Out-Of-Body Music: An Interview With Katie Gately

With a head-spinning new composition due out this month, following up on last year's startlingly brilliant Pipes, Katie Gately talks to Tristan Bath about moving into music from film sound design, utilising technology and how the voice can be a means of personal reinvention

There’s no real competition when it comes to pinpointing the most eye-opening piece of new music to emerge from the past twelve months. Katie Gately’s Pipes is it. Comprised entirely of her own, digitally manipulated vocals, it overarchingly distills the fabric of the modern human mind into one fourteen-minute blowout, searching for beauty through passages of wistful crescendoing, about-turning and quivering through hard-to-nail-down emotions, restlessly exploding with countless momentary thoughts, and all irrevocably interlocked with the omnipresent draw of technology. Pipes‘ cyborgian methodology is no deterministic trapping though. Gately and the machine’s is a symbiotic relationship, creating a virtual sonic hall of mirrors, reflecting, refracting and amplifying her voice into every possible nook and cranny of your inner ear. The Quietus’ decision to name Pipes as one of their albums of the year so far (admittedly it was released in late 2013, but only a handful of us had heard it at that point) is testament to the piece’s sheer brilliance – all the more remarkable coming from an almost entirely unknown newcomer. Gately’s got a new split release with avant-electronic New Zealander, Tlaotlon, due out on FatCat this month – and already available to pre-order. Gately’s contribution this time, ‘Pivot’, is another side-long epic suite in the vein of Pipes, although she’s lifted that track’s embargo on instrumentation aside from the human voice, and integrated the sound effects and various sampled aural detritus from her excellent self-titled debut EP on Public Information, also released last year.

Born in New York, raised in Brooklyn, Gately got her philosophy BA in Minnesota, and eventually moved further westward to study a film production MFA in her current home of Los Angeles. She’s now living in the far more chilled and quiet side of L.A. out in Echo Park, having escaped her far louder initial west coast home of Hollywood (in her words, "the armpit of the world"). For a musician, her journey’s certainly been an atypical one, initially leading to an inevitable career in film production. Precisely why she started making music remains something of a mystery, even to Gately herself.

"It happened like a switch went off!" she says. "It wasn’t really elegant or gradual […] I wanted some of my personal art to show for this MFA I was doing rather than just always helping other people with their films. And I just woke up one day and was like, ‘I need to make music!’ I don’t really understand it still, but I was just completely focused on that, and everything else was sort of in the periphery. I bought Ableton Live, and I’ve been using Pro Tools, but it’s not as conducive to loop-based music as I feel Live is […] so I learned that and then I took a dance music class, with like eighteen-year-old boys! I don’t think I’ve had so much fun! Having just discovered this magical world of film sound, I was still hungry to keep peeking behind curtains…"

Gately’s thirst for a more creative, auteurist outlet that went beyond methodical sound work for film-makers was already breaching before her sudden shift to music-making. For example, she designed and mixed the extraordinary sound for Sensory Overload: Interacting With Autism, an animated short film directed by L.A.-based artist, Miguel Jiron. The two-minute animation highlights and aims to capture the titular sensory overload experienced by some autism sufferers, with a particular focus on overpowering sound in the ears of an autistic boy. A waitress’ restless pen- and foot-tapping become an unbearably irritating banging akin to the clatter of building work, and a barista’s grinding and tamping is refracted into a torturous violent crunching noise. The ears of the child at the centre of the brief narrative function much like Gately – amplifying and grandeurising banal everyday sounds into something far more powerful. "When I was doing that animation stuff, that’s where I was tipping," says Gately. "When I thought, ‘I can’t just edit dialogue!’" Nonetheless, sound for movies still presents a wide range of challenges for designers and mixers – foley and sound effect creation are entire art forms unto themselves. "I was completely amazed that this whole world of sound existed. The relationship between picture and sound, and how sort of absurd it is. Your intuition about foley is always wrong; whatever seems logical’s never right. What you see is never what you hear – and that’s so cool. I really liked that, and it felt like an opportunity to expand how I thought about sound."

Besides such aspects though, the quite monotonous task of editing dialogue still makes up a huge part of the sound designer’s job on a film. Every shot can require a different soundtrack, a single scene could be made up of several takes that were made hours apart, the gaps in speech have to come across as natural, and the room tone of everything has to match. "Dialogue is king," says Gately. "And it’s much trickier than it looks to make it all appear seamless."

