Empath interview: Philly Psych Band on the new album “The Visitor”

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In early 2020, Catherine Elicson realized she didn’t care about looking cool. “I was like, ‘I want to write catchy songs, and maybe not that punk,” says Elicson, who sings and plays guitar in Empath, The Most Fearless Inner Space Cosmonauts. of Philadelphia. “I wanted to write the songs I wanted to write, instead of trying to fit in.”

Most listeners first experienced Empath through the gleefully anarchic and truly psychedelic noise of the 2018s. Release the guilt and fear cassette, which is still one of the funniest you can have with a tape recorder and 16 free minutes. On stage, the four-piece group – complemented by drummer Garrett Koloski, synthesizer Randall Coon and keyboardist Jem Shanahan – established themselves as a blend of lightning-fast sound and energy, wowing audiences across the country. . Two years after the start of their national career, however, they were starting to play with a different approach.

The result is The visitor, Empath’s second feature film, which will be released on February 11. The album still sounds like Empath, only clearer, as if the mists surrounding their dream world have suddenly parted to reveal something even more radically inventive. The four members seem excited when they log into Zoom to talk about the breakthrough they’ve achieved.

“My father said to me: ‘Finally, you can hear Catherine!’ “Says Koloski.” We used to be chaotic, loud and catchy. Now it’s chaotic, loud and catchy, but it’s also beautiful.

Empath started looking for a new direction as they wrapped up the tour of their 2019 debut feature, Active listening: Night on Earth, and signed with Fat Possum Records of Mississippi. For Elicson, who started playing in punk bands in Ohio, playing fast and hard was a way of life until then. “I had some insecurity about my voice, since I was 18 living in Columbus and wanted to fit in,” she says. “If you’re playing a concert in a basement, you don’t want to be the band that’s like, ‘This is a soft pop band. “”

The pandemic turned out to have a silver lining for a group that needed space to rediscover themselves. “The first record was recorded, from start to finish, without overdubs, in four or five days,” Elicson explains. “This time, we’ve had so much endless time to think about it.”

In October 2020, Empath spent a week in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, working with producer Jake Portrait on songs Elicson wrote. In many ways, Portrait, who plays bass in Unknown Mortal Orchestra and has helped indie groups like Alex G and DIIV develop their sounds, was a natural fit. “He’s lo-fi trained,” Elicson notes. “It’s not like we’re working with Rick Rubin or anything like that.”

But the producer still pushed them. “He was like, ‘It should be slower,'” Koloski remembers with false horror. “And I was like, ‘How? ‘Or’ What?! I can’t slow down! ‘ “

In fact, Empath was more than up to the challenge. “We’re all best friends and hang out all the time,” Koloski continues. “Whatever the profession, we are improving. We become better musicians, because all we do is play.

After their week in Brooklyn, Empath returned to Philly and spent most of the next year tinkering with overdubs and new takes at Coon’s home studio. (Synthesizer scientist says he outfitted space with a 2009 Mac Mini “and a really crappy LCD screen I bought at a thrift store. But it worked!”)

The Berlin era of David Bowie was one of the main influences that emerged as the new LP took shape. “I was really in Moo back then, ”Elicson says. “This record takes you somewhere,” Koloski nods enthusiastically. “All the best records, in my opinion, do that. They make you feel like you’re not necessarily in your apartment listening to a record.

The debut single “Born 100 Times” shows Empath’s new emphasis on hooks. “Sometimes I like to play songs that are just two chords over and over again, and I try to find the most catchy tune I can sing on it,” Elicson says. “What if we only had the catchiest part, and that was it?” “

The middle point of the album “Elvis Comeback Special” could be the best pop song Empath has ever recorded, with a breathtaking vocal melody and words full of romantic nostalgia: “Weeks Pass Inside. from your room / I’m like a hot wind right next to you / Do you want me too?

The song title is a literal reference to when Elicson noticed Elvis Presley’s special 1968 comeback on an iPad at Coon. (“It’s all Randall’s fault,” she says.) The on-screen performance resonated with certain themes that were already present to her. “It was a touching thing to see,” Elicson said. “I’m always drawn to things that are emotional, and it struck a chord.”

It turns out that everyone in Empath has strong feelings about this. “He’s a pretty tragic character,” Coon says of Elvis around 68. “He forgets his lines, clad in a leather suit, surrounded by adoring fans, pulling handkerchiefs from his sweaty jacket for a while. time. How many tissues does this fucking guy have? It’s crazy!”

Koloski intervenes with a more sincere appreciation from the late Elvis. “He might not objectively be the best, but he’s trying so hard,” said the drummer. “He cares so much. He’s old and washed out, he can’t play all the notes he used to do, he looks hard as shit. But he just wants to give you the best show possible. … It’s so endearing and real.

It wouldn’t be an Empath album without an ambient / sounding interlude found as ‘V’ – the fifth in a series of untitled sketches dating back to Empath’s early DIY cassette releases. This started off as usual with a long freeform jam designed by close band friend Shaun Sutkus in Koloski’s living room.

“It was really cold,” Elicson recalls. “I was sitting on the floor with my guitar, and my hands were so cold that I was playing the same thing over and over again, because I was like, ‘If I try to change I’m going to screw it up. ‘ “

Koloski picks up the story, “Then you left, and I, Randall, and Shaun stayed and did a bunch of overdubs. Shaun would set up these mics, and we would go in and out of the room with wind chimes, blasting. noise… “

“We did this for hours,” Coon says, and everyone laughs.


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