Ghosts, Miracles and the Calm Before the Storm: Andrew McKnight Revisits His Heavy Metal Roots

To Loudoun fans, Andrew McKnight is a beloved and prolific folk singer/songwriter and music teacher. But locals may be surprised to learn the longtime musician’s first project was an ’80s metal and hard rock band.

McKnight launched Nor’easter in the mid-80s with two close friends. The band eventually fell apart as bandmates went their separate ways. But two years after breaking up, the trio got together to record an original album “Calm Before the Storm” in 1989. This week, McKnight releases a new version of that record, restored thanks to 21st century technology and talented Leesburg-based sound engineer Dustin Delage.

“It very quickly became sort of a mission of mine. We have all the tools now to do the things we always dreamed about doing and never would have been able to do back then,” McKnight said.

Restoring “Calm Before the Storm” became a passion project during McKnight’s touring hiatus in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The record is also a tribute to McKnight’s childhood friend and Nor’easter drummer Matt Bouley, who died in 2002 at the age of 38.

“There’s lots of threads, there’s lots of ghosts. It’s been a deeply emotional journey,” McKnight said.

McKnight and Bouley launched Nor’easter with vocalist Chris Gursky as 20-year-olds with big dreams. Inspired by both ’70s legends like Led Zeppelin and Rush and guitar-driven heavy metal sounds of Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden, the trio wanted to create their own sound with McKnight as songwriter and guitarist.

From left, Matthew Bouley on drums, Andrew McKnight, on guitars Christopher A. Gursky on vocals and Paul St. Amour on bass made up the 1980s heavy metal and hard rock band Nor’easter. [Contributed]

But in their eastern Connecticut town, which McKnight describes as “a hotbed of talent and a backwater of opportunity,” options were limited and the band never got its big break. Nor’easter broke up in 1987 as members went on to college, jobs and other musical pursuits.

“We were creating and riding a wave and we were hoping to catch a wave and do something more. It is what it is as far as the story goes, but the really cool thing is that this story has all these twists that wind up right here right now. And I can share the story with people in a very visceral way,” McKnight said. 

Two years after breaking up, the band had a chance to record “Calm Before the Storm” at their friend Pat Mills’ studio in a nearby town, laying down recordings, first on 4-track cassette and then on 8-track tape reels. 

”I often think of Nor’easter as one of tens of thousands of stories from that era of people who had ideas that we’re going to write these songs, and we’re going to do something. But hardly any of them really get a chance to do it. We were lucky that we were able to preserve our music, that we have that legacy,” McKnight said.

McKnight went on to get a degree in environmental engineering, a career that brought him to Northern Virginia and eventually the tiny village of Lincoln where he lives with his family. But college also introduced McKnight to the folk scene and the power of acoustic music, putting his guitar skills and lyric sensibilities to work in a new genre. 

“I think that some of the same instincts that show up in the Nor’easter recording are things that you might recognize elsewhere in my work in a completely different setting. It’s all part of a long musical journey,” McKnight said. “To have [Nor’easter] in my wheelhouse meant that I wrote with a rock foundation to a lot of what I do even as a folk singer and songwriter.”

Renss Greene/Loudoun Now Andrew McKnight and Dustin Delage tell stories at Cabin Studios north of Leesburg. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

McKnight left his engineering job for a career as a full-time touring musician in the late ’90s. And in 2002 while on an East Coast tour, McKnight connected with Mills who had the original analog recordings of “Calm Before the Storm.” McKnight transferred the recordings to a digital workstation with backup discs just two weeks before Bouley’s death.

Those digitized recordings sat for nearly 20 years, with the discs stored in McKnight’s attic. But when COVID hit and the 20th anniversary of his bandmate’s death approached, McKnight was determined to save them. Working with “technical wizard” Dustin Delage of Cabin Studios near Leesburg, McKnight overcame corrupted files and other obstacles to restore the 1989 recordings to radio-quality glory.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle,” McKnight said. “It would not have happened without Dustin. He put in an enormous amount of effort. He turned it into the way it should have been heard on the radio in the ’80s.”

McKnight hopes the album will have something to offer his Loudoun fans—both his GenX contemporaries and a new generation of music students and rock lovers.

“I’ve found that the people who come in our wake find a lot of interest in the music of my youth. Part of it is because musically speaking it was more challenging and maybe has more energy to it,” he said. “There’s a reason a lot of that music has staying power.”

The restoration is also a tribute to his “lifer” friends, including both Bouley and Gursky, who now lives in New Hampshire with his family. It’s also something to pass on to Bouley’s adult children. 

“He was a wonderful human being. I said at some point I needed to do this for him and for his kids,” McKnight said. Last summer McKnight got together with Bouley’s son Alex’s 30th birthday and jammed with friends and family. 

“It was deep,” McKnight said. “I was able to hand him a copy of his dad’s legacy a couple weekends ago. The human part of it is important.”

To read Andrew McKnight’s moving story of Nor’easter and purchase a disc or download of “Calm Before the Storm,” go to noreaster.rocks. To learn more about Cabin Studios, visit CabinStudios.com.

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