Empath have been conjuring some breathless combination of beauty and chaos since the very beginning. The band was formed when drummer Garrett Koloski and keyboardist Emily Shanahan left Syracuse, New York and moved into a communal punk house in Philadelphia with vocalist Catherine Elicson, and the trio started jamming in the basement as soon as they became friends; synth player Randall Coon rounded out the lineup shortly after. Coming up in the city’s thriving D.I.Y. scene, Empath released Crystal Reality Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, a 13-minute collection of fuzzy, lo-fi noise-punk songs, in 2016, followed by 2018’s exhilarating Liberating Guilt and Fear EP.
The band’s debut album, Active Listening: Night on Earth, arrived in 2019, showcasing their uniquely defiant, downright anarchic approach to fusing harsh noise with frantically high-speed rhythms and ambient meditations. But an unmistakable catchiness and clarity somehow always shone through the mix, both qualities that are heightened on their sophomore effort, Visitor, which they worked on with producer Jake Portrait (of Unknown Mortal Orchestra) in a formal studio for the first time. Out tomorrow via Fat Possum, it’s a phenomenal record that reflects the unpredictable ways in which Empath construct a song, which can take a long time to reach its final form and continues to evolve relentlessly in the mind of the listener. Its fervent evocations of the past can feel as poignant as they are disorienting, but any feelings of displacement and disorder are balanced out by the indelible, ecstatic energy that drives the songs forward.
We caught up with Empath for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about what connects them as a group, the process of making their new album Visitor, and more.
We’re about a month away from the release of the album. How are you all feeling?
Catherine Elicson: It’s been such a long campaign, we started releasing singles in September. Part of me just wants to get it over with and release the record.
Garrett Koloski: Yeah, I’m like, is it ever coming out?
Jem Shanahan: We’re ready to give birth to this thing.
GK: I forgot the first single was in September, that’s so fucking long ago. I can’t tell if time flies or if it’s standing still, though.
JS: I think it’s both.
Are you happy with the response to the singles so far?
JS: Yeah, I feel like people are liking it, I feel good about it.
GK: For sure. It’s nice to put new stuff out and people to be like, “This is cool.” And you’re like, “Okay, yeah, it is cool.”
Garrett, I noticed two things while I was doing research for this interview: one was in your Rolling Stone feature from last year and the other was in the track-by-track for the album. It’s mentioned that your dad said that you can finally hear Catherine’s vocals, and your mom said that that the track ‘V’ should be in a nature documentary. I wonder if you take into account how people in your life who aren’t necessarily part of the music community react to your songs.
GK: I feel like it’s interesting. Your parents’ perspective doesn’t really matter, but it’s just funny what they think, you know what I mean? [laughter] But that is true. Catherine’s vocals, I think they’re a fucking masterpiece on this record.
CE: Thank you.
GK: [coughs] I didn’t mean it. But everything we do everything is usually so rushed, but this time we actually took the time to do stuff. And also, I wish that every song we have ever written could be on a nature documentary. I wish that about every song. But it’s funny showing your parents and that’s their takeaway. I was like, “Okay, that’s cool. I hear that.”
CE: Also, your dad’s favourite song was the fastest one, ‘Corner of Surprise’.
GK: Yeah. It was funny, when we picked all the singles with Fat Possum, we were torn between doing ‘80s’ and ‘Elvis Comeback Special’ as the last single. And we sent the record to some of our friends to help choose between ‘80s’ or ‘Elvis’, and it’s funny because my dad was like, ‘Corner of Surprise’. I was like, “No, that’s not…”
CE: [laughs] That’s not in the mix.
GK: He’s like, “That’s my favourite song.” I was like, “That’s fucking hilarious that you’re like a 60-year-old man picking the fastest song as your favourite song.”
CE: It was hard to pick singles, and I feel like the more we asked people what they thought, the more confusing it became. Because it didn’t narrow anything down. Everyone said a different song, which was cool in a different way, but also it just made us more lost. [laughs] That’s the hardest thing because I’m very bad at picking singles, I’m so biased towards every song.
GK: Yeah, same. I’m like, “Every song is a fucking single, what do you mean?” Honestly, I feel like going into it, Catherine and I were talking, like, now we have Fat Possum, they’ll pick out all the singles. And they didn’t. They were like, “What songs do you think the singles would be?” And we’re like, “Oh, we’re fucked.”
CE: “We thought you would know.”
GK: “Isn’t that your thing?” [laughs] I feel like all we knew was ‘Diamond Eyelids’ will be a single. And they’re like, “Well, you need three other ones,” and we’re like, “Aw, fuck.”
