The feeling of sickness – an interview with DROWSE

10 mins read

Discovered and interviewed for IDIOTEQ in late 2014, Portland dark / emotional hardcore band SLOTHS deliveered one of the most engaging records last year. The band’s guitarist / vocalist Kyle Bates has recently released his new solo album with project called DROWSE and I am really pleased to give a proper presentation of his work! It’s not exactly hardcore, but it is dark as hell and kind of scary, especially after going thorugh the following interview in which Kyle revealed a lot of personal thoughts and his transition from difficult experiences. Music-wise, DROWSE is a psychodelic trip into the world of processed guitars, ambient effects, sound made by prescription drugs and, as the official press release says, “synthesizers swallowing each other, detuned, fading drums, wolves, bottles and kids vying for auditory space and Bates’ voice (amongst others) suspended atop it all, whispering into your ear.”

The new album from DROWSE is called “Soon Asleep” and was released digitally and on cassette June 9th via ApneiccVoid and Oligopolist Records.

Soon Asleep addresses themes of self-imposed seclusion, absurd rumination and the spaces in between dreams and life. The album is accompanied by a short memoir titled Mnemonic which expands the narrative initiated in A Little Pink Pill…, but does not serve as its conclusion. Bates’ textual work exists as another wormhole into the nightmarish yet lucid realm from where drowse’s sonic reflections prevail, swarm, and overtake.

Photo by Dani.

The haze is alive and it wants to overtake you.

Hey Kyle! What’s up buddy? How are you? How’s SLOTHS?

Hey! I’m really good-I’m doing a teaching program in Spain right now. I have so much time to write while traveling. SLOTHS is good, we’ve all been really busy finishing up school (I just graduated) and working on our own various projects but we are still writing a full length for later this year or early 2016.

Awesome! Tell me more about the Spanish adventure. Your first time in Europe?

I’ve actually been to Europe a few times; my grandfather lived in Spain before he died. I’ve never traveled to Europe or Spain alone before and it is surreal and beautiful. I’m staying in a city called Zamora, living with an older woman who doesn’t speak a word of English–very peaceful. I brought an old acoustic guitar, some microphones and my laptop, I have been making music.

Photo: Google Maps.

Any plans to write some new tracks for DROWSE? I’m currently listening to your latest record and literally getting goose bumps. Why so dark, Kyle?

Well I did a Chapterhouse cover with my friend Tuesday Faust as an elegy for my cat who recently passed away. It should be out in the fall. I wrote a soundtrack for a poetry film by Zachary Cosby, which will be up online in August. Also, there is an unmixed but recorded album of “band versions” of songs from soon asleep and songs to sleep on which will (hopefully) be released this year. During my time in Spain I am writing and recording some new DROWSE songs that are a more stripped down because of the limitations of only having a classical guitar and my computer.

Why so dark? This is an interesting question… for whatever reason I have always been attracted to “darker” music, movies, art, literature — dark things in general I guess, but I have also had some pretty gloomy stuff go on in my life. From being hospitalized for a seizure as a very young kid to my dad’s stroke to my own mental breakdown and near suicide (and subsequent year of multiple diagnoses and prescriptions) and then my childhood best friend’s death two year ago, it’s been rough at times. These things, along with all the negative stuff most everyone deals with (divorce, breakups, depression etc…), make “dark” music the most emotionally relatable type of music for me. Sad music makes me feel better. The subject matter of my songs wouldn’t carry the same weight if the music weren’t so opaque.

The subject matter of my songs wouldn’t carry the same weight if the music weren’t so opaque.

Did you try to create a very distinct, recognizable style with this recording?

Yes of course, that’s always one of my biggest ambitions when making music. A lot of the “style”—or as I like to think of it “form”—of these recordings is born from limitations: I own a few not so great microphones and have a very base knowledge of standard recording techniques. This naivety leads to lots of experimentation, lots of hours spent obsessing over making things sound the way they do in my head and this leads to the sound being more recognizably “mine”.

Did you hesitate about writing such a record and revealing such personal experiences since it was so personal and so intense?

