Who Is…Uncanny Valley

Tobi Vail

By Tobi Vail

on 02.20.13 in Who Is...?s

File under: No Rave. Ethereal chant-pop. Surreal dance music for lucid dreamers, industrial and pretty.

From: Oakland, California

Personae: Kelsey, Natalee and Joey

Oakland’s Uncanny Valley occupy a corner of the electronic underground that takes place in illegal venues under low-budget conditions, yet their aesthetic is hardly makeshift. Their recording is skillfully well-produced and their minimal compositions are fully realized, while the live show borders on performance art — exploring the line between self and other, body and mind, being and nothingness.

When I saw them live they looked like Victorian ghosts. Dressed in long, flowing gowns and loose-fitting, sheer material, they wrapped themselves up in a massive piece of fabric that acted both as a veil and a net, inviting the crowd into the giant, fort-like cocoon and obliterating the line between performer and audience. It challenged the notion of an atomized, individual comfort zone, creating the possibility for communion. The kids went crazy — as kids tend to do when they are at the dawn of a new counter-cultural moment. It stimulated my curiosity in this scene I knew little about.

I talked with Uncanny Valley via email about Speaking in Prosthetic Tongues, their debut release on Night People, and about the ideas and motivations behind the “No Rave” aesthetic.

On the origins of Uncanny Valley:

Kelsey: I grew up in an idyllic small town on the central coast of California, an only child who spent most of my youth out in the nearby state park, catching frogs and picking fleas off cats while my hippie parents and their friends gutted freshly caught fish and made crass jokes while naked in the hot tub. I made up stories to entertain myself and personified the inanimate objects around me. My father built harps for a living, and my mother was always singing songs while cavorting around in our weird fairytale life. I was infatuated with the relationship between that which is light, and that which is inevitably dark — music and songwriting was my way to exorcise my feelings about these integral parts. I mainly made bedroom music until I started collaborating with Joey and Natalee.

Natalee: When I was about 16, I started going to underground experimental/noise shows in Chicago. I started doing performance art, making psychedelic plays and puppet shows. I wanted to make music but I didn’t even know how to begin. There was a strong male presence in the music scene. Joey and I moved to California around the same time. We became good friends and had messed around with music a bit, and then Kelsey and I became friends and started talking about the minimal wave music. Right before my 21st birthday I bought my first synth, and the three of us started experimenting together, not really certain what the outcome would be.

Joey: I have performed solo for a long time as Joey Casio, making politically-leaning punk house where I sing and rant and bash at electronic hardware. Uncanny Valley is the first time I have collaborated with other people in such an ambitious context. Natalee and Kelsey approached me with an idea, to start a new band that was a bit darker, but still fully synthetic sounding. What came about when we combined our aesthetics and ideas surprised me in a really beautiful way, and really seemed to connect with the people around us.

On how the creative process combines disparate influences into a new sounds:

Natalee: Joey has a lot of experience and knowledge of the technical side of music production. A lot of bands we like from the ’80s were produced by men with female vocals. I refuse to fit that mold, and have demanded that each of us play a balanced and integral role in the writing process. Kelsey may be the primary vocalist, but she also contributes to production and aesthetic decisions.

Joey: Natalee grew up in the Chicago noise scene and believes in the importance of bringing experimental sounds to people’s ears to push boundaries. I’ve been pretty deep in dance music theory for the last few years, examining how certain sounds and rhythms resonate with the human mind. Kelsey is more free-form in her creative process; a lot of lyrics start with her basically speaking in tongues until the words becomes poems.

Kelsey: The creative process with Joey and Natalee is often sporadic and spontaneous. Sometimes we craft enough material for a new tape in one sitting, other times we spend several days working on the skeleton of a song. No one has just one set role — we swim together through the collective conscious.

Joey: When we practice often we’re just putting seeds into the machines; when we play live, something else really special happens. There is a fair amount of improvisation that is difficult to capture. Playing live is an ongoing conversation with an audience.

