Dancing Plague finds catharsis in dramatic darkwave
Conor Knowles usually presents himself as light-hearted, but something darker broods beneath his exterior. And the music he writes, records and performs as the solo act Dancing Plague reflects his whole self—the light and the dark stuff.
That’s why the release of his new album, Pure Desperation, is an emotional one. For Knowles, making music is therapeutic, and sharing it with the world is the most cathartic part.
“I was going through some personal stuff, a pretty heavy breakup,” he said. “Without really knowing it, that kind of ended up influencing the emotional tone of the album. … If you want to break it down into scenes, it’s about dealing with anxiety and depression, maybe trying to come to terms with mortality.”
Speaking to the CN&R ahead of Dancing Plague’s show at Blackbird on April 5, the Spokane, Wash., darkwave artist said he’s always been into emotionally heavy music. He was a metal kid who started listening to post-punk bands such as Joy Division in high school and later discovered new wave groups like The Cure and Depeche Mode. At 19, he bought an Akai XR20 drum machine and started emulating synthpop band Future Islands, gradually developing an electronic style of his own.
Now 25, Knowles has crafted a sound defined partially by his mournful baritone, which ranges from gravelly to operatic. In fact, some listeners mistakenly assume he uses studio trickery to pitch-shift his voice lower.
“It wasn’t until I started playing shows that people realized I was actually doing it live,” he said. “I don’t really know how I started singing that way. It just felt natural, and I have a couple of different inflections that I just sort of figured out over the years.”
Instrumentally, the new wave stuff he dug into as a teenager definitely seeped into his dark, industrial beats. In a live setting, Knowles plays synthesizers and guitar and syncs up his drum machine on the fly, but relies on computerized backing tracks for bass sounds. It’s a technical feat to pull off a show with such a setup.
“There are always a little hiccups,” he said. “There are a couple of songs I love so much that I have to play them live, but there’s like a 50/50 chance that they will fall apart. But that’s kind of the fun part about playing live, you know?”
During the March 16 release show for Pure Desperation in Portland, Ore., Knowles’ video projector malfunctioned because he set it on the venue’s subwoofer.
“I tried to fix that halfway through one of the songs, and then I ran back and for some reason my synth had changed to a different setting,” he said. “I was running all over the stage, but it didn’t seem to bother the audience at all. It’s like, if you have problems, get over it. It’s not worth ruining the rest of your set.”
Some parts of Pure Desperation are too complicated for Knowles to play live by himself, but he chose to keep them on the record because they fit into his overall sound—moodiness offset by relatively upbeat moments—which is a lot like Knowles himself.
“I put everything I have into this project,” he said. “All of myself is in my music.”