Interview: Kate Simko on 'Polyrhythmic’ & Being Inspired by Vintage Machines
Kate Simko explains the concepts, tech & inspiration behind her new LP, Polyrhythmic, with Tevo Howard and how they fused vintage, analog machines with digital processors for a unique layered sound.
Kate Simko, acclaimed electronic music producer, composer, live performer, and DJ hails from Chicago and fuses a variety of styles and themes into her music. Her new album with Tevo Howard, PolyRhythmic, released on October 9 via Sasha's Last Night on Earth label, brings a vintage synth and drum machine inspired classic Chicago sound into the modern era while playing with rhythms that’ll get you moving.
We sat down to chat with Kate about her new LP, the vintage (analog) technology which inspired the making of every track, the London Electronic Orchestra and how she sculpts the sound of classic hardware with digital processors.
Ask: Can you tell us how you got into music? From piano through to DJing and music production?
Kate Simko: I started playing piano when I was about 5, so music has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I first went to a rave when I was 15 in Chicago and hearing electronic music without words just totally connected with me. I never really got into new rock music in my teens, but when I first heard electronic music it really spoke to me, and I basically became obsessed with house and techno. There are a lot of parallels with classical in the sense that it’s music without words. You don’t have a singer telling you how they feel or how you should feel. And if there are vocals it’s more like the voice is used like an instrument.
There are a lot of parallels with classical (and house and techno) in the sense that it’s music without words.
I was studying piano in my first year at university but I was really passionate about electronic music. I was interning to get on a radio show and just found out about Warp Records, Scam and IDM… you remember, it was beautiful electronic music with proper compositions, such a great time for music.
I didn’t know how to make my own music or where to start. I didn’t even have a laptop back then. But in my free time I wasn’t listening to classical music, I was listening to electronic music. So I decided to take a risk and learn how to make the music I was most passionate about.
Later I brought it all together with the London Electronic Orchestra (LEO), where I work with classical instruments and incorporate them into my electronic world. I’ve found a way to bring it full circle and have both worlds collide.
Ask: Does it feel more like a collision or an infusion of two worlds? Your LEO work blends them both together seamlessly…
Kate: You’re right it’s more like an infusion. I’d never written for orchestra before moving to London in 2013. I moved in summer of 2013 to do a masters in composition at the RCM. Although I knew music theory and could play the piano, I’d never tried to orchestrate. I didn’t know how you’d write for a viola or violin, the range of brass, percussion, strings, wind. I was the only one with no orchestral writing experience, and I had a lot to learn!
While I was at the college I made relationships with the players, who taught me a lot about how their instruments work.
Ask: Did that feel like an intimidating position to be in?
Kate: Yes. I was trying to make up for at least 8 years of experience! I found the best way to learn was from books and videos on the different instrument technique names, then sit with the players and they’d play different techniques so I could hear the differences.
I think it worked in my favor as I made close relationships with these players and they felt involved. So it wasn’t like I was a composer from an ivory tower saying “play this”. It was more like I worked with them so we could create cool and unique sounds from their instruments. In fact, five of the six players in the core LEO ensemble I met at the Royal College of Music.
So I learned how to write for them in a way that would fit into my music. For example, harp works really well with rhythmic patterns. As you know house music is really rhythmic. If you hear the first track on the new PolyRhythmic LP that’s done with the LEO. You can hear the harp playing the part of a percussive synth. It’s cool to layer instruments and how to actualize taking something electronic and putting it on the instruments and having the idea of it come through.
Most of the time with the LEO tracks I try to blend the instruments into the track, like an infusion as you said, so it’s not like strings sitting on top of a track, but they’re actually playing key melodies and a core part of the songs.
Ask: Is the blending of instruments as much down to the mixing as it is to the composition and arrangement?
Kate: On PolyRhythmic with Tevo, whether it’s orchestral or not, the way we mix things together makes a big difference. With Tevo we were fusing two different worlds because he’s really old school using the 303, 707 and a 505—a bunch of classic Roland synths. Then I like the more modern sound using reverbs and effects or synths that are more atmospheric and sit in the track in a different way—not always as raw.
On “PolyRhythmic” with Tevo, whether it’s orchestral or not, the way we mix things together makes a big difference.
