Strength Gathered From The Darkness: An Interview with Wil Loyal

by | May 6, 2010 | MUSIC


My first encounter with the band was at Empire. The room was crowded. With empty bottles scattered around the tabletop, I sat across from a girl. I didn’t realize it then, and maybe I don’t fully realize it now. She would represent an idea. Strong feelings for another person could inhabit my soul and, despite rejection, I could move past juvenile qualms and enjoy their presence for what they embody in my life.


My first encounter with the band was at Empire. The room was crowded. With empty bottles scattered around the tabletop, I sat across from a girl. I didn’t realize it then, and maybe I don’t fully realize it now. She would represent an idea. Strong feelings for another person could inhabit my soul and, despite rejection, I could move past juvenile qualms and enjoy their presence for what they embody in my life.

The next time I would see Homemade Knives would be at their CD Release Show at Gallery 5. During a portion of the group’s set, I would step outside for a cigarette. I encountered an old classmate with whom I had wanted to spark a conversation for years. We spoke about childhood, the dread of being called upon in class to speak broken Italian. The door would prop itself open with visitors migrating outside as the band played on. Every time I venture back to this place, and the forming connection, I can only imagine the musings of this band playing at the exterior of our conversations.

After two missed opportunities to fully embrace the band, I would finally catch them at the Hyperlink Café. This would also begin as a story about a girl. I found myself relished in the midst of my first musician crush. I had seen her around Richmond for years, but until that moment it would be her voice that I cant forget. Homemade Knives took the stage soon thereafter and everything changed. No longer did I want to stand idly by the sidelines of the music scene. No longer did I want to stand idly by when it came to anything I was passionate about. I went home. I put together a few chords and started talking to my friends about how to book shows. It was all I could talk about. It is all I still talk about.

Homemade Knives was the reason for this.

They are a band that represents a pinnacle in my early twenties and a point where I felt as if I was really growing up. They were the soundtrack to these times and I can say with tremendous excitement that they will soon be returning to the musical slums of this great city. On May 25th, they will grace the stage of the Listening Room to start off where they left off..

Now, let’s start from the beginning…

SHANNON CLEARY: What was your childhood like? Were you musically inclined at an early age?
WIL LOYAL: I didn’t sing growing up. Not in the church choir or the talent shows. I didn’t sing at my sister’s wedding or my father’s funeral. And I never learned to play an instrument. I grew up in Owensboro, KY. The first sixteen years of my life – in the same house, in the same town. A town I never really thought I’d leave. The land is so damn flat there it stretches out for what seems like forever. Level fields of corn, soy and tobacco. They all look the same. Nothing ever changes, and as a kid I was certain nothing ever would. But my father committed suicide in his parked car on my great grandmother’s farm when I was twelve years old. My sister left Owensboro for college that same summer. My brother became my father and my best friend. Four years later, my mother and I moved to Roanoke to live with her second husband. He is a better fit than her first husband, and Roanoke was a better fit for me. I never finished high school, but I went long enough to meet some kids and hear a lot of new music. This is where I joined my first bands and began writing songs.

SHANNON: Which artists inspired you the most and helped you develop your style?
WIL: There is a short list of artists that have inspired me to rethink the way I write music and lyrics. Neutral Milk Hotel, more than any of the others. I’ve always hoped to write something that someone could love as dearly as I’ve loved In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. But I notice the way Crooked Fingers structures a song, in that something changes every two bars, but one thing plays the same through the entire song. Califone and A Lullaby for the Working Class are the best at texturing, layering different instruments, hiding and revealing them at just the right time. The great storytellers- Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jonathan Vassar. But I wrote music with Shane for over 10 years, and in every band we had together we wrote the music before the vocals. Shane isn’t a three-chord guitar strummer. He is an absolute genius at creating completely unique, dark melodies that just break your heart. Almost every song I have ever written started with his guitar. As a vocalist, he is easily my greatest influence. The vocal patterns I wrote were in his rhythm and key, and made to directly compliment a melody that he had originated.

Prior to Homemade Knives, Loyal started to make a name for himself in musical outfits Ex-Holiday and Marion Delgado. In Ex-Holiday, his experiences with musical collaborators Duncan Adams and Graham Scala would prove to be an insightful learning process. In his own words, “Ex-Holiday was the first time I had worked with anyone who actually knew shit about music.” But it wasn’t until Marion Delgado that Loyal would discover a mutual spirit in that of Shane Jenkins. By the time Homemade Knives was underway, the two had an understanding as to what to expect from one another musically.

