The Young Knives: Farmer chic - with added angst

The Young Knives play up a fogey image but they don't lack an edge. Charlotte Cripps meets them
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The Independent Culture

The young-farmer look may not be everyone's idea of rock chic but that's what Henry Dartnall, 28, has gone for as the lead singer of the zany punk-pop outfit The Young Knives. Today, the bug-eyed Dartnall's outfit comprises green corduroy trousers, an old and holed tartan shirt, and a maroon tie, all purchased during intense shopping sprees in charity shops across the south of England. "The bigger groups of charity shops, like Oxfam, are getting very dear," he advises sagely. "Try a charity shop run by an independent animal sanctuary."

Dartnall's band mates, his bass-playing younger brother House of Lords (christened Thomas), 27, and drummer Oliver Askew, 28, also look more like young Conservatives than members of one of the hot bands of the moment with two Top 40 hits to their name. But Dartnall maintains that The Young Knives' appalling dress sense is no more contrived than that of the identikit leather-clad rocker.

"We do try quite hard not to look like a standard rock band, because the pose - the sucked-in cheeks, the tight jeans, the leather jackets - is not particularly believable any more," says the singer, who lives just outside Oxford with his wife, in a house with a duck pond. "I think I would look like an idiot dressed like that anyway. I much prefer to look like a young farmer than a rock star."

The iconography that The Young Knives indulge in is a long way from the standard band shot with guitars. A photograph of a Morris dancer at a launderette was chosen for the cover of their first single and one of a bee keeper in a modern kitchen as the artwork for the second. ("The next single has an archer on it," says Dartnall proudly.)

The Whittlesea Straw Bear (a man is dressed in straw who leads a traditional procession through the Cambridgeshire village each January) has been chosen as the cover star for the forthcoming album, Voices of Animals and Men. The website ( www.theyoungknives.com), meanwhile, boasts a good selection of photographs of the trio variously in a hedge, enjoying a picnic, sitting on plastic garden chairs, and loitering in a garden centre.

It follows that TYK make pleasingly surreal pop videos, influenced by Mike Leigh and the surreal Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. For the video for "The Decision", shot on a farm north of Leeds, the band's heads are cooked in pots by the farmer and his wife. "We spent a lot of time living in the countryside as kids," says Dartnall by way of explanation, inadvertently implying that this sort of thing goes on all the time in rural communities.

"Also there is a lot of very brash, ironic imagery around at the moment - this trash aesthetic of ripped jeans - and we wanted to something that was the complete opposite of urban. We come from normal middle-class backgrounds in Leicestershire. Our parents are the kind of people who if they open the door of somebody else's car, they will leave a note. They do everything very correctly."

Despite the band's rural image, the debut album, Voices of Animals and Men, produced by Andy Gill of Gang of Four, suggests that they belong more in the company of the likes of Supergrass and We are Scientists than with The Wurzels. The songs are sung by Dartnall in his home counties accent over clashing guitars and propulsive rhythms that align them musically with the bands they've supported on tour, Dirty Pretty Things, Rakes and Gang of Four.

But the songs are also adorned with magical chorus lines and simmer with the angst and energy of provincial life. Drawing on the fund of inspired pop lyrics fashioned by the likes of Madness, Squeeze and Pulp in the past, Dartnall sings about the everyday areas of life. The single "Here Comes the Rumour Mill", released back in February, recalls the world of dull office jobs that they have not long escaped, while the new single, "She's Attracted to", talks about meeting the girlfriend's parents for the first time - "Who are all these people?/ They are too stupid to be your real parents/ I've met some bone-idles in my time/ But they really take the biscuit."

The lyric of "Weekends and Bleak Days (Hot Summer)", scheduled to be the next single, runs in part, "Hot summer, what a bummer/ Me oh my, think I'm gonna/ Pull a sicky, do a runner."

"The Decision" features a bizarre ethereal chorus line - "The horses in the new forest, are running in their Sunday best" - sung by the trio as though they are opera singers. Dartnall explains that the song is about megalomania and "a manic guy, constantly on the go, set against the imagery of mystical horses running completely free".

"The album is all about the human condition," Dartnall says grandly. "Paranoia, laziness, lust for power, self-obsession are at its core. "

"We are intrigued by what motivates people and human nature," offers Lords.

TKY claim to be influenced more by the likes of Roxy Music and Robert Wyatt than by their peers, "people who did things that seemed a bit strange at first but were also very catchy, to the point where you did understand it," says Lords. "We always produce our own raw and interesting B-sides for every single," says Dartnall. "'Current of the River' [the B-side to "She's Attracted to"] is a more folkie, spiritual song." It is evidence of the trio's collective love of the folk music of The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch. "It is still drum heavy, but perhaps suggests more of the direction we might go in with the second album."

The band formed in 1993, in the market town of Ashby de la Zouch (home to the KP Crisps and United Biscuits factories), in Leicestershire, after Dartnall and Askew met as 14-year-old schoolboys. Once House of Lords (his tendency to constantly veto the band's "great ideas" earned him the nickname) had been recruited, the trio set about coming up with an appropriate band name, going through Kerbed, Simple Pastoral Existence and Pony Club before settling on The Young Knives. The band estimate that they wrote 40 or so songs before playing their first proper gig.

Thereafter, a lot of time was spent playing in village halls and perfecting the farmer-with-a-Strat look. They confess to having particularly bleak memories of playing the silver-wedding anniversary of a friend of Dartnall's mother, in a church hall in 1999.

After moving to Oxfordshire, the band released the mini album The Young Knives Are Dead in 2000 on Shifty Disco. Then in April of last year a demo tape sent to Gill led to the band being signed to his Trangressive Records label. At the time, Dartnall was an account manager, Askew was temping at a computer software company and Lords worked in publishing.

The reception of a tester EP made with Gill, Junkie Music Make My Heart Beat Faster, meant they could hand in their notice.

"When we knew there was a definite chance we were going to leave our jobs," recalls Lords, "it was hard to endure even the last three days. The feeling of relief was beyond belief." The band had previously been "an escapist hobby at weekends - we never expected to get anywhere with it", says Askew.

Perhaps not, but surely the cover of the Horse and Hound music special now awaits.

'She's Attracted to' is out now on Transgressive Records; 'Voices of Animals and Men' will be released in August

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