It might be a cliché at this point, but Hilly Eye somehow makes two people sound like an army. On a bed of guitar loops, Amy Klein’s (Titus Andronicus) vocals soar and shimmer, but the dark, insistent pulse underneath it all belongs to Catherine Tung, a drummer who at times sounds as if she has an extra arm or two to help pound out her mechanistic patterns. Catherine and I talked about coming to drums later in life and comics about heartbroken punk rockers, as well as the album that the pair is currently recording, due out this fall on Don Giovanni Records. Expect it to be huge.
Tom Tom Magazine: What are your earliest musical memories? And what made you want to start on the drums?
Catherine Tung: My father is a Presbyterian minister, and both my parents play classical piano, so my earliest musical memories are of singing hymns with my family. Very wholesome. They also got me started on Suzuki violin lessons pretty young, so for about the first dozen years of my life, classical was the only the music I knew.
I decided to learn drums about three years ago. I’d been living in Brooklyn for about a year. I went to a Halloween cover band show at the Forts (which are no longer around). I saw my friend Glenn was playing drums in a Misfits cover band. He wasn’t a drummer at all – he had just learned how to play the instrument for the sake of this show, and he had done it in two months. I was impressed, and also kind of galvanized, because we had the sort of relationship where I thought I should be able to do anything that he did. So I started to learn.
Were there any musicians/bands/drummers you focused on a lot when you were learning drums?
My drum teacher, Collin, was an awesome guy. He also wasn’t really a drummer. He was a jazz guitarist who had picked up drums and was willing to teach me on the cheap. He was a crack musician; incidentally, he’s also an heir to the great Mel Bay sheet music fortune.
Collin would just ask me to notate drum parts from songs that I liked. I would bring them in, and then we’d hash them out together. I brought in everything from Mission of Burma to Iggy Pop to Amanda Woodward. Collin made me learn the Roots (the rap band). One of the best things about Collin was that he stressed viewing the drum kit as a tonal instrument. Each drum has its own note. That’s a really important concept. He also stressed the importance of getting away from the tyranny of 4/4 meter – a lesson that I haven’t adhered to as much as I should.
When did you meet Amy Klein? And how long after did you two decide to form Hilly Eye?
Amy and I went to college together. We both did college radio, so we would see each other around the station. She was a year behind me, though, and we hung out in different crowds, so we didn’t really get to know each other in that context.
We both moved to New York after college. We had a few friends in common who had also moved here, and through those friends she found out that I was learning drums. She had already started Hilly Eye with a bassist named Kim Howie, and they needed a drummer. Amy invited me to come practice with them. Kim unfortunately stopped coming to practices early on, but Amy and I were able to keep shaping the sound on our own.
How quickly did things pick up and develop?
Well, the first year we mostly just wrote songs and practiced. We didn’t really gig. I think that’s a good way to start out, taking the time to get to know each other as musicians, cultivating a sound.
Amy had an itch to perform, though, and so we started doing shows after that first year. Shows are really important for songwriting, which I hadn’t realized at first. When you perform live, you get to see your songs interacting with people, not only with listeners, but with other bands. You get to see what goes over well and what falls flat, and often people’s reactions will surprise you. You also start to get to know other musicians, which is key. I’d always had friends in bands, but it’s a very different thing to get to know people as musical peers.
I feel like things really started picking up when we recorded a 4-song demo. In fall of 2010, I believe. This was another instance of Amy wanting to take a step forward and me being hesitant, but in retrospect it was such an essential thing to do.
Once the demo was out, we started to get more interesting gigs and meet bands that we really resonated with. We kept pushing our songwriting, we got a proper practice space, and we rehearsed more often. Amy was playing with Titus Andronicus during much of this time, which presented difficulty in the sense that she was often on the road. She did meet a lot of people on those tours, though. As I understand it, this was how she met Screaming Females. We opened for them last November. That was a big show for us, but more importantly, I think, it put us in touch Joe Steinhardt, who runs Don Giovanni Records. He picked up a copy of our demo at that show, and contacted us shortly thereafter. We’re recording an album for him now, so that pretty much brings us to the present!
What is the songwriting process like?
We usually write by jamming. Sometimes we’ll start completely from scratch, other times Amy or I will come in with an idea and we’ll jam off that. There’s one song that I did write out beforehand, mostly because I don’t have enough experience with guitar to compose on the fly, but even that song evolved in the jamming process.
If stuff clicks during a jam, we’ll go back and shape it, iron it out, add parts and take away parts until the song becomes cohesive. The most common situation is for each of us to write our own instrumental part, but we almost always have suggestions and ideas for each other. On occasion I’ll take the guitar or Amy will get behind the kit and we’ll show each other our ideas.
How’s the recording process been?
Recording has been good. This is my first time recording an album, so I don’t have much to compare it to other than our demo. We’re working with a friend of ours named Danielle Depalma at Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn. We’ve been reworking a number of the songs as we’ve been recording, and she’s contributed songwriting suggestions along the way. She has a sharp ear.
I do find recording to be a bit maddening, in a good way. Every detail has to be dead on. There’s no better way to get to know your music, yourself, or your bandmate than to relentlessly play a song until it’s perfect. And no matter how good it sounds, you’ll always hear something in the final mix that you wish you could change. I read an interview with one of my old writing professors who said that he pencils edits into his books even after they’re published. It’s a little like that.
Where would you like to take your drumming?
I feel like I’m just getting started with my drumming. Most of my rhythms are very stripped-down, and I like that. I’d like to find a way to introduce more complexity without losing that quality. Just how to get the most impact out of the least number of moving parts. That’s always been a goal with Hilly Eye, and I think of it as a personal goal with my music (and my endeavors) in general.
Do you engage in any other art forms when you aren’t making music?
I’ve written fiction for many years, and am always working on some short story or another. It’s a very challenging art form. Since I’ve started playing rock music, I’ve found that the two activities inform each other immensely.
I also draw comics. We’re planning to include my comics as inserts in the upcoming records. I’ve done photography in the past, and would love to get back into it someday.
Just to ask, what are your comics about?
Heartbroken punk rockers. Write what you know!
Any closing thoughts or advice to other musicians?
Well, despite the fact that my first musical experiences were in the classical realm, I came to rock music with a punk mentality: the idea that skill and formal training don’t matter. I still believe that, but I also think that, no matter what you want to achieve with your music, you should never cut any corners. It’s a matter of respect for yourself and your audience/listeners. I don’t live up to this model 100% of the time, but I try my best and I always keep it in mind.
– You can hear Hilly Eye’s demo on their bandcamp. Their self-titled debut seven-inch is due out on Don Giovanni on June 15.
Interview by Rob Rubsam
Photos courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan