Originating from the Isle of Man just off the coast of the United Kingdom and Ireland, the 22-year-old guitarist and his band Back Door Slam have made an impression on many in the music scene, opening with for well-known guitar legends including Jeff Beck and Buddy Guy and opening for a number of the newly minted supergroup Chickenfoot's shows. He graced the national TV spotlight when Back Door Slam played "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and CBS' "The Early Show."
There's admiration from those who he plays with (not to mention those in the crowd and others who listen to his music) and none can likely compare to Grammy Award-winning guitarist Peter Frampton's admiration of the young guitarist. He sought Knowles, wanting the chance to work with him. What started as a simple session became a new album, "Coming Up for Air," with Frampton producing and contributing guitar -- the first album Frampton produced for someone other than himself.
Only months before this happened, the original three members of Back Door Slam went their separate ways. But Knowles was determined to keep playing and keep the Back Door Slam name going. With Frampton on board, Knowles found himself teamed up with an elite lineup. Frampton brought in Bob Clearmountain (Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, The Who) to mix as well as a talented A-list of musicians including Fritz Lewak (drums) and Kevin McCormick (bass) -- Jackson Browne's rhythm section -- as well as Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers contributing keys.
With a summer full of constant touring in support of the album released June 16, Knowles plans to keep the pedal down full-speed. He's playing the ABCs of US music festivals such as Lollapalooza, Rothbury Festival, Mile High Festival, and several Canadian shows.
This Tuesday, June 30 he adds Summerfest to his long list of venues, opening for Buddy Guy at the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage at 8 p.m.
OnMilwaukee.com: When you were 11, your dad played Dire Straits and you've mentioned in past interviews that kind of got things going for you musically. Could you tell me about that experience and the feeling you got when you first started getting into blues and rock and roll?
Davy Knowles: That's how I knew I wanted to play guitar...from the song "Sultans of Swing." He's a big blues fan and he's into people like John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, early Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green; you know, the British blues guitarists. I can remember exactly the feeling that I got. It was just this moment of, "Wow, I just need to do this. I want to do this. This is absolutely what to do, immediately." It just struck a chord with me. It was just like an epiphany moment.
OMC: What kind of feeling did you get when you actually started playing?
DK: For me playing guitar never felt like when I was first starting. I think the biggest thing was that I never felt like I was practicing. I never felt like I was going through the motions and learning scales and things like that. I loved the feeling of the strings, the sound, even if I wasn't very good at all. I loved the process of it and never felt like it was practice. I became obsessed with it really.
OMC: Do you think that feeling's gotten stronger over the years?
DK: Yeah, I think it has. I've gotten more experience as I've been pushed and pushed myself into different situations I think my passion for music has grown. I mean, there's so much great music out there and it's always a thrill to discover new stuff or discover new licks on the guitar or new songs to sing. It's a wonderful learning process, it never stops.
OMC: Besides rock and roll and blues I read that you also have some Celtic music influences.
DK: The Isle of Man is only 50 or 60 miles off the coast of Ireland, which is a very Celtic place. Those influences were kind of instilled in me just because I was born there and grew up there. And it kind of crept in just because I was always hearing it and a part of it really. It's just a part of where you come from.
OMC: After the members of the original lineup went their separate ways, what convinced you to keep going and keep the Back Door Slam name?
DK: Stopping is never an option for me. I love what I'm doing and it wasn't a quitting music thing with those guys going off doing their own thing. I never really thought about stopping. I feel lucky and grateful to be doing what I'm doing and I plan to keep it up as long as I can.
OMC: What do you hope your new album "Coming Up For Air" shows in terms of music and where you are as a musician?
DK: What I hope with "Coming Up For Air" achieves is really to help with touring. I love the recording process, but to me making an album is a vehicle for more touring. I love being out on the road and really I hope "Coming Up for Air" maybe reaches a few more people than "Roll Away," the first album, did. And I get to expand what I get to do on the road and that's my goal for it. I think live music is the most important music you can do.
OMC: You've said in past interviews you consider yourself a better songwriter now compared to when you wrote "Roll Away."
DK: Yeah, I think so. I think songwriting is like guitar playing or singing, it gets better and better with time. The more you do it the better you get at it I think and the more you open yourself to ideas as you get older too. I do feel the songs on here are stronger, probably more melodic. I'm more comfortable with the singing now; naturally when I'm writing that comes out a little more. More than anything I think it's more of a progression which is how it should be. It's a growth.
