After blitzing through a set on the main stage at OctFest, the Philadelphia noise punk band Empath are hanging around in an outdoor nook at the Knockdown Center venue and listening to drummer Garrett Koloski read aloud from a list on his phone called “LP2 Freaky Notes.” “ASMR pinecone, Animal Crossing tune more explanation, freaky drum circle hand claps Alice Coltrane vibe, seagull slash natural woods sounds,” says Koloski, reeling off abstract sound ideas the group wants to sample for their upcoming second album. "Then I was really stoned and I added like Phil Spector castanets.”
Weaving field recordings and found sounds into the texture of Empath’s music has become a sonic signature of the band, whose ranks also include singer and guitarist Catherine Elicson, plus synth players Emily Shanahan and Randall Coon. The quartet’s breakthrough 2018 Liberating Guilt and Fear EP used snippets from horror flick The Exorcist to segue between songs, while latest album Active Listening: Night on Earth adds a naturalistic element to the mix by opening with the pastoral sound of birds twittering. Blended in with riotous drums and psychedelic swirls of keys, these sampled sonic touches imbue Empath’s music with a vibrant, kaleidoscopic charm.
Following Koloski’s grand reading of the sound ideas list, I chatted with Empath about why pumpkin beers taste like ChapStick, how hearing the Grateful Dead on a jukebox almost sparked a bar fight, and their collective idea to produce a rose-flavored beer.
If you grab a beer or drink after a show, what do you normally go for?
Emily: Hard kombucha sounds enticing to me. I like anything extremely flavored. I tried a sip of the pumpkin beer—it tasted like a ChapStick if it was flavored pumpkin.
Garrett: I think so many things taste like ChapStick. I feel that, it's so real.
Emily: In ASMR culture, that’s a thing.
Randall: ChapStick eating?
Emily: Yeah, and deodorant. Well, fake deodorant, like eating fake deodorant.
Garrett: I could definitely eat ChapStick but I could not eat deodorant.
Emily: I definitely have eaten ChapStick as a kid.
Garrett: But I actually don’t believe in ChapStick 'cause I feel like if you use it once you have to use it for the rest of your life.
Catherine: You get addicted to it.
Emily: Me and Randall are addicted to the ChapStick.
What’s the best ChapStick? And how would you endorse your favorite ChapStick?
Randall: Badger unscented. I think I have it on me. It's made from the most naturalistic ingredients possible. I think it's made from shea butter and coconut oil. Don't wear it in the sun—you’ll fry like two shrimps. You'll have two grilled shrimps for lips!
Garrett: I feel like I would like to get sponsored for more things. Our friend Anne was telling us she was sponsored by Sparks, the energy booze drink, back in the day.
Emily: It was like the second generation of Four Loko. I had one of those recently, like it was the first time I had it since I drank it when I was 18 and threw up. I threw up green. And I shit green. So that's that! Moving on…
Catherine: The first time I threw up from drinking was also from Four Loko and it was the grape flavor, so purple.
Emily: For me it was green puke and green diarrhea.
Randall: For me it was Old Milwaukee beer. I was at a weird event with my dad and all of his homies drank Old Milwaukee and we stole a bunch of it, hid it in the woods, then we got fucked up and rolled down the hill and vomited.
Garrett: I feel like because you're a bit older than us you missed out on Four Loko. I feel like you probably felt like it was for kids?
Randall: No, I had a full-time kitchen job and I was cooking steaks and drinking a Four Loko at this shitty restaurant job! It's like a really fucked up drug, like a downer and an upper. But if I was to choose any beer at a beer event, I'd go for maybe a dark brown beer.
What sort of beers would you get for everyone else?
Randall: IPAs. If I had to go to the bar and they're like, “Just get a fuckin' beer,” I'd get everybody an IPA.
Emily: You'd get me an IPA? Have you heard of celiac disease?
Garrett: I'd get us all a PBR pitcher 'cause you'd say there's really no gluten in PBR.
Emily: I do say that.
Randall: Yeah, it's all rice and corn syrup, a really good beer, the finest of American ingredients, the best we've got.
Garrett: PBRs are really cheap in Philly. There's a thing called a “citywide.”
Randall: Almost suspiciously cheap.
Garrett: You can do a citywide for $5, like for a PBR and a shot of well whiskey.
Randall: When I lived in western New York it was $6 for a pack of tallboys. Literally everybody in Rochester and Buffalo is drunk because of it though.
How would you describe the bar culture in Philadelphia?
Garrett: As the kids would say, it's lit. I feel like I go to the bar all the time. We tour all the time so we're always in a bar, but then all of our friends are bar heads. So if I'm gonna hang out, we always just go to The Bar(n). It's so cheap and you don't want to hang out at the house. We all live in West Philly and our local bar, The Bar(n), is like a five-minute bike ride from where everyone is.
Emily: Our local watering hole.
What’s The Bar(n) like?
Garrett: It's really shitty, they always break the health codes, they have good wings, their kitchen is carpeted…
Randall: It is! It's carpeted!
Garrett: They were shut down for a week because the women's room was out of order and flooding for like two months.
Emily: Even now you have to reach into the back of the toilet and push a button to flush it. I almost got kicked out for unplugging the jukebox one time because there was this guy playing a lot of Grateful Dead back to back. Don’t get me wrong, I'm not opposed to that, but he was dancing and being an asshole. He was disturbing so I unplugged the jukebox so he wanted to fight me.
Was this an old-fashioned jukebox or a digital one?
Catherine: Yeah, it was a TouchTunes one.
Randall: I feel like the jukebox should represent the individual culture of the bar and the area, so you have the songs that the people who regularly go there want to hear and that’s all you get to choose from.
If you opened an Empath bar, what would it be like?
Catherine: Lots of chandeliers.
Garrett: I'm thinking wood panelling.
Randall: A well-curated drink menu but just only five drinks to choose from. I hate that thing where it’s 39 beers on tap but they never clean the lines!
Emily: Literally, that's his thing, like he doesn't even like me ordering soft serve.
Randall: Yeah, that’s the worst ice cream. If you ever look on the inside of the machine it's like some 14-year-old kid working to get tips for college and they’re not cleaning it and they don’t give a fuck. I know because I was that kid, like I don't care if this thing's growing hair.
Emily: Basically Randall hates anything in a tube, like hot dogs.
Randall: It's pre-chewed meat, people, it's pre-chewed meat.
Garrett: We'd have to have some shitty bar food that’s really cheap.
Emily: I'd have like a speakeasy of hot dogs in the basement.
Garrett: Or you'd have to order it under a weird fake name at the bar.
Catherine: One tube steak please.
Randall: Okay, if you want hot dogs, give the people hot dogs.
Would there be any carpet in this bar?
Randall: Right on top of the bar.
Catherine: In the bathroom and on top of the bar, that's the only place for it.
Garrett: Or it would have a little section where it would be Astroturf and you'd be wondering if you’re inside or outside.
If this Empath bar could serve its own brand of beer, what would it be like?
Emily: I already told you, I'd take the ChapStick pumpkin!
Garrett: No, you mean like if we had to make one ourselves? I’ve really been getting into sours.
Emily: Oh yeah, I love sours. I like floral-flavored things. Something that tastes like perfume. That's why I like the pumpkin.
Randall: Actually, a really lightly-flavored rose beer would be nice.
Garrett: I'm down with the rose beer, that sounds good.
Catherine: Yeah, I'd fuck with that.
Emily: Okay, we all agree. I speak for the group on this one.
Top photo by Daniel Topete.