I put out my first EP songs to sleep on in December, 2013 with an accompanying graphic-memoir that detailed the beginnings of my struggle with mental health issues. I was much more hesitant about releasing that. With soon asleep that part of my life was already public—my main hesitancy with this album was releasing the memoir piece that comes with it, Mnemonic, because it details specific experiences during a period when I was heavily medicated on multiple drugs. I was hesitant because the practice of memoir writing can feel morally ambiguous—I am representing real events and more importantly other people who participated in these events through my unreliable lens. To get around this I didn’t mention any names and had the people I thought it might offend read it first; they all approved of what I had written so I decided to release it.

Honestly, the lyrics on soon asleep are personal but much more ambiguous than Mnemonic or A Little Pink Pill… (the graphic memoir I released before). The lyrics deal more with observations and explorations of the absurd way I experience, interact with and think about life. The memoir pieces are framing devices that allow listener to better understand the space this music is coming from and relate to it on a different level if they want. I don’t think it’s necessary to know my experience to enjoy drowse.

What were some of your goals and what lied behind the idea of using drugs as one of the core elements of the sound structure? Is it only about an autobiographical picture of the narrator’s experience, or something more?

One of my main musical goals for this project was to take specific prescription drug reactions I have had and translate them into sound—warbling guitars and synths bending in and out of key represent the feeling of serotonin sickness, the almost oppressive amount of layered sound replicates the pervasive numbness of lithium, cold, tremolo picked riffs stand in for the way Klonopin so quickly makes you unconscious etc… Beyond this practice being an interesting challenge for myself and serving as a way to mirror the lyrics (like the end of ‘melt’) and content of the memoir, my main goal with this was to make the listener feel these sensations as well.

I have had much more submerging experiences listening to music than I have on any substance; I think that, if only through suggestion and imagination, music can create foreign sensations and spaces for the listener to experience and inhabit. I listen to music to get out of my mind and I make music to explore it. The songs that I love are those that make me feel I am somewhere or someone else. The biggest goal sonically is to write songs that can do this for others.


… and I guess that’s a goal achieved. No doubt.

What’s in the 40-page memoir?

The memoir piece details the time period after my mental breakdown when I was scrambling to figure out what had happened to me and how to make my mind work again. It is called Mnemonic because writing it served as a mnemonic device, assisting me to patch up the holes in my memory of this time period. The process of writing the piece involved re-reading journal entries, letters to very important people in my life and song lyrics I had written in 2011. The sections of Mnemonic are fragmented, jumping between excerpts from these 2011 writings, narrative threads, medical information and quotes from other sources that have helped me to clarify and understand my state of mind. The narrator of Mnemonic is surely unreliable because memory is fundamentally unreliable and in my case it is further distorted by drugs and delusions.

How did your mind come to be so open to art? Can you describe your path to becoming an experimental solo artist and musician in general?

I don’t know how much family history really factors into it, but my grandmother has been an artist her whole life from working inking cartoons like “Beany and Cecil” and “Felix the Cat” in the early 60s to making and selling abstract pieces now in her 90s. She has constantly experimented with medium and subject matter; while growing up I watched her style change drastically. This experimental approach stuck with me from an early age—when I began listening to and playing music I was immediately attracted to the weirder stuff, the stuff on the fringes.

Around the age of twelve I got heavily into punk and metal and grew my hair out. I played guitar—my dad always had a guitar in the house so it seemed natural—in a bunch of shitty basement hardcore punk bands. By the beginning of high school I was pretty burnt out so I started seeking other sounds; Altar, the collaboration album between SUNN O))) and BORIS, was really important in terms of introducing me to lots of musical approaches I had never considered before. I also got into BOARDS OF CANADA at about the same time and they made me less musically close-minded.

When I was sixteen I started playing in a sludge band with much older guys and touring. Playing with them taught me to take music seriously—to recognize that the creative things I work on have value, even if the value is only to make life feel as if it has meaning sometimes. During my last year of high school I formed SLOTHS with two good friends and started learning more about how to make music and get it out to people by working hard on every aspect of it. This work ethic has carried on to drowse, especially with the home recording aspect of the project. Throughout high school I was also consistently fucking around with recording experiments using my laptop speakers and acoustic guitar.

