PLAGUE NOTES: An Interview with My Heart, an Inverted Flame
“We titled our album Plague Notes easily a year before COVID exploded in Wuhan,” says Marc Kate, San Francisco-based composer known for his conceptual solo projects and production in electronic post-punk band Never Knows. “It’s more about our obsession with all things apocalyptic. Who knew it could be so prescient?”
Plague Notes is the debut album of self-described “synth-doom” duo, My Heart, an Inverted Flame, in which Kate’s quivering synth is answered by the deafening drums of Andee Connors ( A Minor Forest, Common Eider, King Eider). In my brief exchange with these two, Kate and Connors revealed their manifold sonic influences, their favorite track on Plague Notes, and their experimental recording process, equal parts mindful conceptualism and unbridled improvisation.
How are you faring post-pandemic? How is isolation treating you?
Andee Connors: It feels weird to say, but for me, the pandemic has generally not been entirely unpleasant. I have hermit-like tendencies, so this played into that, but in terms of personal life quality, I no longer have a two hour commute everyday, I saved thousands of dollars not commuting to work, I get to spend a lot more time with my kitties, and I get to work on stuff like this, music and stuff. So, of course I wish none of this was happening, and none of those people had died, but from a day-to-day personal life standpoint, it hasn’t been entirely unpleasant.
Marc Kate: I’m obviously a very different person, as far as being very social and going out quite regularly, but despite all the death and political upheaval and how crazy 2020 was, I had a pretty solid year, mostly just working on music and spending a lot of time on this band, and getting to be very, very focused on a few things in my life instead of being distracted by a thousand things in my life all the time, coming at me from every direction. As far as how we’re faring post-pandemic, I feel like we’re maybe only halfway through this shit. Neither of us is vaccinated.
AC: We’re pre-post-pandemic. In terms of this band, the biggest bummer about the pandemic is that so many people equate the record we made with the pandemic, as if it was this direct response. The title was established before the actual plague hit.
MK: Yeah, we titled our album Plague Notes easily a year before COVID exploded in Wuhan.
AC: And the record was mostly done. So I appreciate that people get what they want out of the music that they listen to, but it does seem that people are really just looking at the record and listening to it based on its sound and its tone and the titles, etcetera, assuming that it’s our response to the pandemic. It’s really not.
MK: It’s more about our obsession with all things apocalyptic. Who knew it could be so prescient?
Can you tell me a little bit about the album’s origin story? What inspired you two to collaborate?
MK: Well, I think the origin story of the album is the origin story of the band, because it’s the debut album. Andee and I have known each other since the mid to late 90's.
AC: But there have been big gaps where we didn’t communicate much, for no real reason aside from drifting in different circles. The way that I remember it was that Marc was like, “Ooh, I wanna play weird, loud, dark music,” and somebody said, “You should ask Andee.”
MK: I don’t know. The origin for the band, at least for me, is very specific. I literally woke up the morning after the  election that Donald Trump won and was livid. I was like, I now feel like I need to dedicate the majority of my creative life in anger. I think it was this simple — I wanted to make doom metal with synths. That’s how I was feeling. And I did the thing that I often do, which is wonder, “Well, who’s doing that? Maybe somebody’s already done this for me, and I can just go listen to their album.” I couldn’t find anything. There’s a lot of amazing, very textural, very minimal doom-oriented music that I adore, but I wasn’t hearing the thing that was vaguely in my head, or satisfying my fury at this country. I want to say I immediately thought to call Andee, but that’s obviously not how simple it was… Maybe it was.
AC: It could be. It’s not like I historically even play metal, really. Certainly when we were in bands together in the old days, it was like weird math rock and indie rock. I feel like it was your co-worker, Doug Hilsinger, who said, “You should ask Andee,” because we had had an aborted attempt to play together. But the other interesting thing is that I was already playing with John Benson, my ex-bandmate from A Minor Forest, and I was like, “Oh, you know what would be really fun is if the 3 of us play together,” and it was fun. Then John just randomly brought in a guitar player one day, who was cool and played in Asunder, and is an awesome guitar player, but then the whole tone and tenor of the band changed and it became very much like a rock band. It took us a while to figure out that that’s not at all what we wanted. Or maybe it didn’t take us that long to figure out, but it took us that long to get up the guts to be like, “Ok, we shouldn’t all be playing together because this isn’t the sound we were thinking of in our heads.”
MK: Right, it was fun and we were doing something cool, but Andee and I had an agenda, or we had agendas, and where those agendas lined up, the music that we were making as this 50% guitars quartet wasn’t manifesting. So we became a duo, and then realized how easy it is to schedule rehearsals and make decisions and decide something’s finished when there’s only two people involved.
