Kyle Bates is the primary creative force behind the Portland-based experimental lo-fi project Drowse. I say “primary” because Drowse has taken the form of a collaborative space, with Bates as the singularity in the centre. This year, he released Light Mirror, an album highly influenced by his time spent in residency in Iceland. I decided to reach out to Kyle, since he seems pretty cool for a guy named Kyle; and, when it comes to bedroom recording, his intuitions are almost unmatched.
Tristan: You mentioned, at one point, how your newest album Light Mirror “marks the first time [you’ve] been able to translate [your] intention directly into sound” (and not having to struggle with technical hurdles). I have a couple questions: 1. if you had to describe this intention in writing, what would that look like on paper?, and 2. If I assume that the limited resources you had at your disposal during your Iceland residency forced you to be more resourceful, then it’s interesting that you were able to pull this off and not concede to artistic compromises. How do you think it all worked out?
Kyle: When I wrote that I was addressing sonic intention, in terms of lyrical meaning and songwriting Cold Air conveys my intention as well. While recording I am often pushing towards two seemingly polarized extremes: a warm, lo-fi style perfected by bands like Duster, and this clear, detailed way of sculpting sound found in the work of musicians like Tim Hecker. I’m not saying my recordings on Light Mirror come near the sound of those artists, but by intentionally practicing these aural approaches I was able to capture the sounds in my head. A good example of this method can be heard on “Shower Pt. 2,” which begins with overwhelming 4-track distortion and gradually becomes this lush and open sonic environment.
With each Drowse release I hope to further develop my own recognizable recording style. In the past I have been frustrated by the limitations of home recording: I only own a couple of cheap mics and work in bedrooms, which has sometimes resulted in a cold lo-fi sound, a small sound. Between Light Mirror and Cold Air I put a lot of time into studying sound in order to better work with these limitations. Light Mirror feels expansive–I can listen to it without picking it apart, without wishing things sounded different.
I talk a lot about working in Iceland in another interview so I will try to be brief here. I wrote and recorded the basis of a little over half of the songs during my residency. When I returned home I was able to mix and layer on top of those recordings with all of my gear. My time in Iceland defined the palette of those songs (acoustic guitar, field recordings, piano, laptop, the Fog Storm instruments I built with my friend Jesse Keating etc…) more than their recordings.
I know you’ve collaborated with other members of the Flenser roster. If you could work with some relatively unlikely partners (assuming time/distance/money/consent aren’t barriers), who would some of your picks be? And, what purpose might it serve you (and/or them), artistically speaking?
First, I would like to mention how incredible it was working with Lane Shi from Elizabeth Colour Wheel and otay:onii on our recent collaboration for Second Self, The Flenser Series One Mini-LP. I was already excited to make music with her because ECW’s Nocebo is my favorite record released this year, but I was actually shocked by how intuitively we worked together. I sent her a nearly twelve-minute experimental piece and she was able to wrestle meaning from it, twisting her voice into the sound to bring out seriously memorable melodies. I really hope we make more work together in the future.
I would love to collaborate with forward thinking electronic artists like Holly Herndon or Arca. I would learn so much about sound through working with them; both artists have such a clearly defined visual aesthetic that I really appreciate. I want to get more into Max and stuff like that, it would be amazing to dive deeply into computer music with a master.
Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never would be a huge one. I would just be his apprentice or something. Every OPN record is conceptually dense and has a completely unique sonic identity. The ambition of his MYRIAD show, this huge production that brings together video art, dance, sculpture and more, is something I deeply admire in an age of youtube and spotify playlist music. How do you get funding to make this big fucked up and ambitious experimental art show? That is the sort of stuff I would learn from him. He has also done a film score–how do you do that? It would be really fun to try and score a genre movie, so many amazing young directors–Julia Ducournau, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Panos Cosmatos etc…–are putting out incredible work right now.
Then there are the obvious choices, influences like Grouper and Mount Eerie who ask similarly big and intimate questions through their music. We all share a love for recording alone; we would all benefit from getting outside of ourselves and making something beautiful.
You seem to travel a fair amount, and this appears (to me) to coincide with your creative output, not simply traveling for performances and such. (On top of your Iceland visit amidst Light Mirror, you’ve also taken a sort of musical pilgrimage to Spain). Considering the motif of isolation present in your music, wanderlust would be an interesting context. What motivates you to be so mobile?
Well I went to Iceland for an artist residency with the explicit intention of working on music–I wanted that experience of creative isolation, especially after I had spent so much time being creatively stagnant with Drowse while waiting for Cold Air to be released. As far as Spain goes, I was there in 2015 for a teaching program that tied into getting my BA. While there I ended up writing and recording most of the Memory Bed EP. That experience actually planted the seed of wanting to apply for artist residencies and traveling to make work–the distance from my daily life and extra time with my self that accompanied traveling opened me up artistically.
Traveling, like playing music, places me firmly in the present moment which is somewhere I really struggle to be. I’m always thinking “what if” and applying it to the past or future; I spend so much time not where I am–traveling forces an awareness of the physical world around me. I also really don’t understand how people wouldn’t want to see new places, to make their conception of this world larger if they are able to do so. When I am physically far away from my life I gain perspective: I am small and free.
“When I am physically far away from my life I gain perspective” – can you elaborate a bit on what that perspective entails? If possible, both by explaining it in words and deferring to themes/moments in the album where this is encompassed?
