking a trek through a dusty plain. Alternatively, listening through Piecework suggests scenarios like suddenly waking up on a creaking boat getting thrown about by gradually intensifying waves. The grandiose undertones of the album communicate security alongside entrancing theatrics.
While the distant horizon and the omens that it brings stay prominent within the Kowloon Walled City sound on Piecework, the band also appear focused within this metaphorical environment on the immediate path ahead. The crashing rhythms are poignant, summoning freeing feelings of open-ended awareness.
Overall, the music—while wildly heavy—is neither broadly incinerating nor personally suffocating. Instead, the dynamics suggest a liveliness quite connected to the real world. When the music gets going into particular intensity, like towards the conclusion of “Oxygen Tent,” the exhilaration feels unmissable. The album is uneasy yet forcefully powerful.
Below, check out what Kowloon Walled City vocalist and guitarist Scott Evans and guitarist Jon Howell have to say about Piecework, from the beauty of an impressive guitar part to the possibilities contained within what some might characterize as “failure.”
Since it’s been some time since your last record, how do you feel now that this new one is ready to share with the world?
Howell: Very excited. This is a fun band. I love all the guys in this band, and so to be able to put this thing out in the world finally, and people get to see it, and we get to see how people respond to what we tried to do different, which hopefully will be somewhat noticeable for folks who are hearing it—it’s just exciting. And also, coming out of COVID and having a record, it feels really good. It feels like at least one step back towards normalcy, even if things are never going to be fully normal again. It’s the thing that we did before all of this, and we still get to do it now.
Evans: I wouldn’t say I’m excited about releasing anything to the world or people hearing it, exactly. We as a band were kind of creatively blocked for a while, and a lot of it was on me. And to me, getting through that is relieving and heartening. It really feels good to feel like, hey, this band is ready to fire on all cylinders again. I’m more interested at this point, I guess, in writing another record than anything else. And it feels like that’s possible. And for a while, we were pretty blocked up on getting this done. And it was a weird, uncomfortable, in-between state that I sort of forced everyone to live with for a few years.
For the new record, is there something that comes to mind that you really wanted to dial into, sonically speaking? For instance, is there a specific sound—in a broad, general sense—that you really wanted to capture on this album?
Evans: When we started writing these songs, Jon and I were trying to get across a similar mood and set of emotions maybe, musically, but presented with a different timbre. So, we were trying to clean things up, make it a little clankier, and more naked, and that was very challenging. In the end, I think we kind of failed, but it was an OK failing, you know? Like, it’s OK to try things and then have it not exactly work out and redirect a little bit. And that’s kind of what we did, but I think the spirit of that idea shows through, in that the songs are a little more spacious. Like they’re a little less claustrophobic, sonically and compositionally.
Howell: When I think of the way that we failed, or maybe one sort of instance where we failed, I would think about the fact that we started trying to do this kind of big, mildly clean but clanky sound. And maybe one way that we failed or maybe redirected is that in some instances we wrote songs, and they were these big, clanky songs, and then all of a sudden you do step on it, and put a little gain in there, a little distortion in there, and you’re like, “OK, that’s actually a little better. All of a sudden, we wrote the songs with this particular aesthetic, and then when we are all in the room, we have these big amps, and we step on a pedal, we’re like, “Oh, that’s a little better, and maybe we should kind of redirect in that way.”
Ultimately, I think it was very effective to write in that way, to write so that the songs were kind of discernible in this kind of clean, open sense, and then adding on distortion or gain in ways that only serve to make the song more interesting, or cooler.
Evans: This is probably the wrong phrase, but I call it keeping a soft brain. Like, you set off in a direction—you might even feel really strongly about it. But you’re still willing to be convinced otherwise. And we do that a lot with songwriting. We’ll start on a song and feel real strongly about it and midway through realize, this wants to be something else, and just scrap big swathes of something that we felt was great and important. And I feel nothing when we do that. It’s fine. It’s just part of it. And I think the important thing is where you end up.
So, on the subject of the intensity of the record, would you say that something like the live experience at shows figures prominently into your approach to the music-making process?
Evans: Our band has always been a ‘band,’ you know? Like we’ve always written songs and then played them— the recordings sound remarkably like our practice recordings. There’s not a lot added on. Whatever we’re thinking about doing when we’re writing or recording is no different than a show for us, basically. It’s all a continuum. And just like when we play shows, we’re not thinking about an audience at all. [laughs] The material just kind of is what it is. The material is for us, and that’s fine.