Presumably as a result of her initial experiences in the field, Gately’s original music arguably has more in common with experimental cinematic sound design than it does with any other musicians. She’s more of an alchemist and an architect than a composer, concocting strange new sounds from simple base material, and building the results into jagged, spiralling edifices. The three-and-a-half minute track ‘FAR’ from a 7" split lathe released back in May takes whisper-sung lines – seemingly snatched from distant dreamt-up pop song and subsequently melted into liquid magma – and glass-blows the musical matter into strange new forms. The sound produced is intrinsically all-encompassing. It tickles a part of the brain left dormant, long-since acclimatised to the textures of popular music, and immune to the thuds and clatters of the sounds of everyday life.

It’s perhaps tempting to point to Nurse With Wound for comparison, but their defining years were still determined by collage, assemblage and Dada, while Gately’s methods fit more with the subconscious visions of American abstract expressionism – almost imagining a new colour. It’s also inviting to try and slot Gately comfortably in with the growing American school of musicians focusing on exploring vocal manipulation – artists like Holly Herndon, Julianna Barwick and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe – but Gately still stands out unique. Those artists, however distantly, still slot into a musical tradition. Be it the shape and form of pop songs that Herndon reinvents, the choral intonations of Barwick or the Eastern-influenced microtonal vocal improvisations at the core of Lowe’s work – Gately plainly does nothing of the sort. Asking her to highlight musical and artistic influences leads to some clear difficulty, thinking long and hard. She eventually explains: "As a kid, like everyone, I fell in love with Kid A and then that introduced me to more ‘experimental’ music. I became really obsessed with mostly British post-punk and then at the same time I was interested in Autechre and weird electronic music… It made me feel like, ‘I don’t know what I’m feeling, I don’t know what this is, and I feel like something new.’ It’s very bizarre and uncomfortable and exciting, and I started to become addicted to that feeling; definitely feeling excited in a positive way, but with this ambiguity, and this feeling of unpredictability. Tarkovsky’s Stalker and The Mirror too, I was just transfixed, didn’t understand at all, and didn’t care."

This feeling of unusual beauty, this art without comprehensible emotion, with its transfixing nature, certainly thrives inside Gately’s own music. It often combines seemingly disparate elements, all stemming from hours of trial and error, and exploration through dozens of plug-ins and key bits of software like Melodyne. "It is a really abstract process I think when listening to other people’s music I just wanna feel free; when I make music I want to feel limitless."

With digitisation, music in fact has become essentially sonically limitless. Her initial Katie Gately EP on Public Information sculpted songs around sounds from a wealth of banal everyday items. "With ‘Last Day’ I was very frustrated because I’d stubbed my toe on a cinder block. I really busted my toe because I walk around barefoot and I had cinder blocks holding up my desk. I was like, "This cinder block’s gonna pay!" so I started dragging it, and suddenly thought it sounded really cool. So that whole song came out of that – that was the spark."

Similarly, ‘Ice’ sprang from a limitation exercise, challenging Gately to make a song using nothing but some ice jangling in a glass."I just had to copy and twist it and layer it," she says. "I had to just stay to that sample – it was like a second long." Delimiting also led to Gately’s first vocals-only track, ‘Stems’, while that same release’s ‘Dead Referee’ sought to make dark music using basketball sounds. "Never assume anything about a sound. A sound can be pretty limitless if you’re open to trying different things on it."

As was pretty well explored in Alex Borkowski’s excellent piece on vocal manipulation on the Quietus earlier this year, the moment Gately elected to use voice as the sole source for sound on certain tracks, something changed. With the human voice, connotations are so widely and unavoidably abundant. It’s practically impossible to disentangle voice from vocalist, and a sound of its meaning. The brief, noisy ‘Stems’ already hauntingly evoked Gately somehow twisted and trapped within the computer, and through headphones almost unbearably surrounds the listener with a malevolent demonic spirit impossible to see on the beaming, excitable Gately’s real-world face.

