Kat Estacio: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyor of: Hypnotic gong flow.
File next to: Pantayo, Hiroshi Yoshimura, Jon Hassell
Playing: WL17 Drone Brunch, Sunday Feb. 19 @ The Gladstone Hotel Melody Bar. Free and all-ages!

Bringing the racked-gong traditions of Filipino kulintang to T.O. in the 21st century, Pantayo is mixing modern beats and synths with ancient sounds. One of the collective’s founders, Kat Estacio, is now stepping out with a solo project that slows time with immersive sonic drift. Mechanical Forest Sound‘s Joe Strutt (who is co-presenting the Festival’s Drone Brunch event) sat down with Kat for a cup of tea in Chinatown to talk about finding oneself, art’s many roads to the same destination and the open embrace of drone. (This conversation was edited for length and clarity.)

So, how did you start being a person who plays music?

It took a while for me to get there. I guess it started when I was a kid, when I played with my cousins. Then I was in a couple bands when I was in high school in the Philippines. We played, like… Radiohead and No Doubt…

So, rock bands…

Yeah, but I didn’t really take it seriously. And then, after a year of university in the Philippines, my family moved to Toronto. And then, all of that kind of stopped. Coming from a family that has 30 cousins on one side and close to ten on the other side, and then moving to a different country, with no family… it was a big shock for me. I was in a really dark hole at that time. I wasn’t really able to express myself creatively, not just in music but in all other art stuff also. After maybe four years of living in Canada, I started joining social and cultural groups while in university and sometime after. We would jam, go to karaoke, or play Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Interestingly, that was also around the time when I (re)connected with my Filipino roots.

I think getting into music and also looking back to my roots are the same story, or rather different sides of the same coin. When I first connected with other members of Pantayo, I just wanted to learn about kulintang music from the Philippines; it was very central to learning a different kind of music that’s not Western music. But while I was learning more about the culture that kulintang music is from, I was also able to express myself and bring in different sounds that aren’t traditionally found in kulintang music.

So when Pantayo came together, was it through that same network that you managed to go out and start performing?

Our first gig as Pantayo was for Cordillera Day, a celebration of Indigenous peoples in northern Philippines and the issues and struggles that they face. I guess that set the tone to the kind of community that we found ourselves in and also the kind of events that we think are important to the work that we do.

The social surroundings… it’s more than just the music, it’s everything that’s around it.

Yeah. I have one friend who says, “You guys talk a lot about your identity and all that stuff… sometimes your music gets buried under that.” Which is a valid comment. But we couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help it. I can’t help but associate the music with the culture and identity.

Right. So as you’re being invited to play a wider variety of shows, do you feel the tension between wanting to express that cultural background, and just wanting to play?

As a band, we tend to research what a promoter / festival is doing to see what they’re about. The fact that we couldn’t separate the two is part of our brand, to care about those things. But sometimes if it’s not a cultural presentation we just do it ‘cause it’s a music thing. I guess that applies to my solo work too.

You’re going to be expressing that identity even if it’s in a different context. Is a part of it just, “We want to be here, we want to take up this space…”

Mm-hmm. I think whenever I take gigs that are not cultural, I am aware of the space that I’m taking. I know how important it is for visibility, for representation, for many other things. But, at the end of the day, I guess what motivates me and Pantayo is that we want to play music, right? And I want to play in a way that isn’t prescribed to me. When Pantayo played Wavelength last year, there was a review that came out basically describing our performance as stoic. And we took that as good and bad. Stoic, as in focused, yes. But then who’s to say how we should perform on stage? Like, “You should be a typical women’s group that’s sultry and that’s selling sex,” is that how we’re supposed to perform? And who is this person describing it as stoic? We notice all that, but at the same time we’re like [shrugs], we’re not going to change the way that we do things just because of one comment.

On the other side of that, we hear things like, “You guys should have fun!” I think that when the audience sees that we’re enjoying ourselves, they can also connect with that energy. So that’s totally valid too, like we can be robots that have fun. I’m cool with that.

