Getting to Know SlomoJoe: An Interview with Joe Knapp
Contrary to the pace his nickname might suggest, Joe Knapp, better known by most of Bozeman as SlomoJoe, has been living in a state of fast-forward since the beginning of the summer. “I had a really busy month of August,” he explains as he takes a seat in his studio. “I must have played 28 or 29 gigs in August alone, so it was kind of nutty.” Nutty, here, is an understatement. Between solo gigs, rehearsing for a rock musical, practices and performances with numerous active bands, and teaching guitar lessons to Bozeman’s aspiring musicians, Knapp must not have much time for basic human comforts like eating and sleeping—which makes his time sacrifice for an interview that much more generous.
But that’s just the kind of guy Joe Knapp is. As he opens up about music, Bozeman, and life, I quickly understand why he’s won the Bozeman’s Choice award for solo musician four years in a row, why local venues invite him to perform week after week, and why our town’s music scene would be so much less vibrant without him. Few people devote as much time and effort to entertaining their communities. Knapp has carried this work ethic through most of his life; he attributes much of his talent to “really just cracking away and doing it forever.”
A Guitar, a Name, and a Dream
Growing up in Alaska, Knapp began his relationship with music at the age of eight, as a piano student. His teacher organized a band for all the students, which he remembers playing in through the sixth grade. The experience of collaborating and performing during such formative years gave him a taste of a future in music, but he didn’t pick up a guitar until he was twelve and didn’t practice seriously until he turned sixteen.
At this age, he did what any sensible teenager with a cool guitar, blossoming talent, and a head full of ambition would, and should, do: He formed a punk rock garage band. During these influential high school years, his friend Jeff Harbor unknowingly gifted him the moniker that he would later embrace onstage, “SlomoJoe.” Knapp jokes that Harbor first provided the nickname as an insult, “probably when I was taking forever getting ready to go skiing.”
Today, Knapp doesn’t get to spend nearly as much time on the slopes, although he admits that the skiing in Montana is preferable to the “little hill [with] really wet snow” he used to ride near Juneau, Alaska. These days, he plans his alpine adventures around après-ski gigs he’s booked at resorts like Bridger Bowl, Big Sky, and Grand Targhee.
Knapp’s love for the mountains doesn’t melt when the snow does. In the summer, he spends his limited free time hiking scenic trails through Paradise Valley, White Sulphur Springs, and, most recently, along the Kootenai River, in the far northwest corner of Montana. “There’s this crystal-blue water,” he tells me, recalling his most recent vacation, “and I found some cool little swimming holes. I did a bunch of hikes up there and camped. I like that whole area up there. It’s awesome in the summer.”
His appreciation for the outdoors, especially the wildlife populating Montana and Alaska, bleeds into his work, especially apparent in the images he posts on social media. He accompanies many event promos on his Instagram page (@slomojoseph) with illustrations of his favorite animals, like foxes, bears, and antelope. An album cover for his first professional band, SlomoJoe and the Knowshows, features a mountain goat perched on a rocky slope overlooking a sunset-orange river. He titled the album, available for streaming on Spotify, Shaleface Ungulate.
Arts in the Armory
Knapp formed SlomoJoe and the Knowshows in 2004, returning to Bozeman after spending three years in Boston. “I did play a little bit in a band in Boston,” he says, “but it changed members a lot. It was cool, but when I moved back here, it was more like my own band.” This period in Knapp’s life functioned as something of a renaissance, brought about in large part by his unique living situation. “By the end of that year,” he recalls, “I started renting space in the Armory building.”
The Bozeman Armory, a building constructed downtown in response to the Pearl Harbor attack and largely abandoned afterward, was home to many artists at the time. “I somehow ended up having the keys to the whole building,” Knapp reminisces. “There was a gym, and this whole giant basement, and all these rooms to go explore and play in. Through the Armory, that’s where all of the sudden, you’re in four bands.”
The Armory, which has since developed into the lobby of a nine-story luxury hotel—perhaps the very antithesis of everything it represented to its early-2000s tenants—became an incubator for up-and-coming talent. Within its crumbling walls, Knapp jammed with Adam Platt of the band Niche and Chris Donahue of the Meatskin Jubilee Jug Band—a group whose music is just as fun to listen to as its eye-catching name suggests. Knapp describes the latter as “an old-timey jug band with a washed-up bass, a jug, banjoes, and guitars,” in which all members sang and put on a wildly entertaining show. Although the band no longer exists, YouTube still hosts some of its more memorable performances.
A Spectrum of Influences
Adam Platt and Chris Donahue are the first names Joe offers when I ask about his biggest musical influences. Along with local musician Ben Spangler, front man of the Touchers, these artists, in Knapp’s words, “gave me a lot of confidence in songwriting and showed me how to rock.” That Knapp should point to local artists first, before naming any mainstream influences, speaks to his love for this community and the value he places on homegrown music.
