Catherine Elicson (Empath) and Jake Portrait (UMO) on Creating Visitor

Empath’s guitarist/vocalist talks to the band’s producer about the construction of their new album.

Catherine Elicson is the guitarist and vocalist of the Philadelphia noise punk band Empath; Jake Portrait is the bassist for Unknown Mortal Orchestra and a Brooklyn-based producer and engineer. Jake produced Empath’s new album Visitor — out tomorrow on Fat Possum — so to celebrate the release, the two got on a Zoom call to catch up about it.  
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Catherine Eliscon: Where are you? 

Jake Portrait: I’m at home. I woke up 10 minutes ago. 

Catherine: Nice, just in time.

Jake: Yeah, I’ve just working just backwards hours in the studio. 

Catherine: 6 pm to 6 am? 

Jake: 6 pm to 6 am!

Catherine: That’s crazy. 

Jake: Yeah. So how are you feeling about about the album coming out?

Catherine: I’m ready. It’s been a long road. I just kind of want it to be out and about now.

Jake: Yeah. I was thinking about that process, which was, what, a year and a half ago?

Catherine: Yeah. We met January 2020, so that was like two years ago.

Jake: That’s insane. That was the idea — come to my place, we’ll record for a couple of weeks casually, it’ll be super fun. And then that evolved into us being in separate rooms and never really be in the same room, right?

Catherine: Yeah, just yelling through the glass. 

Jake: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think that was the first venture out of the house for me, because I had a kid and was kind of hiding indoors and trying not to bring some strange thing home that was going to make my life difficult. 

Catherine: Yeah, because we were originally going to record in the spring of 2020 or something, and then we pushed it back to post-birth. 

Jake: Yeah, so like the loudest band in the world in my tiny room. Which turned out to be kind of amazing.

Catherine: Yeah. I’m pleased with how the process went, but I was curious if you felt that the album would have benefited in any way if we had done it all in the studio?

Jake: I don’t know. I think I kind of liked the weird energy. Especially since it was one of those things where we had a little less than five days in total to really capture the bulk of it, it felt like there was this pressure on it. But that was kind of relieved by just being able to do something that fun after not doing shit for a long time. 

That was kind of some weird, obsessive loop that I got stuck in, because I actually ended up taking the record to my house. And I know you guys were doing overdubs, and we were talking on the phone about it. I was sitting in my basement — I had my little makeshift studio going and my cassette deck. It was the cathartic part of my day, going down there and just occasionally picking a song and running your performances one at a time through my favorite little cassette deck.

Catherine: Oh, nice.

Jake: [Laughs.] I feel like I listened to it, like, a million times, because I just kept doing that over and over again. But I had so much fun that week. I just kind of wanted to live in it for as long as I could.

Catherine: That’s nice. Yeah, I feel like I have this image in my head of what your studio in your basement looks like. It’s, like, all dark, except for the screens in front of you. 

Jake: [Laughs.] At that point, you’re not going outside, so you’re just in sweats the whole time. Yeah, it’s dark down there. I had a little TV playing various old movies — Robocop, etc. — in the background.

Your older records are so cool sounding — I like the songs, and then there’s always this impact to it. So I was trying to kind of figure out a way to have the music be really impactful and be obscured, but kind of try to figure out [how to have] new things have a chance to poke out. It was that process of being like, OK the last records are super bass-heavy — that’s kind of what the impact was, I guess. And so since I was like had this idea — or actually, this pleasure — of running it to the tape deck over and over again, I thought maybe it’ll all kind of mash together through that machine, but it’s not going to be the same experience of it being kind of bass-y and obscure.

I was really into a lot of the vocals on the new record — I got really excited about a lot of the lyrics. I felt like it would be really obvious just to crank up the music to a blistering volume and have you kind of buried in there, but I just really liked the lyrics.

Catherine: Oh, thank you! Yeah, it felt like it was time for the for my voice to be heard. [Laughs.]