It’s also that there’s work to be done when you’re performing… I don’t know a lot about the inner workings of your music, but there must be a lot of things that have to stay in sync with each other and you guys have to be attuned to each other.

Yeah, I think a lot of my experience working with an ensemble, with Pantayo, is that you really need to listen to each other. I think that has trained my ears.

You get put on a giant stage with no monitors and you have to really listen.

Totally, totally. With my own music, I became really conscious of the sounds that I would pick: “Do I really want that sound? Does that work well with this other sound?” It’s approaching the music in a way that that’s looking at the big picture but also looking at the small details at the same time.

I guess maybe that’s a good point to pivot… how did you go from doing that collective thing into your own solo project? Or did you always do that on the side?

No, I didn’t always do this on the side. It started when Pantayo was thinking about changing things up and maybe trying out instruments to accompany our music. I was online and I saw this synthesizer for sale. I’ve played with synthesizers before but I never owned one. So I thought, “Let’s try this one out.” It was a used Juno, pretty affordable. So when I received it, I’ll never forget it: I played with the Juno for the first time for what seemed like five or six hours, just pressing down the keys and really absorbing it. I felt like I’d never had that experience before.

When I was younger and I would play guitar or drums with my cousins, it was always about playing notes, notes, notes, notes. And I guess I never had the chance to just listen to something really intently until that time. And then I was like, “What is this?” I couldn’t really understand it, and I didn’t know what that was.

Around the same time I connected with Kristel Jax, and saw that she was doing Drone Therapy on YouTube. When I watched some of her videos, I realized, “Oh, this is a thing!” and I connected that with ASMR YouTube videos I’d watched before and how I couldn’t really pinpoint why I was so attracted to it. So yeah, I guess it started with that.

I’d always been afraid to dip my toes into it. But I guess with people like Kristel and the series you put on, you guys made me feel it was accessible. So that’s when I tried playing with sampling and looping, and playing gongs in a way that would ring out. I’ve barely scratched the surface, I think there’s still a lot to learn and so many things to tinker with. Like, y’know, you get super excited when you see a pedal [both laugh] and you say, “I must restrain myself!” [laughs]

Does it feel liberating to you, or interesting that it’s fallen into this category, this thing called “drone?”

Yeah, in a sense it is liberating because it taught me a different way to think about music… or non-music, because some people are saying drone isn’t music. I don’t really care about that debate, to me it’s more about expression. It’s so connected to my work with Pantayo, which also has a lot to do with identity and self-expression and how you understand things or try to grasp ideas. That’s how I could describe drone and my musical practice. It’s not formulaic, and I like that. Because there’s formulas for, say, a rock song, or a dance song, or electronic music, but for drone it’s like a free-for-all.

And what I like about it also is that it keeps me focused. I have a very busy brain… it’s pretty bad sometimes, that I can’t even keep up with pop culture, like TV shows, or which artist released what album or what movies came out. I get so caught up in my head sometimes! When I drone, that’s all I think about, and it’s not as draining for me to just like…

…to just get inside one note, hold that one thing, and…

…like be present, be mindful, and not worry about the past or the future. Aside from music, I work at a non-profit that uses mindfulness as a way for people to cope with anxiety and depression. They teach about connecting to the breath and working with distractions while meditating. But I find that silence is a little bit intimidating. With drone it’s not really silence and it’s not really music — sometimes it’s like [looking around tea shop] this din that I’m hearing in the background. It’s a bit comforting, actually.

And then, closing the circle, is the stuff that you’re doing now on your own feeding back into how you’re working with Pantayo?

Totally. I find that when I started playing with loops, playing with sampling, and with drone, there’s space for that also in Pantayo, but maybe just in a different way. When we talk about incorporating other elements to our music, it makes for a very open environment and people aren’t afraid to try new things. If you play music that’s true to yourself, or that speaks to your truth, then it is a valid means of expression.

You mentioned that when you came to Canada you put aside your other art stuff, so what other art things do you do?

