Chris Kniker is the lead songwriter and driver behind the industrial-rock collective known as Primitive Race. The band released their sophomore album, Soul Pretender, on November 3rd, a much different album from the group’s debut. Part of reason for that stylistic shift is the addition of lead vocals from ex-Faith No More singer Chuck Mosley and Melvins drummer Dale Crover. Six days after the release of the album, on November 9th, Mosley passed away. mxdwn had the opportunity to Kniker about Primitive Race, Soul Pretender, his love of obscure Seattle band Gruntruck and his friendship with Chuck Mosley.
mxdwn: Primitive Race works as a collective, but for Soul Pretender, how did you end up recruiting Chuck Mosley and Dale Crover?
Chris Kniker: For Chuck, it was pretty easy — we have known each other for 17 years off and on. I was making this record with Erie Loch and Mark Thwaite and I had a definite vision. I was already writing the music, things were moving along, and it was a situation where Chuck and Doug Esper were on their Re-introduce Yourself Tour in Colorado Springs in June of 2016. I went down to see the band and see Chuck, and wanted to catch up — I wasn’t thinking along the lines of him working on Primitive Race. I shared with him what we were doing and the next day he called me up, real excited, ‘Maybe I could guest on a couple of songs,’ and usually that’s what this band is. I have a friend here or there that will help me out to do a song. But with Chuck it just kept going, and he had a ton of ideas and was really into it. So, we kept rolling with it and it worked.
With Dale, I originally had a guy set up to do the drums but he was working on another record and just didn’t have time to dig into Primitive Race. At that point I began to reevaluate where the record was and how it was coming along. The first guy on my list, if I could get anybody on the record that could deliver the type of elements that these songs need, it would be Dale Crover. One of my best friends is a guy named Mark Brooks from a band called Warlock Pinchers. They were labelmates with the Melvins way back on Boner Records and I mentioned it to Mark, “Hey, do you think Dale would be into Primitive Race?” I’m also friends with Toshi Kasai, who does a lot of production and mixing with the Melvins and also works with Dale on other projects. I reached out to Toshi, and Mark went to Dale and within a couple of days he said “send over the sessions.”
Dale was fucking rad. They knocked the record out in one weekend. I really didn’t want this record to be super fine tuned, quantized and overly polished to where it was a perfect record. Everything could be straight to the grid, 100%, but sometimes with real drums there is some swing in there and that’s when I like to say that the record breathes, and when it’s alive. I think that sometime you lose something in there when everything has to be perfect. That was part of my inspiration for this record. When you are doing an industrial album and everything is programmed and snapped to the grid just so, that’s cool… but I wanted to take some of the elements and things that I really liked on the first record and dive deeper into those parts and focus in those areas.
mxdwn: The first Primitive Race record is such an industrial juggernaut — you veer into more of a rock sound with Soul Pretender, was that shift in direction intentional?
CK: It was a conscious decision. When I started in late 2015, I just started thinking about what I wanted to do an where I wanted to go. Looking back at the first record, there were songs on that one that would completely fit on the new record like “Below Zero,” “Addict Now,” “Give Up the Ghost;” those songs could be on Soul Pretender. No doubt there was a big shift between the two records. I wanted to play more with the idea of live drums and not ‘everything is inside the box.’ I wanted there to be a punk rock, raw, let-it-feel-alive feeling to the record.
I really wanted those big, loud drums. Not programmed drums. Not that there’s anything wrong with programmed drums. You can get crazy sounds with programmed drums, but there is also something to be said for what a person sitting down behind a kit can do. I wanted Thwaite to have some freedom and not have such a defined focus guitar-wise. I think that went we sent things over to him, I think it opened up an area, sonically, [in which] we were able to do some different things and it was really fun.
We also had several different singers on the first record and a lot of different things going on that. It certainly was a collective. In some ways the first record was uneven. The songs were really good, but the record bounces around all over the place. I love that collection of songs, but it felt more of a compilation than an album. I really wanted an album feel on Soul Pretender where you sit down and listen to the record from point A all the way through to the end. It’s a cohesive body of work. And Chuck having that voice really brought that element into it. It was punk rock and it was gritty, but it also has this really cool crooning type of thing to it to.
mxdwn: There were parts of the record where Chuck Mosley’s voice is almost unrecognizable, especially on the song “Take it All”…
CK: Part of that, to your point, in kind of staying with that industrial-ish foundation that Mark, Erie, and I have — meaning that we would add just a touch of harmonic distortion to his vocals in certain spots. We wouldn’t take it completely over the top, but a little thing here and there doesn’t hurt. I talked to Chuck about that. When he gets going on “Take It All,” and he’s really going for it at the end there. That was totally punk. There was a gravelly tone that he is able to conjure up. I don’t think there was anyone that sounded like Chuck did.
mxdwn: Were there any plans to tour the record live after it was released?
