Interview: Sound Locking With Katie Gately

27 Oct 2014 — Evelyn Malinowski

The atmospheric sounds of a dentist's office are comparable to the metallicity and searing audio mutations of Katie Gately's work. Her new movement, "Pivot," out on Fat Cat October 27th as a part of the Split 12" Series, displays the usual Gately melodies which lead listeners to unexpected places while being followed by surreal lyrics and indiscernible buzzing that originated with Gately singing into her at home studio microphone. Around eight minutes into the track, we are left alone to some dissonant timpani-sounding drum being struck at a rate that reminds me of the ticking of a giant universal clock, before medieval vocal cadence enters, followed by all kinds of silly blaring horns and rhythmic banter. Just let it suck you in.

Since the FC Split 12" Series focuses on emerging artists, and because we've been interested in Katie's style for some years, I felt that this elevation would be a great opportunity to sit down with the artist and pick her brain. As it turns out, Katie is a friendly, funny, and exceedinly cunning individual. Here's our conversation held via Skype chat.

We really need to get you to Berlin for CTM or something!

Oh yeah CTM invited me last year! They are so nice but I'm not a performer, more a studio person. I really aspire to be in the studio twenty hours a day!

Are you in the studio right now?

Yeah I am at home, just working around the clock on some music as I have a week off from more film editing [and bill] paying duties.

It must feel good, though, to do artistic clockwork.

Yes, when it is going well! most of what I spend time on though is the technical tweaking which isn't very artistic but it's good to get in those 10,000 hours!

Do you always decline playing live?

Yeah I've declined to play for everyone - my focus is the studio. After being at USC, the most important thing I learned was to identify my goals and stick to them and not get distracted even if there is pressure to. Does that make sense? I have a few records that are so time-consuming to make and with no budget and no help. All I have is my own slave labor to push myself along!

That does make sense, and I feel like it's a very self-respecting rule to have with oneself.

I listen to a lot of Aretha Franklin.

And this is where the whole "I feel like a cave dweller" bit comes from, right?

The cave part blows…so now I try on/off weeks instead of months at a time. Just dig in like crazy for a few solid days and then retreat a bit (get some sun!).

Sun is very important, and those shadows in the cave can start to get freaky! The world of seeing live music is so poignantly different than private listening. Similarly, the act of performing music really has nothing to do with the act of writing and tinkering with music in the private sphere, in the studio, because the latter doesn't involve performing. People still think the ultimate music experience has to be a live one. What do you think? And do you have any feelings about performance in general?

Yeah I completely agree. Performance blows me away but I also think of it as using a different part of the brain. I am more prone to listen to records (I cannot afford to see live music or movies or anything these days….loans!) Since I trained in film….I'm also just prone to think of sound as fixed and "locked." Literally, when you finish editing you say "picture lock" and "sound lock." So I draft and draft and edit and edit and do pass after pass until I'm done. Then, I honestly never want to hear my music again! I spent insane amount of time hearing it loop and loop as I mix!

Oh interesting! That's how a lot of people feel about writing, and once they submit/publish, they don't want to see it again, or maybe they're even scared to read it because they're brain will go back into editing mode or something. I mean that's how writing my thesis was for me. I'm trying to reengage with it, but I still can't get passed page three of the introduction.

Yes! I've always felt that what I'm actually doing is writing. Or editing in the same way a writer self-edits. Just because there are no instruments. Watching someone play an instrument is totally beautiful and mysterious to me. It's obviously the normal/sane way to make music, but I just can't play anything beside the computer and assortment of weird plug-ins. I have a friend doing her PhD right now and we find millions of parallels between trying to structure a record and writing a huge essay like a dissertation. It's a nightmare! But a self-inflicted joyous and indulgent one totally worth the effort.

So you said that, for you, sound is a rather fixed medium, one that you lock and save. Does that rule out other observations about sound being as fluent as water, spooky, and fleeting?

No! I don't rule out anything! I've just found this one way of making music to be right for me as a solo producer. I know it will morph and change. It's just where I'm at now, still a bit of a beginner with making tunes after all.

The process is still fluent, but the process at this point entails that the sounds you record and edit are to be contained and perceived as fixed? That's a weird half question.

Yeah, coming up with ideas is fluent - anything goes – then when I finish a song, because I make everything via editing techniques (no midi controller, no real-time singing but heavily processed voice-as-effect) it's just literally beyond me how I'd perform this kind of stuff! My computer crashes all the time because of the CPU i'm hogging to process this way you know? Imagine me live. I'd need three computers and like ten people helping me! it's totally worth exploring for sure….it's just that i have zero time! I am trying to work in film and make records and it's already like 90 hrs of work a week.

I totally just had an image of that being your live set. It'd be so trippy omg – instead of backing musicians you'd have a back up tech support choir moving around you while you sing and splice the real-time.