Jake: Yeah, totally! Yeah. So that’s part of the way that it was constructed after living with it for so long. I just kept trying to figure out how to get the vocals to be up.

Catherine: Were you compressing all the tracks together on it? Or were you doing it one by one and bouncing it back?

Jake: Honestly, most of the time I was going one by one. I just didn’t feel like there was any rush. I kept talking to people and it was like, Oh, nobody knows what’s going on, as far as when things — you know, all the obvious stuff. So I just kind of thought, Well, I’ll just sit down here and run it to this tape machine and just enjoy listening to it over and over again

I had some other little toys down there that were was a part of that. But you know, when you live with something that long, you have the opportunity to try a lot of different ways of putting it together. Which I think is kind of funny, because I want to know how long you guys actually took to write that? Because my impression is that you wrote the record really fast.

Catherine: I feel like we started putting it together — I guess I can’t even remember. It must have been January, because we were on tour basically for two months before that, so I don’t think we were really writing new music or anything. But I definitely probably had a good amount of songs to bring to everybody at that point.

Jake: And then how were you writing those? Are you writing by yourself then?

Catherine: Yeah. I always just write it on an acoustic guitar at home, and I’ll just voice memo it. And also, I think I like having a song start in more like a singer-songwriter-y realm, because I know it’s going to be totally transformed by the end. It’s the way of tricking myself into writing a song in a certain way.

Jake: That’s so cool because I think that is not how somebody would think an Empath song was made. I know that then the band gets involved and everybody’s writing these amazing parts.

Catherine: Yeah, we have many layers of adding parts. After I have the song, me and Garrett [Koloski] will get together and he’ll add the drums, and the song will be at a totally different place at that point. And then the keyboards — me, Jem [Shanahan], and Randall [Coon] will get together, and then the song will kind of go back into a weird, ambient realm. And then we’ll add everything together, and it’s like, “Oh, this is kind of crazy sounding now.” And we’ll hammer it out.

Jake: That’s cool, though, because if you’re writing the songs on the acoustic guitar and you like the way they sound there — I feel like with songwriting, if you start and it works just bare bones on a guitar or on a piano or something like that, then you have a solid thing to build on. Which, it probably makes sense why I would get excited about the lyrics and stuff like that, because it’s not like you guys go into the room and noise out or jam or something, and then you’re like, “Damn, I gotta write lyrics.” If you’ve got them early on, then it’s kind of not an anxiety, which I think is a cool way to write. I got so excited about the band at the beginning because there was no bass player.

Catherine: Oh, yeah. We’re always like, “We have a bass player, Randall plays bass,” but it’s not a bass guitar. 

Jake: It’s kind of the thing that makes it different. Because when I first was hearing the recordings, I was kind of like, What’s going on? What is the different thing here? And then I remember, I ran and met you guys at Elsewhere right before the pandemic, and I was like, Oh, there’s no bass player beyond this dude who’s got, like, double synth world going. It sounds so crazy on the record, too. Like the idea of him fading — he has volume pedals on each of his keyboards, right?

Catherine: Yeah, he’s got a full rig. It’s crazy. 

Jake: Yeah, like keys in each hand, volume pedals in each hand. He was playing two different parts at the same time, swelling the volumes, and I was like, This is insane.

Catherine: Yeah, Randall’s a wizard. Now he has Ableton, so that’s a whole — he’s got these samples and stuff that he’s running live. I’m like, “Good luck to you because I don’t know how you’re doing that. If that’s not stressful for you, then more power to you.” When I’m doing something live, I want to have to think about absolutely nothing, but I’m also singing and playing guitar, so that’s already too much to think about.

