D//E Interviews: Drowse // Album Premiere: Light Mirror

Who are we when we’re alone?Light Mirror, the anticipated new LP by experimental musician, Kyle Bates aka Drowse, his second for The Flenser, releases June 7th, 2019. It's an intimate, esoteric and profound work of art that expresses a unique artist's riveting, multilayered artistry, and showcases his evident growth, not only as a composer, but also as an all around creator.

Light Mirror streams for the first time in its entirety right below, followed by an extensive interview in which the artist, very thoroughly, offers compelling insight into his creative process, his thinking and esotericism, the sources that inspire him, and a lot more.

How was Iceland, and why did you choose to seek an artist residency there? How long did you stay?

I was in Iceland for five weeks and in Norway for a sixth before returning home. Iceland looks like a moonscape and the sun was out most of the night–great for my insomniac brain that usually starts waking up in the evening. I was in a little village in the north, Skagaströnd, a “prophetess sanctuary” which sat between the ocean and this beautiful mountain, Spákonufell. That environment combined with the relative absence of people and the occasional presence of the aurora: magic.

I began the residency almost directly after the release of Cold Air in lieu of touring. The year gap between that album’s completion and its release on The Flenser was creatively desolate. I wanted to apply for the residency partially as a test: if I am really artist I should be able to create something meaningful given the time and space.

I also wanted to present my work in a fine art conext. Labeling the performances and installation I created during my stay “audiovisual art” allowed a freedom of experimentation and expression that felt stifled and over-defined in my music circles back home. There really was no difference between this work and the albums and videos I make as Drowse, but placed in a different context my creations were free from the constricting genre and social associations of the music world.

Here is my original proposal for the residency:

“During my stay at NES I will create a multimedia project examining disconnection from and engagement with the external world. When working creatively we become absorbed in the process, living solely between our mind and the work. This disconnection from external life–­­the creative state–­­is something artists strive for. In my life disconnection is a daily struggle; I spend so much time inside of myself­­–sometimes the result of depersonalization through depression–­­that I fail to engage with the beauty of the world around me.

Each day I will create sound pieces using my laptop, field recorder, acoustic guitar, voice, and effects. These recordings will translate the feeling of disconnection into sound–­­both the disconnection of the creative state and my disconnection from the world.

Many days will be spent shooting video, my lens and body actively engaging with the world. After all recordings are captured I will create an audiovisual piece in which disconnection (audio) and engagement (video) are at play, forming a third unspeakable state of being in the world. Each night I will keep a journal documenting my process. The journal will be turned into a disjunctive memoir to be presented alongside the audiovisual piece.” 

This proposal is not how things turned out –I ended up doing a collaborative video project with another artist instead while that initial journal idea fell by the wayside–but some of foundational concepts of what would become Light Mirror can be read in that first paragraph.

As for why Iceland? Well Björk for one thing–there are many influential Icelandic artists, but she holds a special space in some very important memories. I applied for residencies in both Norway and Iceland; Iceland was where I was accepted and the flight wasn’t bad. It’s a sublimely beautiful place, quiet and cold and perfect for going inside of yourself.

Do you feel like the new album would have been any different, had you not been to Iceland?

Very different. Mostly in terms of sound, probably thematically too. It would have a different album cover. I wrote and recorded the foundation for about 60% of the music on Light Mirror while I was there, completing the rest and writing lyrics when I returned home.

The biggest factors of being in Iceland while recording where the limited palette of sounds and instruments I had access to, the isolated nature of my studio space, the abundance of time and the lack of internet access. While the other artists I was living with worked in an open studio space together with wifi connections,–there was no internet in our house– I was given the keys to a small music school in a different part of town. I couldn’t record there while school was in session, but the afternoons and nights were mine; I often slept in late, made lunch, drank coffee while reading my book, sometimes took Neurontin for anxiety and focus, and then headed to the music school to write and record and be in my head for hours, collecting field recordings on the way.

Once at my space I had a few musical options: my acoustic guitar, a couple of preset laden 80s Casio and Korg keyboards, a shitty drum set, my laptop, and the piano. The music school was eerie, it was located in the few active rooms of a stale smelling, still life worthy abandoned house.  With so many days spent in those small rooms everything was eventually used on the album.

