ECU, Art, Nemo and The Avett Bros. An Interview with Tim Knouff

The story of The Avett Brothers usually goes as follows, Scott and Seth Avett were in a rock band called NEMO. They started a side project playing acoustic music with NEMO guitarist John Twomey. On a Sunday night Bob Crawford with his acoustic bass auditioned in a Media Play parking lot. Nemo fell apart in the fall of 2001. Scott, Seth and Bob would go on their first tour in July 2002 and have been on tour ever since. This quick and easy version is missing several pieces of The Avett Brothers story and one of those puzzle pieces is Tim Knouff. I first leaned about Tim playing in the band when I saw some pictures of the 2001Dogwood Bluegrass Festival in The Times-News. I soon discovered he played electric bass in NEMO Downstairs/The Backporch Project as well as when they first transitioned to The Avett Brothers name. I had hopes of this interview happening from the moment we started Avett News and I appreciate Tim taking the time to tell little bit of his story as well as answering some questions about those early days with The Avett Bros.

Where were you born and where did you grow up? 

I was born in Long Island, NY. When I was about 4 or 5, we moved down to Pinehurst, NC. My mom would tell you that she didn’t want her sons growing up with thick Long Island accents, so naturally we moved to the south where, of course, there are no accents. My dad was military, so occasionally we moved around, but I spent most of my time growing up in NC. Pinehurst was a great place to grow up. It’s all golf courses and pine trees. I had ZERO interest in golf at the time. So if you didn’t golf, it was mainly biking around, tree forts, stealing golf carts at night, and Dungeons & Dragons. You know, until drivers licenses took hold.

What was the first instrument you learned to play and when did you start playing in a band? 

I took piano lessons in middle school, but I wouldn’t say I “learned to play” it. I didn’t find it fun at the time. Looking back, I really wish I stuck with it. Bass guitar was my first and immediate interest. As most failing guitar players would say, ” It has less strings”. I never took lessons. I assume I was similar to most other bass and guitar players just sitting in my room learning incorrectly whatever I had on cassette (yeah….cassette), which would have been Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Zepplin. Mostly I was just making sounds that I thought were cool.

My first band was with one of my oldest friends, Alan back in ’89-’90. We were a two-piece called Buttkrust. I was on bass and he was on laundry basket/cardboard box and vocals. We would record impromptu sick jams into a tape deck. I loved it. Many MANY years later, Alan surprised me with a cd of all our recordings. I am sure it will be worth a lot of money someday. I think it wasn’t until ’98-’99 that I started playing shows with other bands.

What were some of your favorite records from when you were a kid, a teenager, your 20’s and now? 

When I was in grade school, I was all about Duran Duran – Seven and the Ragged Tiger, The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta, and the first four Zepplin albums. My older brother turned me on to Zepplin, Yes, and Bad Brains. I remember liking Twisted Sister – Stay Hungry because of the album cover. Dee Snider snacking on that raw meat stuck with me.

During my teens, I discovered Faith No More and I knew I was ruined forever. I am a ridiculous FNM fan. All their albums, especially The Real Thing, Angel Dust, and We Care A Lot molded me. They were/are so different than anything else. Fan for life here. Through them, I got into Mr. Bungle, The Melvins, Jane’s Addiction, Living Colour, Beastie Boys, and a lot of grunge/alternative rock/metal bands. And then, because of some of the band t-shirts FNM would wear, I got into more extreme bands like Carcass, Godflesh, and Sepultura.

My 20s I still kinda stuck with the music of my teens, but metal really took off then. It was then when I heard Candiria – The Process of Self Development, Mastodon – Remission, Botch – American Nervosa, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – Grand Opening and Closing. Those really stood out. Scott (Avett) introduced me to Acid Bath. They had some great records.

Currently, I am listening to Dead Cross (Dave Lombardo’s hardcore band with Retox members and Mike Patton), Napalm Death’s and Failure’s entire discography and this band out of Long Island, MoonTooth. They rock. Also in my car, I have a mix of OutKast, Luscious Jackson, Bob Seger, Human League, Gnarls Barkley, and some Fitz and the Tantrums. All good music to drive to. It complements the grindcore.

Was there a musician, band or person in your life that influenced you to want to start playing music?

With a bit of sleuthing in my previous answer, Faith No More are a gigantic influence. How they fearlessly tackled multiple genres without any regard to what people thought was cool or uncool was very inspiring. They taught me not to segregate music. Good music is good music no matter where it comes from.

