Chicago-based hard rock duo Lemon Knife, akin to a reverse White Strips, with Mia Blixt-Shehan (bass, guitar, vocals) and John Retterer-Moore (drums, vocals), recently released their album, Ignite!
Formed by kindred nerds Blixt-Shehan and Retterer-Moore in the spring of 2017, they have since played 50+ shows at a variety of Chicago venues, including Beat Kitchen, Cubby Bear, and Reggie’s, alongside several memorable DIY shows. Their tracks have received radio play by stations such as WKQX’s Demo 312, WIIT, and WRSE, the band has appeared for live sessions on WHPK and WZRD, and their song “Cold Burn” has received 3000+ streams on Spotify after resonating with the asexual community.
They released their first album, Songs About Water and Death, in April 2018, their second album, I Know That This is Vitriol, in December 2019, and their third album, Endlessly Expanding, in May 2021, which also saw the release of their first music video for the song “Two Atomic Heroes.”
Their latest album, Ignite!, is their most sonically varied to date, including the dancey garage punk of the title track, the haunting folk of “Kirkwald in a Day,” and the southern rock of “Grow Old in Maine.”
Guitar Girl Magazine spoke with Mia Blixt-Shehan to find out more about the inspiration for Ignite!, how she got started in music and her gear.
What inspired your latest album, Ignite!?
The world is in a severely chaotic place and sometimes it really does feel like the apocalypse is fast approaching. ‘Ignite!’ is full of dystopic songs influenced by that, but there’s a dash of hope there because it’s also a commemoration of our wedding, which happened last spring–in the madness going on around us, we can still find comfort in each other. Musically, we fool around with genres outside of the usual hard rock and punk we do–though there’s still plenty of those to be found!
What kind of guitar, pedals, and amp are you currently using?
My #1 workhorse is a Fender Jazz Bass. My effects setup is more bare-bones than people appear to expect—it’s an enormous compliment, but never fails to tickle my funny bone, that at several shows someone’s come up at the end asking, ‘So what’s your pedalboard look like?!’ only to be answered by my lamely gesturing down at the two scrappy board-less pedals at my feet. Those two pedals are a Catalinbread RAH overdrive with the gain cranked up to 11 and a TC Electronic Sub ‘n’ Up octave pedal—though I programmed the Sub out of it, I just have an upper octave on.
Sometimes I want to add something else for a song or two, and for those times I have a Digitech Artist Series Brian May multi-effect pedal—some wild things have been coaxed out of that through the years I’ve had it. More and more lately I’ve been bringing out my six-string guitar as well, and that’s a Brian May Guitars Special. My plectrums are exclusively various sizes of coins…I think I’ve heard this set of behaviors referred to as “fangirling” …ah, well. They’re all great tools even without the name attached, to be clear! I use the guitar paired with the same pedals I use with the bass.
As for amps, I’m actually pretty much fully ampless at this point–we don’t own a car and I didn’t have my license until very recently, and more than once I dollied an amp over on the Chicago ‘L’ only to have the sound person tell me ‘eh, we don’t need that,’ so I’m not exactly inclined to have that on hand on a regular basis. I do now have a dedicated DI/preamp, though, an Electro-Harmonix Battalion. Great little unit.
How do you keep your sound consistent on stage?
I’d say probably 70% of my sound is in the pedals I use, so that makes the task pretty easy even if the amplification varies by venue. It’s gotten even easier since employing the Battalion because now a piece of the core sound equipment is always the same as well.
How did you get started in music?
Music was always a major part of my family and household. There was an old grand piano in the front room. The good news is that playing it and listening to it granted me ‘perfect’ pitch–the bad news is it was always a little flat, so I always have to tune things a little sharper than my brain wants me to! There was a huge CD collection in our basement, too, and I had a portable player I’d take with me on the school bus. I’d grab things at random and heard a lot that stuck with me that way–the other kids found me a bit odd carrying a Rod Stewart compilation when they had Britney Spears and N*SYNC, but that’s all right. Before that, legend has it that playing Neil Young would stop me kicking in the womb–lo and behold, he was my very first favorite artist after I came out. And when I was four, my habit of random grabbing and inserting was already prevalent, and I ended up watching a rockumentary on the Who called ‘The Kids Are Alright’–my music taste immediately took a turn for the explosive and I resolved that I wanted to be a rock musician.
What is your definition of tone? And is your tone evolving?
