Biodiversity and Monster Worlds: A Conversation with Katie Gately
Written by Joe Houpert (Prayer)
Statistically speaking (inasmuch as an unfortunate experience with college Prob/Stat has qualified me to use the preceding and any subsequent concepts), the Australian koala bear is a rarity (again, re: college Anth/Bio et al.). Given the age of the planet, the different, let’s say, genres of animals, for lack of a better term, one might assume (again re: Anth/Bio), would converge into a handful of overarching species, a sort of vaguely homogeneous meta-species if you will.
Keeping in line with such logic and taking birds as an example, these groups caught by the large netting cast into the gene pool might leave us with, hypothetically speaking and drawing no such real-life parallels, something like ducks, the aptly-titled large birds, the just-as-aptly-titled small birds and, of course, owls.
And so when speaking of “birds,” a large group of bird-like things that all have beaks and wings that work or in some cases do not work and that all (birds, not working wings or non-working wings), one could likely imagine, birds make bird-like sounds. And different birds make different bird sounds. But at the very least one could make the point that one specific bird might sound very much like (but still not exactly like) another bird but that another specific bird might sound more like another different (but specific) bird, but like a younger version of that bird, or perhaps a punk version of another bird, or say, like that group of birds in the 80’s that lived in that meat storage locker and just sounded way ahead of their time.
Though to my ears, a whole lot of birds sound the same.
So then, the koala bear. Yes, not only bear-like in name, but bear-like fur and perhaps locomotion and maybe other taxonomical qualifiers (a stretch? Again, again re: Anth/Bio) but also very bear-unlike in its (coincidentally) somewhat bird-like mouth and decidedly not-bear-like pouch. A singular animal this koala. Where most bears go on about doing mainly bear-like things with their day, the koala sits, grinning, beady eyes wide as beady eyes can get, innocently gnoshing eucalyptus to its little bear-like and simultaneously un-bear heart’s content. Now yes, one would be remiss if one didn’t mention its Northern cousin and fellow marsupial, the wombat, who, if given the vocabulary (not to mention maxillofacial muscle structure and vocal cording to make use of said vocabulary) could say get together with our friend the koala and say, talk all day about the pros and cons of the front side, top-loading pouch. To that, I say, saccula non facit philosophum; lumping those two nutcases together does a disservice to both of our genetically separate friends, marginalizing the wombat’s uniquely wombat-y ground dwelling skills while simultaneously marginalizing the koala’s uniquely koala-y tree-dwelling skills.
All of this to say: one doesn’t hear something like Katie Gately every day. Familiar enough to not seem foreign, but still unfamiliar at the same time. Not take-behind-the-bleachers ‘like,’ but like tell-your-friends-your-busy-friday-night-but-really-you’re-going-to-that-performance-art-performance and then go to Bard and major in Art History ‘like.’ ‘Pivot’ has all the Gately-isms we have come to love; chromatic harmony and dissonant melody; that grandness that’s underscored by a playful menace. And a balls-out, heart-on-her-sleeve rawness that’s just so damn good. She can sing. She can produce. If there was doubt that ‘Pipes’ was a fluke, ‘Pivot’ clears up any confusion.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Gately about her work and her upcoming split release on FatCat (see: here) with Tlaotlon.
1) Why voice? What was behind the decision to use only voice on ‘Pipes?’ What led to incorporating other elements into the new piece, ‘Pivot?’
Voice is just the most immediate way to find both a melodic idea and some kind of emotional cue for me to get going. Sound design is super fun too and I like applying its conventions frequently but sometimes I don't want my down time to be too job-related.
The vocal limitation for Pipes was something I wanted to do since I heard Medulla but it wasn't until the past few years that I had the technical skills to do much of anything! It sounded like a very fun challenge that could work for a more experimental label like Blue Tapes UK.
The past year I wanted to play with more long-form ideas as well as learn more about mixing and using fancier plug-ins. I have always been so afraid to use normal instruments because I couldn't play them and I wanted to get over that fear. I can still sample and process them just like my voice! It won't be realistic or match classical conventions - but that's OK - I'm trying to make monster worlds, so they should sound different. This is the rationalization I took into the dark night of producing Pivot, at least...
I probably have been bouncing around stylistically because I am greedy. There is such a broad variety of electronic / experimental music in the world, if you limit that to even a single style there is still a huge vat of techniques and tricks and conventions to study and learn. But.... my favorite thing is to study and learn! Obviously, I'd have to live 500 years to learn everything I want to know but I'm still going to try. The results of that learning -- whatever I'm currently obsessed with - will then show up in my own music, of course.
2) What was the intention behind Pivot, beyond trying out new technical skills, if any? Is songwriting/producing more academic exercise for you? More art? A combination of the two? Do you believe that this distinction matters?
Yeah, I am more drawn to song and melody and mood than any academic approach. USC is essentially a glorified trade school. While we definitely had to write theory papers, I came more for the technical, pragmatic classes and the faculty behind them which were both pretty tremendous. With my music, I'm really just digging into the personal piggy bank. I'm sad about this or that and trying to use the technical experiments as a way to be productive with my blues (thanks Thom!)
