WHEN 5 MAG catches up with Kate Simko, it’s just after New Year’s Day. Though the holiday is one of the biggest gigs for DJs, Simko sat this round out in favor of dinner and a show with her husband at the recently opened Standard Hotel in London. “At midnight we just rang in the new year from our seats,” she says with a laugh. “[It was] so nice to not have to rush somewhere.”
A holiday is just that — a day — so immediately it’s back to work. On the heels of her last project, composing the score for the documentary We Believe in Dinosaurs, Simko is already working on a new soundtrack for a forthcoming documentary profiling the women (including Rezz, Alison Wonderland, Tokimonsta and the duo Nervo) who appeared in Billboard’s Dance 100 artist ranking last year. But is work really work if you enjoy it?
“I love that mystery of starting a film,” she says of the scoring process. “You know what you have to do in a way, but you don’t know how you’re going to get there.” The way she describes it, it’s like putting together a puzzle, except you have to make the pieces, too. For Simko, those pieces involve figuring out which instruments and sounds will best enhance a moving visual or bring out a scene’s hidden meaning. For documentaries dealing in serious or controversial topics, it requires a higher level of nuance. “My job here is to help the viewer… I don’t want to say have fun,” she says, “but to make it more light, because there’s a lot to digest when watching documentaries.”
You’d be forgiven if you only knew Kate Simko as a producer and DJ. Having released on labels like Leftroom, Ghostly International and Last Night on Earth and played clubs and festivals around the world, the Chicago native’s electronic music career alone is one to which artists aspire.
But her musical talents extend beyond the dancefloor. Though scoring films seems like a far cry from DJing for a raucous New Year’s Eve crowd, Simko connects the dots in ways that few can.
In the summer of 2003, Simko moved to Los Angeles after graduating college to become a film composer. From Chicago, she drove across the country with her dad and rented an apartment on LA’s Westside with a roommate who was an aspiring actor. Simko even joined a gym, all on the premise that she would be working an entry-level composing job she’d lined up through a family friend. It didn’t pan out. Determined not to move back home just yet, she hastily found an internship with Stephen Flick, the Academy Award-winning sound editor behind blockbuster films including Die Hard, RoboCop and Speed. Even though she was happy to be there, she was at the bottom of the totem pole among many interns. After running through her savings, and too proud to call her parents for money, Simko sold cars at a nearby Volkswagen dealership to make ends meet.
Despite its challenges, her internship gave her some hands-on experience, including assisting on the feature film Levity, starring Billy Bob Thornton and Morgan Freeman. The director, rather than use a traditional film composer, instead hired a musician, Mark Oliver Everett from the rock band Eels, to score the movie. It inspired in Simko an epiphany.
There was an older gentleman wearing a suit. The whole time he was bobbing his head and closing his eyes, and he came up to me after the show and said, ‘I feel like I just listened to the future.’
“I think it was me not getting paid and seeing so many people around me who had been doing this for years making less than minimum wage assisting, trying to work their way up but just doing tech stuff for composers but never really composing,” she recalls. “Seeing this rock musician skip all that because the director liked his music, I just decided that it’s a way better path. I could actually enjoy my 20s and skip all of that if it’s meant to be — make my own stuff and let people find me because they like my music rather than assist for ten years.”
In Simko’s selected history of film sound-tracks, she would start with the “Hollywood Sound” of cinema’s Golden Age from the 1910s to the 1960s, when composers like Max Steiner (King Kong ), Erich Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood ) and Alfred Newman (The Mark of Zorro ) created sweeping classical scores to match the drama on-screen. She talks about how when John Williams scored the original Star Wars in 1977, that while electronic music would have been an “obvious” choice for its futuristic setting, the composer instead revived classical orchestral music, creating a score considered one of the greatest of all-time. She also loves Vangelis and calls his Bladerunner soundtrack “incredible as an electronic-music lover.”
Then there are the rock-musicians-turned- composers, such Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who brought their abrasive sound palette to The Social Network and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Cliff Martinez, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer who built the synth-filled world for Drive. When you hear work by these composers you’re not only reminded of the film they soundtracked; the singular elements of the music lets you know exactly who you’re listening to.
If Simko wanted to compose music for films, she knew she’d need a signature sound of her own. She moved back to Chicago after a year in LA, her dream of one day returning to work on a film score implanted in her mind. Leaving Hollywood might not be the conventional route to working in film, but Simko has a track record of arriving at her destination via paths less traveled.
Though she had taken piano lessons since she was five years old, Simko was a little surprised and perhaps underprepared when she won her audition to study keyboard performance at the University of Miami’s School of Music as an undergraduate. While many of her classical music peers had spent their high-school years attending expensive music summer camps with famous teachers, Simko spent hers at raves each weekend dancing until dawn to Midwest DJ legends like Jeff Mills, Derrick May and Mystic Bill.
“I say with all seriousness that I was the worst one,” she says of her semester at Miami. Outside the classroom, however, Simko started to find her own groove. It was through a part-time gig at the campus radio station that Simko first discovered IDM. The genre’s mind-tangling sonics, themselves forward-facing symphonies, helped her realize that she wanted to learn how to compose and create her own music instead of performing other people’s.
“I just knew in my heart that it wasn’t for me,” she says. “Those piano students spent their free time talking about piano music and I just wanted to listen to Aphex Twin and Autechre. That was my passion.”