CK: We weren’t going to tour, but in the days before Chuck passed we talked about it. As the record was coming together there became a growing feeling that we have a format here that we could play the songs live. Like, these songs could be played live. The first record would have been a logistical nightmare with 10 different people from all over the world on it. How do you make that happen?
This was a completely different thing. The songs lend themselves to being played live. We had plans to do a few shows in LA and San Francisco, or maybe New York and Boston on a weekend, but without Chuck…. It’s not like you go to the Walmart of rock singers and pick a Chuck Mosley off the shelf. I think about trying to play the songs live as a tribute to Chuck and I think what the songs would look like and sound like… and I just don’t know. The way those songs were sung, he put a lot of soul into that. How do you replace that? Not to say that it can’t be done, there are plenty of bands out there that do it and do it really well. William Duvall with Alice In Chains is amazing… The new guy that Stone Temple Pilots has is great. But we’re not even a month into Chuck’s passing.
And it’s so fresh because that was part of the last conversation I had with Chuck. He was so excited. Some of the initial reviews coming it were pretty positive. People were really enjoying it. In doing press, I really have taken this stance that I’m gonna celebrate Chuck. I’m very open and honest. I want people to understand the Chuck that I knew… There is a lot more to the story with Chuck than what people saw in the news.
mxdwn: How did you end up in the music business?
CK: I started out doing journalism for my student paper in high school. I really didn’t have a good place to fit in and that’s what high school is all about. I wasn’t goth enough for the goth kids, I wasn’t sporty enough for the sporty kids, but I always loved music. Like, instead of going to homecoming I went up to Boulder, Colorado, to Club 186 to watch a band called The Letches, which were this insane punk band from Boulder.
But I was really consistent doing the journalism stuff. If you tell a 17 year old high school kid that ‘if you write about bands, and you’re good enough, you get free concert tickets and CDs,’ it was like winning the lottery. So I just kept doing it. Eventually I got a call from one of the labels that had a band I wrote about. His name was Rudy and he was the Director of College Radio for Priority Records in their rock department. He needed an intern for the mountain region to do college radio promotion. Mind you I had no idea what any of this was. The whole world of music opened up for me after that, music that I would have never otherwise been exposed to.
I also did some A&R for a small label on the East Coast, which is where I met Chuck Mosley. He was working on the Vandals Against illiteracy solo record in 1999/2000. And I wanted to sign him to the label. He was about halfway through the record, recording it in Cleveland at the same place as Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The music industry was in a really weird place at that time with the start of Napster and online music streaming. Labels and artists began looking at each other as partners. We exchanged the demos but unfortunately, we didn’t sign him. The record did see the light of day about 10 years later, which was awesome because Jonathan Davis did a song and John 5 was on a song. It was pretty cool to hear the finished product.
From there I began working with the Ministry camp and the Revolting Cocks, and I was asked to put a remix record together for Prong. And Prong is one of my most favorite bands ever. So… I was as starstruck as a 13 year old kid getting to work with Tommy Victor. That was probably one of the most fun I’ve had in the music business. I managed the band for a short period of time as well.
mxdwn: What was the catalyst to starting Primitive Race?
CK: That’s a very interesting question, I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes guy. I wanted to sit down and write some songs and it just so happens that I met some incredible musicians along the way. I go to do this in a way that not everyone else has experienced.
What came along with that was the other side. On the first record, I found myself feeling that I was on the sidelines. Who am I to tell these seasoned musicians to play something different? I didn’t have that voice and was very intimidated by the process. So then the record comes out and people love it and I feel great about that and when people hate it, it was a soul-crushing experience. Through all that, what I learned was that I was not writing a record for someone else to enjoy, I’m writing the record that I enjoy. If other people enjoy it, it’s like a bonus gift. I had to go into the new record with the idea that I might fail. If I were to do another Primitive Race record, which I can’t tell you I am right now, it could be that we are going to do jugs and harps on the front porch, and that’s what I feel like doing this time. It was a really interesting metamorphosis being the guy on one side of the desk versus being the guy on the other. Just a really interesting experience.
mxdwn: What is the one record that you would take to the grave?
CK: There is a band from Seattle, didn’t make it nearly as big as the rest, but are fucking awesome called Gruntruck. That band, and Ben McMillan the singer of that band, is the reason why wanted to be in music. When I was 15 years old, I went to a show where the bill was Alice In Chains, Screaming Trees and Gruntruck — a great tour. I’d never heard of Gruntruck, but they were signed to Roadrunner Records. I heard that band play and fell in love with them.
We went to their show in Denver, and I remember Ben McMillan standing outside the venue smoking a cigarette and just talking to me like I was one of his buddies. Mind you that I’m some dipshit teenager, but I left the venue that night on fire to find a way to be in the music business. I didn’t know what that was going to look like, but Ben from Gruntruck really cemented that image. Unfortunately he passed away, but I wished he was still alive so I could tell him that he was the reason that I am doing this interview right now.