AC: I had kind of already been there because I play in another duo called Common Eider, King Eider, and we had been a six-piece at one point, and since we had become a duo everything was magical: touring, recording, traveling. If you really have your sounds and your approach to soundmaking locked in, it’s not about numbers. I feel like the stuff that Marc and I made with just the two of us was so much more dense and sprawling and atmospheric and loud and heavy than when we had an actual heavy metal guitar player, which I think is really cool. I think there was some sort of connection, too, because we almost instantly started this process where we didn’t really practice. We just improvised and recorded everything instead of practicing, and then we ended up having tons of amazing chunks of music to work with. I was always interested in improvisation, but [using it] as an almost wholesale replacement for rehearsal was really novel to me.
MK: Yeah, we would sometimes decide, “Hey, we should really try repeating something,” like a practice is supposed to be, where you repeat things and you get better at that one song, but instead we just kept coming down to our rehearsal space which is wired for recording, so literally the time it takes to open the door and hit”record” on everything we’ve got is a matter of minutes on a good day, and so we just have hours and hours of recordings.
AC: We were in this unique position of being a band that actually became fully formed during the pandemic when we couldn’t play or tour, so now as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, we’re actually having to finally wrangle with figuring out how to do this live and start rehearsing and learning the songs that we created and recorded, sort of reverse engineer them for the stage, which is a new challenge, but also fun.
Do you lead with concept in your work, or is it more of an experimental process?
MK: I don’t know if we agree about this, so what do you think?
AC: I’m not sure we do either. In my other band, Common Eider, Rob [Fisk] is really keen on intention. That’s a huge part of everything. It’s almost like before you open a restaurant, or something. We have this little powwow. It’s not my style, so it took a lot of work to be like, “Ok, I’m going to try to infuse this performance with very specific intentions and meanings.” There’s a magical component in that group that I don’t think exists in this one in the same way, which was also a bit foreign to me. I think Marc probably comes with the concept more than I do. I’m much more interested in the sonic part of the equation. Like even regarding the creation of the band, Marc came to me with anger and fury and wanted to destroy the world with the heaviest band ever, and all I heard was “heaviest band ever,” and was like, “Ok, cool. That sounds right up my alley.”
MK: I think I come to everything fairly conceptually, but I feel like as soon as my synth is switched on I’m all experiments. Yes, all these intentions, all this anger, all these conceptual ideas of how the band could be formulated and go forward — I don’t necessarily bring that in when I turn my amp on. When I turn my amp on, it becomes more about experimenting with sound, but without straying too far from the concepts that we originally discussed.
AC: But I think there are two distinct parts of the band. There’s the pure creation part, and then there’s the post-creation polishing, where it’s more lyrics, art, and arrangement. So I think we can indulge both equally but separately, in a way.
MK: Yeah, that makes sense.
AC: From being a drummer, of course drums are the coolest, but they’re also very primal. They’re the first instrument. They have this weird, feral energy. I think there’s two kinds of drummers. There are drummers that approach it with finesse, and there are drummers that approach it with sheer power. I always found sheer power drummers much more entertaining, like watching this primal force, things colliding with other things. So, for me, in terms of experimentation, I approach the drums like that. I’ve always been like, “Nobody hits drums harder than me, nobody is louder than me, nobody breaks everything in the drum kit more than me.” But at the same time, with this band, it’s been really fun because we’ve done a lot more subtle sonic exploration with gongs, cymbals, mallets, and long, drawn out drones. Even with the first record, I got a ton of shit from fans of my drumming who were like, “There’s barely any drumming on that record.”
MK: Just you wait until the second record.
AC: But I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s awesome.” In the first song, there’s a drum hit every 30 seconds and I love that about it. It fit the music perfectly, and it didn’t feel weird for me to be playing like that. So yeah, I like the fact that playing with Marc has opened up these new pathways for me in terms of playing and experimenting.
MK: Cool, and I think there’s something interesting when you play a keyboard, especially a synthesizer, compared to a guitar or a bass. I think it’s really easy when you’re in a rock band and you’re playing next to a drummer, that you strum harder and your physicality is reflected in your instrument. Less than a drum, but it’s still there. Whereas with a synthesizer, you can adjust it so the harder you press it, your patch will react to your performance quality, but really that’s not the same as hitting a drawn string or drumhead. Playing next to Andee with the amount of volume and force he produces on his drums gets me to at least turn my amp up deafeningly loud to even hear what I’m doing over his drums, so I’m at least getting this incredible physicality from my own instrument, just to be able to meet what Andee is doing physically.