Jake: Sure. I think what’s really interesting about you guys, too, is I didn’t feel like there was one person that was going, “This is how it’s going to go, guys.” Which is probably why the music is adventurous. I feel like you guys do this thing where the music’s heavy, but there’s joy in it. I wouldn’t say it’s always happy, because the lyrics are sometimes kind of intense. But the way that it’s all coming together and the fact that there’s nobody in the room that’s kind of going, “No, it’s going to go like this,” or “I wrote this song and you should play it like this,” it’s like, Wow, this is way different. especially when the current trend is kind of, there’s one person who’s kind of putting something together and then just kind of getting people together.

Catherine: It’s hard to, I think, find people that you can fully put your trust into. But I feel pretty lucky that that’s kind of the case with us. I get really excited about the collaboration part of it. I’m really excited like, I have this song, I can’t wait to hear what their interpretation of it is

Jake: I’m so interested in that. I’ve read a lot of people talking about music online saying that feeling like that’s something that’s irrelevant, or that’s like an older idea to like, have a band. But I’m kind of like, I don’t know, didn’t pop music start as one person playing an instrument — like Mozart or an opera singer or something — and then putting together performances based off of one person’s music? I feel like it’s in a way going back to just having the last decade be really about a singular thing.

Catherine: So you’re saying that’s the more old fashioned approach?

Jake: That’s kind of the origin! I might be totally wrong about that, but I was just thinking that this past decade really felt like it was about one person bringing something to the table. The decade before kind of felt like there was a lot of this collaboration that you’re talking about.

And so I think when I met you guys and I was kind of getting the feel for how that was all working, and everybody had their own expression, and you guys were just letting that live in the room and trying to figure out who had their moment when — I was like, Oh, I want to be around this. This is so fun. There was no weird squabble, which I thought was really exciting. Everybody had their space to put their touch on the song. I really liked that. 

I think day three or day four, Garrett was texting me being like, “Next record, we all gotta get in there and no live drums, everything sampled!” He kept mentioning during the process that there was this energy — he was sending me these playlists of a lot of stuff that was, like, looser recordings, where it was obviously recorded more on the live end, and put together with more of a live recording approach, and he was really excited about that. I think that was cool, but it was really intriguing to hear him talking about this idea of working an entirely different way.

Catherine: Yeah, he’s always like, “Drums are dead.”

Jake: Yeah, that’s cool. I would love to at some point get in a room all together and see what would happen if that was the motivation. Like, let’s try to do the opposite approach and see what happens. Because you guys work so well together.

Catherine: Yeah, I feel like I’m starting to feel more open to other ways of writing songs collaboratively. Because we’ve done this process and it’s worked pretty well for pretty much everything we’ve written.

One of the songs that didn’t make it on the record — “Still Making Plans for Nigel,” or whatever we were going to call it — that song was actually written in a way that we really don’t ever write. Randall and Garrett were jamming some line that Randall had, and then Garrett was playing that drumbeat from “Making Plans for Nigel” over it. And then I kind of just made up a guitar part, and then later went back and tried to write vocals over it. I was like, Oh, it’s kind of interesting. I think that song is cool, but we’ve never done a song like that before.

Jake: That’s cool. So now you have another way to experiment, I guess, if you’re tired of being in a room on an acoustic. You all could get together and and try it that way.

Catherine: Yeah. Sometimes I’m like, Does just writing that way make all the songs too pop-structure oriented? If I’m writing a song on acoustic guitar, I’m not sitting there jamming out on a long instrumental thing. So the songs don’t really have that element. 

Jake: You know, sometimes the instrument could open that up too. So if you end up getting a keyboard or something, maybe you’ll… I feel like songwriters are songwriters, so you tend to give them a tool and they tend to make a song, because that’s just the way that they do things, you know? So I bet if you ended up falling in love with some other instrument, you would probably just make songs. 

Do you have a favorite on the record?

Catherine: My favorite song right now, I feel like “Genius of Evil” has kind of always been my top fave. I really like that one.

Jake: Yeah. Do you know what your songs are about? 