What are some of the bands that you have played in?

Besides Buttkrust, I tried jamming with different folks throughout school but I just didn’t have the chops yet. Once I arrived at East Carolina, the music scene there was so abundant and lush that it was almost impossible not to have a band. While at ECU, I first started playing with a group called Giddy. It was singer/songwriter tunes, dual female vox, acoustic but a bit of punkiness. Giddy was my first experience playing onstage in front of people. I had a lot of fun with that group.

I had already known Scott by that point and was very familiar with his band NEMO. I started jamming with him and some of the other NEMO guys after their shows which would later turn into NEMO The Backporch Project and then Avett Bros. Also, during that time, me and some other friends put together a band called Filth Amendment which was a rock/metal/weirdo band. I loved that band due to the fact that almost any idea we threw at the wall it would stick. Good or bad. NEMO connection: our first drummer was John Autry who was NEMO’s first drummer. FA played all over NC and a bit up the east coast for a while until life started to seep in.

Later on, while living in High Point, I joined Malebolgia; a death/grind band out of Greensboro. Much more challenging than anything I had done prior for sure. There wasn’t a lot of double-bass in the early Avett catalog. Played and toured with the ‘Bolge for several years wearing black t-shirts and experiencing some horrifying club bathrooms. I eventually had to vacate my bass duties when I moved with my family up to Michigan where I currently reside.

You did the artwork for the Malebolgia album Requiem for the Inexorable, did you go to school for art? (you can check out and purchase Malebolgia Here

I sure did.  I left public high school and attended North Carolina School of the Arts. Received my BFA in Sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute and my MFA in Sculpture at East Carolina University. ECU was my most important chapter. Scott and I met in the Art Department, but most importantly, it is where I met my wife, Camille; an amazing artist in her own right.

When and how did you first meet Scott, Seth and John?

Well, I met Scott at the Art Department at ECU. He was a painting major and I was a Sculpture grad student. I was an assistant tech in the schools’ woodshop where I pretty much met everyone in some capacity. Made a lot of frames for painter’s senior shows, that’s for sure. I would listen to music while working late in the woodshop and it was there where Scott and I bonded over Clutch, FNM, and Alice in Chains. He told me about his band NEMO back in Concord and invited me to come check them out whenever they played in Greenville. After those shows is when I met Seth and John and the rest of the fellas. We would end up back at Scott’s and his roommates place with several other people in tow where it would always turn into a huge bash. The night would always end up with either holes in the walls, people on the roof, aggressive FIFA Soccer playing on the Playstation, and then jamming on old bluegrass standards. Typical college stuff.

We would end up the next morning, usually Scott, Seth, John and myself, eating breakfast at K&W Cafeteria, which they swore by. It was good. I agree. Scott and Seth would get into these monstrous arguments over lord knows what (I think one was about blueberries) and John and I would just watch and eat. And eventually make sure no one ended up in the paper.

Hanging out with all those dudes, I could tell right away that they were all stars. The brotherly dynamic between Scott and Seth, and John the rock that secured it all together; it was eventually going to be huge. They all spoke and lived music in what I thought to be the correct way. Conversation always landed on music. Iron Maiden and Christina Aguilera both received equal time alongside Jeff Buckley and Agents of Oblivion. There was never a sense of elitism or music snobbery which can sometimes creep its way into some circles. All those guys were/are solid dudes… Scott still has a welding cap of mine that I’m hoping he’ll return one day.

What was the ECU music scene like?

You know during that time while I was there in Greenville (or G-Vegas as was required to call it), I thought it was like any other. But it wasn’t until years later that a realized how vibrant it was. It felt easy to start bands up. Everyone pretty much knew each other and eventually shared gigs together. We had downtown Greenville which was maybe like 4 or 5 blocks total. There was the Attic, the Phoenix Room, Peasants, Flying Salsa, The Corner, Mendenhall on the ECU campus, Backdoor Skatepark, plus any number of house party and DIY spaces. Sometimes several of these venues would all have shows going on at the same time. Did it get saturated at times? Absolutely. But it was fun. Keep in mind, there was no Facebook, Myspace, or really texting. We did have this chatroom called NCMetal where bands would promote and network out to the rest of the state. But that site, like most other social media, became a pissing contest. I have friendships that I still treasure that came out of that site. Yeah, most promoting was done by hand and foot. Making cool flyers, stapling them over top of layers of other flyers. Places like CD Alley, East Coast Video, and the Stop Shop were our major hubs for getting the word out. Backdoor Skatepark however was special. It was our CBGBs. Just a pure DIY space. A small concrete room full of ever-changing skate ramps, graffiti, and old sweat. All sorts of bands, some legendary in the punk and hardcore scene now, came through that space. People would pile on top of each other in there. Those shows were dangerous at times, but they were so much fun. When I think of when bands get “street cred” or whatever, they get it playing at Backdoor.

