Interview: Chromesthetic

Everything about Cleveland’s Chromesthetic feels cyclical. The drum machine freewheels beneath the noise. Riffs curl back in on themselves, burrowing deep into their own fuzz-drenched beginnings, trapped within a momentous sense of endless return. In fact, just as I noted in my review of last year’s self-titled LP, the whole record seems built upon that feedback loop of plectrum-led input and overdriven, wholly psychedelic output; I can picture Gina Kantner fixating upon the amplifier grill as it quivers, ingesting the noise and channelling it outward again, refining it each time it passes through. Transcendence for one.

Back in March, Gina released the wonderful Goldsound on cassette. As with self-titled, an album that has one arms stretching into the depths of psychedelic music history, and another clasping at the outer edges of human consciousness. Below, Gina and I discuss self-discipline, her experiences with chromesthesia and playing her first live shows in three years (including a performance at Cleveland’s Now That’s Class tonight, June 9th). 

I just went out for a run to your new record, which was really nice. Summer has kicked in over here, and this is a great record for aerobic exercise in the sun: there’s a lot of propulsion, it’s bright and fuzzy…I don’t know whether you envisage there to be an ideal listening environment for this music, but this worked really well for me. 

That’s so great. I was running a lot when I made the record this time last year. Maybe that’s why.

You were making Goldsound a year ago? It only came out a couple of months back, right?

Yeah, it came out in April. I take a while. [laughs] I recorded it mostly in February/March last year, and I was mixing it for a while after that. And then I took a break to put out my first record, which had been completed way before that. I’d been mixing Goldsound over the winter. That part takes much longer than actually recording it; I just have to listen to things a thousand times before I’m okay with having it leave.

And how long did you spend recording? It feels like there’s a certain element of improvisation involved. 

I’ve always done a bit of improvising, but these days I’m much more into that area. For Goldsound I started with drum tracks. Some days I just like to play the drum machine, so I did that and ended up with about 12 tracks. Then I was like, “okay – I’m gonna make some music to go with these.” So it was sort of improvised, but generally it takes about a day to get my tracking done. I try to do it all in one day, because I feel that if it moves forward into a week, it’s going to have a weird feel – it’s like, “Today is the day I was inspired to do it, so I have to get it done.” It’s pretty much just me in my apartment with a small studio: usually just one amp, a lot of pedals, sometimes drum machine, sometimes not.

Mixing is a different story. It takes a while because I tend to over-track; I’ll decide that I need eight different drones or something, which is totally unnecessary in the end. At the time I’m like, “this sounds cool”, but then I’m left with a 30-track song in Ableton. It takes a while to sort through that. I get a little overzealous.

Is that indicative of how the mixing usually works then? Build it up, prune it back?

Yes. I break it down as much as I can, and I know when I can cut a track and not care. Other times, when I really love something…even if I can’t use it then, I’ll save it for another time. I’m always trying to pare it down and make it easier to mix. I also think minimal is better, because it can get murky if you do too much. Especially with guitar; if you have 100 guitar tracks on top of each other, it really doesn’t sound good. That’s why I’m more into improvising lately.

It’s interesting you say that, as there are moments on this new record – and the previous album actually – where the music becomes incredibly layered, to the point that the drum machine drowns beneath it all. I love that. There’s something great about hearing the rhythm, which adopts an anchoring role in so many other forms of music, becoming subsumed by the layers that crowd on top of it. Given that this is how it sounds after the pruning of the mixing phase, there must have been some moments during the process where the layering got truly insane…

[laughs] It’s gotten insane before. I’m really obsessed with EQ. I like to make sure that all my guitar tracks sound totally different. But within that, you get to the point where your ears are so fried at the end of a day, listening to feedback or something…anything goes. The more the better. Maybe I can blow my monitors up. It’s stupid. I guess that’s why a band like Skywave are so cool. They’re so noisy but they also have that really heavy rhythm going at the same time. I love that. The louder the better.

