Chicago is once again at the center of a Deep House renaissance. and if you’re living here, you might not know about it. LPs and tracks from Tevo Howard, Jamal Moss and others are setting the continent alight with a new appreciation for the city’s elder craftsmen and new progeny.
With her album Lights Out, Kate Simko joins that illustrious club, taking the ambient sounds of a city – the omnipresent roar of the Kennedy, the hum of orange sodium lights and the sonic boom of jets over the ultimate flyover state – and showcasing them with exquisite skill. Chicago may be the city you have to pass over to get anywhere else, but for music it’s the city you have to pass through to get anywhere at all. While informed by House and Techno from a worldwide perspective, I can’t listen to Lights Out without seeing certain landmarks and feeling the collective sensations of Chicago in all of its glistening and grimy glory.
An occupational hazard of writing about music is the uncouth habit of sharing every enthusiasm you have with everyone you know. Kate Simko’s music does that to me. If a dancefloor is all you care about, then rest assured – Lights Out, and particularly the closer ‘Had It All’ – has a hazy, after-midnight feel that you’ll love. But beyond its utility for nightclubbing, her subtle production techniques – weaving disparate elements in and out of the groove – make it eminently listenable music, too.
You’re talking to me from Europe, and I noticed you had a gig in Berlin this week with DJ Sneak. This is a line-up that, despite both of you being from Chicago, I don’t think one would ever see in Chicago. (And yet it’s something that anyone around our age who grew out of the rave scene would have no problem with.) Do you wonder why that is? Does the programming here seem a tad un-adventurous?
Hello… first, thanks for the interview. The show with DJ Sneak in Berlin was fun! It might not be a usual line-up for Chicago, but I’d think there are other DJs who have been around Chicago longer who might deserve that slot more than me. I like that Chicago has a respect for paying your dues, and I’m cool with paying mine too. I think that SmartBar and SpyBar are both pushing the envelope in the past year, and it’s great these two venues are upping the game.
Considering Lights Out is your first LP and you only get to have one first LP, are you pleased with the release?
Yes, I’m pleased with it. It was a challenge to decide which tracks to include, and which direction to go in terms of style. In the end, I’m happy it included some arty House, darker minimal Techno, and Ambient too. It shows a proper range of what I’m into musically.
How do you think you’ve changed since the She Said EP a few years ago?
I made “She Said” to put into my live set at DEMF in 2007. I wanted to make an abrasive track that would stand out and grab people. I was at the end of a long relationship, and feeling a bit dark I guess, so it’s pretty intense at moments!
At that time, I was into DJ’ing and listening to more minimal tracks that were focused on textures more than melody. She Said was an experiment in that vein. Now, I’m consciously trying to add more harmony and melody into my new songs, having good grooves, and getting my piano and music skills back in there.
The feedback has been interesting to me. Europe has far more media than the rest of the world covering dance music, but it’s sometimes tragically trendy. Do you understand why the label of “minimalism” keeps following you? This is clearly not a minimal album. (And is it as surreal to you that people who grokked minimal for years now consider the term some kind of pejorative?)
Haha, I don’t know why the label of “minimalism” keeps following me, but it’s true. Maybe it’s because Spectral Sound was known for minimal techno for a time? Really, I’m not sure.
Probably the track that got my attention first was “Had It All” – it sounded like a blend of a more experimental ’90s style IDM and something groovier from Audio Soul Project. Is this a new direction and why did you close the album with this selection in particular?
I closed with this one because the song brings together elements from a number of different genres and themes from the album. Also, the lyrics are about someone who “had it all” and what if they “lose it all.” I picture a DJ, artist, model, business person, or anyone really, who felt like they were on top of their world, then they lose everything.
Producing my first album made me feel somewhat vulnerable. Of course, you want the acceptance of your peers, friends, and press. But, I closed with this song because I realized that no matter what people think, it’s my art, and I need to stand by it and forget the rest.
“Had It All” is a subtle statement that basing happiness on what others think is a risky game, and it’s better to be fulfilled on your own.
Like Tevo Howard, most of your releases have been (well, it’s not really accurate to call them by this name anymore, but…) “imports” into the United States. Was working with labels abroad a deliberate decision? Do you see any downside to it?
In the past, I worked with a mixture of domestic and overseas labels. Mainly I released on Spectral Sound and Ghostly, which is based in Michigan.
I think labels have a bigger presence close to home, so it was cool to release my album on Hello? Repeat, which is a respected German label from Berlin. I’ve definitely noticed I’m playing more in Germany, which is cool. But it was a decision based on the format; Hello? Repeat was willing to do double-pack vinyl and CD, so that sealed the deal.
I interviewed Tevo a few months ago, and in pretty much every interview when he’s asked, he mentions you as one of the top producers in Chicago. On the surface you would seem to have little in common but musically you’re almost in sync. How did you start working together? Any further collaborations after your remix of his track “Move”?
Tevo and I get along really well actually. And yes, we’re in sync in terms of music concepts, for sure. We’ve supported each other this past year as our careers have taken different twists and turns. It’s been great to have a solid new friendship and music collaboration in Chicago.
Our first EP together, under the name Polyrhythmic, will be out next month on Tevo Howard Recordings. We are planning to record more this fall, when we are both back from tour too.
I’ve noticed fewer Live PAs at least in terms of advertising and flyers for events. What’s been your experience with playing from a rig versus DJing?
You’re right, it does seem like there are less live sets these days. Actually, I’ve decided to head back in that direction. I’m adding live keyboards and hardware to my set, and will be focusing on that more than DJ’ing in the upcoming months.
I think a live set is more personal. It can be a bit frightening to not be able to adapt to the crowd like a DJ, but maybe the crowd needs to adapt to us sometimes. DJing is great too.
I enjoyed listening to Lights Out. That is an extremely banal observation, but it’s absurd that there are so few electronic music albums that I can listen to in one sitting, and remain just as engaging through repetition. Do you worry that the overall message is lost since digital sales have unbundled the album and made individual tracks available?
Thanks for the kind words. I made the album with the goal of it being engaging from start to finish. I miss the artistic LP. It seems like a lot of albums are a couple hits with filler, and there’s not a real thread connecting it all together. But, my goal is always for each song to tell a story on it’s own. So, if someone wants to buy just one track, they’ll at least get an individual story or message in there, I hope.
Thanks again for the interview – see you in Chicago!