Interesting question! I’d say tone is the voice of an instrument–just like a human might have a delicate soprano or a warm baritone or a dramatic tenor, a bass can have a distorted snarl or a smoothed-out cool, or a guitar can have an abrasive twang or an atmospheric hum. I think even though my equipment and effects largely stay the same at their core, my tone is evolving a little bit by nature because I’m becoming a better player as I go and gaining more confidence, so I think there’s much more of a bang to the notes I play than there was on, for instance, the debut album. I’ve been more inclined to add more different stuff to get more places in our songwriting, so we’ll see what else happens in future releases and performances.
What inspires your writing? Do you draw inspiration from poems, music, TV, or other media?
I’m largely the melodic composer in Lemon Knife–I do write a lyric here and there, but lyrics are primarily John’s role, which he of course does brilliantly. My inspiration mostly comes from other music for certain. There’s a core set of influences in my head that gets spilled onto a recording pretty frequently–Queen and their complex camp and their willingness to try anything once, The Who and the rip-roaring rhythm chords of Pete Townshend and the Olympian rhythm section of Entwistle and Moon, Muse and the Bellamy/Wolstenholme riff hammer and the wide-ranging melodrama of the Bellamy vocal, Royal Blood and…literally everything about them, no surprise there. Very often I’ll be sparked to write a certain style of song after seeing a particularly good concert–I finally properly got the dancey song we’d been trying to write down after we saw Franz Ferdinand, and we’re currently putting together a song for the next release that has a big glam-punk riff I jotted down last year after we saw the Manic Street Preachers. Of course, it could be anything. I’ve got a riff in my vault that came from experimenting with this really annoyingly perky soundtrack of one of the machines in a great video game called ‘Arcade Paradise.’ If that ever comes to fruition, I want to get us on a podcast dissecting that song just so they have to play that clip as reference…
What can you share about your writing process?
The core riffs tend to come first, with a few exceptions where John wrote the lyrics, and I constructed something around them. Most of the time, those riffs will either be something we improvised in our rehearsal room or something John mentions in an outside conversation, which can be anywhere from ‘Mia, what if we did a riff that’s like such-and-such song?’ to ‘Can you come up with a riff that’s stompy?’ or ‘Can we do a song that feels like a hippo?’ And I translate whatever was said…obviously some of these prompts are easier than others, but they always work out! Sometimes a riff will be something I arbitrarily thought of a long time ago and recorded on my phone–I have a nice little digital vault that I listen back to sometimes to see what we can use. Then, normally at another rehearsal, we run through those riffs and structure them into an actual song–John tends to take the helm on this, he’s got a great sense of how things should transition into each other and how long each piece should last. Then I come up with a melody to the song and either record it on the phone and shoot it over or create sheet music so John can easily see where the words will go, depending on how much time we’re giving ourselves, John writes words, and we’re set!
In your opinion, which artists are killing it right now?
Yard Act are fantastic—we discovered them via this past Riot Fest, and we quickly became full-fledged fans. We’ve also recently become absorbed into the wonderful world of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard–I suppose ‘right now’ is strong terminology there but I’ll count it because even if it’s only been a year since you last listened to them you’ve got a lot to catch up on! They’re ridiculously hard workers and they put on a heck of a live show.
Why do you make music?
It’s truly a part of my being and the mode in which I function in the world. I’m autistic, and even now in the happiest time of my life yet, I consistently wrestle with the feeling that I’m an alien within my own species–like all of humanity is in on an inside joke that I wasn’t there for and therefore won’t ever really understand, no matter how well it’s explained to me or how kind-hearted and well-meaning the explainers are. With the exception of a close circle of wonderful people I know innately, and things come very easily with, human interaction just isn’t a natural process for me. But music makes complete sense–everything falls into place beautifully and effortlessly in that universe. I’m fluent in that form of communication, it’s where I can express myself without hesitation and where I can easily understand what someone else is making. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a good chunk of my closest people came into my life through a band we were in together or a bill we shared. There are a million other details I could add to further make my point–how music has helped me deal with depression, my fascination with music as a storytelling vehicle, the frankly excessive amount of vocabulary words I acquired from songs…but I can really just sum those up by quoting the Cat Empire: ‘Music is the language of us all!’
What’s your definition of success?
Doing something that inspires somebody else to do something great. The more people do that as a result of our music, the better, but if even one person ends up with a positive change in their lives because of what we put out, that’s a heck of a lot right there.