I did photography for a little bit. I do collage and I make zines. I tried painting but it didn’t work out. [laughs] I think that’s it…

That’s a lot of things!

Many different expressions. I guess I’ve also tried my hand in poetry a little bit. I went to this poetry reading and panel last week at U of T. It featured the work of three Indigenous poets: Gwen Benaway, Lee Maracle, and Greg Scofield. And going to that event sparked an idea for things that I couldn’t really express in music. Because in drone and the work I do with Pantayo, it’s mostly instrumental. But sometimes there’s just some things that need to be said with words. I was writing a bunch of stuff after that event.

Before I started trying different art disciplines, I thought of them as separate boxes. But actually they’re just different expressions, connected by your own artistic vision. I guess for someone like myself who has a busy mind, it helps to have those different means of expressing or else I’ll go crazy. [laughs] Not to say that I’m not already, but that’s a different story!

On the topic of a different sort of busy-ness: in Toronto, where we have all this stuff, what inspires you and what drives you to distraction?

Being in Toronto is such a privilege. It’s great that in one night you can go to so many different events — that doesn’t happen in the suburbs. It probably happens in other Canadian cities, but I’ve talked to friends from Montréal, and from Vancouver, and they always say that there’s always something really rich that’s happening in Toronto. I see community in the same way as art, with different art scenes being different expressions… in Toronto you can maintain your cultural identity and you can reach out to other cultural groups that share the same immigration stories, for example. And you can also connect with people who don’t share that and it makes for a very rich environment. In a sense, having so many things to do in Toronto is a distraction in itself. Most of the time, I only really have the energy to go to one or two things in a given day. But that doesn’t mean I see the other events I missed as less interesting or less inspiring.

What about some specific things that you’re excited by?

I really respect what the Music Gallery does in presenting creative music. The event that they presented a couple weekends ago [The New Flesh] was wonderfully weird and pretty cool at the same time. It excites me that there are spaces that are able to bring these things to fruition and I think that opens up a lot of opportunities for people to be creative. I’m also thinking of Channel no. 2 at Katzman Contemporary. That was also a really well put-together, curated multi-arts event that brought together different kinds of people. Events that shift towards learning what our collective responsibilities are as settlers on this land (like the poetry event I mentioned earlier), I think are very important. The Kent Monkman exhibit at the Art Museum at U of T reminds me that there’s much work to be done, and I try to embody that in my everyday life.

And what about stuff outside Toronto that’s inspiring you?

I think the work that Filipinos are doing in the diaspora is pretty amazing. There’s a compilation that came out recently called Tunog Tao (People’s Sound) that was put together by Filipina musicians Kimmortal and Gingee. It’s just so exciting to see what other Filipinos are doing!

In the Philippines, there’s WSK (pronounced as “wasak”) Festival of the Recently Possible, that celebrates the intersections of culture, technology, and design. They have a platform called Heresy that’s specifically for women working in sound and multimedia that “pushes for a more gender-inclusive new media arts community by providing a venue for featuring women artists and cultural practitioners as the main performers, producers, and collaborators of artistic and performative work.” What they came up with at Heresy 2016 was amazing.

And I’m currently listening to this all-women spacey dark punk band called Rakta from Brazil. Came across their music one time at Pantayo practice, and I find their sound so refreshing. Perfect for my ragey days.

There’s a movement of women of colour that’s moving to take space and be weird and not so concerned with the white, western ideals of beauty. I came across this video from an artist from California’s Bay Area called Kohinoorgasm when LAL was featured in a web interview show where they also feature music videos in between the interview segments. The song “Azaadi is Freedom is Fate” has whisper-like vocals that are spoken in Hindi and also English and the track has some bells, and it’s very repetitive, so I thought, that’s very relatable to the stuff that I do! And the music video is focused on femme-presenting people of colour but is done so by showing a wide range of expressions. I think reading up on her journey as a woman of colour musician is relatable.

Interview by Joe Strutt