Howell: We don’t write a heavy section to get heads nodding. We just write a heavy section or a big, beautiful section because we love how it sounds. We are the only sort of relevant audience in the writing, and we hope everyone else likes it.
Evans: I do miss playing shows with this crew. We all have come to a point in our life where we realize we all really value this thing we get to do together. And it has nothing to do with the record or the songs or whatever, but I’ve really realized that being in this band and having these people to make things with—it’s a gift. And I really value it.
Would you say that the emotional impact of the sounds weighs on the ways in which you shape them? Is there something that comes to mind along those lines?
Howell: I would say the answer is no. I would say that when Scott and I are sitting in a room, or when we’re all at a band practice, and we’ve written these big, beautiful chords that kind of go well together, and sound beautiful to us—whether that invokes any other feeling, like an actual feeling, like sadness or something like that, I don’t think that that’s top of mind for us.
We’re just like: this is beautiful, and it’s a little minor key-sounding. The tonality of it, I think, and the pleasure we get from hearing it and experiencing it are the driving factors, rather than actually trying to make something that’s sad or make something that’s aggressive and makes you feel aggressive.
Evans: I think we can say for the last few records that we try and set a few things that we’re trying to fix or change or do. Broadly, we may have that stuff in the back of our mind, like hey, let’s try and chase this vibe a little bit, but I don’t think it’s something that comes into play super specifically with parts or anything.
I was hoping to try and inject a little more hope and positivity, lyrically on this record—I think I also failed at that. But I tried. Turns out that is challenging, and I guess for me at least, I know it’s in there somewhere, and I’m still working on trying to figure out ways to express that well. Writing lyrics is always challenging for me anyway.
So, a bit of a broader question—do you feel particularly connected to or inspired by anything along the lines of noise rock, which admittedly can be quite a broad concept? Or is it more just a matter of doing your own thing, basically?
Howell: There are bands that would fall under noise rock that are meaningful to me in some capacity. But noise rock as a genre, I don’t know that it means much to me. There’s an Ian MacKaye line about how the great thing about punk rock is that it’s an artistic free space, that under that umbrella, anything fits, and that means a lot to me personally. I think every sort of hyphen that you would put around punk in some way or hardcore in some way is just limiting, and that’s not particularly interesting to me. Even if there are amazing bands that would fall within that genre.
So, I’m really sort of fond of punk as a free space, and within that, there’s so much that you can do, because there’s no limitations. You could toss out all the rules; you can do whatever you want; you don’t have to limit yourself in any way. That’s appealing in ways that post-hardcore or noise rock or something—that is less appealing.
It’s weird sometimes for people to expend so much energy arguing about genre labels.
Evans: Heavy music in particular really seems to love that. I guess I’ve never cared about genre. I’m like, yeah, this is electronic bass, or this is rap, or this is loud, or this is acoustic—these very broad groupings of music, and all I’ve ever cared about is, is this great? And so the difference to me between, like, an Oozing Wound record and an Unsane record—they’re all just loud bands to me. I don’t think in terms of [genre]. What I like to think about is, what is PJ Harvey? What genre is that? Or what genre is Sumac? Or what genre is BIG|BRAVE? They’re not genres—they’re bands.
So, one final question: what have y’all been listening to a lot lately?
Howell: The one thing I’ve been listening to a lot is, I finally figured out that I liked the band The Replacements. They’re defunct, obviously, and I’ve just kind of listened to them on and off for years, and then it clicked, and now I kind of can’t get enough. And it’s been great because it’s this very massive discography of theirs that I could dig into and just kind of experience each album. And that’s been great. That and Willie Nelson is kind of everything for me right now.
Evans: I’ve been listening to the Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats record a lot. It’s, like, 20 minutes long. You can listen to it over and over again. It’s fuckin’ amazing. I’ve been listening to the new Low record finally a bunch of times, and it is probably the record of the year. It’s just absolutely jaw-dropping. This band Heads. The Sturgill Simpson bluegrass records, both of them that he put out through the pandemic are fuckin’ amazing. I’ve been listening to the Blade Runner theme slowed down 800 percent on YouTube a lot. I genuinely love it. It sounds like a dumb gimmick, and it’s amazing.
Watch the video for “Piecework” here:
Photo courtesy of Kowloon Walled City and Scott Evans