I read that for your earliest demos, you apparently used a USB mic from Rock Band. Did you ever actually play the game together?
JS: I don’t think we have.
CE: I don’t think I played that since I was in high school, but I used to love it.
GK: Me too.
CE: Why did we have a microphone from Rock Band?
GK: I have no idea. Wasn’t I just obsessed with recording everything on my iPad? And I had that weird adapter that was like the charger to USB, because the GarageBand one was just a USB mic.
CE: Well, the only thing we had to record was GarageBand on your iPad.
JS: Did we have Rock Band at our old apartment?
GK: I think so. Jem, we totally played Rock Band together. Also, I could never play the drums on Rock Band.
CE: That was my favourite thing to do.
JS: Yeah, me too.
GK: That’s funny. I was just obsessed with playing guitar out of Rock Band. You want what you can’t have or whatever.
Can you think of a memory that you can share of feeling connected not just to each other individually, but to the group, to Empath as something you could devote your time to?
JS: I feel like the times I feel most connected is when we’re eating together, like cooking a meal together. Which is funny because it’s not always music stuff that makes me feel connected with everybody.
CE: I feel like when we’re locked away recording something is usually my favourite part and when I feel the most like we’re in the creative zone, thinking collectively.
GK: Yeah, I feel like that’s why we always like going to a cabin or whatever to record. You’re really in it. I’m trying to think back to the early days stuff. I feel like when we were recording that, I just remember all you laying in your bed and you doing vocals on top, just yelling.
CE: Nothing was isolated. We didn’t have any monitor headphones.
GK: [laughs] We were like, “No, no, that’s cool. We’ll make that work.” It was really fun.
CE: Wait, we didn’t use the Rock Band microphone for that. We just sang into the iPad mic.
GK: Yeah, what did we use the mic for?
CE: I had a Zoom recorder that we recorded the drums and guitar together. I don’t really remember.
GK: Damn, I guess we’re fucking liars.
JS: No, we definitely used it.
It’s something that existed, at least.
CE: I don’t remember.
GK: I don’t remember either. Damn, time fucking flies. But yeah, anytime we eat together, that’s always my favourite part.
CE: Those are great times. I think recording the first things just in our house, the three of us lived together, it just kind of felt like what we would do when we were hanging out because we didn’t have that many friends outside of our house yet, because we had just moved to Philly.
Oh, Randall has just joined. Hello?
Randall Coon: Hey. I’m on your porch, Garrett.
GK: Oh, nice.
RC: Sorry I’m late, I couldn’t dial in earlier.
No worries, thank you for joining. I was just going to ask if you feel like your dynamic as a group has changed in any significant way since the early days.
JS: It’s funny to think about the first stuff we were putting out, like Cathy was singing in bed with all of us, but for this album, you won’t even let us be in the studio. [laughter]
CE: I know.
JS: She didn’t want us to hear.
CE: I didn’t know why with the first recordings I didn’t really care.
GK: There was low stakes on the first one. [laughs] We had nothing to gain, nothing to lose.
The dynamic hasn’t really changed, but the expectations have?
GK: I don’t necessarily feel like there’s any expectations, really, with the music stuff. The only expectation now is that Fat Possum stands to lose a lot of money – or gain.
CE: I think definitely for me, my expectations are different. I want this to be sustainable, something that I can count on to do long-term. And I don’t think that was ever on my mind with the first recordings. I don’t know if I didn’t feel this way before or if I so young that I didn’t need to think about it, but I wasn’t really thinking about things in the long term. But now I definitely don’t want to really do anything else with my life besides something music-related, so I feel like I take it more seriously now than I did then, for better or for worse. But I think it’s still important to not be afraid to be creative and goofy when you’re recording. I feel like that’s how you get the best quality, most interesting recordings.
RC: I’ve been playing in rock bands for a long time, but this is the only one I’ve ever been in that has done this much and travelled this far. It’s a lot different playing a basement in West Philly as opposed to being like, “Are we going to tour Europe during Omicron?” Pretty much everything has changed, but we’re still here. The core group has stayed constant.
Catherine, the sort of approach that you’re talking about, I feel like that’s reflected in the music, in this fusion of chaos and beauty that you’ve captured since day one and have further refined on this album. Do you have a strategic approach when it comes to maintaining that balance, or is it something more mindless?