Piano was the most unfamiliar instrument, and therefore the most experimental and fun; I don’t play piano, but Drowse melodies come out of anything if I have enough time. Some of the best days were spent sitting at that piano for hours, the field recorder capturing every sound from the other side of the room. This process resulted in the first song on the album, Imposter Syndrome, the first song of side B, Arrow, and the final song, Don’t Scratch the Wound. These pieces set a tone, a pathway for me to follow into the world of the album.

You often write and record alone, but collaboration does play an important role in most of your work, what did collaborators bring to the table on Light Mirror?

Collaborators are essential to these albums, often taking on a sonic character that reacts to and enhances their lyrical and musical surroundings. Drowse albums would feel so much smaller without collaboration. The Light Mirror linear notes cover a lot of this, alongside some smaller helping roles, but here are some specifics:

To continue the Iceland thread I will first mention Norah Fuchs, a german conceptual artist I met at the residency. Photos of her work Unterschlief were used for the album artwork on Light Mirror. During her artist talk at the residency these photos spoke to me, the four sided fence was a fantastic visual metaphor for so many of the album’s themes that I’ve spoken about elsewhere. Norah and I became friends and when the time came to put together packaging she allowed me to use her photos in exchange for creating sound pieces that she could use in her art when needed.

The other Iceland residency artist who had a big impact on this album was Jesse Keating. During our stay we created the installation and performance Fog Storm together. Jesse and I built these found object sculptural instruments (he had a lot more woodshop technical know how while I helped with my contact mic and electroacoustic knowledge to find the sounds we wanted); Jesse didn’t play on the album, but I did make electronic instruments out of our Fog Storm sculptures and used them extensively on songs like Oslo and Betty (that “synth” sound).

Maya Stoner is the most instantly recognizable collaborator on the album as she sings on many of the songs. Her voice is incredible and she has an innate sense of melody that completely makes the songs she sings on. Her melodies work their way into your head in a way most people, like myself, could only dream of writing; my favorite moment on the entire album is when she sings the quote from Stalker, “what is it that resonates in us?,” on Shower Pt. 2. Her creative presence throughout Light Mirror, Cold Air, and Memory Bed has had a giant impact. Listen to her main project Floating Room if you want to hear songs that are timeless and immediate.

My close friend Taylor Malsey, who has played live drums in Drowse since 2014, played violin on Between Fence Posts. He also played violin, electronic drums, and sang on Cold Air. We recorded an album a while ago of a “live band” version of Drowse with Nich Wilbur at the Unknown–it has been finished for years but is still unreleased. I took some of his drum recordings from that session and sampled, looped, and mangled them with four track and Ableton. These pop up all over Light Mirror. Taylor is also a home-recording person and his project, being awone is a dreamland.

Thom Wasluck from Planning for Burial has been a friend since we played together at one of the first Drowse shows. I look up to him a lot and he is probably the reason The Flenser releases my music. He created this “weighted drone” for “Don’t Scratch the Wound,” a song that was threatening to drift off into the air and dissipate. His presence on this last song is a golden ending to the album. If you are reading this you probably know Thom’s music and if not go listen to 29 August 2012 now.

Do you feel more creative in isolation? Would you be open to collaborate with more artists in the future?

I clearly enjoy collaborating and I have other collaborative projects planned this year. In the future I hope to work more closely with visual artists. I also have this vision of scoring a dance piece or working with dancers in some capacity–artists I love like A Winged Victory for the Sullen have done it, but I think my curiosity might just stem from a deep love of Suspiria.

Drowse is a solo project; the reason I make music is not to play shows, it is not for the social world. I make music to explore my insides, to express things I’m unable to say with words, to access something beneath the surface, some state of presence that releases me from anxiety, a trust in the work that reveals personal truths about myself and the world I absorb. It’s not about isolation, I want desperately to connect with people through this practice, but working alone, writing and recording for hours by myself, is the only way I know how to access this “meaning” I find.