Knapp indulges this uncultured interviewer, however, by proceeding to name some more recognizable bands, but what really stands out is the sheer range of genres from which he’s drawn. He mentions the obvious influences, the hard rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, but then goes on to name jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, classic country singer Willie Nelson, and blues artist Mississippi John Hurt. Additionally, he enjoys listening to funk, hip-hop, and reggae, drawing new techniques from as wide a pool as possible—save for one irredeemable genre. “There’s not much I don’t like,” he admits. “The only thing I really don’t like would be ‘bro’ country.” He laughs as he says this, but for anyone tired of lyrics about big trucks and girls in tight jeans, he makes a very reasonable point.
Whittled and Pointed Songwriting
In contrast to the generic lyrics-by-committee associated with his least favorite genre, Knapp sets out to write songs that say something important without being “too obvious.” He explains, “I write a lot. Sometimes, things marinate for a long time. I’m kind of a stickler with words, so if I’m not happy with the words, I’ll keep whittling them down.” He compares his process to that of a professional writer, where “you have multiple drafts of the thing before you get it to where you like it, because you want to be happy with it forever.”
Just as Knapp’s sound has shifted from the angry punk of his early garage band to the “heavy, psychedelic” sound of Shaleface Ungulate, so has the content of his lyrics changed with the passing of time. “Now that I’m getting older,” he says, “I have more personal experience, so I’m writing more about things that have happened, things that I’ve seen. When you’re younger, you’re having to draw more from things you’ve read, other people’s stories, which is great, too. You have more loose ideas, a thought or sentiment, and you write based off that. Nowadays, it’s maybe a little more pointed—what things are about.” Simultaneously scaring and inspiring me, he continues, “You have a bajillion failed relationships by the time you get in your thirties, so you have a lot of those things to write about.”
Something to Write About
Looking back on a crazy career nearing two decades, however, Knapp draws inspiration from more than just relationships. He figures, “I could write a book just on stories from the Filling Station, ‘cause I’ve seen some wacky stuff there over the years.” The Filling Station is just one local venue of the many which Knapp graces regularly, but it’s home to a performance he describes as “one of the best and worst ones in the same night.”
During a particularly rowdy release concert for Axolotl, the most recent album from one of Knapp’s bands, the Salamanders, a guitarist climbed the wall and hung from a ceiling beam—an act which, for those who have never been in attendance, makes total sense in the context of an album release party. Knapp recalls, “It was a really great night, going awesome… But he jumped off [the beam], landed really hard, and broke his back onstage.” To this bandmember’s credit, he finished the song before driving to the hospital and earning a brace for the rest of the summer.
Usually, Knapp’s concerts don’t culminate with the near paralysis of a fellow musician, but the same amount of fun, occasionally anarchic energy crackles whether he’s playing his usual local venues, like Bridger Brewing, the Filling Station, and the Eagles Lodge, or more distant stages under the mountains, like Big Sky and the Pine Creek Lodge in Livingston.
In August, he performed at the Rialto Theatre in Freak Out! The Musical, a puppet show for which he composed all the music. The musical has become a yearly tradition, and he enjoys seeing his work come to life through an eighteen-man squad of puppeteers and musicians. You can listen to the full album on the streaming service Bandcamp.
If you missed the musical this year, you still have plenty of chances to catch Knapp at any of his gigs this month. He plays at the Eagles Lodge, with one of his original bands, the Dead Yellers, on the 11th and 12th, and plays solo at Bozeman Spirits on the 15th. Then, he returns to the Filling Station for a Halloween show, followed by a performance from his Grateful Dead cover band, Dead Sky, on November 1st—the Day of the Dead.
A Genuine Artist
In addition to maintaining a full performance schedule, Knapp also teaches lessons in guitar, ukulele, and bass, and he’s accepting new students for the slower winter months. To those unable to attend his lessons but still pursuing a similarly creative life, he offers the following advice: “Just say yes to gigs, because they’re all a different experience. Don’t be bummed out if there’s nobody there. I’ve played gigs with nobody there all the time, and that’s just a paid practice. Just be happy to be doing it; even if it’s a weird circumstance, give it your all every time.”
His advice translates to just about any life path, accompanied by the values he stresses when he adds, “And honesty. First and foremost, honesty. Musicians are not actors. You should be something different, very authentic and honest. People will know right away if you’re not being genuine.”
Thanks to his genuine, friendly nature, Joe Knapp is an extremely engaging interview subject and a treat to listen to onstage. Make sure to catch him at one of his events this month, especially if you’re just starting to dip your feet in Bozeman’s music scene. You’ll find that SlomoJoe knows how to put on a show.