It’s really cool to look back and remember who came out of that 4+ year period that I was there. I used to kill time looking through music magazines at Barnes & Noble. And for a while there I would quite often see old friends in those magazines. Of course The Avetts, but then Valient Thorr, and Art Lord & The Self-Portraits (which is now Future Islands), seeing these guys on tv and on high profile tours and standing shoulder to shoulder next to our musical heroes, it’s amazing.

I have no idea what the scene is like there now. I haven’t been back in over 10 years or so. It seems like you always remember where you were as when things were “the golden years” and you get to tell your “back in my day” stories. With that being said, the ECU music scene towards the end of the ’90s and the early ’00s were the golden years. I hope that place is still producing treasure. I have no idea though. I am so out of the loop now.

What did you think of NEMO Live? (you can purchase NEMO Here)

They were incredible. I was a fan the first time I saw them which I believe was at the main room at The Attic in Greenville. Scott invited me to come check his band out and from our previous conversations about music and bands that we mutually agreed were killer, I was definitely curious. Keep in mind that this was the late ’90s so metalcore was really taking hold. If you wanted to get the locals fired up, you had to start chug-chugging some drop D riffs and screaming over some sick breakdowns. NEMO hits the stage looking like if Weezer were a Seattle grunge band and starts laying on these big warm tone riffs and harmonized vocals straight out of a church service. They were extremely catchy and heavy as hell. I still enjoy playing along to “Bye Bye Bluebird”, “Lady Luck”, and “24” when I am sitting with bass at home. For a long time, I didn’t have any of their songs on CD so I could only listen to their music live which was a whole different beast. Those guys knew how to work a stage. For as sing-along-y as they could be, onstage performing you’d think you were at a Bad Brains show. They went hard. Those Fat City shows in front of their hometown crowd were wild. Scott has flung himself into Noah’s drums on more than few occasions. Even their practices were dangerous. It was clear that these guys were going to be big. I still keep in contact with John (Twomey). I love that he still keeps that NEMO torch warm. My hopes are held high that NEMO will do something again someday.

What did you think of the first time you heard Scott & Seth play acoustic music?

Well, it wasn’t a big surprise if you are referring to the juxtaposition of a loud heavy band like NEMO all of a sudden playing acoustically. I mean, if you listen to those NEMO songs, you could hear that acoustic Avett Brother sound. NEMO used to cover Led Zepplin’s “Bring It On Home”. That bluesy first half of that song made it clear that they were more than just a heavy band. Plus, like I mentioned earlier, we would all end up back at Scott’s place after those shows and they would have those acoustic guitars out. It wasn’t until Scott got hold of a banjo and was telling me how he was trying to figure that thing out that I knew something was brewing.

When did you first play with the Avett Brothers?

Live in front of people? I think it was in front of the ECU Art Department building on this concrete slab that was meant for large outdoor sculpture. This was of course when it was The Backporch Project so it had to be 1999-2000. We had a mutual friend of ours, Leah Foushee Waller, who was also a fellow art student on second guitar and vocals. We used to cover (well…all of our songs then were covers) Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Leah’s accompanying vocals on that song were great.

List some artist who have shaped your creative life? 

I’ll list “some”, ’cause there’s a lot…Jim Henson, Phil Tippett, Ray Harryhausen, Guillermo Del Toro, Mike Patton, Buzz Osborne, Brian Froud, Aaron Horkey, Eddie Izzard, Terry Gilliam, anyone associated with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, definitely my wife, Camille, and my dad who is an amazing woodworker.

Most interesting record you own?

