No one makes noise quite like Empath. On Liberating Guilt and Fear, the excellent four-song EP they released this spring, the Philadelphia quartet whirl psychedelic guitar, found sounds, New Age drones and more into an exhilarating 16-minute blur. In concert, they sound as much like a cosmic jazz combo as a screamingly loud punk band. Empath’s songs are about melody and feedback, rage and bliss, chaos and transcendence. Then there’s the birdsong – tiny, bright samples of the natural world that chirp in and out of the mix like jokes with no punchlines.
“A lot of our ideas start with ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if we did this?’ ” says singer-guitarist Catherine Elicson, 24, who founded Empath with drummer Garrett Koloski, 27, and keyboardist Emily Shanahan, 26, after they met as roommates in a West Philly punk house in the fall of 2015. (Synthesizer wizard Randall Coon, 32, joined a little over a year later.)
All three came with stellar references. Koloski was nearing the end of his time as the thrashing heartbeat of Syracuse, New York firebrands Perfect Pussy; Elicson had just moved east from Ohio, where she sang in a couple of well-liked local acts, and she would later go on to play drums in Allison Crutchfield‘s band. Shanahan had been in the van with assorted touring crews as a merch-table star. The next step couldn’t have been more obvious.
“There’s literally a Hannibal Buress quote,” Elicson says, paraphrasing a bit that’s become a popular meme. “‘Move to Philadelphia, start a noise band, get seven roommates, start a salsa company…’“
“That was so spot-on,” Koloski says. “Like, wow, how does he know?! He’s got his finger on the pulse. Everyone would send me that.”
Shanahan nods in eager agreement: “My sister sent it to me last week!”
“We moved into a house together and became best friends, which was funny,” Elicson adds, “because usually stuff like that doesn’t work so well.”
Sharing a bench at the Williamsburg, Brooklyn waterfront before a show, Empath’s members explain how their inside joke become one of 2018’s most exciting new bands. It started as more of a record club: None of them had many friends in town at first, so they spent a lot of time in their bedrooms, vibing out together to spiritual jazz by Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.
“There’s a certain ecstatic joy to it that’s very appealing,” Elicson says. “It feels nice to submerge yourself in that. Trying to transcend the flesh prison that we’re all trapped in.”
That shared taste – and an unspoken desire to do something different than all the other bands in Philly (and the larger, metaphorical Philadelphia that is indie rock itself) – helped provide the initial spark for Empath. They made their first recording, 2016’s Crystal Reality demos, in their basement using crude materials. “Screaming into the iPad,” Koloski recalls. “Utter chaos.”
In September 2016, they traveled to a friend’s studio in East Williamsburg to record Liberating Guilt and Fear with help from Shaun Sutkus, Koloski’s former Perfect Pussy bandmate. The first three songs on the tape began as acoustic sketches that Elicson composed in her room, which they then sped up, stretched out and otherwise distorted. “It starts in that soft realm,” she says, “and then we add layers of noise.”
Meditative tones from a small electronic shruti box, recorded bird sounds routed through guitar pedals and Beanie Babies used like maracas were all part of the anarchic mix. The descending organ chords that appear between two songs came from The Exorcist, which happened to be playing in the studio while they were recording. “When she came down the stairs backwards, we were like, ‘Can we turn up the sound on this?'” says Koloski.
The tape concludes with “III,” a mind-scrambling nine-minute tape-loop odyssey that Elicson, Koloski and Shanahan recorded as a much longer live jam in the studio. “Maybe we’ll release a director’s cut some day,” Elicson says.
Liberating Guilt and Fear floated in limbo for most of the next year. “It was three songs and this epic noise track,” Elicson says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how we should release this.'” Coon’s arrival in the band in 2017 brought some clarity; that fall, he added his monophonic synthesizer parts to the tape, and Elicson dubbed in bass.
The tape came into further focus once they persuaded Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier to master it, yielding an intricate, almost-prog sound that feels rare in any band, and particularly daring in DIY circles. “I’m really not trying to have this be Perfect Pussy 2, you know?” Koloski says. “I still love blown-out, lo-fi or mid-fi music. But I want this to be a little more than just banging on a trash can.”
Empath released Liberating Guilt and Fear this March on Get Better Records, a small but righteous punk label run by their friend and West Philly neighbor Alex Lichtenauer (semi-official motto: “QUEER AS IN FUCK YOU”). The EP’s enthusiastic reception so far has stunned the band. “We’re like, ‘Are you sure?’ ” says Elicson. “It feels like everyone is lying!”
The band recently recorded and released a new seven-inch, Environments (named in tribute to Irv Teibel’s 1970s series of the same name), and this fall they’ll open for Allison Crutchfield’s reunited band Swearin’ on tour. At some point, they say, they’d like to record the new songs Elicson has been writing this year; any label that gives them the money to make a full-length album will be doing the world a favor. In the meantime, they’re still working on saving enough to pay Lichtenauer back for pressing Liberating Guilt and Fear. Says Elicson, “We owe them a lot of money for all those tapes.”