As I said, that perspective is partially about scale or scope: I am small. Daily anxieties and the social world, which overwhelms when making art for extended periods in one place, become insignificant with enough distance; the distance allows you to see how tiny all of these things are–how insignificant you are. In our routine lives we don’t feel the size of this world that we are part of. It may be trite–our insignificance is something that has been echoed over and over– but I believe it’s vital for people to try and personally take to heart how small they are, to not just think of it as some abstract concept.
Traveling is one way to do this, even if it’s mentally traveling through a work of art. The song “Oslo” addresses these ideas. It is concerned with this freeing “small size” feeling. Conversely it plays with the impression that we will always be drawn back by nostalgia for our past lives–in the song this is represented in the memory of the headphones I wore every day in the eighth grade. We magnify these little trinkets or moments, giving our lives a narrative to bolster our sense of significance: we can never fully detach from ourselves, never fully feel our size.
A big draw for Light Mirror – at least, certainly based on what reviews are generally touching on, and we have touched on – is the context of place. Knowing where an album was recorded, and with what tools, can augment one’s appreciation for it, maybe. One relevant example that comes to mind for me is Grouper’s Ruins. To what extent does this context of place matter for you in the music you love? Any examples of albums that do this for you?
Ruins and Grouper’s work in general are clear inspirations for Drowse that I’ve mentioned before. Listening to that album back in 2014 probably helped foster the idea that I could actually do a residency for experimental music. I think the Iceland residency aspect of this album gets mentioned so much because it is right at the start of the album’s bio/press release and, –to peel back the mystery a bit– it seems like certain websites unfortunately just parrot the press release. It’s funny, because only a little over half of Light Mirror was conceived in Iceland, but it’s easier to write about a physical world narrative surrounding an album than to talk about abstract thoughts and sounds.
My stay in Iceland did inform this album, especially the central question of “what it means to be alone,” but sometimes I wish people would write about other aspects of that press release, other concepts the album is getting at, like fear of the body, or how self-reflection through art can be detrimental when tipped into obsession. Having said that, Skagaströnd, Iceland is sonically central to Light Mirror; field recordings I took during my residency are everywhere: the buried laughter during the bridge of “Internal World” the percussion in “Bipolar 1” and “Oslo,” a car driving through slush at the start of ‘“Don’t Scratch the Wound”’ etc…
Personally, I am entirely drawn in by the recording context of an album, not always the specific place, but definitely the way it was made. To reinforce my answer to your question about collaborators, Oneohtrix Point Never’s recent album, Age Of, is a good example: Daniel Lopatin holed away in a glass egg house surrounded by synthesizers composing bizzare edge of the universe music is a comforting image, a humanizing entry point into the world he has created. The Microphones/Mount Eerie are huge for me. A large part of this musical fixation comes from picturing Phil Elverum alone recording for hours, experimenting with sound and following his ears into these new landscapes. With Liz Harris it’s the same. Knowing these artists wrote and recorded the majority of the music by themselves makes it feel more intimate–while taking it in I picture them creating, I imagine how sounds are made. I’m learning while listening.
When I reviewed Cold Air (2018), I characterized it as surrendering to uncertainty with such force that it self-validated in the process. Would you agree with that?
What do you think the progression is from then to now, on Light Mirror?
Your review was one of my favorites published around that album, not because I agreed with it, but because it actually had a thesis about what I was going for, it tried to pick apart the album’s meaning. Thank you. I will rephrase your take though: Cold Air is an album about accepting uncertainty. When I recorded Cold Air I was against the idea of attainable objective truth, which is contradictory for an album that searches for answers about the meanings of death and fear, and fear of death (new meaning is created in the space between paradoxes, Roland Barthes and Maggie Nelson are eternal influences here). That’s the point– the questioning is what’s important, accepting that you don’t know–and won’t know–the answers to these big questions and still spending life searching for them.
I was influenced by this strange Derrida comic book while writing lyrics for that album, the idea that there is no center, that all truths can be broken down. This was a validating lens to view my personal issues through. Here is a sentence from the notes I took while writing Cold Air: “logocentrism is wrong–there is no one “dominant” story of a self–I am not simply “a depressed person” or a “bipolar person”. This is reductive and ignores the multiplicity of the self. These are external elements of the self that can be acted on.”
I do believe in personal truth. I believe in the importance of constantly defining, questioning, and re-defining our own personal truths. Light Mirror exists more within this practice. Post-structuralism can be a black hole. I like to work with a basis of inspiration for each album and on Light Mirror I leaned towards artists rather than critics. On Cold Air I was constantly invalidating my own ideas, intentionally subverting my self. Light Mirror attempted to allow space for the discovery of self-certainties. It is an album that wanted growth and change.
Some albums have these musical microcosms, where a few seconds seems to either sum up the entire album, or contextualize it in a crucial way. An example might be the ending of Once We Were Trees by Beachwood Sparks. Or maybe the line “Can I scream?” from The Shape of Punk to Come. Are there any moments like these on Light Mirror that listeners should watch out for?
I think these moments are hopefully defined by listeners over time. That being said, on Light Mirror this feeling is in little details: noises and voices that are panned far away, barely there things like the kid’s voice saying “testing: 1, 2, 3” at the start of “A Song I Made in 2001 With My Friend Who is Now Dead” or the sound of room air in “Arrow.” Although they are collections of these moments, Drowse records are intended to be taken in as complete pieces. An idyllic image for me is someone lying down with headphones on, closing their eyes, and listening to the album as a whole, allowing sounds and feelings to magnify each other.