I don’t believe in absolute truth, and I’m not sure if I believe in any overarching meaning, but I do think that each person has the ability to create a meaning in their own life, be it through relationships with other people, creative acts, work, or pretty much anything if they are really searching for it. The culture industry (or at least that’s what Adorno and Horkheimer called it) numbs this search while the internet complicates it. I participate in both when selling these records–a contradiction; for me making art is my source of meaning, or “god.” I’ve always felt closest to this “god” when I’m alone. I’ve had two strong drinks and I don’t think I’m fully getting my point across. Just listen to the recordings and maybe you’ll understand what I’m trying to say.

What led you to embrace the bipolar 1 disorder and make it part of your art, and your new album?

I would not say I embraced it, I fear that diagnosis and have spent a large portion of my adult life running from it. I intentionally edited the term out of the Cold Air press release because I was afraid of the stigma of having it associated with my name. I don’t take a regulated mood stabilizer because of my horrible experiences with them in the past. I am still actively trying to figure out how best to approach treatment. Mental illness has been addressed more in past Drowse releases; depression, anxiety, and medication have been central topics. On Light Mirror there is one song about my bipolar I diagnosis, but I did not want this to be a major theme of the album. Trying to accept the external diagnosis of Bipolar I that many psychiatrists have placed on me was an attempt to be “open.”

I was diagnosed bipolar I because I had a psychotic break at the age of eighteen. I keep returning to this period of my life because it is the only time I saw non-abstract truth in this world. I was raised without religion and those paranoid delusions I experienced where the closest things I’ve ever felt to faith.

If that time period hadn’t happened I would probably be diagnosed bipolar II: I live with extended alternating periods of depression and hypomania, but haven’t suffered an out of my head, no sleep, dead eyes, full blown psychotic manic episode for eight years. However, this up and down cycle does bolster central themes of the album: namely the idea of each person having multiple selves living inside of them, and being “open” or “closed” to the world.

With both mania and depression if I am fully “in it” the result is the same: self isolation. When I am manic I become so creative, not sleeping, absorbing and being absorbed by art–self absorbed I guess: I don’t see people. When I am depressed I don’t want to see people because I don’t want them to see me: I’m a container of self-doubt, a sleep obsessed, fear filled being with sadness flowing from my chest.

I don’t want to be either of those selves; Light Mirror was exploring how to break out of this, how to be “open.” The irony is that while I was obsessively working on the record in many ways I was more “closed” than ever.

Like your previous releases, Light Mirror seems tough to pin down. How would you characterize it?

If you mean tough to pin down in terms of genre, good. I don’t want to exist within a genre or scene, I work to create a tangible album worlds that the listener can enter. I guess I’m a singer-songwriter, I tell stories and use metaphors and all that, and I work within “drowse,” hopefully a “thing-in-itself.”

If it is necessary to place my work within a musical lineage there are two that I identify most strongly with: self-recorded sad sounds from the Pacific Northwest–clear influences like Grouper, The Microphones, and Leaves Turn Inside You by Unwound–and experimental electronic music from Brian Eno to Oneohtrix Point Never to Holly Herndon. The computer, sampling, synthesis, and digital and physical deconstruction of sounds are large parts of my practice.

If you want distinct genres you can look towards the press release, but those words are meant as guideposts for like minded listeners. I absorb and reflect sounds I love in my own way. Sometimes I intentionally use genre to get a point across, such as in the song Oslo when I play a tremolo picked riff in an attempt to express the specific, outside of language feeling that black metal gave me growing up. Some of my songs are written in a “pop” mode or structure while others are formless. Drowse is Drowse.

The videos for both Bipolar 1 and Between Fence Posts are amazing. Are we going to see more of your visual work in the near future?

Thank you. Bipolar 1 took a month to create while I was at an artist residency in Japan. Between Fence Posts is a simple lyric video that maybe took an hour, I don’t really consider it my art.

I’m not sure about the near future, but video work will always be part of this project. It’s another mode of expression, a way to expand the world. Light Mirror isn’t just two sides of an album: it is those videos, it is this interview, it is the book that comes with the record. I view Drowse as a multimedia project and I will continue to create in this way.

Were there any non-musical influences that played a big part in the creation of Light Mirror?