I think if I have any conscious, general goal with music it's to absolutely step over my comfort line, like risk looking pretty stupid and insane, just in case this might make someone else feel less alone with how bonkers they are feeling about one thing or another. That feeling of "Woaw. This person's brain fires in a way that mine does too.: That's nice to know because usually I hide that part of myself from the world for fear of being arrested and/or institutionalized.
I'm really grateful to get that feeling from so many other musicians and records. There are a lot of brave people in the world! And they inspire me to be more vulnerable every time I'm making something new.
3) So, your degree is in Sound Design, or Sound Design for Film? Either way, I’d like to ask about visual elements in your work. Your releases are very sparse. There's artwork, but little of it. Conversely, when I listen to your work, I have a very visual response to it. Can you comment on the importance of the visual in your work? Are the "monster worlds" that you make purely auditory in nature?
Yeah, my degree is formally a "Masters of Fine Arts in Film and Television Production" so the majority of my schoolwork was not sound-based but it has still been super useful to study story, writing, lighting, color. All of that can inspire sound-making, too.
That said, I’m not consciously going for any visual element with my music. I like defying spatial conventions and the laws of physics because I'm always trying to hear things I’ve never heard before. It never happens intentionally - it's usually the result of some mistake - but I do find that if I'm trying to realistically recreate sounds in space, I'm less likely to hear unfamiliar, scary shit....and I love that stuff so...I want to stay open to finding it.
I do love working with animators though but I leave the ideation mostly up to them - it's their area of expertise after all and I love seeing what people come up with on their own terms.
4) You use Soundcloud a good deal, posting most of your work there (a large chunk of 'Pipes', some of your self-titled LP, Far' from our split). Is the physical format important to you? Is the idea of a collection of cohesive songs released together important to you, given that your last two releases are single long-form works?
The music itself is far and away the most important thing to me for sure. I'd listen to music if it came out of a garbage can and I had to stick my head in a pile of trash in order to hear it!
But it's definitely fun exploring mediums. I really like the idea of the medium being part of inspiration of something. One side of vinyl has to fit in a certain time frame and that's pretty significant if you're locked into a certain sequencing of songs. Tapes are cool too, doing something for Blue Tapes made me want to try and digitally recreate a feeling of tape decay near the end of pipes. And we did a lathe! I listened to your side and responded to it but it had to be under a certain length. That stuff is pretty relevant to things taking shape, which is rad.
In general with music...I do find that an important part is actually buying it, digital or physical. When I buy things - even mp3s - I just straight up pay more attention to them. It's like paying to see a movie: you don't want to walk out and throw away 15 bucks so you engage a bit more, even if it's out of guilt or stubbornness. This way, there is more of a chance you will be open to finding redeemable qualities in something you judged too quickly as well as a chance to fall more in love with the minute details of something you liked right away.
5) How did ‘Pivot’ come about? Tell me about its development. What should we expect to hear?
Pivot came about over the course of a few days last year as I wanted to keep exploring long-form music.
I became fixated with the word "pivot" as it is an action or motion of being rooted to one place while spinning and flailing around but also stands for a person who is an anchor. I love double-meanings and wanted to explore this in a song by playing with the dark and light sides of this word: an anchor can be both blissful and stabilizing as well as suffocating and limiting. As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that feeling one way permanently about something or someone is never going to happen for me. I used to think this was a terrible failing on my part and I needed to fix myself. but now I feel like it's just my reality and it's better to embrace and meet head-on than to judge and repress and hide away.
When I came to LA everyone I met in film was like "Conviction is seduction. Avoid ambiguity at all costs. Be certain about everything you do and say" and I thought "Yeah, there is some truth to that but….it just doesn't feel right to me." I'd much rather live in the grey areas of life because ambiguity is where I feel reality is mostly located. And I personally find truth - however murky and unsatisfying - to be a lot more seductive than certainty.
6) What are your future plans? What work would you like to take on, if any?
I am trying to accrue a little roster of animators I can work for because they are so brilliant and fun to work with. besides this, editing (anything!) as long as I get paid to do so and more time studying mixing. I'm trying to work with as many different sound people as I can and learn their individual tips and tricks and also.....just hang out with different people. Making music is incredibly solitary (for me) and I am taking a break from hermit land for a bit so that i actually have a desire to return to it.
7) What is your favorite animal?
When I was a kid I was obsessed with koalas (probably just because they had a K in their name....).
Now I'm obsessed with preying mantises because there’s one living on my porch and I’ve starting filming her murderous rages.
Also warthogs, because my friend owns one and I get to babysit him. His name is Bayboo and Bayboo don’t give no fucks and will step on you and leave holes in your skin.
But my true-love animal is the puppy dog. Every single dog I make eye contact with on the street steals a sliver of my soul, permanently. My fantasy is to be able to give birth to a litter of puppies (via C-section), I don’t really care if that’s wrong or icky, I think it deserves to be researched. Either way, I hope to own at least 10 dogs on a plot of land in the middle of nowhere before I die.