Try though you might, you will likely have a very hard time slapping a label on Vincent Knobil’s music.
Is it pop, or is it punk? Satire? Folk? Rock, or rockabilly? Is it cabaret? Or maybe vaudeville? Most of his lyrics are in English, but there are plenty of chansons françaises too.
“Is he for real?” you may ask yourself. The answer is “Yes.”
Many find Vincent to be a brilliant melodist and lyricist. There are others who, by virtue of the fact that they can’t quite peg it, find his music disconcerting. But he doesn’t mind that a bit:
“There are basically two kinds of listeners: those who like to be surprised, and those who don't, the latter group outnumbering the first by several orders of magnitude. I belong to the first group, and I can't listen to – or write – music that doesn't surprise me, or I lose interest...”
What about you? Do you like surprises?
J.S. Bach, The Beatles, Carla Bley, Serge Gainsbourg, Nino Rota, Erik Satie, Franz Schubert, Kurt Weill, Frank Zappa
Aksak Maboul, The B-52's, Boris Vian, Etienne Charry, The Divine Comedy, Danny Elfman, George Gershwin, Gonzales, Richard Gotainer, Albert Marcœur, Harry Nilsson, Renaldo and the Loaf, Django Reinhardt, The Residents, Snakefinger, Talking Heads, Tuxedomoon, Rufus Wainwright, Robert Wyatt, XTC...
Early 80s: Fancy free.
Cutting school and staying out all night, reveling and partaking in the anarchy of the Brussels music scene.
In those days, the city drew musicians from all over the world – real artists who wanted to shred the envelope, like San Francisco’s Tuxedomoon, or Vincent’s friend the philharmonic flautist who took his punk band at least as seriously. It was all like that. He and his crowd composed and experimented, mixing metaphors and influences in blissful liberty.
The prevailing musical culture reflected the culturally heterogeneous city and the times, and he naïvely took for granted that this was the norm – that musicians everywhere were in it for the music first, any kind of music, no churches or sects, no rules. After leaving Brussels, he never found that again, anywhere. But because he spent his formative musical years there, he was infected with freedom, and it informs everything he does to this day.
“Hanging out with fearless experimental artists and bands like Aksak Maboul. Their music, in particular the album 11 danses pour combattre la migraine, was a major influence.”
“Despite the fact that I had hand-written tons of music on staff paper, from silly songs to complex chamber music, I couldn’t sight-read music, so I wasn’t accepted into the music conservatory.”
Late 80s: Rude awakening.
Here we have the proverbial tale of the wide-eyed boy in New York City, grooving on the architecture, the arts, the vibe, the newyorkness of it all. It was the city’s energy that fed his creativity during this most prolific period to date.
When not busing tables or bartending, he played his sax, sometimes with a band. But he and the lead singer were a bit too unconventional on stage for the other members, who eventually quit. At about this time, he began focusing his energies on composing and recording with his Mac and MIDI keyboard, which gave him the freedom to create without external constraints.
His enchantment with New York wore off after a few years, as he became disillusioned with America – its religiosity, materialism, individualism, conservatism in every sense… As a result, his later New York work was darker. One such example is his most ambitious project of that period, Appliance Intelligence. He wrote the words and music of this one-act musical play to the rhythm of his footsteps as he walked the streets of New York City. Its haunting melodies and subtle lyrics tell the poignant story of a sentient computer. It is, at the same time, a biting commentary on American values.
“Opening for the Fleshtones at the Peppermint Lounge. Also, getting my first Mac and discovering midi, which meant I no longer needed to find musicians to play the music that was in my head.”
“I stood on a street corner for an entire day playing my sax and didn’t make enough money for a subway token home.”
90s: The prodigal son returns.
By the time Vincent returned to Paris, where he was born, he was a full-fledged geek.
In his off time, he wrote an interactive computer program, Peek-a-boo, for his toddler son. He designed it so that the baby could make exciting things happen, anywhere within the program, just by hitting the keyboard. (This baby now prefers the Latin version of Facebook.) Vincent's own music – and covers of nursery rhymes and perennial childhood favorites like Frère Jacques – made up the soundtrack.
Using Peek-a-boo as a calling card, Vincent got into multimedia, which was still in its infancy at the time. The studio where he worked was an award-winning pioneer in the industry, and he once again found himself surrounded by independent and creative minds. The field tapped into his affinities for music, art, and IT, and he thrived in this brave new world.
He continued to compose at home, mastering increasingly complex professional software, but he also taught himself to play the guitar, just in case the opportunity arose for him to play his music with other musicians again.
“The Peek-a-boo CD-ROM was published and distributed in Europe and North America.”
“The American publisher asked me to put underwear on Peek-a-boo for the prudish US market.”
21st century: Anarchy redux.
On the Web, a haven and forum for non-conformists and misfits, Vincent regularly encounters open-minded musicians and artists all over the world who, like him, chafe at rules.
He collaborates with kindred musical spirits online, handing off a track or lyrics from one to the next to build on, which results in distinctive experimental works. He is a founding member of the virtual group Remote Possibility, created by Matt Love – once a fixture in the Seattle grunge scene – who now lives in Canada and plays a mean kazoo.
For years, Vincent’s music has been sprinkled all over the Web. That’s how independent filmmakers, artists and businesses have found him and asked to use his music in a variety of ways. He’s still laughing about the fact that the closing fanfare from Dark Indigo, a harsh criticism of American bellicosity, was used as the soundtrack of the wipe-out segment of a snowboarding movie. As you can imagine, he rather enjoys the incongruity.
Nonetheless, it was this scattered state of things that finally inspired him to design and build this showcase site.
Written by Pamela Poole in 2009
“Yann Le Bihan, a musician, activist and fan in La Réunion, kindly had his mother in Nice mail me a MIDI controller after reading a blog post in which I lamented the loss of my old one. Also, collaborating with highly experimental musician Matt Love and Remote Possibility.”
“I was contacted by an independent label (alternative/punk/rock) in the US about using Dinosaur for the final track of a compilation CD, but then they were hit by four hurricanes in the space of six weeks and I never heard from them again.”