Talking with Energy Gown

Stephanie Glass

Energy Gown (photo credit David J Hanus)

It was a bit prophetic that I was reading Ginsberg prior to my interview with local experimental quartet Energy Gown, whose philosophy of embracing the now and delving into the darker echelons of the human psyche recalls the inquisitive creativity of the 1950s and 60s. Energy Gown’s quest though isn’t to bring back the flower children of bygone eras but instead probe the codes and structures that make up the human body and creative impulses of their music and audience. Although only formed less than a year ago, the group has already self-released two tapes, performed at Chicago’s strongly curated Psych Fest and are releasing their first EP I Watch The Sun on March 23. Clearly the now is truly now. I recently sat down with three out of four members to discuss Energy Gown’s deeply improvisational live shows, the taming of the recording studio beast and plans for a very atypical record release show.

How did Energy Gown come to be?

Masie: We’re almost a year old. We formed in March of last year and played our first show in May. The original lineup was Reno, Eric and I then it became Reno, David and I. Now it is all four of us on different instruments, which we switch around because we play a variety of instruments.

Reno: It started off as a very experimental group, trying out a lot of different things but mostly mantra and drone stuff. David and I have a history going back even further with cult, no-wave experiment through a group Interspace Band, which is deep-hole Chicago.

David: We didn’t even write anything in that one, it was more just a now thing.

R: We would stage psych or event specific performances. Energy Gown still takes a page from them and likes to do that sort of thing. Energy Gown takes more shape and form than Interspace. We do have songs, so it is sort of song based in a way. We try to meld those two worlds together.

M: We definitely do songs but we’re also very improvisational. Every show is different; I never know quite what is going to happen.

D: I don’t even think we talked about doing it that way but it is kind of just how it happened.

R: We have pockets where we all know something weird is going to occur and we let it happen.

M: it’s like yoga where we are always twisting around.

How do you find the audience response to the improvisational versus the more traditional approach of live playing?

R: It seems that you either really fall over in love with or fall backward in hate.

M: Some people don’t care for it but are still supportive. Every show though I seem to meet someone who says that the love it and have been to all our shows. It seems when people do come to it they are really dedicated.

D: People seem to get pretty intrigued whether they like it or not. You see some people crossing their arms and just trying to figure out what we are doing.

R: We fit in with the psych scene only because we do a lot of that heavy drone mantra stuff but I also look at us being psych-punk.

Psych is a term/buzz word that has been thrown around a lot this past year or so in describing bands, do you ever feel like it is a label being forced upon the group?

M: It’s a very tricky term right now. We don’t feel like others are putting it upon us but we are a bit hesitant to label ourselves that way really prominently because it has become such a widespread term. We try to create an experience for people’s mind when we play music.

R: We are more into bad trips to be frank about it. A lot of the stuff we do is embracing that bad trip vibe. We get into some more steady major key type stuff but it still has that aggressive, evil twinge to it.

M: The image of getting to the edge of a cliff and climbing down into that gulch and seeing what is there.

D: Look into the abyss and it looks back to you.

You all previously talked about the challenging aspect of your live performances, how was that transferred into the recording studio environment?

R: We struggle with it because the group is always changing and with the sound we are always fucking with the song structures. We go into the studio to lay it down and then a month later realize it is not the direction we are going for and go back. It really is a chiseling process. We have an idea and we blast it for a couple of months, every kind of direction and try to capture it.

M: Some bands really thrive in studio and we are they other side where we thrive on stage and the challenge is trying to reconcile and make a recorded version of it that is a good counterpoint to that stage quality. The thing about the studio is we can jazz it up with an extra cymbal track or something because we have the time and tracks and make a neat little experiment of it that way.

R: But we don’t really take it that far. The record we did was on an eight-track. You’ve only got eight options and four people so we like to take that road of making concrete decisions about what is going on with this record. It’s a philosophy we take to heart and that is something we really stand by. We don’t do digital because it opens up that whole world of “we can do a hundred tracks on this fucking song” as so many people do and we try to reduce it.

