December/January 2024

by Amanda Mills

The Response: All Bases Covered

by Amanda Mills

The Response: All Bases Covered

Prolific alternative pop duo/couple The Response blend electronic minimalism with cultivated pop sensibilities. Widely respected for their honest, often introspective songwriting, their more recent sound has captured a pent up musical energy, and attracted some noteworthy collaborations. The Response joined forces with Rodney Fisher (Goodshirt) to jointly create the charmingly pensive 2023 album ‘Art School Dropout’. Amanda Mills talked with Vic and Andy Knopp about that and lots more besides.

Meet Victoria (Vic) and Andrew (Andy) Knopp – producers, songwriters, multi-instrumentalists and vocalists from Ōtautahi. As the Response, the duo are prolific, so far releasing about 17 singles, four EPs and five albums, including ‘Art School Dropout’, their new recording with Goodshirt’s Rodney Fisher.

But wait, there’s more – with their other band, Imperial April, the pair have released a Christmas EP and a new self-titled debut album. This on top of live performance, their work producing and working other artists, and also being members of Christchurch rock band, Volts.

Having music become their career was almost inevitable, both having been immersed with music around them from an early age.

“I started on piano, but I feel like things started to really kick off when some of my family moved to Rarotonga to live with my grandparents, and I learned a bit of ukulele,” Andy recalls. “At the same time a friend from intermediate school gave me a mix tape of bands like Fat Boy Slim, Korn and Prodigy, which was pretty eye-opening for a 12 year-old!”

Vic tells a similar story.

“I played cello, glockenspiel and did a bit of musical theatre as a kid,” she reflects. “I picked up bass, guitar and drums early in my high school days and really gravitated toward bass… I was pretty into the local band scene – as much as you can be when you’re underage! I still have really great memories of those days.”

Now in their thirties, the pair originally crossed paths at the Christchurch jazz school, bonding over learning Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke as part of their nine-piece funk band rehearsal. After playing together in bands for assessments (and wedding gigs), then as session musicians, they began writing material. The decision to record for themselves was “…a response to playing other people’s music in covers or session gigs all the time.” Thus, The Response was born.

As The Response, they released their first music in 2012 with ‘The 48 Hour EP’ (written, recorded, mixed and mastered in 48 hours). Stand-alone songs Be Mayan, and Lockjaw cover While He Waits followed before the duo’s self-titled debut album appeared in 2013.

Remixing and producing for others is yet another strand of their work together, one that developed organically.

“We found ourselves getting hands-on with the production, recording, mixing and mastering processes out of necessity for our own music,” explains Vic. “We had managed to get the sounds that were in our head out on record, and thought we might be able to do the same for other people.”

Early Response recordings were guitar-based alt-pop, often acoustic with subtle hints of electronica. Over time the electronic instruments began to creep further into the foreground, foreshadowing a shift in sound, any sonic changes an organic evolution of their songwriting.

“Our music mirrors our diverse influences,” Andy considers. “It’s not a conscious decision to change direction, it’s… a continuous journey of exploration and experimentation.” Vic notes that the shift came at a particular time.

“We did have a strong shift in our sound when we relocated to Vancouver for a few years, which was largely due to suddenly needing to create music in a tiny apartment,” Vic adds. “That music was very ‘us’ – but the music before and after that is too.”

Their 2015 Canada excursion came after the release of a collaborative EP, ‘Escape to This’, with Dunedin-based musician American French Fries, and their third long-playing record ‘North Of Nowhere’, which leaned a little more towards electronica.

“Vancouver… had a really cool music scene,” they enthuse. “Seeing the way artists there approached putting on a gig was very different to where we were from – way more focus on the spectacle and performance aspects.”

A subsequent resolve to up their game included releasing three stand-alone singles while in Canada, and the electro-pop EPs ‘What Are You Waiting For?’ (2017), and ‘Little Worlds’ (2018) on their return to Christchurch. After further solo tracks in 2019 they put out ‘Escaping This Cold Rotation’, which cemented The Response’s move into synth-based, electronic pop.

Let’s pause to look at some of the musicians they’ve collaborated with through writing, production, and remixing. Vic and Andy consider relationships with musicians key, going back to one of their early groups, The Willow Page, an alt-country band with children’s musician Michal Bush. They worked with Bush on her ‘Music With Michal’ album that won a Children’s Music Award in 2021, and a Tui award for Best Children’s Artist in 2022. Andy illustrated the books accompanying Bush’s songs, leading him to a dual career in illustration and animation – he created the animated video for Ryan Fisherman‘s song End.

Andy’s design skills brought them to working with Lyttleton hip hop artist And$um (San Dunlay), evolving from meeting at a talk on branding. Serendipity also played a part when they produced a track for Emma Rutherford.

“She was walking in a park where someone else we produced, Lucy Gray, was filming a music video… Emma found out we were producing so got in touch.”

