Butcher Knives - Ethan Cohen / by E

Find out what banjo player Ethan Cohen has to say about Butcher Knives' multi-cultural sound 

What first got you interested in making music?

Ethan Cohen: I saw a huge cardboard cutout of Elvis in front of a guitar store when I was walking down Bleecker Street in Manhattan with my mom and I thought it was cool and started asking my parents for a guitar. I was eight so that was what started me playing music.

You've got a pretty large group of artists; how did you all meet and decide to make music?

I actually found them on the internet. They were looking for a banjo player who also plays guitar, lives in New York, and was interested in playing punk and world music; I don't think there's another instrument player who meets those criteria.

What words would you use to describe Butcher Knives' sound?

Eclectic, International, Raucous.

Have you got a favorite track to perform live?

Probably "Drunken Down"; I think it's a great song and we do an extended version of it when we play it live. It has, like, a kind of a fiddle break type melody, I guess I would call it a break down, that is a lot of fun to play. There's an audience participation part of it that everyone seems to always get into so it's one of the high energy ones; we go out into the crowd and stuff and I always enjoy doing it.

The music video for "Tell Me Why" is great; how did you come up with the idea for a short suspense film versus a regular music video?

Well, our singer/percussionist, Nacho, is a film maker - that's how he pays his rent - so he's always been very interested in film noir and he wanted to make a music video that was a film noir type; sort of somewhere in between film noir and Reservoir Dogs and that's how he wanted to do the video and we all thought it was a cool idea so  that's how he did it. That was shot and edited by him; the parts that have him in it were shot by his brother, but for the most part he did all the shooting: he certainly did all the editing and post production.

How does the album writing process work with so many different artists?

There's kind of a distinction in the creative process between the recorded product and the live show. The way that we play the song live is actually quite different from the way they are on the album. It's still in the same style, but they're tweaked differently. The songs are written, primarily, by Nacho and Nikko, who's the guitarist, and Nikko has a recording studio and they bring a relatively finished product to the band and then we, you know, obviously they don't play banjo, they don't play keyboard, they don't play drums, so they do everything on the computer and then bring it to the band and we finish it off like that. But the core of the songwriting is done by Nacho and Nikko.

So how are the tracks different live?

They are more punky and louder. For example, "Butcher Knives Unite" has kind of a pop vibe in the recording and it's actually programmed drums on that but, when we do that live, it's very much a ska song with rapping in various languages over it; there's also a bunch of singing in French and Arabic. Our drummer, Amine, his singing isn't on the album, but he does all of that live: in "Butcher Knives Unite" there's a long section with Amine doing Middle Eastern singing that did not make it onto the album or the extended part in "Drunken Down".

You know, we build in a bunch of stages for audience participation and, in general, we're not playing acoustic instruments, except for the accordion and the upright bass when we're on stage, just because it's not practical in those night clubs that we're playing. So, I would be playing an electric banjo instead of an acoustic banjo and using a distortion pedal so the net result is that everything is louder and more aggressive.

What would you be doing if you weren't in music?

Sleeping in a gutter [Laughs]. I play in a few bands and, if I wasn't doing that, I would be insane.

Have you got any new tracks in the works?

We do. We have a bunch of new material and we are going to be putting out a music video in the near future for "American Dream"; we just finished the third of three shoots and we've got some new songs that we're going to record pretty soon and we'll be looking at, probably, an EP or an album sometime next year.

What barriers have you run into as a musician; has anything held you back?

I wouldn't say anything necessarily holds me back; I would say there are some missed opportunities, but we just do what we're doing and do our best at it. I mean, I'm not measuring the success of my life by how much money I'm making playing music so, I wouldn't say there have been any major barriers.

As a band, I think one barrier is that we're not always singing in English. It's tough to bring that kind of music to the masses because it's not pop and it's not necessarily in English so I don't know how radio friendly it is but, yeah, we're a live band so that's all good.

What do you want people to take away from Butcher Knives music?

There are a lot of great musical traditions around the world and, though they might be extremely different from one another, they are always compatible and you can always take influence from a plethora of styles and traditions and genres. You can mix blue grass banjo with a French accordion and cumbia and punk rock and come up with something that's cohesive and the musical and cultural clash that happens in that can be a rewarding and beautiful result. 

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