Are Empath Really Friends? An Investigation
The tightly knit punks spell out their relationships to Deerhoof, hi-fi, and each other on a recent tour stop.
If you’ve read literally any profile of Empath, you know that the four members who comprise the experimental punk group are close friends—if not by this fact being explicitly spelled out in the piece’s intro, then by the descriptions of the digressions that populate their interviews. As a rare example of a completely even division of labor in rock, Catherine Elicson (vocals and guitar), Emily Shanahan (keys), Randall Coon (keys), and Garrett Koloski (drums) tend to even occupy the stage in a manner that equally displays all four members, each commanding an equal amount of attention.
Celebrating a signing to Fat Possum back in July, and the subsequent reissue of their two most recent records, the band just wrapped up an extensive U.S. tour opening for Touché Amore and La Dispute to introduce post-hardcore audiences to their heavily incubated and totally unclassifiable sound, which balances chaotic noise and meticulous sound design the same way No Age does, only in a much more floral setting than The Smell.
In between animated stories of malfunctioning keyboards and scaring away each other’s Tinder dates, the quartet gave us the lowdown on sharing a living space, the potential for band uniforms, and whether or not Empath can have a little hi-fi after a recent set at Chicago’s Metro.
We recently ran a story with Deerhoof where they talked about how their music never really progressed over time, they just got better recording equipment—do you guys kind of relate to that?
Emily Shanahan: We still want it to sound shitty even though we’re getting better equipment [laughs].
Catherine Elicson: It’s a point of contention with labels. It’s like, “We’re gonna put you in a nice studio and do all this stuff,” and there’s a part of me that always kind of wants it to have a sort of lo-fi element. But then it’s like, is that disingenuous if you do have access to nice equipment? Our early stuff was [lo-fi] because we lived in a house together and we didn’t have any other friends, and we didn’t leave our house. I had a field recorder and we had a Rock Band microphone and an iPad—that’s all we had, we didn’t have any money. But each time [we’ve recorded] it’s been a little more hi-fi than the last. I think having resources is cool because we can do a lot of cool stuff.
Randall Coon: We’ve recorded with [mixer Shaun Sutkus] on everything, though. He’s like our recording guru, and the last time we recorded he bought a new interface, or something, and we rented a house in the Catskills. It was kind of like a thrown-together sort of thing. But we’re amassing equipment and recording ourselves—I guess the sound changes with that.
Something I’ve noticed about every profile I’ve read of you guys is that they say “they’re a band…but they’re friends,” almost as if it’s your gimmick.
Emily: [Laughing] It’s like…is that unusual?
Catherine: We do say that a lot, but it’s kinda funny that’s, like, the angle.
Garrett Koloski: Everyone’s always like, “Y’all are actually a band,” and it’s like, “Oh, you mean one person didn’t write everything and then got people to play it?”
“I personally feel unwilling to adhere to one style, because it feels boring to me. Instead we have a pastiche of lots of things we’re interested in, like, ‘Let’s throw in a little bit of this, a little bit of this, and see what happens.’” —Catherine
I also noticed tonight that you were all playing in a straight line on stage. Do you always do that?
Emily: We try to.
Garrett: I wish we always did.
Randall: This show it was because there’s two bands backlined. But we also keep having the problem of Cathy being a soft singer and Garrett being the heaviest hitting drummer.
Garrett: It sucks being behind everyone all the time. Every photo is Catherine directly in front of me, so I’m like, “Let’s just be in a line!” Like Deerhoof, how they stagger. It makes it more interesting—every fuckin’ band the drums are in the back, but it’s kinda cooler to be like, every single player in your band is in the spotlight. [The drummer] is doing interesting things, people should be able to see them.
Randall: I don’t want people to look at me, so…
Emily: [Laughing] Yeah, Randall wants to stay in the back. He wants to be behind a curtain.
Garrett: I love being slammed together because it feels like where we all started, playing house shows. It’s fun being all on top of each other.
You can still do that even if you have more space.
Emily: We should get even closer!
Randall: It’s cute. We could all wear the same shirt.
What is the one article of clothing you could all agree to wear together?
Emily: We could probably all find a turtleneck.
Catherine: Yeah, we all love turtlenecks. One time [before Randall joined] we all wore overalls with striped shirts.
I wanted to follow up on the thing about you guys being friends—
“No” you’re not friends?
Emily: I plead the fifth [laughs].
Garrett: Interview’s over [laughs].
OK, if you guys were friends… I thought it was funny that you all lived in a house together, because you don’t really sound like any other band—somehow it makes sense that you spent too much time together. Does that ring true at all?
