interview by PAIGE SILVERIA
portraits by JASPER BRIGGS
If “underground” still means something, you might ask the surfer, singer, guitarist, artist, filmmaker, and photographer Alex Knost just what that is. He does them all with energy and style. He transformed a giant warehouse, on the coast, just outside of Los Angeles, into his studio and a workspace for his band, Tomorrows Tulips. He also turned the space into the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center, a hub for his artist and musicians friends to stay and work.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Tell me about your upbringing in Orange County — it looks like an idyllic California childhood.
ALEX KNOST — I grew up in Costa Mesa, which is just south of Los Angeles. We were close to the beach, and at the time there were a lot of industrial spaces. My family was kind of on the edge of the wealthy, sort of stereotypical white Orange County. My dad was a house painter and a surfer — he was constantly at the beach — and my mother taught water aerobics for elderly people. Because of my father’s job, there were all of these large buckets of paint around the house. So, that’s how I got an introduction into making paintings. You know, if you have it in front of you in your formative years, it’s like making a fort out of your parents’ couch cushions. It’s an extension of that.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What would you paint?
ALEX KNOST — Anything. Old bikes, skateboard decks, surfboards, paper, and canvas.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Growing up, did you have a perception that Southern California was different from the rest of the world and that it had a pretty sizable cultural impact globally?
ALEX KNOST — I started traveling at a young age because of surfing, and even before that, I wanted to leave town — leave my upbringing. I went to all of these places, but I always ended up coming back to California. I love traveling, but I’ve never completely uprooted. I came to the conclusion this place has a purpose — the gravitation toward it makes sense to me now. In Southern California, you have accessibility to a lot of industrial tools. You’re independent because you have an automobile. You have access to the desert. I think there’s a glamour to that. When I was young, I had this impression that it wasn’t where I wanted to be. It wasn’t cool. In high school, you’re fetishizing different places, like New York, where punk rock came to fruition. I think there was that fantasy. When you’re young, you want to be a part of those things. But then, you go to New York, for instance, and you actually can’t afford to be a part of those groups anymore. It’s pretty hard to be a functioning artist there now. You have to either already be famous, or already have money, or come from money. It’s seemingly much easier in Orange County and Los Angeles County. There’s plenty of space.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Do you think it’s simply the access to affordable rent, or do you think it’s more than that?
ALEX KNOST — It’s just more accessibility. You can go into a vacant warehouse and have band practice. A lot of bands that I know and have come into contact with are functioning here because it’s easier. You don’t have to work a full-time job. That’s something that in other places is harder, due to weather or rent. My friends have a band, and they live together and own a record store in Lincoln Heights, and they can survive on that. And create a large body of work.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Is there a cultural divide between OC [Orange County] and LA?
ALEX KNOST — No, it’s so close. And when you’re young, you get in the car and go see other bands and other musicians in LA, and surfers in Malibu. There’s also a really killer Hispanic community in Los Angeles. There are great bands and great people.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Via this small, creative community, you’ve been able to work with some talented figures in surfing, art, music, and fashion. Why do you think that is?
ALEX KNOST — I think I’m pretty enthusiastic about all of those mediums. To a certain degree, the more you reach out, the easier it is to feel something, touch something… And I feel a sort of kinship. Once you work with someone and establish connections, you realize that it’s exciting to open this dialogue. A lot of people are really supportive of one another in the creative community. People don’t look at it as networking or trying to get something.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Tell me about the space you opened, the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center.
ALEX KNOST — It’s really just a warehouse. We’ve had it for about a year and half. Prior to that, it was a work space for myself and the band that I play in, Tomorrows Tulips. We’d use it to write or record in, or to shoot some music video. It naturally became something slightly larger. Other bands asked to use it, too. It became a revolving door for artists wanting to create work — a makeshift studio residency of some sort.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What caused you to open it to the public?
ALEX KNOST — A friend, Justin Adams, living in my house, made this really great body of work that he didn’t want to share with anyone. But
I convinced him that his stuff should be shown, that it’d be nice to curate this work. I romanticize galleries as this catalyst. To me, it kind of completes the work. So, that’s how we started the space. And when I say we started it, I mean we gave it a coat of paint and cleaned it up. Since then, we’ve had different events and shows. The space metamorphosed over time, with every situation. For example, after Justin’s show, we had a Printed Matter–type show. After that, a band from Orange County called Power Lunch converted the gallery into an all-analog recording studio and recorded an album. It doesn’t have to be a defined organism. It translates. It has appendages. You can do anything with it.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How has surfing influenced your perception of art and your creative process?
ALEX KNOST — When I was younger, I tried to isolate these things that I was interested in. It’s, like, “jack of all trades, master of none” — too many hats destroy success. But as I get older, and as I meet more people, it’s changed. When I got into punk rock, subconsciously I didn’t want people to view me as a surfer. Ironically, now there are plenty of bands that I know in and around LA that are musicians first, but are putting a Wilson family/Beach Boys spin on it. People are interested in having the appeal of a surf band. So, now it’s more comfortable. People are slightly less paranoid and territorial than they once were.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What was it like working with Acne Studios?