For a lot of tracks on the album we had multiple mixes before we were satisfied. The way tracks were mixed completely changed the feel. If we have the raw 303 bassline really loud and the more melodic and atmospheric stuff quiet it can sound really old school and acid-like. Whereas if you push it down, put a filter on it, and bring melodic elements up then it’s a totally different song. So, in PolyRhythmic we learned a lot when mixing and deciding on the different tracks was like deciding where we were going.
Ask: The concept of fusion seems to be a theme running through our conversation. With your move from Chicago to London and the coming together of their unique musical elements, it feels like PolyRhythmic is fusing the idea of place through the music which has a Chicago feel, but it’s not purely from there.
Kate: Yes you’ve got it. Basically, the sense of place was really important. When Tevo and I met in 2010 I was feeling isolated making music in Chicago. At that time he had launched Beautiful Granville and had just started touring internationally. We’d meet for a coffee and talk about his experiences playing music in different countries and how people responded to a classic Chicago sound in Europe. Fast forward to 2015 and we’d been working on our album for two years and we were both traveling. The big discussion for us was the synthesis between being loyal to our roots but also mixing that with our experiences touring and the records we are buying now. It was about being authentic and paying homage to our home city while combining that with our newer influences.
Listen to the track "Polyphonica":
Ask: You’re fusing vintage, analog gear with modern, digital effects, and orchestral with electronic. Did you begin PolyRhythmic with the idea of vintage gear sounds playing such an integral part in the album?
Kate: We primarily made the album around the gear. At the time neither of us had much money. So we’d buy a used synth or machine from a certain big music retailer in the US, use it and record as much stuff as we possibly could… and then take it back after 30 days! Sorry if that sounds shady… but what it forced us to do was get to know and use the gear completely because of the time window. This wasn’t expensive gear by the way. I’m talking about a microKorg, nothing over $500. We literally didn’t have much money, but if we had fallen in love with something we’d have kept it.
Tevo had the 606, 707 and I had my Juno 106 which we used a lot. I also had the Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver which made it into the album a few times.
In terms of equipment Tevo had the 606, 707 and I had my Juno 106 which we used a lot. I also had the Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver which made it into the album a few times. Basically, I’d take my keyboard over to Tevo’s, we’d setup the equipment, and we’d make music around whatever was in the room. That was the starting point. Software synths were an afterthought.
Kat Simko in the studio playing her trusty Juno-106.
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Ask: What about drum editing?
Kate: Most of the drums and percussion were recorded on the fly. The 707 has volume mixers so Tevo would mix those while recording. Sometimes he’d record the drums into separate channels on a mixer, but the performance of the parts and the filtering was all done in real time.
Ask: The beats have an organic feel. So that explains why.
Kate: Yep, I think the way Tevo manages it is cool. It doesn’t feel over-produced. We made different mixes of each track, but the essence and idea of the song itself was there and working around the analog gear we had at our disposal. When I think of this project I think about the machines. We never spent studio time together staring at a computer screen while this album, which is refreshing for 2015!
Ask: With such an emphasis on real-time performance during the recording stages, has that made improvisation an important part of playing PolyRhythmic live?
Kate: Definitely. We first played live together at Panorama Bar a couple summers ago. With Tevo doing improv on the 303 basslines and beats, it leaves a lot of space for me to improvise on the Juno 106. We real-time listen to each other. If he’s going crazy on the drums I’ll take it easy. Or vice-versa, he’ll hear I’m starting to do something with the chords and he’ll pull back on the drums and let it be a moment where it’s more melodic and not rhythmic-driven. We work together and every live set is different.
Ask: Is your live gear setup much the same as your studio one?
Kate: For live sets with Tevo he’s using the 707, 303 emulator, and the 505 and I’m using the Roland Juno 106 and the Novation Launchpad and LaunchControl, where I trigger any vocals or atmospheric samples that need playing back via Ableton Live on my laptop. Tevo uses Ableton on his laptop too. We’re both synced in Live 9 and he uses Ableton to control and turn on and off machine stuff.
Ask: The software plugins you do use… can you tell us what you reach for?
Kate: I use Rob Papen’s SubBoomBass, which I like quite a bit. Sylenth—everyone loves that! The Korg Polysix, Logic Pro’s EXS24.
