Knifeplay started out as the bedroom project of Tj Strohmer, who grew up in rural southern Maryland and is now based in Philadelphia. Following a couple of home-recorded EPs, the band homed in their somber, at times discordant brand of shoegaze on their 2019 debut album, Peartly. In 2021, Strohmer entered the studio with Jeff Zeigler, known for his work with bands like Nothing and the War on Drugs, for the two-track Hurt Someone EP, which retained the chilling intensity of the band’s earlier material while smoothing out some of its rougher edges. Once again working with Ziegler, Knifeplay – with a band that includes bassist Alex Stackhouse, drummer John Sciortino, keyboardist Max Black, and guitarist John Klein – then recorded their outstanding sophomore LP, Animal Drowning, which is out today on Topshelf Records.
The atmosphere that permeates a lot of the album’s songs is one of bleak desolation, grappling with themes of death, abuse, and self-destruction against a grim political landscape. But Strohmer’s songwriting immerses us in this murky world through the lens of empathy rather than disaffection. Animal Drowning swells with beauty and longing more than it tumbles into oblivion, with layers of lush, eerie instrumentation strung across its stunning highs and crushing lows. Any time it sounds nearly broken, like in the cathartic climax of ‘Promise’, it also sounds reborn.
We caught up with Knifeplay’s Tj Strohmer for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about his upbringing, nihilism, the process behind the band’s new album, and more.
You’ve talked about how the single ‘Promise’ was influenced by your upbringing in rural southern Maryland. Can you talk more about your memories of growing up there and how it shaped your worldview early on, in relation to the song or just in general?
Where I grew up was very conservative and kind of traditionally American. I felt like my whole schooling and upbringing within the context of this system we have over here was more or less just preparing me to work a boring job that is in service of the system and not in service of the self or a sort of spiritual or artistic path. It felt like I was being put on a conveyor belt, basically, and everything was building up to this future that I didn’t really understand. The older I got, it just seemed like there has to be more to life-type thing. I guess just thinking about the lyrics – that statement, “You are what you are,” I don’t think there’s a defined thing I’m trying to say with that. I think that’s just a cynical expression, and I’m using it in this way where it’s true for a lot of people, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m not trying to preach a philosophy or anything like that, but I’m just trying the make people think about this situation that we’re all in together.
When you grow up in America, and especially with the way the schools are, it really is soulless. When I say, “Where rivers meet in lakes of mud,” that’s the imagery of the place where this is occurring, but it’s also imagery of stagnation – which, that’s kind of how I felt. I mean, where I grew up was a beautiful place, and I honestly had a really great childhood. But it did feel like like, once I started getting into more progressive ideas, there was a lot of pushback from everyone around me about that. And I kind of saw that the options for life were like: go to college and get a job, trade school, get a job, or – the people who I sort of maybe connected with more were just weren’t really interested in that, or they were just tricking themselves to be interested in that, which I did for a while too. But then there’s a lot of people who, like, do drugs and kind of fall apart. There’s a big problem in America with opiates right now, and I honestly feel like that’s part of it, because we’re not being nurtured to discover ourselves in any type of way. Art and spirituality and these things that are more than work and money in this system, there’s just no value to any of that in America. And that’s why our culture is just so bleak right now and devoid of any authenticity.
Again, the song, it’s not like I have this defined message or philosophy. I just wanted to touch on this feeling and this thing that I was reflecting on, because once I started doing this music thing, I’m more or less removed from all that. Because even though I work for a living – I move furniture for a living – I would rather do that and be able to make my music and kind of struggle through it than chase after security.
When did you start to feel adrift with that system and wanted to escape from it? Did music play a role in that?
I was always an outcast since – I feel when you’re a little kid, everyone’s kind of the same in a way. But I guess during my early adolescence, I discovered punk music, for one, in like fifth grade. And it was all over from there, pretty much. I had a guitar teacher who, honestly, taught me more about just being cool than playing guitar. But punk music and skateboarding informed my worldviews early on, or inspired me to question what was going on. And here’s the other contradiction, and I feel like you could read this into the song too – is growing up, I was told you can do whatever you want and be whatever you want, which is totally true. But once I actually got into the world, I realized how much resistance there is to that for someone like me, I guess – anyone who’s an artist or whatever, really. The older I got, the more I was able to intellectualise what I already felt from a really young age, which was rebellion against any kind of institution that was trying to tell me what life is supposed to be. Even all the way into college, though, I was afraid to really take the leap away from doing something that was, like, practical. I would have been told that this is foolish, you know, because I really have no plan for my future that’s secure.
