Interview: Drowse on Their Dreamy and Reflective Record

There’s something uniquely intense and intentional about winding down with an album in your earbuds. I love a good book before bed, but my most transcendent nighttime experiences come when I allow myself to both take in a new record and attempt to shut my brain off at the same time. It’s often there were I’m able to appreciate the scope of a record and also use the music as a springboard into unique dreams.

West Coast act Drowse are the perfect band to do just that, and their latest batch of surreal slowcore, Wane into It, out November 11 via The Flenser, is both their most realized form and most melodic work to date. For those who’s value maximalist music that is mesmerizing in the small moments, prepare to drown in the sonic escapism that Kyle Bates and company (i.e., his many collaborators) create.

Interestingly, my preferred method to wade into Wane into It is pertinent to where the project came from, as Bates shares, after he responds to my effusive praise of the record:

 This is my favorite Drowse album, and it took the most time and energy to make; it’s good to hear that it is speaking to you. That is an ideal first listening experience with the record. The name of the project came from an initial desire to lucidly replicate the feeling of listening to music when I’m half asleep—to re-sonify this border-of-consciousness process. I often fall asleep to music. I love hearing sounds dissolve into dreams, the way that familiar progressions become new landscapes.”

Bates has shared many times how Drowse is influenced by time and space—Certainly his time in Iceland and Norway made Light Mirror a record imbued with a cold air and a lived-in history. This record’s themes of familial death and childhood memories in the Pacific Northwest give me visions of wilderness hikes in between dusk and dawn. Considering how many hours were also spent on devices in the past couple years, how does time and place play into this record?

 “Of course the specifics of where and how an album is made seep into its sound world. I actually began working on Wane into It before the pandemic, in fall 2019, right after a move to Oakland CA. I completed it in January 2022 in LA, where I currently reside while pursuing a sound-related doctorate degree at the California Institute of the Arts. In many ways, this is an album without a grounding physical place; it is situated in the virtual, or ‘real but not actual,’ in the way that memories and thoughts are real experiences and occurrences.”

“I escaped into media places throughout the pandemic as well,” he adds, “maybe they, too, now exist on the album in some way. I continued working my way through In Search of Lost Time and sank deeper into Proust’s modernist France. Martinaise, from (the video game) Disco Elysium, is a fantastically written and intricately realized location with its own questions of memory. I bet the hours I spent there were unconsciously influential.”

 I’m certainly fascinated with Bates’ relationship with Drowse, and how it’s become a deeply personal and also more collaborative project over the years. Considering so much of (at least as an outsider who works in healthcare) Drowse is about their understanding of the world and how biochemistry and pharmaceuticals have impacted that, how do they view letting others into that artistic expression and experience?

 “Yes, lyrically Drowse is largely about exploring the perceptual experience of this one human who is (briefly) alive right now,” he answers, “and in doing so navigating ever-changing thoughts about the universe, myself, and their relationship. I do feel protective about the linguistic meanings of the project. When I write lyrics, in a way, it feels like I am embodying this aesthetic entity, ‘Drowse’—It is very personal.

“Musically, the project is about mapping out this ‘sonic possible world,’ and sometimes it’s helpful to have other people on that adventure with me to suggest different paths. There are many people who helped give life to this record and I suggest listeners read the extensive liner notes I’ve included on the insert and on my Bandcamp page.”

Musically, the album really is wonderful, and I’m most struck by how much Bates can pack into the record without it being overwhelming. I sense a clear kinship in spirit with some of my favorite atmospheric black metal artists, like Paysage d’Hiver, in how they weave almost spiritually-pleasing melodies into traditionally harsh templates (noise, electronic, harsh shoegaze). Bates has pushed himself while also becoming more melodic.

 “I love Paysage d’Hiver, thank you for the comparison,” he says. “I think there is also a similarity in the way that we both often use field recordings to give our songs a tactile sense of place. Paysage d’Hiver share this quality you are speaking of—this feeling of melodies needing to push their way through some sort of abstracted layer. With this record, I was attempting to do something a bit different than that: to simultaneously achieve new levels of both density and clarity along the lines of the production on something like Portishead’s Third.”

“Past Drowse records have had this foggy quality,” Bates adds, “vaseline smeared on a film camera’s lens. Some of Wane into It still intentionally sounds that way, but I wanted it to feel more like falling snow or dust floating in sunlight, many individual sounds inhabiting their own spaces together. There are more instruments and sounds on this record than any other Drowse release, but you can really hear each one; they are all fleshed out characters. As far as melody is concerned, that is probably the result of me completing an MFA in sound art at Mills College while I worked on the album. I was creating these more dissonant installation and concert pieces under my own name. Drowse became an outlet for my melodic impulses.”

 Thematically, while past Drowse records are indebted to existentialism and absurdism (with a liberal dose of progressive ideals), silver linings abound throughout Wane into It. Lead single “Untrue in Headphones” is about becoming comfortable with ambiguity and our inability to truly know others. I hate the term ‘maturity,’ but there seem to be left turns from finding calm in discomfort, which really works with the musical themes.

“You are onto something about this theme of finding calm in uncomfortable or anxiety-inducing things,” he ponders. “I hadn’t really thought about that explicitly. There is a line I wrote on the title track that speaks to this: ‘Once a week, I wake up and remind myself that I am going to die. Death thought, it keeps me kind: when I wane into it I don’t mind.’ Reminders of our temporary nature give perspective and stave off cruelty.

 “Another thing I’m addressing on the album,” he continues, “is how we actively memorialize our own lives while we are living via artmaking, social media, recording albums etc., and the way that memory—something that isn’t concrete/stable/agreed upon by anyone—creates our sense of self/reality. Memory is inherently this system of (self) ‘belief’ for the secular.

This idea was already in my head when I began working on the album, but it started to disturb me more when my family member hosted this bizarre ‘living-wake,’ a blatant self-memorialization, after telling everyone of their plan to commit suicide due to substance-abuse-related health issues. My preoccupation with the idea intensified over the pandemic with all of the time we collectively lived on the internet, this gigantic, living digital memorial to humans.

“The internet is beautiful in so many ways—I owe the fact that people listen to my music to it. But, it is wild to be alive now, taking part in this grand human experiment of constant interaction, of unearthing the collective unconscious and bisecting our own private consciousness with continuous awareness of the thoughts of others.”

Bates has mentioned wanting to delve more into the visual side of things, and the video he directed for “Untrue in Headphones” is beautiful and arresting, while also feeling like the true meaning is not only left for interpretation but right in front of us.

 “Thanks! I love working on videos, in a way they feel more exploratory than music since it is a newer medium for me. Visually, I am mostly influenced by film. I probably spend as much time thinking about movies as I do sound. In terms of directors, Krzysztof Kieślowski has been a big one for the past few years—His Three Colors: Blue is directly referenced in the lyrics of the song ‘Gabapentin.’

“I always envision a distinct color palette (similar to the ones found in his trilogy) that relates to my sounds when working on albums. This then impacts the album artwork. I’m a huge horror fan, and the evil dreamscapes of Italian directors like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, as well as (of course) the abject and surreal nature of David Cronenberg movies, have informed my work. I also like more ‘minimal’ stuff like Agnes Varda’s Vagabond or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul. I got to see a lot of Impressionist paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago while working on the video. Monet’s Branch of the Seine near Giverny (Mist) really looks like ambient music! I’m going to get carried away with this visual question, so I’ll cut it short (laughs).”

Follow the band here. 

Photo courtesy of Lula Asplund

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