AC: As a last thought on that, I think that’s also what makes the stuff that we’re doing really interesting and visceral. Again, I don’t think a single person in a blind taste test didn’t think we had a guitar player because there’s so much distortion and weird overtones and pure volume, and that’s not the thing people equate with a synthesizer or a keyboard. So they instantly go like, “Oh, wow! Super droned-out guitars!” And it’s really fun to be like, “There’s no guitars, no basses.” It’s just synths and drums.
MK: And I feel like there’s an addendum to “there’s no guitars.” There’s no simulated guitars, either. There were a lot of synth patches that started as early as the mid 80’s that were these guitar synth sounds, and they’re cheesy and terrible. That’s not what we’re doing.
Who are some of your sonic influences? Any visual influences?
MK: Well, at the outset, I think the first bands that I was listening to where I was like, “This is kind of what I wanna be doing,” are Nadja and The Angelic Process. Those two bands are so heavy and so overwhelming. Both bands, to different degrees, have this shoegaze element to them. For me, the gold standard of good sound is somehow that My Bloody Valentine wash or that Cocteau Twins shimmer. So that was a touchstone at the very outset before I even got in the same room with Andee and started playing, but then I think a lot of other things started getting picked up.
AC: There’s this band from Australia called The Necks that’s like an experimental jazz band, just piano, bass, and drums. They basically play these long-form tracks, and they’re just the masters of beautiful dynamism, where they’ll build and build. They’re just this subtle, minimal abstract jazz band. It’s like jazz SUNN O))), or something. For me, I always thought, “Oh, it’d be really amazing to be in a metal Necks.” So I think I always brought a little of that to this. Also, the thing I always bring up, even though it’s not obvious, is the Tony Conrad & Faust Outside the Dream Syndicate album, which to me is one of the most beautiful records ever. All it is is a single drum beat over a reedy drone that’s just perfect and beautiful. We probably both come to this with a fundamental interest in all stripes of drone music, whether it’s swooshy and dreamy pop ambient stuff or grinding, Lustmord death industrial. I think it’s this really fundamental love of low end and extended tones. It’s like when you first heard when it came out on Sub Pop. You’re like, “Oh, Sub Pop is all Mudhoney and Soundgarden,” and then suddenly there’s this record with 2 MPH glacial riffs and it just made no sense. I feel like that wide-eyed wonder about this weird collision of minimalism and maximalism is my sweet spot for this band.
MK: And although this isn’t really synth music, I’d say it’s more minimal electronic-adjacent music. I’m thinking about artists like Grouper, Tim Hecker, and Lawrence English. Like that stuff, but through a really nasty, broken fuzz pedal. Not so pretty. That’s probably the music I listen to the most, Lawrence English and Tim Hecker.
MK: I think there’s a really easy, obvious line to draw between drone music and color field paintings, so Rothko, Clyfford Still. The very sort of macho, grand-scale midcentury European and American painters in a high abstract expressionism and shortly thereafter. Or even sometimes more conceptually-based, but still on the two-dimensional plane. I love that shit, but I’m also kinda tired of it. I think it’s really been overplayed.
AC: Aside from Andrew’s art, do you feel that there’s a visual component to this band, or influence?
MK: I confess, I do think about that shit. There’s something about standing in front of Gerhard Richter ‘s largest, most abstract paintings and not just feeling dwarfed by the scale, but dwarfed by the gesture and the force of how easy it is to be lost in his surfaces that I think about when I’m thinking about music.
AC: What’s funny is I feel like that’s the perfect representation of you versus me in this band. Because I probably think about the exact same thing, but with no reference to a specific visual artist. I’m more like, let’s just create this field of sound that we can get lost in. So we end up at the same destination. Not that I don’t appreciate that, and I could rattle off the artists that I love, but I’m not sure they’re relevant to what we do, other than informing things I like.
Any personal favorite tracks that you’re especially satisfied with, or excited to share?
AC: For me, the first song perfectly encapsulates everything I wanted out of this band.
MK: Yeah, the trajectory keeps escalating in this really subtle way, and the drums are totally crushing. There are vocals and lyrics, but you can’t even tell they’re there, which is something we seem to specialize in.
AC: But it’s also competing constantly with this weird stasis, too. In the reviews that I’ve seen, they’re all like, “It is the most crushing metal intro to a song that never starts.” That almost describes my dream band.
MK: Totally. There’s so much music in the world where I’m like, “My favorite band is this band if you only listen to the first 10 seconds of all of their songs.” That’s my favorite song.
AC: Yeah, and if you listen to metal, pretty much every metal record has a cool, creepy, synthy, atmospheric intro that often is way better than any of the band’s actual songs. So, I feel like in that single song, we’ve really captured this sense of propulsion, but at the same time it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s this catharsis two or three times where the drums tumble down this cliff, but then we end up right back where we started. For me, it’s this really gorgeous mix of elation and frustration.