I just hope I live until I'm really old so I can do everything I want to do. That's my constant anxiety. Like 'please don't let me get the first case of Ebola in LA so I can release these six songs first. Then give me Ebola! I don't care!'

Aww you'll be fine! I want to back up again to something you just said – you feel like a writer though you're a producer. Virginia Woolf, who was a massive music listener, who took listening and representations of listening to a new level, famously wrote that she "pens to a rhythm," and that she felt like her novels were movements of music. Have you ever come away with any inspirations from reading VW, and do you think that crossing media (writing fiction like it's music, producing music like it's fiction or polemical), is especially important nowadays?

I remember falling in love with VW at a very young age and then well, I found out she killed herself (alongside a disturbing number of the people I've found so moving!). I wrote much more as a kid than music...I didn't make music at all. Reading was such a huge part of my childhood. Sometimes I think it's those earlier memories than most seeped into my mind and changed me – that awe at someone building an independent universe and just with text and structure!

So awesome, yes. Microcosmic construction.

Yeah I liked that she would spend obsessive amounts of time on a single sentence. I relate to that deeply. It's not even an aspiration for getting something "right" for the reader but just getting it right in the sense that it perfectly communicates something specific about how you feel. I don't know if there is even a difference. Her and Kafka and Herman Hesse were my favorites. Also, duh, Nancy Drew books. I read 100 Nancy Drew books. She was a cute little role model. I'm pretty sure all those books were ghost written and formulaic to a T but comforting for a little kid.

Holy smokes there totally is! Curating how you want your work to be for yourself is utterly different than making things as clear and stiff as possible for faceless readers. VW wrote about that, too. Do you have any thoughts on the popularity of synaesthesia/intermedialty in art nowadays?

Gosh I don't know much about that – do you mean the self-diagnosis of it? Or an intentional practice of bringing this into artwork and music?

I guess more diagnosis, and seeing it in other artworks too – what has accelerated its popularity?

Haha, I don't know. Self-obsession? There are a lot of gluten allergies in LA. I tend to veer away from diagnosis and categories just as a knee-jerk bias.

Labels, categories, contagions.

Yeah they're so comforting but often just not even remotely accurate. My brother the other day asked how I'd describe my music and I said 'I have no clue. listen to it and decide for yourself. I'm just as likely as anyone else to totally describe it incorrectly!' It's not easy describing things. Thus, this is why I did become a writer!

That anecdote reminds me again of how superficial the uses of categorizing are – it's just for short answers and explanations.

As long as someone doesn't compare me to Lil Wayne or something I'm like 'oh I can see how that description makes sense' – ha! it's incredibly hard to talk about abstract art (i.e. music and sound are literally invisible to the eyes!)

Exactly! That brings me to the next question: I usually like to ask artists what their aural, as opposed to musical, influences are; but, since your work is already quite abstract, broken, and heavily coded, I want to ask what your musical influences are, as they are not very evident in the music. Besides Aretha Franklin.

[At this point we go off on a long tangent about sonic torture and Satan and Katie doesn’t end up responding to this generic question which I respect]

Hey how was the dentist?

Oh, great. I wish I could go every day. The dentist is like fun to me. I wish I could afford weekly bone scraping and feel newborn every day.

You like the sounds of the facility? Have you ever had an MRI?

Yes i love the sounds! Servos are beautiful. I have had an MRI and I was furious nobody warned me how incredible it sounded because I did not have a recorder with me! One of my biggest sound regrets and sadnesses. I guess will have to get injured again soon.

Haha, 'sound regrets.'

I try to be zen about it like 'don't become attached to things. it's all good' but I am essentially lying to myself when I do this. Just hard to carry a recorder at every moment.

Are you attached to sounds? Love at first listen?

Yes for sure. Some get made out of nothing, they start dull and then surprise me (it is so exciting when it happens). Others are like heart-stopping and just just draw-dropping out of the gate. And then there are childhood sounds which have a whole other comfort and association.

Can you give me an example of a childhood sound?

Oh damn, I walked right into that one! Let's see…well the sound of my childhood bathtub when you turn it on. It makes this crazy hyena wailing sound because the pipes are from like the 1800s or maybe even earlier! Also we owned a really old stool…my parents furniture growing up was like very very creaky and old! And we had a stool that when you stood up…the sound of it scraping against the wood floor was almost like a whale bellowing in pain or something. So dramatic! Especially with reverb.

So childhood sounds that remind us of wildlife, all contained within the walls your childhood home?

Yeah things that feel too exceptional to be from the mouth of something so mundane! Sort of teaches you to not judge a books by its cover!

One more thing super duper important: Do you know your astrology at all?

I don't at all! I am a Cancer though, which always sounded like such a bummer. But crabs are cute (and sassy!). 

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Fat Cat Split 12" Series #23 with Katie Gately and Tlaotlon is out now and you can order it here.