OMC: On the new album you certainly had an all star cast with Peter Frampton, the guys from Jackson Browne's band and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Could you tell me what is was like working with them and what it means to your growth as a musician?
DK: It was tremendously exciting. It was a big thrill for me to work with Peter because he's one of my heroes. I've been listening to him for a long time so to write songs with the guy and to have him produce the album was a massive honor. I just think he's such a sweet guy. He's a lovely person and a pleasure to work with. He basically organized Jackson Browne's band and Benmont, which I am forever grateful for. Those guys, I mean they pushed me and worked me into shape. They're wonderful musicians who really made the album for me. They just pushed me and brought out the best of me. It was wonderful to work with them. Really great people.
OMC: The album's gotten some pretty high praise from music critics and you've gotten to play at some pretty big festivals. What do you think of all this success?
DK: It's really great to hear people saying really nice things about you but I think the important thing is to keep your head down and track on with what you're doing. It's wonderful to get praised but I have a strong feeling that you should never have that guide your career. You shouldn't base your career on trying to please people. I think the best thing is to keep your head down and work hard and if people like you that's a wonderful thing but you've got to stay on track with what you want to do and how you feel about it. I don't really read too much of the reviews really.
OMC: Some critics have mentioned you in the same sentence as some other guitar greats and which I can definitely see because you have a voice that's unmistakably yours and add to that some awesome guitar work. Could you tell me how you approach to singing?
DK: Well, thank you. Vocals have always been a tough thing for me. It's kind of easier to hide behind a guitar. It's a very personal thing with singing; it's your voice and if people don't like your singing it is hard not to take it personally. It's hard to not say, "Oh, that means they don't like me" and that kind of thing. I'm getting more comfortable with it and I'm working hard at it and it's definitely something I need to get use to a little more. It's such an important thing to deliver a song. You don't have to have a voice like Frank Sinatra or anyone like that but it's how you deliver a song. Bob Dylan hasn't had the best in the world but his delivery is perfect and I'd call him an amazing singer because of that.
OMC: Could you tell me a little about some of your favorite songs from the new album?
DK: As far a memory kind of thing, I enjoyed the tracks that Peter Frampton plays on because it was such an amazing time for me to be playing guitar with Peter Frampton. He played bass on one of the tracks too. That to me was a landmark in my career because going out to play with Peter was really wonderful. So there were the songs "Keep On Searching," "You Can't Take This Back," and the George Harrison song we did, "Hear Me Lord." Really it's hard to pick a favorite. I enjoy playing "Tear Down the Walls" because it's a great opportunity to play some guitar and you know you get carried away with that.
OMC: Could you tell me what your live show is like for you and what you hope people will get from it?
DK: It's an energetic blues rock, loud electric guitar. I think it's important to vary it too because too much of one thing in a live show can ware on an audience. I enjoy playing acoustic also. It's vintage sounding. I hope people get the same kick out of hearing the music as we get playing it. That's what I hope.
OMC: From listening to your songs I imagine that your shows are very powerful and moving.
DK: I think it's important to record an album that you can present live. Instead of going overboard in the studio I think it's important to keep it so you can manage to do it live.
OMC: What do you feel about playing at big festivals like Summerfest and opening for some of the greats such as Buddy Guy?
DK: I'm really looking forward to the Summerfest gig with Buddy Guy. I've been lucky to play on the same bill a couple times before and he's such an amazing guy to watch. He's one of the masters and you can learn so much just by watching him. It's a really good summer's worth of touring and we have an awfully lot of gigs. It's really exciting.
OMC: What do you hope to do next after this tour wraps up?
DK: After the tour wraps up, I don't know, go back on tour. I love touring. Maybe tour some other countries, not that I'm tired of the states at all. It'd be great to do some stuff in Europe or go somewhere else, that'd be cool. I'm just very happy to stay on the road.
OMC: What is the most important thing you've learned as a musician?
DK: The most important thing I've learned is that hard work can pay off but it might take a little while to do it. And really you can make a living out of music by working hard, by touring hard and if you enjoy what you do and love what you do. Never take it for granted either because there are a lot of people who should be doing this but don't have the opportunity. I never forget that, and I'm exceptionally lucky to be doing it.