Most “interesting”? I guess the Fantomas discography which is a group composed of Mike Patton (FNM), Buzz Osborne (Melvins), Trevor Dunn (Mr. Bungle), and Dave Lombardo (Slayer). It’s very precise soundscape-like music that is written using the language of hardcore/metal. They have an album that is made up of musical interpretations of French comic book panels, one of covers of famous horror/suspense/crime film, one of a single 74 minute long song about surgery without anesthesia…with photos mind you (this one almost made my wife sick), and one that is about unusual holidays throughout the month of April. It sounds like Looney Tunes music. There is this two-piece band called Ruins who have this song where they play a load of Black Sabbath songs in reverse. It is not particularly enjoyable, but it’s interesting. I also own that Vanilla Ice album where he went nu-metal. If by “interesting” you mean “major miscalculation” then I’ll include that too.

Do you have words to live by?

Not really, I’m still learning. Every time when I think I have it figured out, things change. Kind of a “student of life” outlook. Which is interesting because now that I’m a dad, I have to bestow to my son my wisdom, my experience, everything that I have learned up until this point to him. It’s amazing that when you have a child to raise, how quickly you are reminded how much you know and don’t know. I am doing my best to teach him empathy; how to find that line between modesty and confidence without wandering into arrogance; how to learn from failure. I guess those are all a few good things to live by.

Most thrilling musical experience?

Every time I get to be onstage is a thrilling experience. I love it terribly. Right before every show there is that anxiety of not knowing how it’s all going to go. If it will go well or bomb horribly. I love that feeling. Sure, after the fact there are some that stand out among others. The house shows Filth Amendment played were all great. I enjoy having the audience right there on top of you. The intimacy of it. There is no dealing with the club sound, lights, times. It’s just a party. With Malebolgia, that band did a lot of traveling, so for a while we would always be entering new territory. Any time when we would roll up to a venue, hundreds of miles away from home, and there were people there (even if it was only one or two, which was often the case. Ha!) who knew who we were and were familiar with our music, was just incredible. That happened a lot playing with Scott, Seth, and John. With every show that followed, there would be new fans. There was one show we did back in Greenville just outside of ECU at this restaurant called Courtyard Tavern. I assumed it would be a full show but that was only because there would be patrons there eating dinner or at the bar anyway. But that place was packed. If there was a place to stand it was taken. I’m sure there was a fire code violation or two. Having all those new faces along with all your friends and colleagues there to enjoy and participate in something you have created is just a unique and fantastic experience. At that point, it didn’t seem like it had been that long ago from when we were still playing outside of Scott’s house (who was my neighbor at the time).

What songs do you remember playing with the Avett Bros and do any stand out that you really enjoyed playing on? 

Well, when I joined, and when everything was just starting out, we played lots of covers. I remember Scott, Seth, and John just bombarding with several songs to learn every time we got together; several times right before a show too. They’d hit me with Salty Dog, Rocky Top, Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Here’s Cigarettes & Whiskey. Learn Wild Horses and Waitin’ For the Train. As a bass player, those songs were pretty simple to pick up quick so it wasn’t long at all before we had a full set-list.

Where things got really exciting was when one of those guys started showing me ideas for original songs. Originals are always fun because that means I get to put my own sauce on it. Again, being a bassist with music like that, I am not about to get all Jaco Pastorius over it, but just enough to fill it out, punch some stuff up, and give it a bit of a pulse, you know what I mean? Those early originals I remember Kind Of In Love, My Lady In the Mountain, Let Myself Live, Green Eyes, Come Home…there are probably others that I am forgetting, but they were all just strong, super catchy songs. Those songs that we used to cover stand the test of time for a reason, but those early originals really showcased the foundation of what those guys were capable of. Kind Of In Love was special because it was one of the first originals that I got to be a part of. It was kind of a silly song that had this nice little stroll, a bit of a mosey if you will, about it. John, Seth and I used to joke around when we went over the chords of any of these covers that they were all basically “C, G, and A or D…sometimes throw an F in there”. But with the originals we got to throw in an F sharp or maybe even a B or a B flat. Those flat and sharp notes really add emotion and drama, don’t they? I think so. We wanted to add some blast beats and some pinch harmonics but…that was neither the time nor the place (j/k. I have fun). Anyways, Kind Of In Love had a fun chorus. It was one of the first songs, that I remember, that people started to sing along with. In fact, that song was my first moment playing in front of people where I felt a strong connection with an audience. Watching and listening to people sing the song back to you that you are playing for them is pretty awesome.

