A Knife To The Throat Of Pop Music: Katie Gately Interviewed

John Doran talks to the maverick sound designer and electronic musician about the hum of MRI machines, recording the street noise of Los Angeles and the terror of talking to Björk

Photograph courtesy of Jasmine Safaeian

Katie Gately is a maverick. A true musical outlier. Unquantifiable and unique. It’s clear now that she’s mutating with every new release, zipping off into uncharted territories, while folk are still trying to get a handle on what she was doing last year and the year before that. She resists the old reductive male misogynist critic’s formula of categorisation by comparison limited by scope and gender. Try comparing her to Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Patti Smith or Björk, and see how far you get you cloth-eared nincompoops! (There is a Björk connection but more of that later.) You could try comparing her to Holly Herndon but this wouldn’t survive anything beyond a cursory examination. They are both skilled in the recording, digital manipulation and subsequent processing of the human voice (among other inputs) but in terms of process, politics, philosophy and end result, they stand apart from one another. There are hints of Julianna Barwick. There are hints of Rashad Becker. There are hints of The Knife. There are hints of Amon Tobin. There are hints of Julia Holter. But it’s like quantum mechanics. The second you try and formally observe these connections, they vanish instantaneously as if they’d never existed. No. Truly, there is no other.

She first came to the attention of tQ at the end of 2013 with a singular and jaw-dropping piece of music called ‘Pipes’ released on a limited run of cassettes via Blue Tapes. It was a quarter of an hour long host of heavenly voices – all of the raw inputs were the artist’s own vocals, hyperprocessed using Melodyne and other computer sound design tools – that shimmered like a quicksilver shiver, as difficult to accurately describe as the functionality of capitalism, as evanescent and unrepeatable as a beautiful sunrise, as difficult to truly comprehend as nothing itself. Truly avant garde in terms of technology, process and structure but so, so easy on the ear and so, so beguiling to the soul.

It was tempting to assume that the process behind something so utterly rupturing, so deterritorializing, would harden like quick setting concrete into its own self-contained orthodoxy but ‘Pivot’, released as a split with avant-electronic New Zealander, Tlaotlon on FatCat in 2014, showed that Gately was only just warming up. Combining vocal experiments with sound effects and field recordings, it felt, thrillingly, like someone trying to invent the history of ecclesiastical music with no first hand knowledge, just some scraps of information on shreds of paper torn from an ancient manual written in an alien language.

She placed some self-imposed restrictions on herself when recording her self-titled EP for Public Information in 2013 – the opening track is constructed solely from samples of an ice cube rattling around a glass for example – but all such barriers have been removed for her debut album Color, which is out now on Tri-Angle.

The overall effect of Color is something more analogous to pop music than anything she’s produced before, although wildly hectic and alien sounding pop. She describes her process of finding structure in her music to be “blind” and something she “stumbles” toward. However, it should be said, that some of the tracks on Color are toe-tappers, bona fide pop hits – in some parallel universe at least.

For the record, I didn’t like Color that much when I first heard it. I found the lysergic sensory overload and bristling pointilist detail of the sound design close to nauseating and it took several listens to even acclimatise to this new musical landscape. Also for the record: I now love it. Color will not win her an army of new fans but, then, I would be extremely surprised if that was ever her intention.

Talking about the more pronounced pop element to Color, she says her process hasn’t changed that much but perhaps she has simply become more used to it with repetition: “Do you know how your eyes adjust to the darkness when you’re in a dark room? At first you’re totally blind and then after half an hour you can tell the difference between the dark grey of the wall and the super black of the floor. So perhaps my ‘eyes’ are adjusting and maybe I’m finding more traditional elements of music in what I do.”

She doesn’t compose any of the songs but that isn’t to say she doesn’t end up with tracks that contain great big pop hooks regardless. If a song like ‘Tuck’ were notated, it’s not hard to imagine a band with a more traditional approach to instrumentation having a smash hit with it for example. She is diplomatic in reply: “I don’t agree that ‘Tuck’ would top a chart… that would be insanely arrogant but I do have an interest in timbres that are off-putting or challenging, so to offset that I might use a more friendly vocal or simple, easy to follow melody or harmony. But I feel like I was betraying myself if I were to use the kind of instrumentation that would invite more listeners.

“I don’t have a problem listening to or enjoying pop music but it’s not me. I wouldn’t feel I had to wrestle with music like that. I just wouldn’t be excited by it. What is exciting to me is when I’m on the verge of tackling a pop song to the ground or threatening it. Sometimes I feel like I’ve got a knife held to the throat of a pop song and there’s only a few inches before… That battle is fun and is what keeps me going through the tedious side of mixing and producing.”