Catherine: I mean, we have a lot of similar musical interests. Also, I personally feel unwilling to adhere to one style, because it feels boring to me. Instead we have a pastiche of lots of things we’re interested in, like, “Let’s throw in a little bit of this, a little bit of this, and see what happens.”
Randall: A very locked-in-one-room vibe.
Catherine: Kind of like a Saw-type of room.
Garrett: We have to do different things to write a song, like cut off our own arm.
Randall: [Jigsaw voice] You have to devour your friend in order to complete this bar.
Garrett: Yeah, we used to be a five-piece actually [laughing]. I’m just kidding, before this we were gonna lie and say there was a fifth member who died, but…
Emily: …that we ate alive. What was the question?
Garrett: Yeah, we are real friends.
I have that on record, can I print that?
Emily: Yeah, I guess so. But put “friends” in quotes.
Garrett: Can you make it all a lie and just say that Fat Possum created us? We didn’t know each other at all, and they were like, “Yeah, this one’s hot, this one’s ugly, this one’s hot, this one’s ugly…” It’s like Cheap Trick, they’ll even us all out.
Emily: Me and Cathy are the hot ones, just for the record.
Garrett: I’m the ugly one who’s good at his instrument.
Emily: [After several minutes debating who the hot ones were in Cheap Trick] What was the question?
Randall: There’s that video of Cheap Trick playing and Fergie was singing and she couldn’t stop doing round-offs? She’s the hot one. [Editor’s note: that band is not Cheap Trick.]
“I think I’m a good drummer, but it kind of sounds like I’m hitting a trash can and another trash can and then a deeper trash can [on our recordings]. And Catherine’s hitting a trash can with some picks, and Randall’s hitting a trash can with some keys on it.”
Garrett: I feel like somehow Cheap Trick always comes up in our interviews.
Randall: [After several minutes of misremembering Cheap Trick song titles] What was the question?
Another funny thing I noticed in reading your interviews is that no one really knows how to describe your music. Can you help us music journalists with that?
Catherine: I sometimes throw the word “art” in there. Art punk? Experimental?
Garrett: It’s funny because people love making up genres of music [for us]. We were in Paris and this random person came up to our tour manager and was like, “What genre of music is this?” And [our tour manager] was like, “Art punk.” He’s like, “No. Metal-pop. That’s their genre.” And we were just like, “OK, dude.”
Randall: Then there was the person in Berlin who was like, “Ah, yes, new wave! 1982!” or something like that.
Garrett: I don’t know, I think “art punk” or something like that is this all-encompassing thing. We consider all that early Deerhoof shit to be art punk—although, we just saw them [touring] Friend Opportunity, and that’s like a jock-jam album, it’s just dance music. I think it’s kind of cool when bands sound a certain way on recordings, then you see them live…
Catherine: We don’t even have that nice of recordings, so I don’t really understand this, but I’ve heard multiple people tell us we sound better live.
Garrett: I feel like Empath is a live band, though. I think I’m a good drummer, but it kind of sounds like I’m hitting a trash can and another trash can and then a deeper trash can. And Catherine’s hitting a trash can with some picks, and Randall’s hitting a trash can with some keys on it.
The first time I saw you guys live I was surprised when I showed up and there were no trash cans on the stage.
Garr: Yeah! [Laughs]
But really, I’d heard a few of your recordings before I saw you and found them interesting, then I saw you play and I was like, “Wow, this is really interesting,” and then I went back to the recordings and I was like, “OK, now I hear it.” It’s like putting a bunch of salt on your food to bring out the flavors.
Garrett: What are you saying about us? We should or we shouldn’t break up?
Randall: Salt the slug is what he was saying.
Garrett: So we’re better live? So you don’t like our recordings?
Randall: It would be hard to make a hi-fi version of what our live sound is.
Garrett: Honestly, my mother was right: the recordings are trash [laughs]. Shaun, you’re fired.
When you’re at Thanksgiving dinner describing your music to your proverbial Facebook relatives—
Emily: Oh no.
…what do you tell them?
Garrett: After being in Perfect Pussy no one asks me about anything. They just say I’m an artist and they don’t even ask. They’re like, [generic older relative voice] “He’s always on tour!”
Catherine: [Generic older relative voice] “I wish he’d go back to school!”
Emily: [Generic older relative voice] “He should be a nurse!”
Catherine: I just say “rock” and try to change the subject.
But then don’t they say, “Oh, like Cheap Trick?”
Randall: We’re like Fergie mid-roundoff. FL