In-demand as a bass player, Vic is also part of The Organic Jazz Band, and performed on Bryony Matthews‘ album ‘We’re all the Same’, as well as touring with Matthews’ band. Then there’s their ‘other’ other band, Volts.

“We ended up producing Volts because we were chatting to Marc [Royal] and Lorna [Coll]… they were looking for a bassist so Vic ‘filled in’. A few years later and we’ve had three songs on rotation on The Rock and played Spark Arena with Jimmy Barnes!”

Which brings us to Imperial April, a band that evolved when songs they were writing for The Response didn’t quite fit that style, so they added another dimension. Imperial April debuted in 2020 at the Christchurch Go Live festival. Musician friends Emma Cameron (Emma Dilemma) and Katie Thompson both encouraged them with their songs, though Vic recalls not being super confident about putting them out there.

Cameron and Thompson urged them on, and the first Imperial April song, Peachy was released in 2020 before their Christmas EP ‘An April Christmas,’ originally made with their families in mind. “

Who doesn’t love a good holiday tune, right?” they both smile. “We liked the songs too much to not put them out to the wider world… we thought ‘Well this isn’t cool, but we think it’s cool, so who cares!'”

Quickly offered live gigs, a band was formed.

“Emma offered her guitar skills and Katie revealed she had played drums all through high school, so we were set,” Vic smiles. “With those two having busy music careers of their own it was only ever going to be for a short while.”

When Cameron and Thompson did leave, drummer Paul Tatterson and guitarist Matt Phimmavahn were recruited, although the latter is not with the band right now due to other commitments, so Imperial April are presently a three-piece.

As The Response and as Imperial April, the Knopps have covered some NZ musicians’ classics – not only Goodshirt’s Fiji Baby (Imperial April), but also Bic Runga‘s Drive, and even AC/DC’s Back In Black (as The Response).

“If you’ve ever played covers gigs you know that someone who’s had too much to drink is gonna start shouting out ‘Play some AC/DC’. We thought, we should give it a try,” Andy laughs. Their Drive cover was recorded this May for NZ Music Month.

“We like taking songs that everyone would know and make it so you can barely tell what the original song was. Change the chords, instrumentation, beats. It’s really fun to see peoples’ faces when they’re grooving along to a track and… they hear a chorus lyric they recognise and it all clicks.”

Dance Exponents’ Victoria – has been covered both as Imperial April and as The Response, leading to some high-profile performances.

“A magazine was holding a friendly competition to do covers of Victoria to celebrate the 40th anniversary of its release… we had to give it a shot, and why not from both bands?” Vic adds that “…in a bizarre turn of events, I ended up on stage to sing it with Jordan Luck, in Christchurch last year… From that I was invited to sing yet another arrangement of the song with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra at Sparks, to something like 25,000 people in Hagley Park!”

The differences between both their own bands are sonically clear, but they are also defined by the lead vocals, Vic is the vocalist for Imperial April while The Response features Andy as the singer.

“Imperial April was actually a project for me to retrain my singing voice after picking up some habits as a backing vocalist trying to blend with other singers, that had led to me always losing my voice,” Vic explains. “We wrote some fun songs to practice sounding like whatever felt comfortable and right for me, physiologically. Turns out we really liked the songs, and it’s been such a buzz finding out other people do too!”

‘Imperial April’ hasn’t been Vic and Andy’s only recording output of 2023. Volts released a recent single Bleeding Hearts, and as The Response they released the single Over the Moon, and album ‘Art School Dropout’ with Auckland-based Rodney Fisher. ‘Art School Dropout’ has its roots in their cover version of Goodshirt’s Fiji Baby.

“Rodney found out about it and got in touch to say ‘nice job’. That blew our minds just a little,” Andy grins. “Once he found out we did our own production and mixing, he sent through a track he had recently recorded at Roundhead for a solo project and asked if we wanted to take a crack at mixing it. We decided we’d strip everything away but his voice, change all the chords and give it a bit more of an electronic feel… and he really liked the track.”

Released on the Bigpop Records label, the Rodney Fisher and The Response album ‘Art School Dropout’ includes some songs by Fisher from over a decade ago, songs by The Response that needed lyrics, plus collaboratively co-written new works. The close release date of the two albums was unplanned as it was due to timing of the vinyl pressing for ‘Art School Dropout’, and independent release factors around ‘Imperial April’ (creating visuals, marketing, live shows). Vic and Andy hope that listening to one will lead a new audience to find the other.

There’s a second Imperial April album and a new Response album on the horizon, as well live shows with Fisher to promote ‘Art School Dropout’, and Volts are opening for UK band The Darkness when they perform in Auckland and Wellington at the start of 2024.

Looking back over the diversity of their recording career together, Vic and Andy say fundamentally they approach writing and recording the same way.

“There are lots of small things we’ve changed over the years… but realistically they’re all just small refinements of what we’ve been doing all along. You start to understand the craft better, but at the end of the day you take the first step and the songs dictate where they wanna go.”