Catherine: Kind of. It’s kind of like a feeling — for each song, I have a scene that I picture in my head. It’s more of an impression of something, and it’s hard to put it into words what the song means or whatever. But that’s also kind of the purpose of songwriting, expressing something that you don’t necessarily know how to articulate. But each song has a vibe. [Laughs.]

Jake: Are you always thinking about the past when you’re writing?

Catherine: Not always, but I feel like that is something I do frequently think about. I feel like it’s just a helpful tool, like, what do I write about? Or like, what am I trying to say? I just will think of something that feels like an interesting image, something that maybe happened or whatever, and then I’ll kind of just write around that and make stuff up sometimes. It’s kind of just a way of me projecting — it’s more about like, not working through a feeling of that specific instance, but more what I’m feeling now. Like it kind of shows me where I’m at now, based on the feelings that I project on to a memory or something. 

Jake: Listening to the lyrics, there is a certain kind of nostalgia that you create. I think it’s fun, sometimes, when people don’t know. Or I feel like when I’m reading, a lot about songwriters — you’re like, “What are you talking about?” And they’re like, “I have no idea.”

Catherine: Yeah, it’s not really like a one-to-one, “this means this.” But it’s also not meaningless. It’s more of like a cathartic process.

Jake: Have you been writing? Well, I know you’ve been writing, because I listened to a couple of songs that you made on a 4-track that are awesome.

Catherine: Thanks. Yeah, I’m just fiddling around with different ideas.

Jake: Some of those things are for the band, some are not? 

Catherine: I don’t know! I think I’m just messing around with different things because I finally have Ableton on my computer. Me and Randall and our friend split a license — we got a band license, so it’s cheaper. But I’ve just been trying to record stuff and see what I come up with because I’ve never really done it before. 

I have this one synth that I found in the trash, so I just use that as a MIDI controller, or just as a synth. But that’s kind of the only the only thing I use. But I still am just writing all the songs on guitar first and then I’ll record them, and then sometimes I’ll just take the guitar out completely after that. But yeah, it’s fun to try and produce songs. But it’s also really frustrating. 

Jake: What’s the frustrating part?

Catherine: I’m suffering constantly because I’m very critical of myself, and sometimes I’m like, I don’t know how to make this sound like anything, or like, I don’t know what I want it to sound like. That’s why I like collaborating, because people will come up with something that I never would have thought of, and that just adds another dimension to the song that’s unexpected to me. It’s hard to do anything by yourself, but it’s also a fun challenge.

Jake: That’s fun. Not to rehash 10 minutes ago, but that is a funny thing about a band. — some of the decisions just go into someone else’s hands.

Catherine: Yeah, and I guess my philosophy about being creative is you have to trick yourself into doing certain things, certain ways. If you try too hard to do something — like you’re like, “I’m going to write a punk song, so I’m going to whip out my electric guitar and write it,” it doesn’t really work very well, at least in my experience. But to trick yourself into writing a song a different way and then changing it later into something it wasn’t originally meant to be then it usually sounds more interesting. 

Jake: I think that’s cool. That’s one of the best things that about doing something like recording or getting into producing, I think — when you mess around with the song and it’s not sounding the way that you want, you have your computer, whatever tools are in front of you, then you can start throwing things at it and pretending like you want to sound like something else, or trying to figure out how to make a sound from a record that you liked in the past. 

I’m really excited to hear where you go with that, because the two things that you sent were very cool and they did not sound like I would have expected them to sound like. They’re wonderful.

Catherine: Thank you.

Jake: I’m very excited that the record is coming out, and thank you for letting me be there.

Catherine: Thanks for producing it! It was a very, very positive experience.

Jake: Yeah, I hope that we get to do another one — and that we’re actually in the room together.

(Photo Credit: left, Daniel Topete)

Catherine Elicson is the guitarist and vocalist of Empath. Their latest album Visitor is out February 11, 2022 on Fat Possum.

(Photo Credit: Daniel Topete)