It can be a crushing blow for a rock band to lose a member, especially if that member sits on the throne. A good drummer is hard to find. It’s impossible for a rock band to sound tight without a precise drummer. So what do you do when your drummer leaves town?
That’s the position that Erik Lawson and Kevin Fredericks found themselves in when the drummer for their old band, Ernie and the Magic Shapes, moved out of town. But then they did what any self-respecting, drummer-less band would do: They got a drum machine.
More specifically, they got an Alesis SR-16. “It’s the unmarked white van of drum machines,” says Fredericks. It’s practical, adaptable, and it can be put to many uses, not all of them wholesome.
The change in line-up and the introduction of new technology also provided the duo an opportunity to reinvent itself. Ernie and the Magic Shapes was a rock band with plenty of weird guitar sounds and genre-hopping time changes. That band took inspiration from Frank Zappa and Mr. Bungle. The Etherkats, Lawson and Fredericks’ new project, on the other hand, creates extended sonic soundscapes.
“I don’t like to use the word ambient,” says Fredericks, “but we try to create an ambient mood, which, by the way, people hate at bars.” It might be more appropriate to bedroom or headphone listening.
Fredericks is a guitar player, and he plays some guitar in Etherkats, but his primary instrument is something else: his voice.
“I’m tired of guitar,” says Fredericks. “I’m not tired of playing guitar, but I’m tired of having people listen to guitar.”
He uses effects on his voice to create sonic textures. He’ll sing one note, loop it using a delay pedal, and then sing another note in order to build chords. Then he’ll sing melodic lines over those sustained, ethereal vocal chords.
“I have this flighty, dreamlike, cat-like, asexual wail,” he says.
Bassist Lawson anchors the duo with a rock-based low end.
“He’s the balls of the group,” says Fredericks.
Many of the sounds and melodies of Etherkats’ music originated in Fredericks’ dreams. And he has a surprising tip for improving dream recollection: “I try to meditate for two hours a day.”
Fredericks discovered transcendental meditation through movie director David Lynch’s book on the subject, Catching the Big Fish. He’s also interested in hypnosis.
Where Ernie and the Magic Shapes was a band defined by constant, near frantic shifts in time, tone and style, Etherkats often employ repetition as a compositional device.
“If it starts to bore you, that’s when it gets really interesting,” says Fredericks, aware of the irony but with no intended sarcasm. “You can choose to turn it off, or you can continue to listen to it, and your mind starts to hear it differently, even though it doesn’t change.” The listening brain starts filling in the gaps of the music in different ways, hearing new stops and new starts.
Like Ernie and the Magic Shapes, but in a completely different way, Etherkats is a band dedicated to defeating expectations.
“We’ve found more of a love of humanity with this project,” says Fredericks, “though we still want to fuck with people. I don’t like pissing people off, but I like finding the line of what annoys people and pressing on it. It’s more fun if people are trying to figure out if they should be pissed off or not.”