Empath makes homeopathic punk for sensitive souls
An interview with the close-knit four-piece about creating loud music that mirrors the poetic chaos of life.
People care more in Philly. That is what the four members of the Philadelphia punk band Empath wanted to make clear during a video call from a friend’s house in D.C., where they would be performing later that night in support of their new tape, Liberating Guilt And Fear. And if their heartening camaraderie during our conversation is any indication, I think they might be right.
After having played with acts like Perfect Pussy and Allison Crutchfield, the friends formed Empath in 2015, when Emily Shanahan, 25, and Garrett Koloski, 27, moved from Syracuse into a seven-person house in West Philly, where they met Catherine Elicson, 24. Almost immediately, they were thrashing in their huge basement. “It was probably fate for us,” Catherine said. Randall Coon, 32, lived in the neighborhood and eventually introduced low-end synths to complement Emily’s keys and Catherine’s prickly guitar.
After self-releasing two short projects, Crystal Reality I and II, playing a ton of sets at the currently dormant house show space, Glitter Galaxy, the band incrementally cobbled together Liberating Guilt And Fear, their most promising work yet. Enlisting the help of Perfect Pussy’s Shaun Sutkus and Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier for mixing and mastering, the band recorded both in a Brooklyn studio and Catherine’s bedroom, where they used a USB microphone from the videogame, Rock Band.
Released through Get Better Records, Philly’s preeminent, queer-championing DIY label, Liberating Guilt And Fear is a joyous, searing purge of anxiety and uncertainty. Caustic squalls of distortion blanket the tape’s undeniable hooks as Catherine speak-sings with a Kim Gordon-esque remove and Garrett drums like he’s battering a boxer’s speed bag. Still, all four tracks are moored to a healing aura. Field recordings of birds, wind chimes, and singing bowls tuned to the titular Solfeggio frequency give the album a strange, naturalistic calm akin to surveying the entropy of a hurricane from its eye. They engage with upheaval from a safe distance, never entirely succumbing to it.
While the band members’ commitments to the project's new age elements range from semi-serious to full-on, their overwhelming support and compassion for one another is undoubtedly the foundation of this endeavor. As their band name suggests, they’re highly attuned to each other’s thoughts and sensitivities, finishing sentences and offering a borderline insane amount of encouragement at times. “We’re like the most sensitive four people you could ever meet in your entire fucking life,” Garrett said, laughing. “It’s a nightmare.”
Though the logistical constraints of our laptop call require them to huddle close together on a couch, it is easy to imagine them back in Philadelphia, similarly piled onto Catherine’s bed, just four buds who genuinely love each other, screaming unruly vocal takes into an old iPad.
Can you tell me why you chose the title, Liberating Guilt And Fear?
CATHERINE ELICSON: We were really interested in Solfeggio frequencies and healing frequencies as a concept at the time. When we were reading about all of them, that one just really stood out. It’s kind of dramatic and I love the drama of it.
GARRETT KOLOSKI: The power that a frequency can liberate your guilt and fear…
CATHERINE: It’s kind of absurd.
RANDALL COON: Going through a recording process is something akin to that.
GARRETT: We have this digital shruti box, which is just a drone machine, and we figured out what the Solfeggio frequency was for “Liberating Guilt and Fear.”
CATHERINE: 396 Hz.
GARRETT: So all those [sounds]—all those birds are tuned to the Liberating Guilt and Fear Solfeggio frequency.
All new age things are cheesy and campy in a way, [until] you’re like, This is beautiful. You listen to Enya, and you‘re like this shit is cheesy, but no! If you are in the right mood and you listen to Enya, you are crying. You have to be open to it.
And where did the title Crystal Reality come from?
EMILY SHANAHAN: I always carry around a lot of crystals, and we were on a vacation at a cabin and this person was talking shit about my friend. I was like, “This isn’t okay,” and the person said, “Who told you that, your crystals, or reality?” So it stemmed from that.
GARRETT: I think it’s beautiful turning a negative thing into something really positive.
CATHERINE: The noise parts are about escapism, and the lyrics are more about always dealing with anxiety.
Emily, do you have a favorite crystal?
EMILY: Amethyst. I have it tattooed on me. Amethyst is a very calming crystal. It’s my favorite color, which is purple.
Are you all interested in the idea of music being healing in a more literal way?
CATHERINE: Maybe subconsciously. It was created more out of love for each other and wanting to be around each other. There is definitely a healing feeling to that.
GARRETT: This band is really powerful because there is a lot of love involved. Everyone is really emotionally available, so it’s like, of course we’re going to add all these new age things. We fucking love new age shit. Of course we’re going to add this singing bowl, and crystal references, and burn a shit ton on incense. I think Solfeggio frequencies are fucking cool and real.