Tapes have become more prevalent as a way for bands to get their music out fast and cheap, is this the main reason your first two releases were on tape or was it also the aesthesis of the device?

M: It is about the sound. I’m a latecomer to enjoying tapes and records, but now I understand what the difference is in the sound, physics and material property and the different sound it makes instead of digital and we all really love that sound.

R: Tapes aren’t the ideal, of course vinyl is but tapes are cheaper and CDs are shit. It’s just a natural progression.

M: It’s a style too. Tapes and vinyl look good. It’s a nice product.

It can be kind of hard to find a person with a working tape player; do you notice that people are buying the tapes?

R: No one has a tape player [laughter].

D: I see more tapes though in this town than records or CDs, especially with bands. I buy tapes and I don’t have a player because it is still something I can keep or give to a friend who has one. It’s a memento and it’s only a couple of dollars.

What are the plans for the I Watch The Sun record release show on March 23?

R: We are doing a mass party where you can only get in by wearing a mask. It’s a happening. You have to really be there to fully experience it and buy into the whole thing to get the feel. A one-time event. It’s not just “hear our songs, here’s another, here’s the record.” We really aren’t that interested in doing that kind of thing. It’s just not an interesting program for the Energy Gown.

D: […] It connects to how we just don’t want to play at the audience, but with them.

I was recently talking to a friend who said I should have been in Chicago four years ago and I was wondering what everyone’s take on the current Chicago, as a whole is. Is it necessarily a good or bad time to be here?

D: I would say things are always changing, so anytime that is right now is a good time to come or go. Things though are definitely different. When I moved here three or four years ago, and you were on the same path Reno, a lot of the places where maybe we got inspired to play or form a band is all gone now because that stuff doesn’t last more than year. It all changes.

R: That is thing about a metropolitan city though. You have art spaces and run-down places, whatever that are so impermanent and that is the beauty of being part of the thing. You got to seek it out; it’s never going to be handed to you.

M: I think this is a really good time for us to be putting stuff out and there does seem to be a need to expand.

R: There is room and a gap. I think there is a lot of garbage but that is everywhere in art and facets of life. You are going to have your shit and your really shiny stuff. Where we fit into that it is difficult to say.

M: A lot of people seem to have “buddy bands” to play shows with but we haven’t found that. We haven’t found a good twin or opposite for us.

R: We connect to that darker stuff that Chicago is really in love with. It’s a hard place. We emerged from that in a much different way though then a lot of groups. We don’t turn our amps all the way up; we try to be a cloud underneath all of that. We like to prick little holes and let it bleed that way.

It’s not that complicated, our forms are very short and we draw it out and explore the simplicity as far as it can go. A lot of groups do that but we keep it organic, completely analog and that is the best approach to creating that levitation. There is this very inspiring thing going on at Chicago Labs on the South Side. Scientists are studying drugs and how to make them more easily absorbed in the body. So the breakthrough is coming through acoustic levitation, they use a sonic levitator of pure sound waves and squirting this liquid into it and the sound is separating it in a way that they are using that technology to apply it to how the body is absorbing drugs…but the point is that we take the same kind of scientific approach to get these types of sounds. What is there formula? What is the chemical equation to separate the drugs so they absorb more readily into the body? That could be a way to think about our approach and what we do with music because it’s all in there, there is a code in there. Once we type into it that’s where it gets psychedelic.

M: it’s a logical thing that also becomes a metaphysical spiritual out of body thing.

D: All these tiny binary things add up to a whole. Ourselves, our bodies are the medium because there is not computer, no digital to do the work for us. Even with the guitar and keyboard our body is pulling that out. And the audience can pick up on that, even if it is just subconsciously.

Energy Gown's I Watch The Sun EP is out March 23 and is available via their bandcamp page. Their record release show also happens March 23 at The Observatory.

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