Ask: And are you on Logic Pro X now?
Kate: It was always Logic Pro 9 until recently. Both Tevo and I produce in Logic and the album was produced in Logic Pro 9. I sometimes use Pro Tools too.
Ask: Can you explain the process of creating and producing Polyphonica?
Kate: On PolyRhythmic we Wanted different layers of rhythms. On the track "Polyphonica" we tried to make it a bit more harmonically layered. The recordings are all from people Tevo knew in his neighborhood. He just recorded them saying “polyphonica” on his iPhone, sent them to me and I mixed them in. We used SubBoomBass, Korg Polysix and the Roland 505, 606 and 707 as well as my Roland Juno 106.
We wrote it before our live set at Panorama Bar. I wrote the melodic parts for that and was trying to picture myself being in the crowd. It’s an amazing venue for beautiful, emotional music to be played in as well as dance oriented tracks. The main drive for "Polyphonica" was to create a track which was melodic and for the dance floor which would work in that space.
Ask: When you talk about vintage or analog music hardware, I think I’m hearing a sense of the familiar in your voice. Do you think it’s easier to build a relationship with hardware than software plugins like Sylenth… or EXS24?
Kate: Hmm yes. I do feel like the EXS24, because I have so many presets and sampler instruments, is more like my own world. Tevo has done that too, by sampling machines into it. That stuff feels more personal. But, 100% I feel more of a connection and relationship with an actual keyboard. For me, with four shows in the UK and one in Ibiza, I brought my own Juno-106 when I didn’t need to. The issue for me is that soft synths can’t fully emulate the gritty, warm texture and depth of an analog synth. I think having a machine with the sounds in it is cool. It’s like having a cool friend with you on tour you look at and think, “we’ve been here before!”
I think having a machine with the sounds in it is cool. It’s like having a cool friend with you on tour you look at.
Ask: You’re currently living in London, but do you see yourself moving back to Chicago or elsewhere?
Kate: I think I’m going to be based here in London for a while. London felt intimidating for me at first, as it’s a big music scene and there’s lots of people. But I was really welcomed and there’s a real sense of community. I feel supported here, comfortable and inspired. So yes I’m happy in London.
Ask: For the PolyRhythmic album you talked about how machines inspired you. In general is it about the dynamics of the collaborations, is it the machines… what other sources do you draw inspiration from?
Kate: Definitely, the people you work with need to be inspiring. Tevo can be pretty intellectual and analytical, which is great. We’d always start with getting a coffee at the cafe by his house, chatting, catching up, talking about music and then making music. For me, life experiences, where I came from, what’s going on in the world around me now all inspires me too. I love making music and I find London to be a very positive place where, from what I’ve experienced in the music scene, people support each other rather than try to bring people down. You have to work really hard here, but if you do that people wish you the best and help you.
Working with Sasha’s label, Last Night On Earth, has been great. The artwork which is Chicago inspired was a great journey to be involved in. That was the first 12” for graphic artist, Luke Spicer, and we worked with him and he did such a great job on our EP and the album artwork. It was a great creative process too.
Working with people who have a passion is important. These aren’t people that just want to get their pay cheques, they are doing something they believe in. That’s why I enjoy working with Last Night On Earth too. They let us choose the mastering, putting it on vinyl and are very supportive and Sasha has been very supportive of our album too.
Ask: Do you have any tips for emerging artists and producers?
Kate: Hmm I guess the two main things would be to invest in yourself and find your own sound. Find out what you love in other people’s music, go to clubs, see what track you like, find out what it is and dig into it.
Secondly, take your time to learn how to produce. It takes time to learn how to really EQ and mix your tracks and to bring the sonic quality up to the level you want. It’s not a quick and easy thing to make electronic music that sounds good on the dance floor but also sonically sounds nice. It takes time. People are open to hearing new producers and new ideas, and the electronic music is seen as great for that, so keep working hard.
Ask: Would you add that if you don’t have much spare cash you can buy your equipment and return it within 30 days?
Kate: Haha! Well, you know you don’t need much. You can always borrow some gear from someone… you don’t need the fastest, newest computer, or lots of drum machines or synths. I know I’ve talked about lots of different gear, but you can just get one machine. Then really learn how to use it. You don’t need tons of stuff, making good music is more about having good ideas.