CATHERINE: When we started this, it was a really transitional time period in our lives. I was feeling stressed out because I didn’t have a lot of friends and [Emily and Garrett] were like my only two friends besides the other people we lived with in the house, so we just spent all of our time together. It was just this cocoon of safety.
What did you learn from performing with Allison Crutchfield and Perfect Pussy that you are bringing to Empath?
CATHERINE: The most important lessons are less about the music and more about a dynamic of a band, and what is the most sustainable way of traveling with people.
GARRETT: I definitely know the things that I want to do this time around in Empath versus being in Perfect Pussy. Being older and figuring out what makes me happy or what doesn’t: The way touring just destroys you. How to be healthy on tour, physically and mentally, and how to be there for each other.
CATHERINE: As creative people in general, most people tend to be sensitive. So putting a bunch of those people in a van together for over a month — it’s like a strange psychological experiment. Touring sounds awesome and then it’s like, this is the hardest thing we’ve ever done.
GARRETT: You know that meme that’s like, “Oh you’re going on tour, that sounds so fun”? Then it’s a photo of McDonald’s, a cornfield, a gas station, and once in a while a Whole Foods.
“We’re like the most sensitive four people you could ever meet in your entire fucking life. It’s a nightmare.” — Garrett Koloski
The last time you guys released music was in 2016. What has changed for you since then?
CATHERINE: We never really stopped playing shows together, but as far as releasing music, it just took a really long time for this particular release. There were a lot of personal life changes for everyone too.
EMILY: We all moved out of the house. I moved back to Syracuse for a year, so it was hard to write music together. I just moved back a week and a half ago, so it’s funny that the new tape just came out.
CATHERINE: We are really particular about how it sounded.
GARRETT: It was fitting that it took so long because now it seems perfect.
There’s a lot of time and frustration built into making something good.
CATHERINE: The first mix we got back sounded so insane. Our friend Shaun mixed it, and he has a really specific style.
RANDALL: It was like a jet landing, and now it’s like a jet landing but it’s more of our tonal preference.
Did you stick with Shaun to tweak the sound?
CATHERINE: Shaun’s mixed everything we’ve released. But originally, we recorded our first two things on a Zoom H5, a handheld recorder I was going to use for video stuff. I’m from Ohio so I was really inspired by Times New Viking and by lo-fi ways of recording. Then we recorded the vocals on an iPad.
GARRETT: Yeah, all together sitting in a bed. We were like, “We’ll just shout over the music really loud! We were like, “This will be cool; this will be cool and shitty!”
What’s your experience been so far with Get Better Records?
GARRETT: Alex [Lichtenhauer, the founder] is an earth angel.
CATHERINE: Queer music in general is about taking care of each other and a sense of community. And I think that has been the experience with Get Better Records — it’s doing something because we genuinely care about each other.
What do you want people to know about queer music in Philly?
CATHERINE: It’s more ego-less.
GARRETT: It’s extremely supportive, extremely open, and everyone is just there for each other. More so than I have ever experienced. And that is how it is in West Philly specifically. People care more in Philly.
EMILY: ... and prioritize women in music, and people of color, and being really inclusive.
CATHERINE: Thebe is a general awareness of raising up marginalized people, which is really important.
GARRETT: It’s a spot where every single one of your friends’ bands is incredibly mind-blowing. We’re so inspired by every single person that lives in a ten-block radius from here. It’s pretty beautiful.
Where did you shoot the music video for “The Eye”?
CATHERINE: “The Eye” was shot in Garret’s and my [new] house. I am in our bathroom, with all the plants in there.
You guys have so many plants!
CATHERINE: A lot of those plants we found on Craigslist, and we had to drive really deep into the suburbs where all the McMansions are.
GARRETT: Every time we meet someone off Craigslist to buy a fake plant, it’s always so fucking weird. One woman sold us three huge ones for $40, and it was like the nicest house I’ve ever seen. It had gargoyles. Instantly when we met her, she just screamed, “It’s my dog’s birthday!”
So you go to great lengths to design your space.
GARRETT: We’re all really sensitive to our surroundings.
CATHERINE: It’s almost like a magical realism, because our house is very magical. So it’s a total escape, and that goes hand in hand with the band, living in the art that we make. The aesthetic of the music is actually what our lives are as well — just this beautiful chaos.
Now that the tape is out, do you have any short-term goals?
EMILY: I think getting a new keyboard is a goal. We just bought this one from ShopGoodWill for eight dollars, and it’s kinda janky.
RANDALL: It’s got puffy paint stickers on the keys. It’s actually pretty beautiful.
EMILY: I have to put stickers on it to remember what keys to play. So maybe taking the stickers off is also a goal.
CATHERINE: You don’t have to!
GARRETT: Leave them stickers on forever.
Empath photos by Hillary Jones, Chloe Hutton, and Troy Memis.