CE: The need to balance out different sounds I feel like is always something I think about. It just makes things more interesting and dynamic; if something’s really heavy-sounding you sprinkle in some weird catchy, twinkly part or something, or vice versa. But something that really hasn’t changed is the way we write songs. That’s kind of always been the same, but then the recording process has evolved and been a little bit different each time. But they have always started just like, I’ll write something on my acoustic guitar and then we’ll add the different layers of everybody else’s parts. And because it’s kind of a long process to get to the final product, it kind of tweaks along the way and you figure out where things need to pop or have something different happen. That’s one thing that brings that balance of chaos and beauty, just because of the instruments that we use and the way we write songs.
I know many of the lyrics came from collaging different memories together, and I was wondering if those memories sort of change shape when when you construct them into a song or into a narrative, and then when you talk about them with the rest of the band or other people. How far does it eventually stray from the original source of inspiration?
CE: I think it does abstract the memories in a way where they don’t feel like my memories anymore. They feel like a story. And that’s how, when I’m writing lyrics, I’ll describe a scene in my mind from something and then construct something around it that maybe is not necessarily true. But it enhances the feeling that memory gives me, so it’s kind of like an impression of that. And so then it feels like more of a fantasy than a literal thing I’m recalling. It’s just a way of expressing that and getting it out in a way that’s cathartic.
Although many of the lyrics seem to come from a subconscious place, and they’re not necessarily specific, a song like ‘House + Universe’ I feel is more direct in its intensity and the desire that it evokes. It sounds like you want to take in the world around you, to be more than a passenger or a visitor. I was wondering if that was a more conscious feeling.
CE: I think that doesn’t necessarily occur to me until after, which is the subconscious thing. I’ll have the images in my mind that I’m trying to describe in a song that are tied to a feeling, and I don’t necessarily know what the feeling I’m evoking is. I’m having trouble putting it into words, which is kind of the purpose of songwriting, I guess. But then once all the songs are finished, I kind of look back and read all the lyrics and think, What was I feeling when I was writing all this? It’s kind of fun to see how everything’s connected thematically. But yeah, I like your read on that song. That makes sense to me.
Does anyone else in the band try to decode the songs in that way?
JS: Yeah, I always make up what the songs mean. [laughter] Like, “I wonder if that’s about that experience that she had.” It’s just fun for me, I don’t really do it with seriousness at all.
RC: I’m really bad with lyrics. I always think it’s something completely different. [laughter] I don’t have a good example of it, but anytime that I actually figure out what the lyrics are, it’s like, “Oh my god.”
CE: Disappointing, or?
RC: I like my lyrics better. [laughter] No, I’m kidding, they’re great.
Is it fun for you, Catherine, or would you rather they not try and piece apart every line?
CE: It’s fun for me to hear what other people think it means. I don’t necessarily think it’s useful for me to try to and pick it apart or figure out what everything means specifically, because that is sort of the purpose of writing the song in the first place, is that it’s not something that you can put into words easily. Some things are just written to evoke a feeling.
Is it useful for you as a band to discuss what the song is about when you’re putting it together?
CE: We don’t really ever do that. We did it a little bit when we were trying to figure out the album title, but it’s not really something we do. But I kind of like that. Everything means something separately, but when you put it together, there’s like another meaning that’s created. And I kind of like to do that in the lyrics, too, where I’ll open a book and take a line out and put it in and be like, “How does this change the feeling of it?” Overly intellectualising every aspect of it I feel like would be confusing, or maybe make whatever we’re trying to say too heavy-handed.
I love what you said in the beginning about eating together and how that’s an important part of being in the group. I was wondering if you could share one more thing that you love about being in the band that people might not be able to hear in the music.
CE: Wherever we are in the world, it just feels like you have your friends with you and you can have fun anywhere. I feel like there’s been situations where everything’s going wrong and this sucked, but we’re together and we’re just gonna laugh about it. [laughs]
JS: Yeah. I feel bound to you guys for life, no matter what happens. I feel like we’re family.
GK: I know when we’re all together and something bad happens, I’m like, “We’re gonna figure this out no matter what.” Because you’re always travelling something, something is bound to happen that’s not favourable, but I’m always just like, “This is chill. At least I’m with my best buds. Sure, we might be stuck somewhere, but we’re gonna figure it out.”
CE: Yeah, at least I’m not at work. That’s always what I say.
GW: Another favourite thing is even if we mess up the songs, no one’s ever like, “How could you fuck this up?” It’s like, “Damn, I really got off the rails there, my bad.” It’s never a big deal.
CE: I like that too. I like that we don’t take ourselves too seriously in that way. No one’s ever angry about something going wrong in the set. It doesn’t really matter. Obviously, we want to play well, but it just is what it is. And I feel like it always sounds good no matter what.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.