Pipes took things very much to the next possible level. "It was a nightmare," she opines. The piece started life as an entirely different song, but Gately didn’t like where it was going. "I just didn’t like it enough, so I got rid of what it was building to; just erased it." Holding on to the head and tail of the song, Gately sought to fill in the middle with something entirely new. It’s still audible on the piece, with the beginning and end noticeably reflecting each other in a crescendo and diminuendo either side of the central section’s countless twists and turns. "I thought, I’m just going to have to figure out how to connect these two sections. They were never going to connect in a conventional, ‘sane’ way, so I had to build a maze to get from A to Z." Far from constraining Gately, this way of working in fact freed her entirely, giving carte blanche to explode and implode the piece, and rise and fall within it as many times as she liked throughout its duration. She divorced herself from any kind of rational thinking or conventional approach to structure in between the launch pad and crash mat she’d already set up. Hundreds of vocal layers were ultimately added, pitched up and down across the sonic spectrum to broaden the sonic range, and to stop her voice from sounding, as Gately describes it, "like mud".

Working on Pipes has patently had some profound effect on the musician. "When I was done, I said I’m never going to make anything like that again; I’m never going to make something long ever again." And yet her latest piece is even longer. More than anything, Gately’s enamoured with the process, and perhaps even addicted to the process of trial and error. Her formal musical education amounted to practically nothing, having failed to learn both the piano and guitar in her youth. As she puts it, she "stubbornly" went ahead and signed up for a music theory class in college. "It’s the only class I’ve ever failed."

The choice to go with vocals again goes against the grain for Gately. She even explains in detail the process of removing noise and matching the room tone for her own dozens of layers of vocals. What’s more, she was afraid to sing as a child, saying she "couldn’t think of anything more scary!" So why sing? "Once I decided I was going to make music, I thought, well of course, I’m going to sing. It just comes easily, and it’s so malleable, and you can find a melody in an instant."

Besides its sheer convenience, the voice opens up the floor to characterisation too, adding versatile theatrics to Gately’s composition toolbox. "I just thought it would be fun to be many different people," she explains. "Sometimes it’s like a childish high voice, and sometimes I’ll sing low like I’m pretending to be a man, and then I’ll pitch that down even further… it still doesn’t really sound like a man, but it sounds bizarre! And something about that to me is just joyous!" Gately gushes on the subject, clearly captivated with the variety with which she can reinvent her voice via technology, like a child digging around the family dressing-up box. "We’re all born into the body we’re born into […] but it’s really fun with technology to sort of not be limited. Like with Photoshop."

Along with the likes of the aforementioned Holly Herndon, one wave Katie Gately is most definitely part of is the growing wave of female auteurs in underground music. As with almost everything, it’s been a traditionally male-dominated area (just try to name ten female solo artists in the realm of experimental music from before the year 2000) – but it’s finally changing. "I think it’s really important to have role models that are your gender. I admire so many musicians that are male, but it’s a different feeling when it’s a woman. It’s so exciting now that there are more and more women on the scene, it’s really good for younger girls. When I was a teenager, I just didn’t see women producing solo. There surely were, but I just couldn’t see it – there wasn’t so much internet stuff and so on. I remember discovering Hildegard Westerkamp, and I’d heard about field recording, but when I heard of her it… it made me feel like I could do field recording more." The first generation of anything is always the hardest, but the likes of Katie Gately – along with Herndon, Liz Harris, Inga Copeland, etc. – are laying the groundwork for a gender-balanced future. "I think a room with a gender balance is always more comfortable – for everyone."

Hildegard Westerkamp’s influence was a potent one, and Gately’s first major artistic endeavour was as a member of the Seattle Phonographers Union, a loose-knit performance unit dedicated to using field recordings with whom Gately performed live and in studio with several years ago. "Everyone [had] this portable little set-up," she says. "We’d get on stage together, and restraint was very much encouraged […] there was no communication in the group. You just felt something was right and did it."

The question I’m keenest to ask Gately however, is whether or not live performance is something she can envisage for her own solo work. "It’s complicated. I make my music on a desktop, and can’t make it on a laptop. It just… wouldn’t run!" She has a point. It’s something that would never fully translate in to a live setting, no matter how much computer power she roped in. "I’d need like 20 people!"

With her next release on the illustrious Brighton-based FatCat Records – whose alumni include Animal Collective, Sigur Rós, múm and Vashti Bunyan – Gately’s certainly in the process of leaving obscurity behind her. I point out to her that she’s even been played on BBC radio by this point (thanks to John Doran on Stuart Maconie’s Freakier Zone on 6 Music), and that it’s highly likely she’s inspired somebody else to try and emulate her unique approach already. "It’s very surreal," she responds. "…mainly because I don’t perform or interact with people that are doing this [breaks into applause]."

Katie Gately’s split with Tlaotlon is released on October 27 via FatCat Records

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today