Sitting comfortably in the boundless originality that exists between the definition of house and techno, Chicago native Kate Simko has never bothered with labelling her music. It sways from deep grooves to ambient electronica through to percussive tech-house, effortlessly held together with the common thread of melody and subtle tension. As a classically-trained pianist, it’s to be expected that her music offers a delicacy and texture that is often omitted in the clubbing world, although she hardly comes across as an overt music snob when talking about what’s in her DJ box. “I like music that has a real expression of emotion in it, and that doesn’t require classical training,” she says, before quickly adding: “But I do appreciate when harmonies are in key.”
Growing up in the birthplace of house music where the likes of Larry Heard and DJ Pierre are held aloft as divine entities, it seems obvious that a young Simko would find herself fascinated with dance music. However it was acts like Autechre and labels like Warp that made her take notice, not the unmistakable jacking feel of Chicago house. “My first memories are of a friend giving me some mixtapes when I was in my first year of high school. I really fell in love with the music. We’d drive around in my friend’s car listening to the tapes. Then from there I started going to underground parties in Chicago, and was blown away by the DJs. A lot of the Detroit guys were coming through town then too, and some bigger European DJs.”
After studying music technology in college, further studies in musical composition lead her to Santiago, Chile, where she met Andres Bucci. She made her recording debut with Bucci as Detalles, a melodically rich ambient outfit that was released on Cologne minimal techno powerhouse Traum Schallplatten in 2003. But when reflecting back on the media attention during that period of her life, there’s a sense of frustration. “Pigeon-holed is a good way to put it,” she muses. “I think people put music or artists into boxes because it’s easier to make sense of it that way. The ‘minimal’ tag was stuck on me for a long time. It doesn’t really bother me. It just wasn’t an accurate way of describing a lot of my songs.”
On her return to the US, Simko went about shucking that tag. She fell in with Ryan Elliott, Matthew Dear and the Ghostly International crew and began to break away from the confines of Detalles. After a collection of singles on Seattle’s Kupei Musica and the experimental Spectral Sound, she released her debut album Lights Out in 2011. It’s a very different beast to her work as Detalles. “The approach with Detalles was really streamlined, because we made both albums from start to finish in just two months each time,” she says. “My album was a more extended obsession, for better or worse!” Although Lights Out was created without her previous studio partner Andres Bucci around, Simko did return back to South America to record the album – and in 2009 and 2010, Simko headed down to Buenos Aires, Argentina. “Living in a foreign city always teaches you about yourself, and puts you in a different headspace,” she recalls. “I had a lot of time to write ideas in a journal and just focus on making music. If I wrote the album in Chicago, there would have been a lot less breathing room than I had in Buenos Aires. I love that city and it inspires me a lot.”
The album process saw her veer from her usual writing methods. Ideas were streamed, but not over-scrutinised. Songs were left to simmer, only to be re-examined days later to see how they worked in the grander Lights Out scheme. I ask her how her approach to writing music has evolved since then. “I’ve become a lot more comfortable making more melodic tracks lately. Also, I obsess about the details less and just get on with things, which have ended up giving my new songs a cleaner feel.” Although firmly entrenched in the artist stable for Ghostly International and a few other favoured labels, Kate Simko chose to release her debut album on Jan Krueger and Daze Maxim’s Hello?Repeat label, out of Berlin. While other labels were willing to release Lights Out digitally, Hello?Repeat offered to release the album on double-pack vinyl and CD, which, according to Kate, “sealed the deal.” There’s something to be said about the tangibility of a physical album, after all. “I’m so happy to have an album on CD and vinyl to pull off the shelf years from now.”
Kate Simko plays Australia for the first time in August, bringing the Live PA/AV show that has been in place since the beginning of the Lights Out tour. Collecting HD footage from her travels around the world, she will control the visuals in real-time, in the midst of her live set. “One of the reasons I wanted to add visuals to my live set was to give the audience more to look at,” she explains. “There’s something special about seeing a band play live [with] multiple things happening at once. Adding the visuals is sort of like adding another band member, I guess.” And as for the music? “We’ll just have to feel the vibe that night and see.”
BY RICK WARNER
Kate Simko [USA] plays alongside Chloe Harris [USA] at Brown Alley on Friday August 10.