Garrett Koloski is distracted. An unleashed mutt just ran into the Brooklyn dive bar where we’re sitting, bounded past the Big Buck Hunter machine, squatted in the middle of the room, and defecated. Instead of joining in on the conversation about his band’s tour van and the scrappers who stole its catalytic converter, Koloski, the 28-year-old drummer for Philadelphia punk band Empath, is staring wide-eyed at the dog, trying to get the attention of his bandmates: “A dog just took a shit on the ground! That’s what it smells like.”
“Well,” Randall Coon, the band’s 32-year-old synth player says. “The reviews are out.”
Three years after recording their first lo-fi demos in the basement of their shared home in Philadelphia, Empath remain the sort of close friends who can pile onto each other’s jokes for hours if left to their own devices. They’re also one of the most confounding new rock bands in the country. Their debut full-length, Active Listening: Night on Earth — out now via the queer-centric, Philly-based DIY label Get Better Records — is a clash of howling guitar noise, mystic synthetics, frantic rhythms, and piped-in birdsong. Twenty-five-year-old lead singer and guitarist Catherine Elicson jumps from caterwauls to pop melodies over Koloski’s relentless thrashing and Coon’s thrumming low-end; Emily Shanahan, 27, levitates above the mix. Live and on record, Empath turn harsh sounds into something ferociously meditative. They pummel their way through the listener’s skull to open up space for a third eye.
The band came together when Koloski and Shanahan left college at Syracuse and moved into a seven-bedroom West Philadelphia house with Elicson, a friend of a friend. Elicson and Koloski soon started jamming in the basement, and when Koloski’s last band, Perfect Pussy, broke up in 2016, the two decided to commit to Empath. Shanahan, who’d never played music before, jumped in, and the trio quickly laid down some jagged demos using a field recorder and mic equipment from Rock Band, the video game. (“It wasn’t analog, but it was lo-fi,” Elicson says.) The result was Crystal Reality Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 — both released in 2016 — six fuzzy, clattering, poppy noise-punk songs that took up no more than 13 minutes in total.
Coon joined soon after, almost by accident. “I think I came over to sell y’all an eighth of weed, and then we went to the art museum and talked about freaky things,” he says. Elicson reminds him that they then microdosed acid, went to Goodwill, and came home to watch New York Fashion Week videos on YouTube while listening to harsh noise tapes.
Since then, the band has toured and recorded heavily, returning to the same basement in Philly whenever they get a break. Their debut EP as a four-piece, Liberating Guilt and Fear, was tuned down to conform to the lowest of the “Solfeggio frequencies,” a six-tone scale that some new age pseudo-scientists insist can better align the listener with the universe’s basic frequencies. But for all of its mysticism and chakra-harnessing energy, it was inescapably catchy. On “The Eye,” the closest thing it had to a single, Elicson sang the ecstatic chorus over two notes: “You don’t have to spend all of that money on me, baby!”
The band has carried that mix of new age aesthetics and winking pop sensibilities into Active Listening. The refrain on the relentless “Pure Intent” even has Elicson snarling, “Everything becomes so hazy, baby,” while Coon and Shanahan swirl around Koloski’s crashes. Elicson cites Britney Spears’s “...Baby One More Time,” an almost nonsensical song composed by Swedish songwriter Max Martin, as an example of good pop lyrics that can be “evocative” rather than literal.
On Active Listening, Elicson’s lyrics touch on anxiety, escapism, and wild abandon — but that, she insists, is just her subconscious at work. It’s Shanahan who reads over the lyrics and tries to figure out the specific intent behind her friend’s words. Coon, for his part, says he has an entirely different set of lyrics in his head the whole time. “I hear you singing it and I’m like, That’s not what the fuck I’m saying,” Elicson says. This is what happens when you write songs at home — sometimes even in bed together, Coon says — with three of your best friends.
Elicson wrote most of Active Listening on an acoustic guitar, producing a number of delicate folk songs that she knew would be bastardized the moment that Koloski got near them. “A lot of it is forcing something to be something that it’s not,” she says. The exception is “Soft Shape,” which Elicson wrote after reading Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster’s disco retrospective Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, deciding that she wanted something upbeat and almost guitar-free. Koloski ripped the beat from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and sped things up. At the bar, just as Elicson is about to drill down on the idea behind the beat, Coon points out that there’s a counter-rhythm on there that sounds like the riff to “I’m Coming Out,” and the conversation is derailed. All four members of the band start singing Diana Ross’s chorus, unperturbed by the sound of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” blaring from the speakers behind us.
That’s part of Empath’s holistic approach, which gives noise, pop, punk, and ambient sound equal weight. “We didn’t do a big noise thing on this record,” Elicson says while Koloski sniffs uncomfortably at the shit-smelling air. “We did a quieter, new age thing. Every song has different parts that are noise-adjacent, but it’s important to have everything sound different.”
Koloski turns back around. “I love improvised music and I love faking jazz music…” He stops to think. “The next record, we’ll just do an improvised noise record.”
Elicson jumps in to make sure nobody thinks he’s joking. “And bring a lot of friends. If someone would finance that, it’d be awesome.”