Non-musical influences are probably the biggest influences on Light Mirror. The poem The Untrustworthy Speaker by Louise Glück was impacting because it exposed things I’d thought but never been able to put into words about the way I and others I know act. The films of Andrei Tarkovsky were huge for me while writing lyrics, inspiring metaphors and prompting me to push towards a larger scope while making the album. Mirror, with its impressionistic disjunctive narrative, helped me think about how to weave together the patchwork concepts of Light Mirror into a cohesive conceptual work. Some lines on the album are direct quotes from these sources. Read Second Self, the short story that comes with Light Mirror if you want a more in-depth critique of these artists.

Autofiction, like the work of Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, that can be traced back to books like In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, has been a consistent influence on Drowse. I am telling you intimate things about myself with these albums, but I am not simply showing you my journal. Drowse albums are intentional and stylized works of art, not direct conduits into my brain. All of the lyrics draw from my life experiences, strange ideas, and beliefs, but–as it says in Shower Pt. 2– do I really take “any pill I find?” Does the sky really speak?

How different is the live act of Drowse compared to the recordings?

Drowse as a live project changes constantly–it is currently shifting between two modes. A parallel between mania and depression could be drawn here, but the reality is that it usually comes down to where I am playing and who is able to tour; when I played in Japan last year I had to slim my setup down to things I could fit in a backpack, creating an entirely new set.

The band version is usually four or five semi-rotating members and is louder, noisier, and more electric guitar heavy than my recordings. When I play alone I use synth and guitar loops, drum machine sounds, my voice, and laptop. This might be a bit closer to the recorded sound, but I often shift the focus to extended ambient and electronic sections. I try to incorporate video elements as much as I can whenever Drowse plays.

I like to be loose and exploratory while playing live, allowing space for the sound to grow and change depending on who I’m playing with or whatever comes out of me in the moment. It’s boring when you go to a show and you could just as well be listening to the record on headphones in bed–when a band is too polished. I always incorporate improvisation and noise. A record and a show are two different worlds.

What are you currently listening to mostly?

I’m currently obsessed with the new Caterina Barbieri album, Ecstatic Computation. She is a composer and modular synthesist who sounds both comfortingly nostalgic and totally forward thinking.

Nocebo by Elizabeth Colour Wheel is the first guitar/bass/drums band album I’ve gotten deeply into for a very long time. The five of them create something beyond themselves–Lane’s voice carries that something out of the world.

My friends from Japan, Kelp, recently visited and I’ve been very into their “musical freedom first” tendencies and their network of other bands who share the same ethos such as Sea Level and Macmanaman.

What's next for Drowse?

This summer Drowse will be touring with Elizabeth Colour Wheel and if all goes according to plan I’ll be playing some shows on the East Coast with Planning for Burial too. There are still some Drowse releases set to come out later this year that I can’t really talk about yet but am extremely excited for. Some of these releases are linked to my residency in Japan as well as future collaborative possibilities. I want to tour as much as possible on Light Mirror. My dream is to tour Europe sooner rather than later and I would like to return to Japan to play again next year (Kelp said they would help play as a Drowse live band if I come back).

What’s next for Drowse also means what is next for Kyle. I’ve been offered a Teaching Assistant position that will help pay for a masters degree in recording media (audio and video art). I am strongly considering it. If I end up taking the position I am confident it will push me even further into my practice. I will have access to recording facilities and will use my time in the program to work on this maybe-too-ambitious album/project that’s wormed its way into my pre-bedtime thought cycle since I completed Light Mirror.

Cover art by Nora Fuchs

Artist photo by Matthew Vrvilo

Drowse — On Tour: 
June 13  Portland, OR @ Black Water Bar (Record Release)
July 12  Seattle, WA @ Highline *
July 13  Portland, OR @ High Water Mark *
July 15  Eugene, OR @ Old Nick’s *
July 16  Oakland, CA @ Elbo Room *
July 17  Los Angeles, CA @ Lexington *
July 18  San Diego, CA @ Space Bar *
July 19  Phoenix, AZ @ Rebel Lounge *
July 20  Albuquerque, NM @ Gold House *
July 21  Denver, CO @ Hi-Dive *
July 22  Salt Lake City, UT @ Diabolical Records *
July 23  Boise, ID @ TBA *
July 24  Spokane/Olympia, WA @ TBA *
* w/ Elizabeth Colour Wheel


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