The hidden reality of Despairer – An Interview with Marc Kate

Marc Kate’s album Despairer dominates the background of any listening experience like a mountain range dominates the backdrop of any landscape painting. There’s an ambience about the work that won’t be ignored. There’s something assertive about the tonal qualities of the album, and like the artist behind the album, it has a lot to say about music, politics and emotion. “I think my tendency is to think of things fairly conceptually and I think that’s going to leak into anything I do”, says Marc when I call him up at his home in San Francisco. The video feed from my computer, remotely projecting the light from Marc’s location on the other side of the world, contrasts the darkness seeping in through my living room window and again I have to marvel at the technology. Like something straight out of science fiction, it allows me the freedom to talk to someone from an opposite point on the globe, like he’s in my living room, but Marc is also quick to point out a fundamental flaw in our conversation. “It’s owned by Skype and there’s unbelievable valuation and capital behind this conversation you and I are having. It’s free but it has a cost – a hidden cost that we are all pushing down the line. It’s a lie we all participate in,” according to Marc, “an infrastructure that is owned”, which in turn “owns your property”. And although Marc can see the benefits of “sharing” and platforms like Skype, he doesn’t believe it’s a “sharing economy” and the people that profit from sharing videos, pictures and conversations like ours, are not the end-users, but the companies that own the platforms. Before we’ve even properly said hello, my conversation with Marc has already approached the subject of his newest album, Despairer and it’s ironic that we should be participating in exactly the thing Marc is trying to avoid in his music and this album.

Despairer is about “technology and the tech sector versus using technology in music”, where it’s less of a concept for Marc, and more like the reality we find ourselves in today. It’s a theme that’s “as much in the background on my record as neo-liberalism is to any creative endeavour today” says Marc. It’s part of a global question currently on everybody’s tongue about “how complicit we’re willing to be in the machinery of our own oppression and the oppression of others” with even something as banal as the methods of distributing your music – or conducting an interview – playing a significant role in the issue at hand. Marc uses an example to clarify: “If I’m going to make more CDs, do I really want to create more landfill or do I put it up on iTunes and be part of that megalithic company that we all thought would be replacing the major labels.”

How do all these ideas filter into the artist’s music? “How these issues come through in my music, I just don’t know” resigns Marc, preferring rather an example from the past as clarification. “When you look at an album cover of a seventies band and you sink into their world, looking at all these photos and text. Well, ‘that’s not just the music, that’s the packaging’, but it is the music and it is part of this greater world. I feel an artist’s choice on how they’re going to sell or share their music, and the economies they participate in, is that similar gesture. It is part of the music, in just the same way a glam rock band in boas and platforms creates context for their music.” Marc prefers to associate with musical tools and products he has personal relationship with and he uses Ableton (a company he’s always worked with) and small independent modular synth and software manufacturers to produce his music while relying on platforms like Bandcamp – “the underdog” – to distribute his music.

Marc Kate is not just about the music, but every little factor, which can be associated in the context of the artist. Everything about Marc Kate and Despairer is channelled through this very idiosyncratic and personal investment from the artist and forms much of the reason he documented this new project under his own name. The musical project came to fruition when Never Knows, a precursor solo project, went on a hiatus after a live show that didn’t quite go the way Marc had hoped. Marc Kate chose to use his own name for this next evolution in his artistic career, “because it’s very natural and very organic and very ‘real’… whatever that means”. Whereas the monikers before it, evolved around a concept, Marc Kate is the artist coming back to the core of it all with a body of work that “was very immediate and personal” to him – a slight move away from his conceptually-oriented work from the past. He has moved over to a more ambient realm, away from the shoegaze aesthetic of Never Knows, while still lending his film school education to the project, which he says has “definitely inflected all my work to have a cinematic quality.” Cinematic in a way where narrative is non-existent, which makes it impossible “to grab any content from this body of work outside of the imagery and song titles, because ultimately it’s just texture.”