I guess something just clicked when I was in my early 20s, where I was like, I need to make this music, and this is all I’m gonna care about, basically. And that’s kind of where I’m at now. I’m not trying to say, though, that it’s better, or that I’m enlightened or anything like that. This is just my thought process, because I feel like the life that I’m living and what led me up to making this record, which could have only been made in this set of circumstances, is so at odds with what the “system” or whatever, my upbringing would have me be doing.
The title of the album is Animal Drowning, and the band is called Knifeplay, which sort of gives listeners a hint of the kind of heavy themes you’re exploring. Despite the bleak sentiment of a song like ‘Nobody’, though, the music suggests there might be a strange beauty to that kind of darkness. How conscious are you of how those intense feelings are packaged in your music?
I’m not really conscious of how they’re packaged, but I feel like, you know, I’m not a total nihilist. I’m not a nihilist at all, in fact. But especially living where I live, being the age that I am, with the interests that I have, there’s flirtation with nihilism. But I think the reason that there is that dichotomy of [nihilism] and beauty within that album and all of our music is that, I’m a person, and it’s not just all this doom and gloom all the time. I feel differently about my circumstances and the world and everything from day to day.
I do think my personality comes through in this way, and honestly, it does come back again to where I grew up. I have a value for wholesomeness and goodness, and I think the reason I’m so drawn to writing about the more tragic or darker themes is because it does really bother me how the world is. It’s just so at odds with what I feel, what my spirit is.
I am becoming more conscious, though, of it, because now we’ve made two records. Because before, I was like, I’m just writing these songs as they fly through my head. And now I’m starting to understand what my voice is with this band, the stuff that I am able to talk about, and whatever my unique perspective is, putting that into the music. I think consciousness of that might actually help me to write something that is more controlled in the future, and even getting into this stuff in a more direct, more calculated way, maybe with our next release.
Like you said, as a person, your perspective changes all the time, and I’m curious how you go about capturing that. Writing is one thing and recording is another, but I know you spent quite a bit of time on post-production as well on this album. During that period of time, did the shape or the atmosphere of the record shift at all?
No, because we actually had demos of all the songs that were incredibly fleshed-out. It had pretty much everything you hear on the album in the demo, so we went in with a pretty distinct vision for that. But Jeff Ziegler was able to bring it to life in this way that I could never have done.
What was it like seeing that?
I remember the first time, actually, because we did the EP first that came out last year. And I remember sitting in his chair when it was close to done, and I just looked back and my bandmates and I was like, “I can’t even believe this is us.” [laughs] I’d never heard our music sound so good like that. It was great, and I think we’re only going to do studio albums from here on out.
One of my favourite lines on the album is from ‘Hearts’: “Darkness helped us become the same/ Now time works on the wound that throbs when songs play.” This is also related to the song ‘Deserve’, but I’m curious if music has a healing purpose for you, or if it’s more a tool to kind of contain or channel that hurt in some way.
I remember being in second grade, which was the first time I really started listening to music. I just listened to alternative rock on the radio or whatever, I wasn’t really exposed to any kind of underground music for a while. But I still remember the feeling I got when – it was this band Everclear, they’re a ‘90s alternative rock band – in second grade, and even still, to this day, every now and then, their songs would make me feel so hard. I still get that feeling now when I listen to really moving music, and I think I’ve just been chasing that my whole life. This is an obvious statement, but you feel understood by it, you know. And then once I started making records for myself, especially because when I started this project I was going through a lot of hard shit, I noticed that each release was like a period of my life. And now I look back on each one, and I see it as a way of getting through whatever I was dealing with at a certain time. So yeah, I do use it in that way, but it’s not really a conscious thing. I’ve just always been drawn to it.
How do you think you’ll remember this album, or what do you hope it inspires when you look back on it?
I will remember it as when I started taking this more seriously. It’s our first studio album, we put so much work and time into it, more than anything that maybe a lot of us have ever done ever. But certainly for me – I mean, I went to college, I got a degree, and this was harder than that. I pray that time is nice to the album, for me and for other people. But now that I made this, I feel locked in right now, in a way, where I’m ready to make another one. I want to write another one, which we’re already working on – it’s kind of early stages. But that’s how it affects me the most – it’s the first time I really, really tried, all the way, and didn’t hold anything back. I dumped all my money into it, I dumped so much time into it that it had a negative effect on other parts of my life. But I feel like it was worth it, everything.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.