Alex Mussawir makes 'Music for Peasants' mostly on his own

Joel Oliphint
Alex Mussawir of Kneeling in Piss

Kneeling in Piss rents a practice space in a converted office building near Morse Road, though the band hasn’t rehearsed together in months. Instead, frontman Alex Mussawir has been getting up early in the morning — something he couldn’t do as easily in the pre-pandemic days of late-night bartending shifts and band gigs — and traveling from his Italian Village apartment to the North Side space to work on songs by himself.

“I like long periods of being alone in the practice space, writing stuff without the pressure of having to get the band well-rehearsed enough to play the gig. … It's fairly far from me, but I like having that be completely separate from where I live,” Mussawir said. “I would read interviews with different writers, and they were always talking about how it's important to have those spaces be separate. John Cheever, who is one of my favorite short story writers, every morning he would put on a suit and get in the elevator in his apartment with all the people that were getting on the train to go downtown. He would take the elevator down to the basement of his apartment building, where he had a desk set up, and he would write down there. ... I think there's something to be said for putting on the suit and getting on the elevator, even if you're just going down to the basement.”

Mussawir hadn’t intended to make the second Kneeling in Piss EP of the year a mostly solo endeavor, but 2020 forced his hand. Plus, the band has always been an adaptable project with a revolving door of members, so pivoting came naturally. Rather than working remotely with bandmates (Mussawir has somehow managed to avoid downloading Zoom), he arranged a new batch of songs using drum machine, keyboard and guitar.

“The first couple Kneeling in Piss songs I ever recorded were also done in my room alone with a drum machine and a keyboard,” said Mussawir, referring to tracks that ended up on the band’s first full-length, Tour de Force, which came after the dissolution of his previous band, Future Nuns. “It was almost like a return to form.”

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Mussawir ended up with four songs for a new EP, Music for Peasants, which is out digitally today (Friday, Oct. 30). Without the emphasis on live drums and contributions from bandmates, the release is more subdued than The Mob, a four-song release Kneeling in Piss issued in April. Mussawir plans to release another EP in early 2021, then compile them onto a full-length physical release. (An Anyway Records vinyl release for Tour de Force is also due out by the end of 2020.)

On “Sofia, Baby Please,” Mussawir reflects on the experience of watching Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” (starring Kirsten Dunst), dead-panning the scene over digital drums and droning keyboard chords: “I moved the thing/Which was obscuring the TV screen/And then I could see Kirsten clearly/While she undressed there for me.”

The songwriter follows the description with a plea to the filmmaker: “Sofia Coppola, please put me in your movies/I’d like to leave Ohio/Your camera lights look soothing/Let me in.”

“The ‘Marie Antoinette’ thing — I already had the title ‘Music for Peasants,’ and then the French Revolution, those things are side by side. … I think I was aware of both of those things,” Mussawir said. “It feels like homework or something to try to find all the ways that you can connect the sentences to each other, but there's something about the album title and then watching the ‘Marie Antoinette’ movie and then being unemployed.”

Music for Peasants isn’t entirely a solo endeavor. A version of the full band shows up on the track “Pervert Today,” and Mussawir’s girlfriend, musician and songwriter Madeline Robinson, also sings on the EP. (Robinson recently moved to town from Bloomington, Indiana, where she fronted the band Nice Try and now has a new project, Racecar, and a debut album.)

Regardless of the form Kneeling in Piss takes, the group continues to cement its place in a long line of vaunted lo-fi, art-rock bands from Columbus. Mussawir’s idiosyncratic pop songs are consistently wry and unfussy — “sophisticated but cheap,” as he sings on “Pervert Today" — and, perhaps, perfectly attuned to this newly insular world.

“I like not going anywhere. It’s good,” Mussawir said. “I’ve been suited for this my whole life.”