Five Knives Is Living on the Cutting Edge in Nashville

05/15/2015 10:00 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016

So kids, you say you want to be an EDM star?

Try this at home... if you dare.

"It's interesting just how much your life changes and where you think it's going to end up," Five Knives lead singer and part-time philosopher Anna M'Queen was saying over the phone in early May about her transformation from Southern Baptist daughter living in Hollywood -- Florida, that is -- to wild-and-free performer in a electro-pop group. "And if you think you can predict things, nothing surprises me anymore. I played guitar for my college and they had these convocation worship services, whatever. I played acoustic guitar for that."

I went to Guitar Center to go get some strings for my guitar and ran into this little punk rock dude who I sort of was an acquaintance and out of nowhere he's like, 'Hey, Anna, do you want to come audition for our band?'

Hangout 2015 textDescribing her teenage self as "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, blond ponytail," M'Queen was attending Palm Beach Atlantic University at the time, on her way to earning a degree in communication with a minor in philosophy.

"It sounded fun and I needed a little adventure in my life," she said about the offer. "You couldn't drink, you couldn't do anything in this college. And I was like, 'OK, do it.' So I did."

I joined this punk rock band (called Good Life Cycle), I got in a car with a stranger, we drove down to Fort Lauderdale, where they practiced in a warehouse. I showed up, again, pretty much cardigan sweater, J.Crew girl and there's porn all over the walls, guys with cigarettes out of their mouths... and I was like in heaven.

Now M'Queen has joined some of the most exciting women on the scene such as Phantogram's Sarah Barthel and Sleigh Bells' Alexis Krauss. Taking electronic music beyond the beats while making Nashville's image a tad edgier, Five Knives prepares to release its first full-length album, Savages, on June 2 (Red Bull Records).

"At first I was like, 'I wonder if I can do this? It's so different,' " M'Queen said.

But electronic music is what's hot right now, what's great right now. It's majority DJs. ... Kids are just basically jumping up and down in mosh pits to DJs. And it's so weird. But I mean I get it. The music's amazing and the vibe is amazing.

But for us, when we said we wanted to bridge the gap between that feeling and a show, we want to be respected for that.

Smart, self-assured and quite charming, M'Queen might appear to be the antithesis of an angry punk rocker. But she recognizes her past role for helping an aspiring singer who admired confident and strong showmen, such as Queen's Freddie Mercury, and women (No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, Blondie's Deborah Harry) become who she is today.

"I wanted to do something rebellious," M'Queen said of her initial musical makeover in Florida, adding that her dad "told me he was going to cut me off from everything if I didn't quit the band" before accepting how committed she became.

It felt rebellious and the guys were nice. They didn't take advantage of me or do anything and it was just like, I played the dirtiest clubs in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and I did this for several months.

And that's what gave me the spark to really want to be in a band because I found I was sort of like a natural performer. ...

I'll always kind of had a punk rock spirit. And that's why I still perform aggressively on stage most of the time even though our music is more on the pop side now. You're still going to get a really raw, energetic show.

Anyone attending the opening day (May 15) of the Hangout festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, can witness that when Five Knives performs at 1:30 p.m. in the Boom Boom Tent. While melodious songs such as "Oblivion" and "Wild Ones" are surprising tame, some of the lyrics on Savages are X-rated (cover the kiddies' ears when M'Queen goes off on "Take My Picture") and most of the music is intensely fierce. But she guarantees their live performances are "going to resonate with a younger group of kids who just want to let go."

"That's rock 'n' roll," M'Queen added with a laugh.

And that's a long way from Montreal, where Anna Elizabeth grew up with a lengthier Lithuanian last name and became interested in the arts and music because of its "very European vibe."

Female-fronted bands such as Veruca Salt caught her attention (Louise Post and Nina Gordon were "cool as shit," she said), but hearing No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom at the age of 13 was like a sign from heaven... or somewhere along the way.

I just basically put it out to the universe and said, 'I'm gonna do that one day,' " offered M'Queen, who legally changed her name last year after previously being married, but still wanted to honor her family's heritage with a cooler, shorter version of her difficult-to-pronounce/harder to spell surname.

I really do believe, not to get all New Age-y because I'm not New Age-y, but I do believe in the power of manifestation because I literally did that. And that's exactly what I'm doing today.

Living in Nashville for the past 10 years, M'Queen played in "a '90s throwback punk band" called the Worsties under the name Anna "Madame Worsty" Worstell before joining Five Knives.

Five Knives (from left):  Shane Wise, Nathan Barlowe, Anna M'Queen, Zach Hall.