As you say, the fatigue of over-listening is a big concern. Personally I’ve had a tricky relationship with any music that requires extended periods of scrutiny during the mixing phase, because there invariably comes a point where I’ve over-analysed my output to the point of hating it. Are there ways that you consciously circumvent that?

I understand that it can get very annoying to hear the same thing over and over again, but somehow I have this weird defect where I can focus on things forever. With the first record I made, I was in that mental state for probably about five years before I even recorded it.

Wow.

Yeah. I have the idea and I want to see it through, and even if I know that I’m tired of it, I tell myself that I’m not. I did try to be moderate about the mixing. I’d get up early and do a solid, uninterrupted hour. If I did anything more after that it was good, but at least I got that hour in.

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So there’s an element of self-discipline to your approach to mixing?

Definitely. I’m a pretty regimented person, in the sense that I make music at pretty much the same time every day, when I feel like my energy is at my peak. Luckily I’m self-employed at the moment so I can pick and choose, but whenever I’ve had other jobs I’ve just made sure that it gets done at some point.

So when’s your optimum time?

It’s usually like 1pm until about 6pm. After 6pm I’m totally useless.

It’s interesting that you’re able to answer that question. I’ve put it to a few people, and most of them time I don’t get a response as such; they just make music as and when, which certainly runs in opposition to the way I conduct myself creatively.

Yeah, it’s weird. I’ve noticed the same thing. I try to make my lifestyle work around the fact that I make music, because I want that to be the main thing. You figure out what you’re good at, and then you have to spend all your time doing it. It’s hard for me to focus on a lot of stuff other than music.

That must work well with being a solo act. I see that you’ve been in bands before. Am I right in saying that you were in The Modulated Tones?

Yes I was!

It sounded great! I think you were on drums as well?

I was, yeah. That was the first instrument I ever played. I really liked doing it for a while, and then finally I was just like…you know, I really need to learn to play the guitar, as it was something else I’ve always liked. My band mate taught me how to play. We covered Psychocandy by The Jesus And Mary Chain for Halloween one year, and so I had to learn that full album. That was my introduction to guitar.

[laughs] That’s incredible. 

Isn’t that funny? I was so bad at the show. I can’t even imagine what it sounded like. I’d been playing guitar for two weeks. It must have been horrible. [laughs]

At least it’s the sort of record that allows you to spill out of the lines a little bit.

Exactly.

Would you consider there to be a through-line from this introduction to guitar and what you’re doing now?

I think so. I’ve always loved fuzzy guitar music, even being a drummer I only cared about what guitars sounded like for a long time. I got into The Stooges, Spacemen 3, MBV, all the song-based noise when I was like 14. Then I got more into Harmonia, Ashra, E.A.R…I was like, “Woah –  this is different. This is where I want to be.” For some reason I never thought about making the music myself; it’s like I wanted to study it for a while. After four or five years, I bought a guitar, got an amp and a few pedals and I was like, “I’m gonna do this.” That was in 2012.

And then you worked toward the self-titled album, right?

Yeah. I worked on those songs for a while. I was playing with a couple of different people. My bandmate from The Modulated Tones and I would play along to a drum machine, for example. We played a few shows, but I just felt like I needed the time by myself to make the record. It took me quite a while to learn how to do it; I was new to guitar, new to recording…all this stuff. It was a learning curve.

What was it like to go from working in bands to becoming a solo creator?

I thought it was a relief. I’m a pretty independent person – an only child and enjoy being alone, so I’m used to this. Being in a band was tough for me, because I’m pretty opinionated musically. I especially don’t like vocals, so being in a band where someone has to sing…I can’t do it. I also just never felt very inspired creating with other people, although I’m open to it still.

I’m the same. Balancing creative compromise with social politeness is so difficult for me. It’s so much easier to work independently.