SHANNON: How did Homemade Knives come about?
WIL: I started Homemade Knives with Shane Jenkins, Chris Carroll, and Ryan McLennan. They are three of the best friends I have ever known. At the time, we didn’t have any real plans for the project. Chris was only beginning to play cello. Shane and I were just excited to be making music together again. We practiced in a shitty warehouse space on Broad Street that Chris was living in with no stove, no air-conditioning, no hot water and no shower. You had to back-flush the toilet with a bucket that caught the water from the leaking sink. We’d reheat coffee on a hotplate and drink it black from these dirty little paper cups that Chris kept around for mixing paint colors. It was winter and the big gas furnace that hung from the ceiling was louder than Shane’s guitar. It didn’t matter. It was less about the music and much more about us making it together. We didn’t start playing shows for a long time. We even recorded our first record before we played our first show. The band had become something very private and personal to us, and I guess we were reluctant to share.

SHANNON: Did the formation of Homemade Knives assist in the creation of Triple Stamp Records?
WIL: Toward the very end of 2004, I started Triple Stamp Records with Chris Carroll and Adrienne Brown. I have known both of them since high school. I was in a band with Adrienne when I was seventeen. We had two guitarists, two bassists, two singers and two practices before we broke up. Homemade Knives wasn’t even an idea when we started the label. Initially, Triple Stamp Records wanted to put out three records: Josh Small, Liza Kate, and Jonathan Vassar. It took five years to get Jonathan on board. We’re still waiting to hear back from Josh and Liza. Everything they do I fall madly in love with.

SHANNON: During your time with Homemade Knives, what were some of the highlights from the run?
WIL: Touring is one my favorite things. I guess deep down I’m a homeless homosexual polygamist. I’m not truly happy unless I’m married to three dudes and we all live in van together. But the collaboration is what I love the most about music. The way someone can take a piece of you and add a piece of themselves and it becomes something new and surprising and beautiful. Being in a band like Homemade Knives is really like being married. You are allowing someone else to become a necessary part of the thing you love most.

After the release of Industrial Parks, the band would dedicate their focuses towards the full-length No One Doubts the Darkness. Its release seemed to unanimously blow the minds of the Richmond musical community. Everyone gathered their own sentiments and thoughts concerning the release. It put into effect a new precedent for what one’s musical imagination could come up with.

When I had a chance to sit down with the release, I was awestruck by its beautiful musings of heartache and it’s ruminations of what it means to simply exist. I have since bought numerous copies from Plan 9 and given them to many of my closest friends and acquaintances. In many ways, upon meeting a stranger, if we don’t relate based on a mutual adoration of this band and this release, it’s a good indication that we might be destined for failure in friendship.

SHANNON: How did the experience of creating Industrial Parks differ from that of No One Doubts the Darkness? In the case of No One Doubts The Darkness, was there a more meticulous process involved?
WIL: The biggest difference is that with Industrial Parks we were writing songs, but with No One Doubts the Darkness we were writing a record. We spent months and months writing the music for No One Doubts the Darkness. We wrote and recorded every piece of every track except for the vocals. “Hold On” I wrote on piano, but everything else was written the same way. Shane would record one bar of guitar into a Loop Station. It would play over and over for hours while Shane, Ryan and Chris worked out secondary melodies. I just listened. When a player is working out melodies, sometimes they can’t see the woods for the trees. I would let them know when to pursue a good idea and when to move on from a bad one. I’d sing melodies into a guitar tuner and jot down the notation for them to become piano or cello or bass lines. The initial guitar loop plays from beginning to end each song, but the additional instrumentation stacks in a way that the harmonies and internal rhythms change the shape of it into peaks and valleys that become choruses and bridges. With all ten songs completely structured and recorded on our 8-track, I put them in order and wrote the vocals from start to finish. The record is one story.

It’s conceptual, but also chronological. I am much more comfortable writing this way. Most people need ten good ideas for ten good songs. I’m never gonna have ten good ideas. This way I only need one good idea for a whole record.

After its release, Jenkins and Loyal were drained. They were taking a break from writing yet they still desired have new music to toy around with. That’s when they began to embrace the idea of taking a cover and toying around with how to manipulate it into sounding more like Homemade Knives than the original artist. One particularly successful experiment in this was their take on Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark”. The brooding instrumentation, lifted by the optimism of a young heart wanting nothing more than to fall in love, would act as the setting.

Loyal has always expressed adoration for the Boss’ storytelling. The reinterpretation of this song came from the idea of taking something off of the seminal record Born in the USA and making it feel like it could exist in the world of Nebraska. In doing so, they constructed a testament to Springsteen as much as to their own musical ingenuity by showing that despite obvious production differences, all it takes is flawless songwriting to fully encapsulate an emotion.

