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Escape Velocity

Discontinuum: Karen Gwyer Interviewed
Laurie Tuffrey , November 20th, 2014 15:08

Before she plays her final gig of the year in London tomorrow night, Karen Gwyer talks to Laurie Tuffrey about her approach to production, striving for weirdness and the problems that women face in electronic music

Photograph courtesy of Dan Wilton

"And I'm still just waiting for it to stop, and for it to have all been some happy little interlude, but it's going well. I will make sure that it continues, but I'm like, 'I can't really believe this is happening,'" says Karen Gwyer, reflecting on her music career so far. It's early summer and we're in the beer garden of a pub in South London. You can only hope that she'll make good on that promise, considering how it's gone up till now: it was only last year that the producer released her debut album, the excellent, heterogeneous Needs Continuum, which she's rapidly followed up with two EPs, Kiki The Wormhole and New Roof, describing an arc that's seen her sound meander through kinetic, house-flecked bangers and sepulchral ambience, both imprinted with her distinctive sonic approach.

Music figured heavily in her life from an early age: growing up with cellist parents in the Midwest, she was forced to take up instruments, something she wasn't so keen on. "It's funny, I only recently told my parents that I never learned to read music," she says. "They were like, 'What?! You faked it for years?' And I was first chair viola in the orchestra and everything. I just memorised the whole thing based on what other people were playing." She'd previously had to abandon a fledgling career as a ballerina owing to her height ("my teacher took me aside and said, 'You're too tall, it's not going to happen. You're, like, freakishly tall'") and, following a stint in her high school jazz band, left music behind, moving to New York to study photography in art school followed by a job as a graphic designer. It was only when she moved to London with her husband that she took it up again, becoming a frequent attendee of gigs at Dalston's Cafe OTO and taking part in an experimental music festival, "hooking kitchen appliances up to contact mics", and, after being asked to join a band, acquiring a synth, paving the way for what would result in her first EP, 2012's I've Been You Twice.

The music Gwyer's releasing now already feels like a distinct progression from that and Needs Continuum. It's still touched with the same immersive atmosphere as the album, hewn in layers of thick, gauzey synth and drums that are itchy and fractious, straining to pull out of the confines of regular patterns. The tracks now mostly work in long-form, stretching out to around the 15-minute mark allowing motifs to seep in and take shape before dissipating into gradual decay, embedding the listener in a hinterland soundscape. It's not placeless - Needs Continuum's 'Waukon' is named after a small town in Iowa– "we drove through a lot when I was little, in our green wide wale corduroy Oldsmobile, me in the back covered by an enormous, hot hairy white dog," Gwyer recalls – but her irreverent titling (she cites "a source of content created largely by nutters and teenagers, most either angry or horny, where the pickings are so good for the most random, off-kilter stuff" as part-inspiration for the track names) helps to leave it in liminal orbit.

The tracks' expansiveness may, in some part, owe to Gwyer's live performances, improvisatory sets where her recorded material exists in palimpsest-like form, a basis on which to build. "The gulf between 'this is my music' and what I play live, what people can expect when they come to see me, is just getting wider and wider and wider," she explains. Earlier this year, at Supersonic Ltd Edn - coinciding, in a strange twist of fate, with a set from Wolf Eyes, Gwyer's high school frog dissection partner Nate Young among their number - her show took the fraught energy of New Roof's 'Lay Claim To My Grub' as its framework, before lapsing into mesmeric drone, meshing into the Custard Factory's industrial complex, while a slot at St John Sessions in July saw her bank more heavily on the latter, revolving around the tumultuous groan of an organ in contrast to the fading summer balminess of outdoors.

Mulling over her approach to music-making, Gwyer's a terrific commentator, frequently reflecting on her statements instantaneously and taking a different tack or refocussing, ornamenting her points by mimicking the drum machines and synths she's using and at one point even pondering on expressionist cartoons as the most efficient means of capturing the essence of a techno producer's sound. We start off by discussing the fluid nature of her own music.

Karen Gwyer: I have an aesthetic that I'm sort of striving towards - it's not that I can actually feel I've achieved it. I want to be loud and I want to be banging and I want the music to not be what people expect. I want it to be meandering and weird and straddle house and techno, with a bit of hugely experimental noise thrown in. So that's a broad enough thing that I can sort of fart around in there, as opposed to farting around and, quite early on after the first album, I was like, no more vocals, that's not what I want to do. You end up getting lumped into the "lady who sings" camp. It's like, no, I don't actually want to be that lady, at all!