Our cover of Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Breakdown was always pretty ridiculous in a great way too. Early on, we would finish that song, inadvertently, about four times faster than when we started playing it. Eventually, we acknowledged it by calling it “Death Metal Mountain Breakdown” or something like that. Later on, we would start that song with good intentions and then sabotage it by sending it off the rails halfway through. It just became this mess of dissonance and broken strings. I loved it. Such a good time. Great crowd killer. Ha!

Is there any show that you played with the Avett Bros that stands out?

Well, there was that show at the Courtyard Tavern that I mentioned earlier. Also in Greenville, we used to play this club called Peasants. There was this show in particular called the Beaux Arts Ball that was put on by the Art Department (where Scott and I met) at ECU. It was this end of the year celebration/bash of sorts where everyone would get dolled up or they would wear costumes that people made. The place was just shoulder to shoulder packed and everyone was having a blast. We would dress up all in black to the nines. Scott wore this hat that he made to look like one of those Spanish hats that had the pom pom fringe around the brim. Except instead of pom poms they were little tiny skulls. That show was just on fire. Everything just clicked. Remembering that I got to be part of shows like that can take me out of almost any sort of funk.

There was this other show that we played at this coffee shop (I can’t remember what town, I apologize). It was one of the last shows that I played with them. It was a really great show, but what I remember most was after the show, this gentleman brought his son, who was maybe 4 or 5 years old, up to Scott so that he could meet him. This kid had drawn a picture of the band (or maybe it was just Scott and his banjo) and he knew the words to some of our originals. Anyways it was just this sweet moment because here we were in this coffee shop and in a short amount of time we had fans from multiple generations, kids, their parents, their grandparents, bluegrass/country fans, rock fans, metalheads…it was this incredible mix of people that all come from different interests and here they are coming together to listen to these songs and having a great time. That child that came up to Scott with the drawing just gave me that epiphany.

 

What does the future hold for you? would you like to return to playing music? do you have other artistic plans?

In terms of music, I’m not really sure. I am very happy being a dad and a husband and a son and a brother. I know I can be a musician too, but right now things are great. We have a great home and I am excited to build on that. For the past several months, I have been piecing together a woodshop in our home; something that has been a dream of mine for a long time. Making art is a high priority for me and having my son around that is even higher. My wife shares that same sentiment. Hopefully soon, Camille and I will put together a joint show. Her paintings and my sculptures. That has to happen.

Does music fit in there somewhere? Absolutely. I don’t know in what context though. I have had so many musical projects that have given me some amazing experiences and allowed me to meet some wonderful people. But I can’t forget that pretty much each one of those projects ended before it began. Basically, a lot of denied closure. I do have stuff to show for it though. I still play a lot and keep my chops up. Who knows. I mean, I am not getting rid of my gear, that’s for sure.

 

How is your golf game going in Michigan? 

I wake up before the sun comes up every weekend and I get to walk around in beautiful surroundings with no one else around and swear out loud like there is no tomorrow. So it’s great! Seriously, I love golf. Which is a WEIRD thing for my teen and 20-something year old self to hear. I got bit by the golf bug about 5-6 years ago. I am not good, but I am o.k. I guess. I am happy if I stay below 100. That’s not true. If I can legitimately make par on at least one hole out of 18, I am fine. Thumbs up.

 

5 comments

  1. Fantastic read. Thanks so much for sharing all the “back in the day” stories! Seriously love hearing about the beginnings of it all. Also very happy that Tim made Michigan his home and loves it! Can’t wait to check out that art show one day!

  2. Excellent interview. I was at ECU during this time and Tim hits it on the head. I’ve never seen a scene so alive and pumping. So much great art and music. I roadied around for Filth Amendment for a year or more and Tim and the band introduced me to such awseome music. A lot of mornings half drunk or more and headed home from shows that left you knowing what life was for.

    Cheers, Tim.

  3. Enjoyed reading this. Haven’t seen you since you were a little guy. Your dad is my cousin. We had a family reunion here years ago. You may remember. Have recently been connecting with your cousins. Haven’t seen your dad or mom in quite awhile. Would love to see you all again.

  4. Tm Knouff, thank you so much for generously sharing your stories. What a fantastic time you had! I appreciate your broad perspective valuing all kinds of good music, and your willingness to share your experiences and insights. Tim Mossberger, thank you so much for researching and interviewing Tim K. to add greatly to our knowledge of the Avett Brothers’ history — you uncovered another gold mine here!

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