The latter group was formed in 2011 by guitarist/programmer Nathan Barlowe, a fan of former experimental electronic duo Crystal Castles. A founding member of Luna Halo and the Honeymoon Thrillers who's also considered the "mastermind" by M'Queen, Barlowe writes songs and programs tracks with Zach Hall for the quartet that also includes drummer Shane Wise.

"When we all recorded together, there was such a chemistry that was unexplainable that we just decided to throw these bad boys up on the Internet and see what would happen," she said. "And it just spread like wildfire. So we were like, 'Well, I guess we should play a show.'"

They did just that in October 2011, a secret gig that required a password to get into Barlowe's house basement. But M'Queen considers being on the bill with Bush at 12th and Porter shortly after that as their first "real booked show," adding, "I guess that was a little bit of a cool sign that we were gonna do something big."

Intending to do what was "something completely off kilter and different from the Nashville scene," M'Queen said Five Knives now feels accepted in the Music City.

"We have some good DJs," she added. "But as far as trying to do the electronic pop thing, I think we're still the trailblazers when it comes to that. ... Every time we play a show (in Nashville), we pretty much sell it out. So people enjoy it."

Regarding the group's name, "There's no extravagant story behind it but it's really fun to play with when people ask and they want to know who the fifth Knife is," M'Queen said with another laugh, then telling her interviewer, "Well, you can be the fifth Knife today."

Savages_CoverThe album has been done since last summer, when they enlisted producer Mark Needham (The Killers, Imagine Dragons, Fleetwood Mac) to add some finishing touches in Los Angeles.

"We've been desperate for it to come out," M'Queen said, mentioning the album's name change from FVKNVS to the opening track was a last-minute decision. "I can't believe it's finally here. When they told us this run's gonna be a marathon and not a sprint, they weren't kidding."

Asked just how far they want to go, M'Queen laughed again.

"Oh, I mean, are we limiting it?" she wondered.

Of course, I want to go far with this group. I want to see the world. I want to meet as many people as I can. I want this band to have as many fans as possible. I'm dreaming big here. This is not just a garage band. This is something that we have all dreamed about. We're not stopping until we get there.

If there's anyone adventurous enough to tag along, plan to cut loose. M'Queen and Co. have sharpened their Five Knives.


1. You're onstage in the Boom Boom Ten at 1:30 p.m., while other acts appearing at that time include Trampled by Turtles and Halsey. What does Five Knives have that the others don't? What will attract audiences to Five Knives?

AM: (laughs) Oh ... (long pause) Well, it'll definitely be the live show and the pop hooks and the dance-ability. I think that will attract people. Our music always does. Somebody's never heard us before and they walk by the stage and they hear the music, they automatically want to come dance. We have a dance factor to our music. I think that's why we're doing so well on the dance club charts. I think that will separate us.

2. Have you previously been to Gulf Shores and, if not, what do expect?

AM: I have not. I've been to Seaside on the Florida panhandle. Is that close? (About 160 miles east of Gulf Shores, also on the coast.) I know that Gulf Shores is going to be beautiful. And I've heard great things about Hangout festival and how good of a time it's going to be. So we're stoked.

3. When you're not making music, where do you like to hang out?

AM: Oh, man. It's funny. I have such a softer side to me when it's just like real life. I'm a little bit of a foodie. (laughs) I love wine. Yeah, so I'm always trying some new local restaurant or something like that. Or riding my bike. So I'm definitely not too much of a party girl anymore. So I think that's a good thing. It'll keep me looking fresh and young to do this forever. (laughs)

4. The Hangout lineup is pretty diversified and includes a number of electronic acts. Is there anyone you're interested in seeing?

AM: On the night that we'll be there (Friday), I notice that Foo Fighters are playing. I'd definitely love to see them. I would love to see what Macy Gray is doing now (with Galactic). I would love to catch that. I've always thought that Macy Gray is cool as shit. And then Paramore. Zach and Nathan are friends of all those guys in that band. I've never really seen her (Hayley Williams) before live, so that'll be cool to check out.

5. Which of the following Alabama-themed songs makes you wish you lived there (and why)?
a. "Sweet Home Alabama," Lynyrd Skynyrd
b. "Alabama Getaway," Grateful Dead
c. "My Home's In Alabama," Alabama
d. "Alabama Pines," Jason Isbell

AM: I'd probably go with Lynyrd Skynrd. I'm just more of a Lynyrd Skynrd fan than any of those other bands.

Fifth in a series that began with Kopecky on May 1 and continued with the Mowgli's on May 7, Houndmouth on May 12 and My Morning Jacket on May 13.

Check back for more coverage of Hangout festival. Five Knives publicity photo by Kenneth Cappello.