One can only imagine how difficult and protracted her process is. ‘Pipes’ alone took over half a year to make and now the balancing act between pop and noise, between sweet melody and discord seems more finely judged. She agrees that it’s hard to know when to stop working on a piece that is constructed from multiple layers and multiple processing sessions: “I don’t want to be boring if I’m going to ask people to listen to this stuff, so I’m not really thinking about people but I’m thinking about ears and the way that the ear hears things. I’m always thinking about hungry ears. How do I feed these ears… but not overfeed them as well.

“Technically it’s hard to get everything in the mix. My Ableton Live sessions are totally mad, I’ll have six duplicate sends, returns and master tracks. I can’t run all of my tracks at once because the programme will crash. [PAUSE] I doubt myself very often. I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ It is technically so difficult and so frustrating, the way that I work. But I also can’t imagine another way. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t think I’d be very good at minimalism.”

Her maximalism in part comes from a receptiveness to more sound sources than ever before with her adopted city of Los Angeles providing a near infinite amount of inspiration itself: “I started with some very fun recordings of some fireworks I made at the Dodger Stadium. After games local people let off firecrackers and I’ve been recording this for a couple of years. Because LA is such an open place, there are fireworks happening right across the city that I can hear. These noises end up as a percussive sound on some of the tracks.

“The track ‘Sire’ features recordings I made of sirens and helicopters; these are very common sounds in LA. That noise which sounds like a synth? That actually comes from a fire truck siren.

“I have a cool back porch and it’s great for recording because of how insanely loud the city is. There are no barriers to stop sound from travelling so you can hear things happening 20 miles away. It doesn’t hurt that I’m up on a hill.

“There’s a percussive noise, which I use in place of a snare, on the first track, ‘Lift’ which is my favourite raw noise on the whole record. I borrowed my brother’s guitar and I was trying to tune it and the string broke and it almost sliced my face. It made this crazy, explosive sound against the body of the guitar. It was unplanned. It just sounded really violent and unintentional. It excited me.”

She is entirely pragmatic about the Incredible processing options that electronic musicians have open to them now. She raises the idea herself that it must be frustrating for incredibly talented vocalists to see other singers leaning so heavily on Autotune. She herself is paying more and more attention to her ‘traditional’ musical skill set, including becoming a better natural singer, playing the piano to a higher standard and studying music theory but at the same time she hopes people from a more traditionally musical background can be more open minded about the options technology can provide: “I think you can only really benefit if you’re open to new tools. If you’re anti-technology your music is always going to sound old. You should let yourself progress.”

Born in Brooklyn, the young Katie received the lion’s share of her musical education from her mother, who played her Bowie’s greatest hits. (“My parents may not have understood his more experimental stuff but if anyone was to hear one of his pop singles there is no way that person couldn’t stop and think, ‘God damn it! He was put on Earth to teach us about what the pop single is.’ I guess everyone talked about this idea of him appearing to be from outer space but he did make it appear all too easy to write pop songs.”) Her dad was more of an opera fan but her mother was more in touch with Dylan, Baez and Cohen… after she quit being a nun at least. (“She was Irish Catholic but I don’t think she really believed it and once she got out of the church, that expanded her exposure to the arts and music. She had an obsession with Leonard Cohen. So I grew up with him being the god of music. And she was spot on about that.”) She and her brother were like chalk and cheese in this respect. (“He was into Phish and a lot of jam bands and I was like… ‘Er, no!’ So that’s why I went off in my own direction.”)

Her youthful obsessions reveal a respect for singers who combined a very melodic sensibility with a raw-throated scream. (“When I was younger I definitely went through a period where I wanted to be able to scream like Courtney Love or Kurt Cobain. They weren’t that similar musically but they both had this similar way of screaming that seemed really cathartic but probably terrible for the vocal cords. And Otis Redding. I always wanted to be able to sing like Otis Redding. He had a way of scream singing which I still find astonishing.”)

She was a self-confessed round peg in a square hole at school when it came to studying music. (“I was always very defiant as a kid. My piano teacher was very strict and said, ‘You have to sit up straight and hold your body like this and music is this.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t agree with you!’ [LAUGHS] I didn’t like the idea of completely emulating people who had come before me. I liked the idea of mashing around making noises and bumping into ideas… but now that I’m older the idea of combining both things is the ideal for me.”)

After school she moved to Minnesota to study philosophy (with the focus on music), something that influences her to this day. She says: “I sit at a computer all day and making sounds. Now some people can just get on and do this but I have to wrestle with something outside of myself in order to justify it otherwise it just feels indulgent. When we listen to music that has no words or semantic content, we can still be moved by the experience – and often moved negatively. We might cry or feel stress when we hear this music… and yet still seek it out. The whole process of listening to this kind of music is very strange and irrational.

