Puzzlehead is a band loyal to the Royal Trux/Circle Pit thread of deep listening. They make the best use of the emotional forces in rock. Their debut lp is out on Stucco today: https://stuccolabel.bandcamp.com/album/big-sniff. I sat down with bandleader and total exemplar Katayoon to chat about songwriting and positionality:
C: Do you have a good community that is supportive of your projects?
K: I just moved back to Vancouver from Montreal, I also tour a lot, and I feel like, with this album in particular, I’ve been doing it long enough, and I see that the people who get it get it, and I feel happy with that support. Now, I’m just happy that I’m able to share the music with the people I know are down. I’ve gotten to the point where I can get to the people who want to hear it.
C: I’ve been going to Seattle quite a bit, and have not been impressed, but I don’t ever get up to Vancouver and I’m just curious as to what I’m missing.
K: Personally, I don’t really relate to a lot of the music here anymore. There is still some really good stuff, but in my opinion, the city as a whole has had an economic shift where the make-up of the city is geared more to a different economic class; and that is reflected in the housing, and culture, the bars, and the music being made. I was raised in Vancouver and the surrounding area and the impact of the economic shift or the shift in priorities is reflected in the music. That is not to say there is not good music. I just don’t know where Puzzlehead lives in it.
C: How does that compare then to Montreal? Or I think of Calgary as having a lot of good bands right now?
K: Canada is small, it is huge geographically, but the music community is small. Montreal is cool because there is less pressure financially and economically in certain ways, and there is more support. When I was there I didn’t really work that much and I was able to think and make an album that I had time and space to consider, and work on something for an extended amount of time without being stressed out about rent. That’s reflected in the music.
I don’t know if geographically or population-wise Montreal is bigger, but it seemed more varied, maybe not more diverse, but more varied in [musical] genres. And that was exciting. There is space and time to be more experimental. The rock bands there, like Gashrat, they’re still basically a traditional band, but there is more experimentation… but I didn’t really go out much in Montreal.
C: You were working on ‘Big Sniff’?
K: Yeah, we wrote and recorded it there. After a really long tour in the summer, last year; me and the drummer, Olga, stayed there. I wrote the songs over a few months, over the winter, and we recorded in February. And then I left back to Vancouver the next day after recording. It was a good experience being a bit isolated and being able to reflect on songs.
C: Could you also say something about the other bands you are in, and is Puzzlehead distinct because of the role of isolation?
K: It i the most isolating music I make. Not necessarily the most abrasive band I’ve been in, but I think it is not something you watch and get excited or happy. Not necessarily bummer, but another kind of in-between feeling. And I think people in Vancouver like things that make them feel good, which is totally fine. I happen to like things that make me feel uncomfortable. Tough Customer is more accessible in certain ways. I love that band. I drum in it. That is way more of a collaborative songwriting process and where we all meet is really a pleasant place and more in line with the vibe here.
C: I’m always interested in places, because I’m always looking for a place to land where what I bring is allowed to change with what I want to be with. It sounds like Vancouver is okay for you for building relationships and practices?
K: I’ve been involved in the community for ten years or so and in that time I was heavily involved at times, booking a DIY venue that everyone played at, I had a record store [Horses, now a Red Cat], I’ve been in a bunch of bands, and I was doing a lot of community-building. I started to realize I was putting a lot of work in that and it was rewarding, but also at a certain point it was taking away from a certain part of my practice that was important, and I, pretty consciously, about a year ago, made the decision to take a step back. Because every piece of art and music I did was very public and shared right away. This social element, how my art was interacted with socially, made me question how I make art, if it is always for presentation or if it is always with the idea in mind that you’re being watched. I made the decision to step back and spend more time putting energy into editing, because I’m a bad editor. But, I’m getting better, practicing, crafting.
With writing, for example, I was being dishonest with myself by changing the words, being dishonest to the emotion when I went back and changed the words. When you’re editing, you’re thinking about the audience, and how you’re thinking about the audience is effected by the crazy social interactions you’ve had with the audience. And I’ve had so many years of social interactions, I was thinking about the audience too much. Not to say that I, clearly, ever edited my music, or Puzzlehead in particular, to be more accessible. If anything it was the other way. But, it was an exercise to get to the point where I could edit, where I had confidence in my own opinion, because I preferred this style or it was what I wanted, and I had faith in my self, not to question myself too much. In certain respects I still have philosophical ideas of editing as losing certain aspects that come from the first time. Every other Puzzlehead album we’ve had has been first take after rehearsing very few times. I wanted to keep that energy. It was an exercise to be able to harness that energy, but think more about the composition and the greater concept while making it.
I’m really proud of this album because it still has scrappy chaotic energy but there are some decisions that I wouldn’t have thought of before. I would have just put it together and then stepped back later and realized, oh that is what that is.
The band was a songwriting practice for me, to write songs on guitar and record them as fast as I can, just to be able to document how my songwriting is progressing. That is why every tape has been like five songs. Once I feel like I have some kind of narrative within those songs or reason for them to be together, we would record, and only after we put them together would I be able to see, oh this album is because of or about this. It was a backwards approach to a concept album.
This album has some songs that were re-recorded and the songs I chose to re-record were ones I thought would help with the narrative of the album. When I was writing it, I was also writing [text] and making videos, and I was able to see the narrative that was happening between everything, and because I knew what I was working through it gave me a lot more direction.
There are five songs that are new and fie re-recorded, one of them from the very first tape. The tapes were all recorded on SM58 mics on a drum kit to a four track in a basement; first take style, so I was treating them as demos in a certain way. A lot of the songs sound better that way, with the vibe of each recording. I wanted the songs to be recorded like Redd Kross’s ‘Phaseshifter’. I love that album because it has this ‘big rock’ sound that is a little off, like punks wanting to be like the Rolling Stones. Songs like ‘Swim’ I thought would be better recorded with a bit more hi-fi. Thematically, the songs that we re-recorded were the ones that were most questioning of reality, the most uncertain. I thought that would work with the more paranoid vibe of this album. Some of them are personally paranoid, suspicious or unsure, and some of them more outward.