On creating an oppositional youth culture in 2013:

Joey: Young people today experience music in a much different way than in the past. The internet has allowed memes to emerge divorced from localized subcultures, and this often creates flash-in-the-pan trends that don’t resonate with the same timeless effect that previous sounds had. The way fake genres like “witch house” and “seapunk” get turned into jokes is quick and cruel. “No Rave” can avoid this by being explicitly opposed to the hegemony at large, and by being self-referential and critical to the systems which propagate its existence.

On the emergent No Rave scene:

Joey: No Rave stands in opposition to the anonymous, apathetic, apolitical stance that electronic music so often takes. In the last couple of years, people who were previously involved with punk and noise scenes started making electronic dance music. Not surprisingly, a lot of times it turns out quite weird. I would say groups like Extreme Animals and Eats Tapes are the precursors to this scene. In Oakland, TECHNOC, YRUD and Body Glove have been making sounds I’d call No Rave. A lot of other folks have started to make new music that leans that direction — like Black Jeans and REDREDRED. In other cities, I’d include Ginseng from Iowa City, Sewn Leather, Chrome Windows from Olympia, Diamond Catalog from Portland, Container and Unicorn Hardon from Nashville.

Uncanny Valley went through a big shift toward No Rave on tour. Playing live every night, our set got more free-form and dance music-oriented but also more experimental — leaning toward the weird end of acid house, but adding a personal element with the vocal elements that was always lacking from so much of that music.

Natalee: I am trying to create an electronic music scene that is not male-dominated, trying to encourage and assist women making electronic music. I want to present electronic music in all-ages, all-welcome underground venues and avoid bars/clubs as much as possible. I never have fun in bars.

On a New Age trip to the desert:

Joey: I jokingly referred to Uncanny Valley’s “genre” as “new age body music” for a while. There is a heavy influence of early industrial dance music such as DAF, Front 242 — what’s often called “electronic body music.” But that kind of music is often very tough and hyper-masculine while Uncanny Valley has this other much more dreamy aspect to it. Are we New Age? Perhaps. We listened to a lot of Enya on tour. There have definitely been Tarot readings at band practice.

We have played and met up numerous times with friends out in the desert, and there have been some very amazing experiences. It’s mostly just weirdos meeting up at an abandoned farm with a giant PA and lot of ideas and music making machines. We make up bands for the night and use it as a chance to explore new ideas.

Natalee: Getting out into the elements with a bunch of friends, hiking up a mountain with birds soaring below and then staying up as long as possible, listening to the weirdest sounds resonating in the weirdest ways in the desert air is invigorating. It’s probably not what you think — no one is doing Reiki — but we do like to find obsidian flakes and talk about crystals and stare at the endless stars.

On living in the realm of the unreal:

Kelsey: I’m heavily influenced by the surreal, and the ability to transcend my body through performance. Some of my favorite Uncanny Valley shows have been the ones where I have covered myself entirely in white paint. I then feel like I don’t have to be confined by my humanness. I can make up words and move in a way that takes me elsewhere and away. As someone who doesn’t identify as a person of faith, performance functions as my ritual. Ceremony is of utmost importance to me. I want to honor that. Through performing, I feel that energy is put forth. I’ve been reading and researching female artists and performers extensively the last few years, and I find that their work also helps aid in inspiration — Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Judy Chicago, and Marina Abramovic are among my personal favorites. They make me study the connection between mind and body, and what it means to choose to live in the realms of the unreal; balancing reality and fantasy.

Natalee: One of the most exciting things about playing music is this experience I have of phantom voices singing in between frequencies. We’ll be generating a sound, and I’ll think Kelsey is singing, but I look over and she isn’t even in the same room. I’ve started to hear these voices singing in all kinds of music and sounds. I like to think of them as some kind of ghost voice trying to speak to me or of my own unconscious singing a song to me.

Joey: This is fantasy music. We get lost in it. We make a space and jump though, hopefully taking anyone within earshot with us. I want to make music that makes people have a transcendent experience, to be taken outside the self, to get lost in a crowd and feel good about it — to look to my collaborators and build a ship in the ocean of collective consciousness and invite the water in. The music is already there. When we get lucky, we can tune in.