Around this time would mark the departure of bassist McLennan from the group. An increasing focus on his painting career had begun to take up much of his time. With an incredible bevy of work and an astute professional ethic, he had to make a tough decision, and left the band. Homemade Knives found itself in search of a new bass player, and that is how Nathan Joyce came into the fold.

SHANNON: After Ryan left the group, how did Nathan Joyce become a part of Homemade Knives?
WIL: After No One Doubts the Darkness Ryan was becoming a much more dedicated painter. His work is incredible, and so is his work ethic. He no longer had the time to play bass in Homemade Knives. I only knew Nathan Joyce as an acquaintance, but I knew that he played bass, and that he was a fan of our music. After speaking with him I knew he would be a great fit, and we set up a practice for him to start playing bass for us. When he didn’t show up for the practice I was a little confused. I called him. His sister returned my call and let me know he was in the hospital. He had “some kind of spell”. It was later diagnosed as Cavernous Angioma. His spinal fluid wasn’t draining correctly. This caused pressure in his brain, messed up his vision, and did some damage to the mobility of his arms and legs. Somehow, after a month or so, he was ready to play bass. He had a very short time to learn the songs and we left for a two-week tour. His first show with us was in New York and his last show was in Maine. He never got the chance to play with us in Richmond. We never even finished the tour.

This was the moment at which the band stopped playing. It happened unexpectedly, and the rumor mills started spinning. It’s an understatement to say that the number of stories explaining why Homemade Knives dissolved range from realistic to modest to absurd. In every rumor though, there is some semblance of truth. The truth always unveils itself by the voices of those who were there to watch it all go down.

SHANNON: What prompted the end of the group?
WIL: We were in Boston to play with our goods friends from Brown Bird, but we didn’t play that night. Eighteen hours later I was in the waiting room of a hospital in some small, snowy, Massachusetts town. Shane had been fighting depression and anxiety for years and it had finally gotten the best of him. I couldn’t help but feel twelve-years-old and to think about my father’s decisions and my mother’s regrets. Chris and Nathan took the van back to Richmond. I stayed in a motel near the hospital for next few days. I wanted to do everything right, say all the right things. Didn’t have ‘em in me. Chris and Nathan had taken everything home with them, so I bought Shane a Kmart guitar and spent the next couple of years trying to get him to play it. They were the hardest years of my life. As we were trying to get Shane better, Nathan was getting worse. One of them wanting nothing more than to go on living, the other wanting nothing more than to stop. And neither one of them getting their way. On September 1, 2008 Nathan died from melanoma. He was so strong and so optimistic. He lived every minute of his life. He was such a good man that just being around him made you a better one. I miss him. Eventually Chris moved to Boston for grad school. Shane moved back to Roanoke and started over. All that was left of Homemade Knives was me and Richmond.

Although his condition wasn’t improving, Joyce’s departure from this world was still a surprise. A tremendous sadness burrowed its way into all of our hearts. To this day, I still see pins baring his initials on hoodies, guitar straps and baseball caps across the city.

Joyce was a great friend of mine and he would be one of the first people I had the opportunity to share a stage with. Each show was a delight, and his growing confidence as a songwriter was not only a treat to witness, but an inspiration.

Though with a heavy heart, this city refused to forget about our friend. The best way to celebrate his life and the love that we all shared for him would be represented in a tribute show that was hosted at Gallery 5. On this particular evening, a remarkable roster of Richmond’s musical elite took the stage to cover his songs and share stories about their lost companion. I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in this event. In the company of these individuals, we were all able to express what Joyce meant to us, and offer a proper memorial.

The event would also prove to be the first time Loyal and Carroll had shared a stage since the band’s sudden break-up. Jonathan Vassar and Loyal’s wife, Anousheh Khalili, accompanied them as part of a repertoire covering three of Joyce’s songs. This would be the first time that Loyal would play guitar in front of an audience and the first glimpse we all get of the potential future of Homemade Knives. A glimpse of what was in store.

SHANNON: When did you decide to pick up a guitar? What inspired this decision?
WIL: I don’t do much of anything I don’t have to. But with Shane no longer in Richmond, at twenty-eight years old, I bought my first guitar and I had to learn to play the damn thing. I’m not excited about learning something new. I’m sad and a little pissed off that I have to. My fingers hurt, it doesn’t sound like it should, I don’t know fuck about nothing. The one good thing about picking up guitar this late in life is that I knew what kind of guitarist I wanted to be long before I started playing. It’s been two years now, and I’ve never even held a guitar pick in my hand. I don’t strum the guitar. Couldn’t if I wanted to. Everything is finger picking, because that’s what Shane would do. I do the very best I can to write things he would approve of.

