It’s Saturday night at Stage Nine. Sharp Like Knives are set to play their CD release show. The place is packed, almost too packed for skinny, mop-haired and bespectacled frontman Paul Hammond.
“This is almost overwhelming,” Hammond says, looking around at the nearly shoulder-to-shoulder audience threatening to swallow him up. “I didn’t think there’d be so many people here.”
It happens only once in awhile in the city. A band starts a buzz that grows to a roar. Many can’t capitalize on that word of mouth, the few lucky others go on to respectable careers. There’s no doubt that there’s electricity in the air tonight and the band doesn’t disappoint.
Kicking off with “No Pressure,” the heavy guitar riffs from Greg Boone make way for the slithering rhythm attack of bassist Mark Gillis and drummer Adam Seward, laced with the high-octave keyboard icing of sailor-suited Matt Packman. Soon enough, the majority of the people in the room are moving to the beat. Two songs in, a sing-shouting Hammond is so covered in sweat that he loses his glasses, revealing a rock star charisma unapparent only a song before. Running through their songs about faith, sex and fickle scenesters, Sharp Like Knives have drawn a line in the sand and taken no prisoners.
But bring it up after the show and it’s a different story altogether. They’re excited but tired. When someone asks where the after-party is, they feign ignorance with a yawn. The act named after a razor-like edge is surprisingly dull on a triumphant night.“I’ve got to take my sister out tomorrow,” the quiet Seward says with a shrug. “I can’t get all crazy tonight.”
There’s something happening in the Halifax underground. Listen closely, talk to music fans at some of the shows and a sound starts to form, connected through friendships, similar influences and ideas. Halifax is in the midst of an independent musical resurgence. Not since the early ’90s have there been so many young bands making new sounds this vibrant and exciting. One of the bands at the forefront of this movement is the dance-punk five-piece Sharp Like Knives, whether they care to put themselves in that position or not.
“We don’t want to be the next Sloan,” says Boone over coffee in a north end Halifax cafe. “That major-label, MuchMusic-regular-rotation isn’t really me.”
“I don’t think it would help our band,” Hammond says. “I actually think it would hurt it. We’ve been talking about videos and we were talking about the place we were at that we have to be careful. If we’re not careful, we could be promoted as an Alexisonfire band and that just scares the shit out of me.”
What makes the current movement so unique is it’s tough to categorize as a particular sound. No two bands are alike. Special Noise does garage rock. Windom Earle, which features the Knives’ Boone, creates indie synth-pop. Radarfame, a side venture for Seward and Gillis, is calculated post-punk math rock. Other bands which are arguably part of the scene include the Burdocks, the Hold, Dog Day and to some extent, the Maynards, BA Johnston, Stolen Minks and the Sweet Tenders. Sharp Like Knives successfully mixes the danceable accessibility of the Rapture through the harsh edges of skate hardcore.
The ties between the groups are a strong sense of unity, respect and purpose. If an outsider dares suggest to anyone who is a part of the scene that the attitude may promote gossip and an air of pretentiousness, he or she is soon enduring cold stares and a quiet night alone in a full bar.
“Everyone that we know in bands helps us out some way,” red-haired bassist Mark Gillis says. “It’s like, ‘If you need to do this, go talk to this guy or go here for this.”
How Sharp Like Knives became one of the innovators in a new east coast movement is just as difficult to explain. Not one of the band members has lived his entire life in the city the band now calls home, with only Boone living in Halifax for a length of time before moving to Charlottetown for a few years. Both Gillis and Seward grew up in Cape Breton listening to metal and punk. Hammond lived in London, Ontario most of his life, listening to hardcore and appreciating the sounds of pre-Constantines project Shoulder. Packman met Boone in high school in Prince Edward Island. They all moved to Halifax a few years ago and played in various other groups before an interest in forming something “lighter and fun” drew them together in 2003.
“He was like, ‘What were you thinking?’” Boone says about meeting Hammond. “And I said, ‘I was thinking about a really good party band.’ But this band had been in the works for a ridiculously long time before it actually happened.”
It only took a handful of gigs before people took notice, with one local promoter inviting the five of them to play Keithsfest in September 2004. At the time the Coast listed the Sharp Like Knives appearance as a Sure Thing, a story that highlighted the act as brazenly cocky for a band so young. But the guys say that was more a case of miscommunication rather than overconfidence in their abilities. It was a lesson well learned.
“It was funny and anyone who knows us knew it was a joke,” Boone says. “And for anyone who doesn’t know us, it was like ‘Oh well, when they meet me then they’ll know.’ We’re modest, so we would never really say anything like that. Then it got printed.”
In fact, Boone insists that the band is smug about their place in the Halifax scene—a smugness partly brought on by their DIY skate-punk upbringing. The group recorded their debut No Pressure on the cheap with first-time producer Andrew March, drummer for the Museum Pieces and member of the reggae Verbal Warning. They recorded the album in just under a month in the basement of the Halifax Shambhala School. Hammond, who along with the Burdocks’ Seth Smith is the Yo Rodeo! graphic design team, provided direction for the artwork.
The results are raw and scrappy, but the energy shines through with Packman’s well-placed keyboards, manic rhythms, well-placed handclaps and pointed lyrics. Written mostly by Hammond with assistance from Boone, the songs discuss subjects such as the failure of a no-strings relationship (“No Pressure”), as well as questioning one’s faith and one’s place in the early 21st century (“Holy Gaud,” “No Skills”).
Part of the religious undertone comes from Hammond’s upbringing in a spilt-religion household. His mother was a devout Catholic while his father wasn’t religious at all. He was made to go to church until he was in eighth grade, at which point his parents, particularly his father, allowed him to make his own decision about spirituality.
“I write about stuff that I’m interested in or stuff that I feel is important,” Hammond says. “I’m just not interested in writing about stuff that doesn’t have any substance. That doesn’t mean that every song has to have a hard topic. I always try to be aware of not being too negative.”
Rather than get ahead of themselves, Sharp Like Knives are more apt to take a slow approach to their musical career. All of them say they’d like to make enough money to make another record, tour and maybe do a remix of some of their more danceable numbers.
“I think with the whole dance-punk genre that a lot of those bands forgot the punk part of dance,” Boone says. “They write good songs that are the be-all-end-all for major record labels. They’re not bringing anything new to the table, they just sound pretty. They’re writing songs for car ads, not to have fun to.”
Hammond backs him up. “We’re sitting in a good place right now,” he says. “We basically could go in any direction. It’s all about fun, dancing and loud, but it doesn’t have to be anything specific.”
Instead of becoming the next big thing in the dance-rock trend, Sharp Like Knives is quite content to take things as they come, supporting their local friends and improving on the sound that moves the masses in rock clubs anywhere.
“You can say that there are bands that made big footprints on the scene or changed what was going on for a period of time, but I don’t know if I would say that we did that,” Hammond says. “I don’t think we’ve been around long enough to have done that.”
Sharp Like Knives w/Hotshotrobot and The Establishment, September 14 at Reflections, 5184 Sackville, 10pm, $3.