They feel like the least "vocal" vocals I've heard, because they're entirely part of the track.

KG: It's just an instrument, but people don't view it as an instrument, they focus on it as the glue around which everything else is sticking. That was never the case, ever. I may come back to it, but the last time I tried to do vocals that were like that, I got laryngitis! It was on the Opal Tapes tour and I was like [makes strangulated noise] and I had to give up the vocals after two nights, but that was great, because then I ended up improvising my way around it and then after that, I was like, "Well, one really good reason not to do vocals again is that you can get laryngitis." I don't want to have to worry that I'm going to be like [strangulated noise] into a microphone when I mean to make it sound suitable.

Are you working on new material at the moment? Does it sound different?

KG: Ah, yeah - very different. I can't even listen to Needs Continuum - I haven't been able to for a long time. I like some of the chords and the melodies, and at St John I played, largely, one of the Needs Continuum tracks, in a completely different way. A really, really dark scary, horrible way. Yeah, I feel like I'm still doing the same sort of things, basically, but in a totally different way, 'cause I think that it sounds so accessible! It's just way too accessible. It's the whole thing with No Pain In Pop - Tom King from No Pain In Pop has been absolutely wonderful and supportive and everything but just the identity of that label is one that I was not necessarily comfortable with. I've had him say stuff to me like, "Would you like to play some in-stores at Urban Outfitters?" It's like, "nooo" I don't think I should actually.

I wouldn't mind getting some money, but I don't actually think I should do that. I probably would have said that back in the beginning as well, but I wouldn't have known where I am now back at that point, I wouldn't have necessarily anticipated that I would want to sound that weird now. I probably don't sound that weird now, but I want to sound weird; I'm trying desperately to make it weird and a lot of it has to do with gear and gear is expensive! I mean I just flumped out on a new sequencer. But it's been like two years in the coming just to get a new thing. You go and see people playing with their shit, and they have weird instruments - that's why it sounds weird! They don't have your typical mass market synthesisers or drum machines and, you know, money isn't falling out of the sky, I still haven't won the lottery. I've identified now that part of that isn't down to my perseverance in sounding weird, it is that I actually need to get gear that facilitates that weirdness of sound. I'm doing what I can with the stuff that I have and eventually it will start to liberate.

It's interesting that you're talking about trying to sound weirder. Do you feel like you've opened up those sensibilities in general or is it that you'll strike upon something that is weirder and then try to push in that direction?

KG: Yeah, definitely. That is only part of it. We're buying loads of good techno records all the time. Techno records, techno records. I still want - this is going to sound terrible, this is going to sound like the lady is moaning again. I still dream of a day when I can play techno alongside other people who play techno. The reality of that is not what's in my mind. I don't make straight-up pounding techno where I just rock up for forty-odd minutes, an hour, bodyjacking away. I'm aiming on the next piece of recorded material to establish a direction that is a bit more directionless, in an exciting way so that nobody's going to say, "I'm just not sure I want to buy this because I just don't like this one solitary thing that's going on."

Have you tried going for a 4/4 techno track?

KG: Yeah! Loads of times! [laughs] And then I'm like, "Let's just make it a bit strange". I have done that actually - it didn't surface that much, but I made a jungle track for the latest Opal Tapes compilation. I put the Amen break in there - it's pretty much all jungle, as reinterpreted slightly by Karen Gwyer. 'Cause I just thought, why the hell not? I've spent ages talking to you now about all this experimentalism, but I just like straight-up jungle as well. It's so hard to pin down anything, because I'm a human being and I have a thousand different records at home that I want to emulate because I think they're amazing. Not just that, but be inspired by, because I want to do things and make people dance. You talk yourself into a corner trying to explain.

Right - you start off with the intention of doing something and then it ends up becoming something else entirely.

KG: It's not a cerebral process either really. I've spoken to other people about this, how, so often, when you make music and then people respond to it in a way that generally ends up being on the internet, in article form. The main theme is that you are going through a heavily cerebral process when you make music, and it is not like that, it simply is not. You say, do you ever sit down and play 4/4? Yeah! But it might be saying do this up here [points to head] but it doesn't happen that way, because I have my hands. You don't ultimately have total control over what you're doing. I'm not Stephen Hawking, I don't have the computer hard-wired straight to my brain - if I did it would be different. But my brain is just like, "Make it something different, just make something really, just perfect dance music" - I can't, it just keeps on not happening. But I'm not beating myself up, too much, about it. I do a bit. I just don't have control, ultimately, over everything. And sometimes, you're making with your intention in something, and sometimes you say, "Well, fuck it, it's not what I set out to do, but it sounds half decent". Might as well just keep seeing where it goes.