: Your first performance with a guitar was at the Nathan Joyce Tribute Show. Was there something about the event that made you feel comfortable trying something completely foreign for the first time?
WIL: No. I was terrified. I did it because I knew it was something Nathan would have loved. I was asked to do one song. But me and Anousheh, Jonathan Vassar and Chris thought it would be nice to all work together on three songs. During the song Jonathan sang, I looked down and my hands weren’t moving anymore. I didn’t even realize I wasn’t playing anything.

SHANNON : How did the performance at this show inspire what would soon become the next musical endeavor for you?
WIL : It didn’t really. The new line up for Homemade Knives is Anousheh Khalili, Jonathan Vassar, Chris Carroll, Ryan McLennan, and me. It doesn’t make a lot sense for any of them to be in the band. Chris is in Boston, Ryan is a very busy artist, Anousheh and Jonathan have their own music to tend to. They are in the band because I won’t do it on my own, and they all love me.

In the time spent away from Homemade Knives, a lot has changed for Loyal. He has gotten married and bought a home. He has lost a few of his closest friends and found a few new ones. He has held several different jobs and he hasn’t written a single word down in four years. With the reformation of this project, his acquirement of a guitar was with the purpose of writing a record. While hard at work, he was written the music for ten songs and invited his collaborators in to help flesh the songs out. While in the midst of sequencing the compositions, he is now prepared to begin putting words to paper

SHANNON: What inspired you to want to start this new project?
WIL: I never gave up on the old one. This isn’t a new project for me. This is me simply gathering up all the remaining pieces, putting it back together as best I can, and sailing downstream with holes in my boat. Sometimes the less you have the more you make of it, and I’m kinda hoping that’s what happens with this.

SHANNON: Now that you are playing a role in the group besides vocalist, how has the process of songwriting changed for you and the group in general?
WIL: It’s hard. Now that I’m playing guitar, the songs start with me. I structure them in my head with no vocals or accompaniment. I’m running the whole fucking show, and it scares the hell out of me. I’m not good enough to write what I want to, or to play a specific style. Whatever comes out is what I get. I look to everyone else to make the most of it. I record everything as we go, then I move things around to find the holes, and fill ‘em.

SHANNON: What were your first experiences encountering the written word in the context of a song?
WIL: I’ve never been much for reading, but I hang on every word of song. My favorite writers aren’t Salinger, Bukowski or Burroughs. I like Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel, Jonathan Vassar and Tom Waits, and my brother is the best writer I know. He is the first person to read anything I write, and if he likes it, a reviewer’s opinion ain’t worth the blog it’s written on. But I couldn’t tell you when listening to lyrics became so important to me. It probably wasn’t until I started writing them myself. And that’s all I write. No journals kept, no short stories. And even with lyrics, no rough drafts. Every line I’ve ever written has been recorded.

SHANNON : When I did an interview with Vassar about a year or so ago, he mentioned this idea about the compression of a short story into the form of a song. As you have mentioned, a lot of the context of your lyrics is based around incredible honesty. There is obviously a level of mutual respect shared between the two of you. What do you two share as far as storytelling is concerned and what obvious differences are there as well?
WIL : Jonathan Vassar writes great fiction. But he also has the ability to tell you things you already know, in the best way possible. He could rewrite the weather report, sing it to you, and break your heart. I can’t do that. Love, fear, death, and forgiveness are the only things I find interesting enough to write a song about. I’m not a fictional storyteller. I don’t think fiction and metaphor are the same. When I was younger I wrote songs that were straight and personal. Intensely honest. They made a lot people uncomfortable. Not everyone wants to know me. What I do now is try to find an appropriate metaphor and dwell there so long it overwhelms the true story. When I talk, I say exactly what I mean. When I write, I never do.”

On May 25th, Homemade Knives will pick up where they left off. Playing alongside Brown Bird, this will be the show that was meant to happen in Boston in March of 2007. Loyal promises that he will be arriving via time machine. It’s been a long time coming and the excitement stretching across the city is insurmountable.

It’s appropriate to consider the last lines from No One Doubts the Darkness when discussing the current state of the band. It is true that all is well that ends well, but thankfully this is just not the case. For Wil Loyal, this is a new beginning for Homemade Knives, a band that refuses to give up the ghost.

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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