Yes. I completely agree. I do have a hard time outright telling someone that I don’t like their idea. I’m going to play my first gig in years coming up & my friend offered to play guitar and fill in with synth or something. It was great because I didn’t have to tell them that I didn’t like anything, but I was really worried about what I would say if I didn’t. Especially if they’re your friends. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

But it was nice that someone was so enthusiastic about playing with me. Otherwise I was just going to do a drumless improv set by myself. I think that’s essentially what we’re going to do anyway, but it’s always up in the air.

Do you deliberately leave part of it open, so that you can pursue a particularly interesting groove if one arises in the moment? 

I like to be open to that. It definitely arrives; if you give a song time, it’ll change up on you and you’ll find something new to do within it. Find the dynamics.

Having spent so long mixing this material, it must be interesting to take it into the live environment, where there’s no option to refine or erase anything you do in real time. How do you feel about that?

I thought about that for a long time, and that’s why I haven’t played a show in so long. I just thought that there would be something missing. And of course I could have backing tracks on Ableton on something, but who really wants to see that? Some people pull that off really well – someone like Manuel Göttsching can play a set with Ableton, a few synths and a guitar; and sonically it’s pristine & seamless. I kind of like the unknown element of live looping and just having a sort of outline of the song in mind. I like the idea of not playing tracks from vinyl or tape releases in the live setting.

I’ve been to shows where I’ve seen a band present a live iteration of recorded material, and you can sense the compromises that have been made for the sake of performance practicality. If the live material is its own entity, you’re liberated from that.

Exactly. Otherwise you do see the cracks in the song usually.  But if you’re layering stuff, and in control of your mix, working with hardware, plug-ins…it’s a different world. I probably will use Ableton for looping purposes, just to keep everything synced up, but otherwise I just want to do live guitar.

And whereabouts is the gig?

It’s in Cleveland, where I live. It’s like a local punk bar I guess. They have a sound system that I really like, as it’s always so loud,  which is why I agreed to do it, because I knew I’d be able to hear it. Some places have a PA that’s set up for karaoke. It’s crazy.

What’s the music scene like in Cleveland?

People are enthusiastic about outsider music here. There are definitely your run-of-the-mill rockers, which is fine, but then there’s also this group of heads. There’s a “noise lunch” that happens once a month at this place I’m playing a gig, and these monthly nights for underground techno and electronic music. There are people who appreciate that. It’s not standard, but at least it exists.

What’s a noise lunch?

It’s a Sunday afternoon when the bar opens early, and people just show up, drink for a while and listen to techno, and then there’s always a theme.

Do you take part in those? 

I did years ago. I haven’t played live in a long time. Going forward I might, as I do think it’s super-cool. Also it’s in the day time. You can go home early!

[laughs] Exactly! It always comes back to that. “And also, I’m in bed by 9pm…”

Yeah. I like being home as much as possible.

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I wanted to ask you about the name of the project. I understand that Chromesthesia is the term for sound-to-colour synaesthesia? Is that right?

That’s my interpretation of it.

Is that something you have?

Yes. I have a funny story about that. When I was in kindergarten, we were learning the alphabet. All the letters, A through Z, were red; these paperboard letters that were attached to the wall. I remember seeing them in all different colours: A was red, B was green…whatever. I just thought that was normal. I remember asking my mum, “what colour is D for you?” And she was like, “What?” She was really trying to understand, but she was like, “I don’t know Gina – that’s different.” When I got older, I read about it in some book and I was like, “Woah! This is a thing?”

I called the new record Goldsound as I just felt like all the tracks just sounded like gold. That’s what I can see. It’s like a glitter; like a gold dust. I’m not a glitzy kind of person, but that’s what I see.

That’s amazing. There are so many artistic possibilities to work with there. 

It’s also like mood. Some enlightened records just have a killer vibe- like, these people take you to their zone. When I listen back to something I recorded it involuntarily has been assigned a color subconsciously. It’s as if the color of the track is the room that the song lives in. It’s a weirdo thing. Maybe it’s an insanity thing. [laughs]

Do you think that this ability to visualise sounds helps when it comes to mixing, where you might benefit from there being a spatial or visual quality to your music? 