Marc’s cinematic textures are magnificently sculpted throughout the release, building layer upon layer of synthesised parts that come together in a formidable wall of sound. It’s not as passive as ambience tends to be and even something as subtly orchestrated as We Miss Octavia Butler and No, Nothing is ever Haunted give way to a predominant presence, just as much as the distorted parts play a role on some of the other compositions on the album. “There’s a lot of precedence for music that takes this sort of ambient approach and infuses it with a lot of anti-ambience”, says Marc. “I don’t know if there is a lot of language to talk about this tension. At its core it’s ambient, but very often very arresting and very aggressive. It’s not just an extension of Satie or Brian Eno. I don’t feel like what I’m making is background music. I feel Despairer is about creating a space for thought, not to create background for mood.” Marc cites Lawrence English (who also mastered Despairer) and the band Nadja as some of his influences on this record. “I think they have such a rich deep sonic palette,” says Marc of Nadja. “Although it’s largely guitar music, and I’m not, their approach to long-form dynamics and creating a certain kind of depth with distortion is really powerful and really seductive.” It’s how Marc keeps things “warm and cosy” in his music, but instead of listlessly swaying on the quiescent pulses of ambient music, Marc’s music dominates the ambience through the progression of his pieces. The artist likes to continuously build on each moment to some unattainable crescendo through each track, with waves of sound building on the next, creating moments of space through the momentary depressions between phrases. When you listen to a track like Abject-Orientated Ontology, you are very rarely given a moment to ignore the music with each moment more poignant than the next, which I learn from Marc was influenced by seeing Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn perform live. “I look at the long-form crescendo as my favourite structure and it came from watching what Nusrat and his band could do for two hours through Qawwali. He made these ragas that would just build and build and build. That’s always been moving to me and that still holds. That sort of ecstasy, that’s so beautiful and so hard to attain, is something that I aspire to create with my own music.”

Talking about Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, leads me to ask about Marc’s own live performances and the facilities available in San Francisco for artists like him, and I’m glad to hear there are still venues like Life Changing Ministries in Oakland that especially cater to left-field music. “The second an artist starts playing, everybody shuts up; no one looks at their phone; no-one talks – everybody just closes their eyes and listens.” The audiences are “deeply respectful of the creative process” reveals Marc, but talking about San Francisco and the live music scene there, once again takes us back to the issue that was the catalyst for Marc Kate’s personal, political and emotional investment Despairer. “It is deeply technical music that relies on an infrastructure and it’s very bittersweet,” says Marc of electronic music. “There are many incredible tools being used in the Bay Area at the moment around Silicon Valley, but the tech sector in Northern California is part and parcel of the savagery of capitalism. It does harness the worst of humanity in elaborating control systems, destroying small economies. And I’m sort of the centre of it, being an artist. That polarisation is incredibly palpable to everybody. It’s just perhaps that it’s more a part of my music, because I make electronic music and use some of these damn tools.“ In San Francisco, the tech sector’s influence might have more of direct correlation to creativity in the city than you think, with rising rents making it almost impossible to live in the city, resulting in “incredible displacements both with the artists themselves and the venues” according to Marc. “That does not foster a very creative space for artists to take risks”, but Marc is also very aware of the creative heritage of the city and suggest that “San Francisco is still San Francisco in a way that it’s a city that encourages people to take risks, despite all of that. There are still people doing crazy, mind blowing shit.”

Marc Kate is definitely one of these people, with a sincere and thought-provoking message at the core of his latest work. It’s not something I would have ever thought to have such a direct relationship with the issues mentioned by Marc, and yet when he puts it into perspective, it certainly achieves just that. But to read all of this into the music, would be futile, since the world Marc Kate creates through this project isn’t merely contained in the musical textures, but rather something far broader, where even the production of the music and the context the music and the artist appears in, having a substantial influence on the end result and the message it delivers. If Marc Kate were perhaps to release his music through iTunes, what would the effects be? It’s questions like these that eventually crop up throughout listening to Despairer ater the interview, which makes the album even harder to ignore now. There’s nothing passive about the music and even though it’s clearly grounded in ambience, the poignancy of the compositions, and what they subconsciously suggest, actively goad the listener to look for some hidden depth behind the abstract art form. The deeper you dig, and the more you reveal, the more it pulls into focus, which makes an Interview like this all that more important to get out into the world. What becomes clear after speaking to Marc and reading a little more into his music is that the music is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath its frosty layers, hides and incredible world waiting to be discovered and Marc Kate is slowly pulling back the curtain on some hidden reality we’ve been blissfully ignoring. We end our call after we say our goodbyes, and who knows what “costs we’ve just pushed down the line”, but this time the advantage is clearly in the artist’s and his audience’s favour.