MK: Yeah, I don’t know if we’re lucky, but “You’ll Never Hear From Me Again,” the first song on our record, really does feel like a thesis statement for what we wanted to do going into this band, and what we want to continue to do going forward.
AC: Yeah, because I feel like we could’ve pushed that song in a million different directions and I think it still would’ve been interesting, but in a way we had to restrain ourselves, and somehow by denying some parts of our nature we ended up creating what feels to me to be this weird, minimal masterpiece, not to be too..
MK: [ Laughs.] It’s a masterpiece. That’s what we’re trying to say.
What’s next for you, creatively and otherwise?
MK: So, something that we’re really excited about doing is that because we’ve been recording so much material over the last couple of years, we have a lot of finished pieces, and starting May 7th, on that Bandcamp Friday, we’re going to start releasing a series of EP’s, one a month, generally hovering around 20 minutes of material. An EP series of our music. That’s the only thing that we have absolutely, surely within our power coming up, right?
AC: Well, we have record #2 mostly finished, and then we have commitment from a label in Europe to do the third record, but not until 2022, I think. Which means it could end up being the fourth record. We have a lot of music, and we’re still recording and mixing more. We’ve been experimenting a lot with the sound. I know we just said, “Oh, ‘You’ll Never Hear from Me Again’ was like a thesis statement and it’s exactly what we’d like to keep doing,” but we’ve also been pushing really far outside of the sound that we’ve created. I mentioned that there was very little drumming on the first record. The second record is all drumming, and it’s much more mathy and keeping with my history as a drummer. But then we’ve also made an ambient record, and we have all these EP’s. We’ve also been experimenting with blast beats, and we both really love black metal. I do a black metal radio show every week. So we’re working on these long-form, raw, droned-out black metal pieces that will hopefully have actual vocals from actual black metal vocalists that we know. We have a lot of stuff planned that we’re experimenting with, which is super exciting. And depending how this next year and a half unfurls, we have to actually figure out how to play live, and then the plan is to tour and go to Europe and do shows. Individually, I’ve been working on a dungeon synth record which is my dream, and I’m still working on a new Common Eider record.
MK: I have a new solo record which is the first full-length solo record I’ve had in many years now, but I also just started a project that I’m going to do for one year. I’m going to record one sound a day for a year, and whatever the result is by the end of the year is the album. So I’m just going to collect single tones, just a tone a day, so it ends up being a sonic diary from leap year to leap year, beginning to end. Separate from that, I’ve started a YouTube channel that is all about recording processes and music culture that has been taking up a lot of my time. I also have a podcast called Scary Thoughts that I recommend if you’re a horror nerd, and also into political theory. It’s very nerdy. Andee has been an amazing guest on it.
And finally, if this album was used to complement any one film/book/life experience, what do you imagine would be the best fit?
MK: Oh, lord. That’s a tough one. If a Thomas Ligotti short story was actually 1,200 pages long, that might be something akin to what we do sonically.
AC: There’s a movie I really liked called Hagazussa that friends of ours did the soundtrack for. It’s a beautiful, weird movie, but the soundtrack is incredible and it’s just electronics, upright bass and a ring modulator, or something really simple like that. I can actually imagine an alternate soundtrack to that movie that was us, that gave it a sort of different feel or vibe. I feel like a lot of our approach to music in general is cinematic. We’d also love this band to be creating music for filmmakers as well, and it’s sort of a weird transition. I don’t think many bands have made that transition, but that is something we love, and I think it’s something that informs all the music we make. There is actually another project that we’re working on that’s sort of interpretations of some of our favorite synth scores from some of our favorite horror movies from the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. But yeah, without picking my favorite weird movie, Hagazussa or even that November thing that I haven’t actually seen yet. Or Viy, that Russian movie with the flying witches and stuff. The original. I honestly think that video that Jakub [Moth] made for “You’ll Never Hear from Me Again” is so perfectly, beautifully perfect. It’s very much to me the visual equivalent of how I was just describing that song, where there’s all this push and pull. There’s momentum, but there’s no momentum. There’s stasis, but everything’s churning. I don’t know how he did it, but that to me is the perfect complement to our sound.
MK: Maybe another cinematic framing could be True Detective, season 1. If there was a soundtrack to [Matthew] McConaughey’s character’s inner voice, struggling with this nihilism that he almost has committed himself to that becomes completely undone by the manifestations that take place in his real life. So, not that show, but just that character’s inner monologue going from the beginning of season 1 to the end would be something that I feel like our music would be a good soundtrack for.
Excerpts from this story were originally published at LocalNewsMatters.org
Featured image by Andrew McLeod, courtesy of Marc Kate & Andee Connors.
Originally published at https://thought-rot.net on April 6, 2021.