Maybe it's not something you should be beating yourself up about!

KG: Ah, I beat myself up about everything! [laughs]

But if that's the way it comes out, it's good that it ends up coming out sounding different. Maybe the aim of the game isn't to churn out some precision-tooled dance music.

KG: I think it's a simplicity issue. A friend of mine, Will Bankhead, runs the Trilogy Tapes label, and of course we get all those records. We come home and you put them on, and some of them, you're like: "That is just effortless!" What's happening there is effortless and it's beautiful and it's simple and it doesn't sound like anybody toiled over that. And it sounds like they're just so bloody gifted, they just sat down and were like, "That's what you want - you want a really banging record, there it is right there!" It's always what I'm trying to do, just be like, "Bam, there you go!" But getting there is the most fun. I'd love to talk to those people and find out how that happens.

What kind of artists do you have in mind?

KG: Low Jack. Seriously, like [mimics hard kick drums]. My music doesn't sound anything like that, but if I told you that's who's really influential. You're probably not that surprised because I'm telling you in person, but if you're reading that, you're like, "What?!" [laughs] "She is really flowery and melodic, why does she want to sound like Low Jack?"

But that's the thing - when people talk about influences, you expect some kind of replication...

KG: Similarity! Like if someone said to me, draw a picture of Low Jack, draw a really expressionist cartoon of Low Jack, it would really be how Low Jack sounds. I don't know where I was going with that statement, but I had something really decent to say. I guess, that's just - no, I don't like listening to people who are flowery. I do sometimes, but not in the way that people expect. And I've never enjoyed listening to folk music! As much as I enjoy using vocals, that's not, no, I enjoy listening to people's music which is just powerful in one way or another. Whether it be very delicate or beautiful or just dirty and kind of horrible, nasty.

Part of me just wants to be accepted by that scene. But it's not really all about that. I think that's just kind of a woman thing, because you're automatically not accepted. You start out on the outside and you have to sleep your way or somehow disguise your way into it. It's just the reality - it's all controlled by men, all the promoters are men, except maybe one promoter I've ever had was female. Yeah, that whole world is guys and I don't know, I always come back to an insecurity about making beautiful music, because I'm not a guy and I don't know if guys like beautiful music. I always go to bed at night asking myself that question. Even if 100,000 guys came up to me and said, "No, I like beautiful music", you'd be like, "No!" Also, because I'm not a very girly woman and I like beautiful music, but I don't like girly, beautiful music. There are a lot of men making music that I don't like because it's a little bit too 'lovely'. It's all a big knot of this influences that and this has an effect on that. I think when it's your own career and you know that men are in control, part of you wants to give them what they would like so that you can actually get there, you can be in that space. But what do you do? Do you compromise yourself? I think my strategy, which is not a strategy, but it's happily what I decided to do anyway, is just to make it less all about the beauty, and about what I do actually like, which is the weirder stuff, and hopefully - knock on wood - I'll start to approach that world a bit more. I probably am already there a little bit, I just don't necessarily realise it yet. Knowing guys who control it, like Will, and who just put out the most amazing records, you know that you're not a part of that, and you won't be, regardless of what you do.

Because it's a judgemental scene?

KG: Oh, massively. I don't understand why women aren't really allowed to say "it is sexist", because that's a form of judgement, when everyone else is allowed to say the music world is hugely judgemental when not discussing male and female. Everyone admits, "Yeah, it's a hugely judgemental scene" and what people's opinions are and what people publish is hugely important to everyone's careers. That's fine, everyone can talk about that, but the minute you say, "Part of this shit is just because I've got boobs" - oh no no no no, you're not allowed to talk about that kind of judgemental stuff. But it depends on where you are? Germany is fantastic: women, it's not a problem there, it's not a problem.

Why is that?

KG: It's because it's a cultural thing. End of story, it's a cultural thing. Germans have their differences, yeah, but they like the music and the music is great and they're judgmental about music in lots of ways, I'm sure, but if you're a woman in Germany, fine. Laurel Halo's just recently moved to Berlin which was partly because she was simply not getting very many gigs in the States. Partly because the scene is not there, but partly because, come on, we all know. Look at the Movement festival in Detroit - techno, there are like two women playing; I mean, come on. I can't not discuss it, because it is a reality.

I remember one of our writers picked this up a while back - when various magazines do their top 100 DJ rundowns, there are very few women. That's very telling - when you boil it down, it's insane.