The first two years of college (in Bellingham, WA) were when drowse really began to form. I studied audio recording and started experimenting more with recoding sounds in my room. I took classes on field recording and experimental and avant-garde writing, film and music—studying people like John Cage repositioned the lens through which I viewed sound and composition. My friend Parker Johnson was also teaching me a lot about music production. I started writing the music that would eventually wind up as DROWSE my second year in Bellingham and when I moved back to Portland in 2013 to continue studying I conceptualized and finished the first EP.

After a couple of years of developing your musical abilities, do you have any mentors?

My friend Parker Johnson who makes awesome music as ITALICS has been my biggest mentor—he is always giving me advice and suggestions on my recording process and he masters all of my music. He also plays in the live version of DROWSE along with Kevin Gwozdz,

Taylor Malsey and Alec van Staveren who are all mentors in a way.

Although not really “mentors” Daniel Schultz who put out my album and makes music as TBI (formerly TROUBLED BY INSTECTS), Thom Wasluck from PLANNING FOR BURIAL and Kristina Esfandiari from KING WOMAN—amongst many other people— have all been really supportive and important in making me feel that this project is worth continuing.

Although I have never met him I would consider Phil Elvrum from The Microphones/Mount Eerie to be some sort of mentor—his songs made me believe that lo-fi self-recordings (like those on ‘Don’t Wake Me Up’) can carry as much weight and meaning as anything recorded in a studio. His lyrics make me feel less and more alone.


Photo: DROWSE live.

Are you satisfied creatively?

No. Every time I release something I feel that I have failed in some way; the feeling of failure pushes me to keep creating. If I were satisfied creatively I would be fucked. Satisfaction leads to stagnation—there are so many ideas I want to try out, so many sounds in my head left to record. I want my recordings to be better, I want my songs to more vividly represent their meanings. I want to live longer inside of my process before I release another album.

Satisfaction leads to stagnation

Is there anything else you want to do in the next couple of years? Or is it too early to say?

I’m definitely going to release all of the music I mentioned earlier and I’m hoping to do some splits with the songs I recorded while in Spain. While we have been emailing I spontaneously recorded an MBV cover with a girl I met who lives in Barcelona named Dulce Membibre so I hope to release that soon too. I will try to finish another album and it would be cool to make another music video. I will keep writing and drawing comics and releasing this work with the music—I like to think of DROWSE as a multimedia project. If I can pull it together I would love to go on tour with the band and if not I’ll figure out how to play and tour this material by myself.

Ok Kyle, so what kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind?

I don’t hold any delusions of leaving behind a legacy (there are so many intriguing projects and we are living with the Internet, my music can be really abstruse etc.), but I do share the same hopes and goals as most everyone who releases art publicly: I want people to get something out of my work, be it enjoyment, a challenge, inspiration to make their own recordings or process their lives creatively, or even disturbance and discomfort. I also want DROWSE to sound like DROWSE—I’ve never understood musical undertakings that are created to play out established genre formulas.

Although I release this music publicly and want people to listen, the way others view my work after it is finished will always be secondary to my relationship to the music as I’m creating it. DROWSE is firstly about having a space to explore my creativity/mind in a focused and specific way, addressing my experiences through art and hopefully making something that is different from or beyond my “self”.

DROWSE live band

Photo: DROWSE live.

I want people to get something out of my work, be it enjoyment, a challenge, inspiration to make their own recordings or process their lives creatively, or even disturbance and discomfort.

Thanks so much for your time Kyle! I really appreciate your honest answers! Cheers and feel free to close it up with your final words!

Thank you! I appreciate the directness of your questions. If anyone reading this wants to release something, collaborate, or do a split, get in touch. I’m always working on something; there are many songs that only I have heard.

DROWSE Facebook
DROWSE Bandcamp
DROWSE Soundcloud

[email protected]

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