Finding the Sweet Spot with Hilly Eye
“Amy should be here around 8:15, she’s coming straight from work,” Hilly Eye’s Catherine Tung tells me as we sit on couches at 285 Kent. We make some small talk but mostly just sit and wait for Amy Klein to appear so we can get on with the interview. Those few moments somewhere between first meeting and having a recorder in your face are always pretty awkward. Catherine flips through a Showpaper and I sit in awe as I watch The Thermals do a short soundcheck. In less than an hour I’d feel the same awe as Catherine and Amy took the stage to perform as Hilly Eye. Their quiet demeanors were completely left behind once they got on stage. Sure, there’s been other great two member bands before, but I never knew that one guitar and one set of drums could be as raw, intense, and LOUD as that night.
How long have you been a band for?
Catherine: We started playing together in 2009 and went a whole year without playing a show. We were just kind of like, you know, writing songs and getting to know each other musically. We did a demo in 2011.
Amy: 2010, I think.
Catherine: Okay. Yeah, yeah you’re right! And then started playing shows, and started writing material for an album and then kind of crossed paths with Don Giovanni [Records] when we opened for Screaming Females at Bowery Ballroom. That’s when we got in touch with Joe Steinhardt who runs the label, and he was interested in putting out our record, so that pretty much brings us to the current day.
One of the songs that really stood out on Reasons To Live was “Animal.” Your voice (Amy) is so raw compared to most present day female voices. It’s really great to hear a woman singing like that rather than trying to have a typical feminine voice. Where did that song come from?
Amy: I guess when I was thinking about the vocals I was thinking about Bratmobile. They’re kind of snotty, so I was trying to be pretty snotty in the verses but then in the choruses be more powerful.
Catherine: I think the chorus is almost kind of bluesy. It’s a little of a contrast. But that’s interesting because I think that that’s a song that––I don’t know what Amy [thought]––but I didn’t think that was going to be the song that people gravitated towards. We’ve gotten a number of comments on it.
Amy: As far as the lyrics, originally it was about being in a forest. Having a weird surreal dream experience in the forest and then I realized I was singing about gender ambiguity, which is something I like to think about. Like if you don’t easily fit into “the box.” I think it’s about if people have some kind of spirit that’s more basic than being a man or a woman. Trying to identify with that inner spirit that’s like an animal and not in a bad way, that’s their source of power.
Amy, I know that you’ve toured with Titus Andronicus. What’s it like touring with another woman rather than a big group of guys?
Amy: Everything’s different. The things about touring that are kind of the same is going to the venue, finding the parking space, going to play the show, going to soundcheck, sleeping on someone’s floor–– that doesn’t really change. The main difference I guess is now it’s me parking the car! I have more control. Before I was kind of along for the ride sort of speak. It’s different when you’re involved in making the decisions about the tour and the shows and things like that.
Catherine, is being in Hilly Eye the first time that you’ve toured?
Catherine: Yeah, this is the first time that I’ve played in a rock band. Though before this, I was into all sorts of music, but the stuff that I actually was involved in as a performer was all classical, so this is really different.
You met while working at the college radio station at Harvard?
Catherine: Yeah, that’s really great that you know that!
Amy: You did your research!
Catherine: We get tired of answering the same questions! Yeah I mean, Amy had a band in college and I wasn’t really involved with rock music. I think that the radio thing was just kind of when we met up later in New York and decided to then play together. I think it was just we knew we would trust each other’s tastes and judgement. It was a really specific aesthetic that was promoted at that station.
Amy: Yeah, it wasn’t like you could just play whatever music you wanted. Everyone was just trying to play–
Catherine: The weirdest…
Amy: Yeah the weirdest stuff possible! A lot of hardcore and post-hardcore.
Catherine: Yeah, because it was Boston.
So what were your favorite things to play?
Catherine: I liked playing Tuxedo Moon and Trumans Water, The Flying Luttenbachers, Smog. Early Smog! What else? I liked playing (Amy likes Japanese music) I liked playing this band called The Blue Hearts.
Amy: I like The Blue Hearts. They’re good––they’re like the Ramones!
Catherine: Yeah, exactly! [laughs] They’re cool.
Amy: I liked this band Team Dresch. They were like a queercore band from the 90s. I also liked Smog. I liked this band Circle Takes the Square which is like a screamo band. I also loved Joanna Newsom, and I got into a huge fight with somebody because he didn’t think we should play Joanna Newsom on the station.
Catherine: Who did you get in a fight with?!
Amy: It might have been several people. [Laughs] It was like a debate: should we be playing her or not? I was really into her, I was like, “we should! We need to be playing her.” I liked her a lot.
Reasons To Live is a great album title. What inspired it?
Catherine: It is from an Amy Hempel short stories collection called Reasons To Live. That collection has her most famous story which is about her friend dying in the hospital and how she wasn’t strong enough to be there for her. She couldn’t face death, so that reminded me of this Weakerthans album called Reconstruction Site, which is about a terminal patient being in the hospital. I was kind of pushing this title so Amy might have different feelings, but when you’re playing music or when you really engage with music in a way, those are the moments that kind of make life worth living. It’s very different from the Amy Hempel stuff but it’s kind of the same in a way.
We are in 2013, but it seems like two women playing loud, almost punk music would still stick out. Even in an underground scene, it is seen as very different. Have you noticed any differences, especially after being in a band with a lot of guys?
Amy: Well it seems like guys are more interested in carrying the equipment for us. I noticed that’s a general theme. [laughs] No one used to carry my shit or offer to! I don’t know, I think maybe, it might be more unexpected because we’re not playing straightforward pop music. I feel like people might sometimes be scratching their heads a little more. People might not like it immediately because I don’t always try to sound pretty with the vocals. Sometimes I notice in [a] review someone saying “this is out of tune!” and it’s like, “yeah, but that’s the point!” I think there are some unspoken rules about how people want a female voice to sound. Some of my favorite singers have had non-traditional voices and I’m always inspired by that––how you don’t need to sing in any particular way in rock n’ roll. That was a long-winded answer! [laughs]
Catherine: I think the main difference––and I don’t really have anything to compare it to––I would guess the main difference is that we play with more female bands.
Amy: Yeah, that’s true. We’re always playing with other women on the bill.
Catherine: I mean, it’s awesome because you get to meet a lot of other women who are playing music, so it’s cool. You get a different experience.
What are your day jobs?
Amy: I’m a tutor. I teach kids, I help them with homework assignments, study skills, help them get ready for big, scary standardized tests. If anybody wants a tutor out there, I’m available!
Catherine: I work at a book publishing company which is cool because: a) I really like books, b) it’s nice to be involved in an artistic field that’s different from music, especially something like books––it’s so internal and music is so communal. I like having that balance.
Would you ever quit your day job?
Catherine: That’s not a good question!
Catherine: We love our jobs and would never quit them.
Amy: Yeah, I really like hanging out with kids.
Catherine: I was just talking recently to a friend of ours. He’s a musician as well, he was talking about how [his band] has really hit the sweet spot. They go on tour and their shows are always really well-attended, but they have day jobs. There’s something really appealing about that notion of a sweet spot––where you have balance in your life. If you’re in a place where you’re counting on your music to pay your rent, you might find yourself making decisions based more on pragmatic reasons than for growth. There’s a difference between wanting a band to grow artistically and to grow in a business sense. Ideally you have both!
Posted By: alex on Jun 19, 2013