KG: It's insane. It's a joke. As soon as any woman comes out and says anything about it - bash, "you bitch!" You just get absolutely slammed for saying this, but you know, fuck it... it's a joke and it's dumb. Guys just don't get this, they're just oblivious. My male friends that run really amazing record labels, that repeatedly put out exclusively male-produced records, they are oblivious, they do not get it. They do not seek out women, and other people do. Stephen Bishop of Opal Tapes has admitted to me that he has actively tried to find women who are doing good stuff, or at least I think that's what he said, and that's a sad thing. That's just sad, it shouldn't have to be like that.

So I got booked to play this Wysing festival at the end of the month - nobody told me at the time that they booked me that it was going to be all women, pretty much. When I found that out, I was like, "Goddamnit! Why don't you just have ten men and ten women?" Just don't perpetuate the novelty - we're not novel; just a person, I'm not a novelty.

The more you do things like that, the more it just underscores the tokenism.

KG: Yeah, it's the tokenism of it. And the end of year lists, everybody had in their top ten, Laurel Halo was either one, two or three - what's going to happen next year? Seriously, all these dudes writing these lists are going to be like, "Shit, last year we had a woman in the top ten, and this year I've got to find another woman, otherwise I'm going to look sexist". I can just see these guys - "what am I going to do?" Or maybe not, maybe all men again. Now that there's been that token woman - good on her, great, but it is a token thing. Why not have three? Oh we've got the one - tick! That's done. It's just a ridiculous, ridiculous thing. That's one thing, making music is another. As soon as you put the music out there, it's out there and it's in that world.

It's subject to those forces.

KG: Yeah, and those forces have testicles. So to go back to my original statement, I would just really like to be - 'accepted' sounds stupid, it sounds whiny and complaining - I would really like to be, not... On the one hand I would like to be genderless and on the other hand I would like to be able to not have to give a damn in my career. I would like it to be fine, turn up to a gig and play loud music and... You get these e-mails come through, "here's this night, here's this night, here's this night, dudes, dudes, dudes, dudes, dudes, dudes". It's just boring.

Does it put you off playing a night if it's an all-male line-up?

KG: It doesn't put me off, but I am often put on first or second, if it's not a night put on by my own people, I am not given the chance. And I fully expect never to headline anything - that's my expectation, because if I set my expectations nice and low, I won't be disappointed. I don't know any women apart from Laurel Halo and Stellar Om Source who headline anything in electronic music right now. And you have hundreds of men who do, and you can count the number of women who do on two or three fingers. I'm not going to lie, I might as well not expect anything, otherwise I'll be sorely disappointed, but it's my career.

But Germany - yay! Go Germany! Women come and they dance without being with guys, they don't have the expectation of being groped, they can enjoy themselves, they can put on gigs, they can DJ, they can promote, they just seem to be able to lead their lives normally. I'm not saying I'm going to move to Berlin or Hamburg, but it is an appealing idea for a lot of these reasons, because I just want to be like everybody else. But that's a lot of moaning and complaining - there is a lot that I'm very thankful for, I'm thankful for everybody who comes and enjoys the music and doesn't give a shit about how tight my shirt is, I'm sure that is a lot of people.

It's hard not to talk about it, because it's like the elephant in the room. In electronic music - if you're making it and you're a woman, you're different. And you're going to get booked for women's festivals and you're going to get published in the women's electronic music special in the magazine, which I have, in both instances.

You'd think that people would have realised that that's really patronising.

KG: It's the norm, it's the norm here, and it's the norm in a lot of other countries. So as long as it's the norm, why expect anything else? I guess the solution would be to be a promoter and start to try and change things. I would like to put on gigs and take a slightly different approach. Maybe down the line.

Do you think it will shift in the UK?

KG: [laughs] Not here and in the States. I think those will be the last ones to shift. Because of the culture here and the way that we're treated. But maybe as I get older, I'll care less. I'll just care less about that whole discrepancy, because I'm also entering this whole thing quite late, like a lot of people are 23 and they've already got a couple of records, and I'm in my mid-30s, so I think I'm already... maybe when you're young, you don't care, because you're naive, and then you learn how crap it is, and then you care the most right around the age of 30. And then as you get older, you care less, because you realise you actually have no control over it whatsoever. You don't. I can only just make my next record and see what happens. I would like to be playing some really amazing nights alongside some people that I really respect. But it's not, it's not. [laughs] But, you know, you can't do anything but keep going.

Karen Gwyer plays 555-5555 at Power Lunches in Dalston tomorrow; for full details and tickets, head here