“I don’t think anyone’s ever really done a good job of explaining this. And I think this mystery keeps me interested especially in the found sound aspects of what I do. Especially in the combination of found sounds in order to create new emotions.

“I think we all have different associations associated with the creak of a door or the hum of a refrigerator and that is very exciting to me because that means we can all listen to [this kind of] music a little bit differently from one another, whereas I think we all have more similar associations when we hear a cello or a violin because it’s a standard instrument. You could be someone who finds it reassuring to hear a door creaking but alternatively you could be someone who was terribly traumatised by having been locked in a room. So to you the sound of a door creaking would be awful. It’s wild, the number of different responses you can have to a found sound like that.”

She admits that creating music for a larger audience, such as she is doing with Color, is something she finds very stressful and that, by and large, she would be much more comfortable composing music with one person in mind. One such example of this would be her creation of the drone piece ‘Amethyst’ for a friend suffering from a brain tumour.

Amethyst from Katie Gately on Vimeo.

She had fallen out with her friend Sam because he had become a “very critical and blunt” person, something she found "occasionally hurtful" and had not seen him for a while. But then he got back in touch after being diagnosed with stage four cancer. The part of his brain affected by the tumour was specifically the area that affects language and impulse control: “He phoned me and told me this news which threw me entirely, not to mention the idea that someone might become blunt and rude because they had a brain tumour. Anyway, he decided to throw this party, which was all themed around amethyst. When you do chemo you don’t sleep very much and he had been having all of these purple visions. So my friend Peter made the video and I created the sound for it. What I did wasn’t really about amethysts but was based around this tone that you hear from an MRI machine when you’re getting scanned for brain tumours. So that was a piece that I did just for one person which is my favourite thing. And it’s so much more easy to stay motivated because it’s personal. It’s something I want to do more of. Making a song for one person feels really good. Perhaps it’s because it’s not as scary as making a proper release for the world.”

After getting her degree, she studied film sound design in NYC and then, in 2009, a film production MFA in Los Angeles. And it was at this point she started making music. The cinema is still important to her – it doesn’t need to be verbalised, you can hear it clearly in her music – and she finds it easy to locate the exact film that inspired her move into this specific discipline: “It was a Hungarian film called Hukkle by György Pálfi, which has no script and not plot and no score. It starts with an old man hiccoughing – and Hukkle means hiccough – and from that point you just follow people around this Hungarian town and you follow bugs up trees and you follow moles underground. The camera is all over the place. You have to be in the mood to watch it because it’s not an immediately grabbing experience, it’s more meditative. Because it doesn’t lean on the crutch of dialogue or music, it really forces you to listen to two hours of sound. And that’s really brave for a film. And that’s how I got interested in film sound and why I started studying it.”

One prominent fan of her work is Björk – who has, obviously, amongst many other talents, a great ear for the potential of music and has collaborated with such disparate souls as Omar Souleyman, Tricky, Matmos, The Haxan Cloak and Konono No. 1. You can tell just by talking to Gately that this was very important to her while simultaneously putting her outside of her personal comfort zone. (“I get nervous just thinking about it.”) She turned down a potential meeting with the Icelandic musician but after receiving an email from her agreed to remix ‘Family’, which was her favourite track off Vulnicura. (“It is a dumb decision to remix your favourite songs because you already like those tracks exactly how they are.”) After spending a fortnight paralysed with fear, Björk’s manager emailed her to ask her to get a move on prompting an intense burst of creativity. (“I stripped out all of the instrumentation, strings and beat, leaving just her voice.”)

She decided against adding her own – or anyone else’s – vocals to the track ("You have her voice… what could compare to that?") But she wanted something with a vocal quality, so added heavily processed peacock, wild turkey and other bird calls: “It was an experimentation with orchestration using bird calls but not in a traditional, phonographer’s way. I sent the track to her and I was so nervous I threw up. [LAUGHS] But she really liked it so that was such a fun, pinch yourself moment. It was just great to have her voice on my computer. Very surreal. She is a big influence.”

Asked if she’s had any contact with her since she concludes: “I spoke with her on the phone once and I was drunk because the only way I could speak to her was to have wine first. So I haven’t met her yet but maybe one day.”

And maybe one day Katie Gately will be spoken of in the same kind of terms that are often reserved for Björk. If she carries on journeying out into uncharted territories, it will be no less than she deserves.

Color is out now on Tri Angle

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