ALEX KNOST — For Acne, they’d previously designed the Blå Konst collection and used Tomorrows Tulips as their muse for it. So, I met up with Jonny [Johansson, Acne’s founder], and basically he started a collection that was inspired by something that he saw from far away, this consistent aesthetic. My direct involvement was shooting the campaign. He felt that it would give the collection some sort of sincerity because it was, in part, inspired by me. I was contracted to do something that I feel quite comfortable doing, working with that palette and shooting photos. He wanted me to recreate things that were simplistic, like my Instagram account, or the aesthetic of our album cover, or my personal photography — which consisted of an arrangement of sweaters, like a photogenic painting. So, I did that for them, and the photos kind of sealed the deal.
PAIGE SILVERIA — You also worked with RVCA on a clothing collection years ago?
ALEX KNOST — Yeah, it takes a lot of time to do something like that. It’s like having to write an album. Each item of clothing is like a song, and you need to make sure that the recording is spot-on. It was time-consuming, but it was interesting to work with a different medium.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Would you want to continue to work in fashion?
ALEX KNOST — Well, there are already so many clothes being made. You have to be really interested in it. But that’s something that will always be at arm’s reach.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Before creating the musical project Glitterbust, you and Kim Gordon worked together on her visual artwork, correct?
ALEX KNOST — Well, she’s incredible. Obviously, I was quite humbled to be in her presence. I became acquainted with her through a mutual friend, and she was talking about fiberglass work. Me, working with surfboards, I know how to use fiberglass — or, at least, I think I do. And I just ended up assisting her in the studio for a few days. And when people are around each other conversing about music… We ended up making a record that was really awesome, and that I feel really good about. We got to make a music video. It was a great project to be able to do.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Did you learn anything from the experience?
)ALEX KNOST — She’s a strong, smart woman. She has this absolute freedom about her creative process. She knows what she likes and what makes her feel comfortable. She has
a really expressionistic way of doing it. There’s this really primal element — she’s really free. I guess that comes from being confident and experienced. It was really fulfilling, that energy.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What was composing the album like? Where did you do it?
ALEX KNOST — In a couple of different spots. We did some of it in Northampton, [Massachusetts, where Gordon used to live]. And then we did some in Los Angeles, in this really small, awesome studio. Then we went north to the Pump House, which I’ve worked at before with Tomorrows Tulips. We did a lot of overdubbing there.
It had an East Coast–West Coast feel.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Tell me about the showcase “All the Instruments Agree” at the Hammer Museum, where you performed with legends like Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.
ALEX KNOST — It was great. The music we made wasn’t very typical. Although there are elements of improv in Tomorrows Tulips, it’s not really 100% improv. Glitterbust performances are: it’s unspoken; it’s not really scripted. I think it makes it really tasteful and modern in that sense. No drums, no rhythm section. It lends itself to be all it can be in that form. I don’t think it’d be as good if you repeated it to death in a practice space. The deconstruction of it is what made it fruitful.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How do you think the recent rapid spread of information online has affected the creative community?
ALEX KNOST — There’s just more accessibility. It can be insider art and outsider art. Everything’s exposed. You talk about someone like Brent and Darren Rademaker, with their band Further in the ’90s — the tangibility of that was zines and posters and word of mouth and touring. That still exists, but now it’s hyperactive. You can see things instantaneously, and it swells much larger. I can imagine there was more intimacy pre-Internet, and the underground was very deep. The underground is thriving, but now you can just find it in your pocket rather than pinned to the walls of a record store.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Can you have an underground when everything is so exposed?
ALEX KNOST — Yeah — as far as I can tell, it’s spirit. And financial success in music is nonexistent. There’s no record industry. Unless you’re Rihanna or Cardi B, rock bands aren’t going out and buying limousines. All the bands I know, even if they make a few thousand bucks a night, are breaking even, maybe. It’s completely underground in that respect. You don’t have pressure from the label to sell records and be on the radio because now everyone has their own radio. The Internet gives all artistry this really awesome place because success isn’t measured in sales. It’s measured in what you want it to be. It’s freedom. And you have all of these people doing different things. It makes it fucking awesome. You don’t have to make butt rock. No Guns N’ Roses in the picture — no boy bands. With Tomorrows Tulips, Burger Records, our label, has never told us what we can and can’t do. That’s something I really feel good about. They’ve never told us what we should put on our album, or what chorus we should double up on. It’s not even in eye-rolling territory. That kind of thinking is so out to lunch in the environment that surrounds me. I’m excited to be a part of it.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What else is driving the westward diaspora?
ALEX KNOST — It’s an age-old migration pattern, and it’s a contrast in characters. People trip out on each other. And don’t forget Mexican food is really enticing here. And people are also just running out of space. Like, people from San Francisco are moving down because rent is through the roof there. I imagine it’s just crowded and expensive in New York. For myself, I’m just periodically checking in with New York and listening to bands’ new albums.
CONCEPTUAL ART CENTER
1930 PLACENTIA AVE
COSTA MESA CA 92627