Simko transferred to Northwestern University where she studied music technology at the Bienen School of Music. The program offered her familiarity in the form of courses on classical theory and composition; it also opened up a new world in electronic music composition, including the use of vintage synths, like the Moog Modular and ARP 2600, and production software like ProTools and Logic. Film scoring was not part of the curriculum but for her senior year, Simko convinced her advisors to let her score someone’s graduation film in lieu of a more conventional final project.
When Simko returned to Chicago from LA in the summer of 2004, she spent a few years learning how to make music from start to finish. “My first songs sounded awful,” she admits, “but that’s how you learn.” Her first break came in 2005 when she received her first professional commission: a remix for the influential composer Philip Glass. It was an opportunity that Simko couldn’t pass up, even if she felt a little out of her depth. “I just had to figure it out,” she says. “In retrospect I can’t believe it, but no one helped me mix it or master it. I just worked on this one remix every day for three months by myself.”
The remix, a deep and icy dancefloor reimagining of Glass’ “Houston Skyline,” made Billboard’s Top 100 Classical chart. The following year, she released her first EP, Strumm, on the Seattle-based boutique label Kupei Musika. Simko met Sam Valenti, the founder of tastemaking Detroit label Ghostly International, and put out a few records on its Spectral Sound imprint, followed by her 2011 solo debut album, Lights Out, on Hello? Repeat. Inspired by Chicago house’s wailing divas and Detroit techno’s raw groove from her raving days, and instilled practically from birth with classical discipline, her music was minimal, controlled, yet warm and teeming with energy.
The releases fueled interest in Simko as a DJ, and almost by accident, she was playing festivals and clubs around the world by the end of the decade. Still, Simko felt unsettled in the DJ world and unchallenged in Chicago. “I had dreams of combining orchestral and electronic music,” she says. “There wasn’t a spot for what I wanted to do there.”
She had scored a few short features including the 2008 documentary The Atom Smashers, which follows scientists’ search for the Higgs boson particle. Though the soundtrack was well-received, Simko felt it exposed her limitations as someone who, despite being well-versed in music theory, didn’t know how to compose for orchestras.
In 2012, she made the rare and risky choice to drastically cut back her touring schedule and move to London, where she enrolled in the prestigious composition for screen master’s program at the Royal College of Music. With her eye on the prize, Simko prepared to go strictly traditional in her course of study — meaning no electronics. Intrigued by her background, a professor encouraged her to instead use her unconventional musical tools to create her own voice rather than mimic master composers. “I think some of the other professors would have been more conservative and wouldn’t have supported that,” she says.
During that two-year period, Simko learned everything she could about instruments: their range, their acoustics, their construction, how they sound together, how they get played. She recorded with student musicians at the college’s studio and from those sessions met many of the people who went on to join her new project, London Electronic Orchestra.
At LEO’s first performance in May 2013 at London’s National Gallery, Simko performed an intimate electronic-hybrid set accompanied by a harpist, violinist and double bass. She was the first electronic artist to perform inside the famed art museum.
“There was an older gentleman wearing a suit,” she recalls of the event. “The whole time he was bobbing his head and closing his eyes, and he came up to me after the show and said, ‘I feel like I just listened to the future.'”
At first, London Electronic Orchestra was intended to be a student project, and Simko expected to return to Chicago once her time at the Royal College was over. But after catching the attention of management and subsequently festival talent buyers, LEO had become a proper music outfit with a pair of EPs and an album, Kate Simko & London Electronic Orchestra, to its name.
LEO’s music made its way to filmmaker Leena Pendharkar, who was working on a drama, 20 Weeks, about a couple who contend with an agonizing decision amid a complicated pregnancy. In Pendharkar’s search for a film composer, her husband recommended some of LEO’s music. Pendharkar initially used the tracks as placeholders while editing footage. She liked them so much, she asked Simko if she could compose a new, original score for the film. The soundtrack, performed by a pared-down version of LEO, was Simko’s first for a feature-length film. She had finally reached the goal she set for herself years before as an underpaid intern.
Last year, Simko composed the score for We Believe in Dinosaurs, which puts a spotlight on America’s at-times contentious relationship with science. She was planning to release the soundtrack herself until an acquaintance offered to pass it along to someone he knew at Lakeshore Records. The label, which is dedicated to film and television soundtracks, is home to acclaimed titles like Drive and Before the Flood, which was music-supervised and co-produced by Reznor and Ross. Simko sent them her score, not expecting much but crossing her fingers anyways. Within weeks, Lakeshore came back with a yes.
“I don’t want to be cheesy, but it’s a dream label and a dream come true,” she says. “[It’s] one of those things where on socials I wrote one gushing post, but sometimes it’s hard to express that when you act excited about everything on social media, but you’re really excited. Like, this is crazy!”
When Simko comes to LA these days it’s mainly for DJ gigs, though she hasn’t ruled out moving there for a work project if the timing is right. Rather than let her earliest experiences taint her view of the city, she rents a car whenever she visits and just drives around, soaking it all in. Most recently, she came through in November to play the City Hearts festival. She also met with the Lakeshore crew at their Beverly Hills office, five and a half miles from the Volkswagen dealership where she once hustled to keep her composing dreams afloat.
“I think when things aren’t handed to you in an easy way, and you find your own path, it means more,” Simko says when asked if she’d change anything about her past. “I wouldn’t warn myself to not go [to LA]. I learned so much and met some amazing friends there. I was inspired.
“So the advice I’d give to my past self is the same advice I’d give to anyone: It’s gonna be hard, but you’re gonna learn a lot and it’s all good.”
Kate Simko’s Original Score for We Believe in Dinosaurs is out now from Lakeshore Records.