Unlike so many musicians who are blissfully unaware of the gory inner workings of the music industry sausage factory, Joe Haege of 31Knots knows all and sees all. After a decade together and on the cusp of record number six, Worried Well, Haege thinks he has it all figured out: "How do you gauge cult status until someone of prominence says you have cult status? On that front, I'm definitely sure we have cult status because I have no money in the bank."
The band—Haege, backed by a rhythm section of Jay Winebrenner on bass, and long-distance drummer (he's been based in San Francisco since joining the band five years back) Jay Pellicci—has always taken a twisted pride in building detailed monuments of post-punk precision, then mercifully tearing them down upon their next recording. It's earned them the status of permanent bridesmaids, a rare band that has found vast success in both Europe and Japan, but far less here in the States. While this has always been a matter of frustration for the band, Haege admits that their drive is eerily akin to that of a junkie: "We come home and it's back to working and trying to feed the addiction of wanting to put out records. If you're not making money, you have to find ways to get it. There're times where you feel like a total addict."
While the band's early days were marked by Haege's rigid yelp and an onstage persona that featured guitars worn to the neck, it's been long since eclipsed by an interactive frontman who howls and struts like a malevolent carnival barker—and that's just when he's off the stage. Like the sinister Mr. Dark from Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, Haege slices through the crowd like a madman stalking the midway. Back in front of the mic, and throughout Worried Well, Haege has established himself as a jittery representative of punk rock fury and a stylish level of artistic expression—basically, the man is finally a true rock 'n' roll frontman.
But if you were hoping that record number six came with a refined ray of hope, you'll most likely be crushed by Worried Well's dystopian fever dreams of Darwinistic misery: On this record, the end is always nigh. Even as a glorious all-female chorus kicks in midway through the album's finest moment, "Compass Commands," they refuse to balance Haege's desperate vocal pleas with a dose of sweetness; instead they answer his soul-searching plea for "the universal rule of thumb" with the assertion that in life it's "kill or be killed." All of this is set to an ambitious instrumental background of a clumsy piano line that evolves into a spazzy skronking interlude and more than a few reckless vocal directions that bottleneck together to form a magnificent and baffling crescendo. Essentially it's the same seas this trio have been sailing for the past 10 years, a bold musical direction that eschews the simple answers—and choruses—in favor of trudging through new ground, even if it leaves the casual listener confused and adrift in their wake.
Entering the stage of their career where the band happily no longer bows to popular opinion or public perception—as much as a post-prog ensemble could ever really care about such things—Haege describes the reaction of Corrina Repp, his bandmate (and his better half) in his other artistic endeavor, Tu Fawning: "She said, 'Wow, you guys don't give a fuck. I know you care, but obviously you're not going to let someone or some hidden voice dictate what you're going to do.'"