With moving to Montreal, and after being so removed from this community I was so part of in Vancouver, and living in Montreal in winter, and not having interactions with the community that was so a part of my life, I started thinking of it as an alternate reality or like it never really happened. I had just traveled for many months; we had two big tours, and had relationships with people in all of these places. I start to think, is there another me, is this a simulation? I just independently arrived at the plot of ‘The Matrix.’
C: Decoupling from the Vancouver community, do you think that brought you closer to why you’re interested in that ‘big rock’ sound. Or could you say something about how you became interested or drawn to that sound?
K: There is a sense of arrogant freedom in that music. I’m an immigrant and am definitely not fulfilling my parents’ wishes, or most immigrant parents’ wishes, as far as going to school and getting a job so that they’re sacrifice is worth it. After reflecting on that for a really long time I realized that the best way I could honor their sacrifice is to be as ‘free’ as possible and do what I wanted, because we came from a place where I couldn’t do what I wanted if I was still living there. That kind of sleazy rock is such a good illustration of that. It also sounds badass. And I also like the idea of using this really masculine genre and slipping in sensitive, introspective lyrics.
C: Did you have role models as a child that pointed you to sleazy rock, or music more generally?
K: No, I was a huge Ja Rule fan, pretty strongly in middle school. I loved hip-hop and rap. My older brother would give me his old Puff Daddy & the Family CDs. I worked at a cd store, Music World, at the mall in high school, at the height of Wolf Parade and Canadian indie 30-band-member bands. As I child I was pretty much exclusively hip-hop. I only started to get into sleaze rock in my 20s. I only started listening to, like, Bongwater five years ago. It is not irony because I like how it sounds, genuinely, and I like making that music.
In the words, and in the subject matter, that is where I don’t necessarily want to do songs like those I like the sound of. The lyrics are where I can do my own thing and I feel like I’m subverting. But, literally rock music is so badass. Guitars just sound so good.
C: There are a lot of constraints in childhood conditioning that define ‘freedom.’ Maybe not defining the sound as much as what you think of as a heartfelt practice?
K: Nobody is free. That is a construct used to perpetuate colonialism. With that arrogance comes the great privilege of not caring about consequences or how you’re perceived. That is the freedom that rock music has, even if it is a façade or totally self-conscious and constructed. If I am going to internalize anything about white supremacy or this culture that I have now landed in, it is the arrogance and fearlessness of living in a privileged world. The lack of fear of consequence is a privilege; in a lot of places fear of consequence stops you because you actually will get fucked up if you do that stupid or arrogant thing. I think that is the best way to honor the journey that has brought me here. No, it is not the best way, it is the most fun way, and I’m just justifying what I want to do because I’m not a doctor.
C: We are here talking in Tea Swamp Park. Do you know anything about this name?
K: I don’t. I just know I’m going to be practicing around here. And I met the band Nü Sensae here once when they were doing an interview. So it seemed like an interview place. They actually have a song called ‘Tea Swamp Park.’
C: I thought of it because of what you were just saying, this being a colonialist state. Do you have thoughts about ‘claiming space’?
K: Claiming space is not something I’m looking to do. Just as being an immigrant, why I’m here, and my role in this taking up space here is really complicated because my reason is because of colonialism. Artists, especially in Vancouver, often times indirectly cause harm and gentrification. People are getting a lot more aware of the cycle. And it is not like artists shouldn’t have space. I’m glad the conversation is going more towards a conscious taking up of space. I’m trying to take as little space as I can. With the Internet you don’t have to. You can just do your thing, not step on people’s toes. It is a tough question, because we need space to create and share.
And, it’s tough because I’m just moving around a lot. I feel confused by that. I never thought I am from Vancouver. When I lived here people were always like, but where are you really from or whatever, then when I went to Montreal and people asked where I was from, I said, Vancouver, I guess. I had never said that before. That started making me think about where, being an immigrant, I always thought of my home as the place I left, and then I thought of home as the place I grew up, where my family is, and just realizing that, I’m in a weird way forever geographically tied to this place because of my family and having lived here for 20-something years and I resent that.
C: Asking about community building is skirting around the question of home, which is just as troubling a word as freedom is, in different ways.
K: I’m struggling with this a lot, I used to feel like Vancouver was my home base, I’ll use that word, and I felt a lot of ownership over the community because I was running venues and booking shows. And then I started to be more aware of some of the harmful aspects of things I was involved in, and not just harmful outward, but towards myself. And I also was tripping out on being in a place for so long that I never thought of as my home. Culturally, in my family, nobody speaks English; we’ve preserved the culture pretty strongly, that I never thought I’d be identifying with any other culture. Now after leaving and coming back a lot has changed. I don’t have the burning need to be involved in everything anymore and I don’t see that as my way of validating my contribution to the community anymore. I’m happy with what I’ve done in the past, and I’m still doing it, but before I felt like that was my validation, my contribution to the social, playing shows, and now I feel like, if I am able to keep it all in myself then anywhere is home and I can carry that, keep the creative processes, and tools I have with me and go wherever and try to be as harmless as possible in the places I am taking up space.
Having moved around a lot in the past little while and without the prospect of a stable future home base, I am aware of my place within the grander political scheme of the city. I can’t just live anywhere in any neighborhood and do whatever I want.
*This blog is maintained by members of the Oley Freundschift Guild of Braucherei Practitioners and of the Guild of Urglaawe Braucherei and Hexerei Practitioners