Sort of. I pretty much record everything I play, just in case. A lot of times I’ll take little pieces – maybe a 10 second clip – and I’ll reverse a few of them and put them together. I’ll build eight minutes out of these little sections. That takes a long time. When you do stuff like that, you often don’t have to rigidly plan it; a lot of times it’ll just fall together really nicely, which is something I’m a big fan of. But yeah – there’s a little bit of mapping.

So what’s on the horizon for Chomesthetic? Do you sit down and plot these albums out, or is it more of a case of organically “arriving” at an album when you’ve accumulated enough material? 

It wasn’t always like this, but at the moment I’ve got another tape that I’m going to put out in July or so. It’s kind of a funny record. I don’t think it’s by far the best thing I’ve done, but because it’s my third record and I love Spacemen 3, I wanted to call it Chromesthetic 3. But I couldn’t just have my own songs labelled Chromesthetic 3 as I’d feel like that wasn’t genuine, so I decided to make a six or seven-song tribute to Spacemen 3, where I make my own songs that sound kind of like them, instead of covering them or something. It definitely still sounds more like me than like them, but it’s just a funny little tape I wanted to do.

I already have my fourth and fifth album done and recorded. I just have to get through the mixing, which of course I’m stressed about.

Wow. You’ve been putting these records out as physical editions, which is great. Do you do all of that yourself? 

Yeah, I self-released both things. Anyone can start a record label – you just put a logo on your record cover. I wanted to have something to use to put my own stuff out.

I love the tape medium. We have a local business that’s been here for years, and they do tapes really nicely- and quickly.  It’s nice to finish an album, get it mastered and within a week you have a physical thing. Vinyl is a crazy long ordeal right now, so tapes are perfect.

Yeah. And to have to wait up to five months to get it pressed, after five months of mixing…

It’s true! Because then you already have another record done and it’s like, “Oh my god – I’m so behind.” I think most musicians today struggle with that. It takes a while.

This is related to a project I’m currently working on, but do you have a set of favourite records you like to listen to? I know that’s not always an easy question to ask.

Oh no – I love lists. Seriously. I have lists of my favourite records for the past 15 years. If I went back to the ones I made in high school…oh my god, I can’t even imagine what I would find! Probably The Libertines or something like that

Okay, so – my three favourite records. I love Spacemen 3’s Transparent Radiation. The version of “Starship” on that is my favourite thing ever. I also really love Richard Pinhas’ Chronolyse, which is a more recent discovery.. And then of course there’s Ashra. That one’s really hard to pick, as I love New Age of Earth and Inventions For Electric Guitar. I also love Göttsching & Hoenig’s Dream & Desire, Harmonia’s Live ‘74… I could go on forever.

That’s great. I love the lists. Are they just lists of your favourite records, or are there any other quantified elements to them?

Sort of. Before I made music a lot, it was just lists of what I liked. Because I’m such a studious person…I never went to college, but I’ve studied the music I like so much that it could almost count as this really fucked up degree. [laughs] So I have lists of things where I’m like, “here is a pure synth record. How can I do something like this using just a sequencer with my guitar?” So I definitely have lists like that, where I have records that I really need to dissect to understand why I like them so much, and how I can do something that makes me feel that way.

That’s excellent. I think a lot of people consider that method of thinking about it quite scandalous, in that it’s supposed to be considered this intangible thing…

It really is. I don’t pretend to reinvent any wheels. I think we can really improve upon and perfect the things we enjoy. At the end of the day I just want to make music that I like, it doesn’t need to be so obscured or unmusical, just to make it “different”. I’d rather the sounds be more of the senses & hallucinogenic, and with that comes a sense of familiarity. I’d like others to be able to relate to the environments I pursue on record.

Chromesthetic on Bandcamp – chromesthetic.bandcamp.com
Chromesthetic on Tumblr – chromestheticfuzz.tumblr.com