Q&A: Case Sensitive on Songwriting and Performance in the Triangle

This bewitching Chapel Hill-based band are making their mark in the Triangle music scene.

“The only voices that can stop me are the ones inside my head,” sings Sierra Shell in Case Sensitive’s simmering single “Count Your Blessings.” But it’s difficult to imagine anything stopping this Chapel Hill-based band. Since their nearly sold-out release show at The Station in February 2018, Sierra Shell (vocals, bass, and keys), Chesley Kalnen (guitar), and Mary Koenig (drums and supporting vocals) have been racking up fans of their otherworldly sound. And they show no signs of stopping, with upcoming appearances at Hopscotch day parties and an EP in the works.

They announced that first release show with a dancing Grim Reaper gif on Twitter- an entirely on-brand choice, given that their social media is full of black cats, haunted woods, and other witchy aesthetics. It’s an appropriate branding decision, given their sound. Their first release is singularly haunting and atmospheric- “Count Your Blessings/Six Feet”- is colored by sonic distortion, and guided by pensive lyrics. It’s a bewitching combination. Case Sensitive’s distinctive sound and charismatic live performances have cemented them as talents to watch in the Triangle music scene.

Koenig, Kalnen, and Shell spoke to The Triangle Guide about the songwriting process and their methods of collaboration.

What is Case Sensitive’s origin story?

SS: Back around 2014, several women were meeting together in a friend’s basement in the hopes of learning and playing together.  Most of us were quite new to our instruments. We wanted a safe space to grow, and found that playing with other women was both fun and encouraging.  At a certain point, Mary, Chesley, and I wanted to start writing our own songs and begin performing, so we broke away from the group in order to pursue music more intensely.

From your otherworldly sound down to the skeleton gifs on your social media, Case Sensitive very much aligns itself with a “spooky” aesthetic. Tell me about what inspired that aesthetic choice. Did you guys plan to align yourselves with an “ethereal/eerie” sound from the beginning of the project?

SS: We didn’t plan that initially, no. Originally, the music we were writing was much more poppy and upbeat.  

CK: We started off very alt-pop and pop rock, heavily influenced by Marina & The Diamonds. We wrote two songs with that inspiration. One of those songs never felt right when performing it, and we ended up ditching it. The other song is Count Your Blessings, which was released February 2018 as a double-single. Often at practice, one of us will noodle on an idea, and the others jump in for an impromptu jam. There was one instance where I was playing a really simple line, and I kicked on a fuzz and octave pedal. The sound was heavy and gnarly, and our eyes lit up. That song became Six Feet, the other half of the double-single release. I think we all were really drawn to that sound (it was so intriguing and haunting) and interested in exploring beyond that. Tone is a really important element to me, and having the band be in to this new vibe was exciting. While we all like spooky things and our band has a quietly-heavy sound, we still hold tight to having a pop-informed ear to our songs, but now have these elements of floral, goth, and fuzzy indie mixed in.

Tell me about how you guys collaborate while songwriting. How do you allocate songwriting responsibilities? Does Mary [Koenig] have final say over drums, Sierra [Shell] have final say over keys, and Chesley [Kalnen] have sole control over guitar, for example, or do you each of you contribute to every aspect of the process?

SS: None of us really has the final say.  We all contribute to the melody, the keys, guitar parts, and drums.  In fact, Mary has written some of the key parts that I play and love.  In reality, we play something over and over, and one of us will get inspired about a part, even if it isn’t our instrument. We’ve gotten good at communicating with one another in ways we can all understand, regardless of the instruments we play in the band.

MK: We have gotten good at communicating parts, but even better at listening and translating, I think! For example, I’m not very familiar with guitar, so sometimes my ideas for Chesley end up sounding like, “what about if you did dun-dun-dun-dun instead?” By some miracle, she takes it and makes it sound good. We’ve all written parts on each other’s instruments this way, and it often results in our best moments.

What’s something unique that each of you brings to the songwriting table?

CK: Sierra can come up with lyrics on the spot. Like, she will be playing bass or keys, and just start spitballing lyrics while coming up with a stellar melody. It’s bananas to watch her do, and we have to record it to catch what she’s doing, so we can remember/transcribe lyrics later. A lot of them stick for our songs, as well as the melody lines. It’s really organic and kinda magical. Mary, in addition to grounding us with percussion and being her own creative force, is a really grounding member of the band. She’s an amazing facilitator, and absolutely amazing when it comes to working through tough things (both with songwriting, as well as processing personal things as well as the current political/social climate).

MK: I echo Chesley. Sierra can write a catchy melody effortlessly. It just comes out of her mouth, lyrics and all, completely naturally. Part of the beauty of what she does is that she does it with no ego: she’s not held back by having to make it perfect on the first try. We then take the best bits and add just a little something (or sometimes, nothing at all!) and it’s a complete vocal part. I see Chesley as the one who encourages us to be “extra”, but she’s also the one to gently push back when we say we’re doing “too much.” She contributes a lot to our crunchier, heavier vibe and brings out the angsty kid in all of us, plus writes those dark, moody lyrics that are so fun to yell along to.

SS: I think Mary brings a certain gentleness and sweetness, a high-femme feel, to the project. She’s great at coming up with catchy pop lyrics and supportive synth parts.  Chesley brings the fire, and probably represents our wild side. Chesley has driven a lot of the genre that we play, and pushed us toward our heavy, fuzzy, grungy sound.

Do you ever have disagreements about the direction a song should go in? If so, how have you settled them?

MK: We have disagreed about the direction a song should go in, and we always address it in the moment. We talk through our reasoning for wanting the direction we want and then come up with a solution together. The best part of how we settle disagreements, I think, is that we don’t ever let someone be “out-voted” into doing or playing something they’re not comfortable or happy with. We keep putting in the work until we come up with something that feels right to all of us.

Your first release, “Count Your Blessings/Six Feet,” shows two very different sides of what Case Sensitive is capable of. Lyrically and sonically, “Count Your Blessings” comes from a place of melancholy, and “Six Feet” rages. How important was it to the three of you to demonstrate a range of emotion and technical prowess in your first release? As it’s a double-single, do the two songs connect, or are they separate beasts?

SS: “Count Your Blessings” was one of our earliest tracks.  When we wrote that song, we hadn’t quite figured out our direction or sound.  I improvised many of the lyrics to that tune off the cuff, so it probably came from a more personal place for me than some of our others.  Chesley brought in the lyrics for “Six Feet,” and the themes were pretty different from CYB. But once we wrote the beginning of the song, with the searing synth coming in and the drums banging, I think we realized we loved the high intensity and energy and, really, anger the song drew from us. I think we wanted to keep walking down a similar path, and that feeling led us to write the songs “Dirty Habit” and “Can You Stand It.”

MK: Honestly, I think initially we selected “Six Feet” and “Count Your Blessings” because they were our favorites and the ones that a lot of folks coming to our shows responded particularly well to. But as we started thinking about how they fit together more and more leading up to the release, we started seeing them as “sisters, not twins.” They both bring out different manifestations of feeling listless, stagnant, or anxious to change. While “Count Your Blessings” explores the more melancholy side of that, “Six Feet” is like an outlet for the frustration that feeling can produce.

Drum roll…you have plans to release an EP! What themes will you be exploring in the EP? What are you most excited to show the world about Case Sensitive?

MK: We do! Our EP explores a lot of themes that are more interrelated than they sound: from the anxiety of change to frustration with current politics to strange intense friendships to toxic exes to how Marilyn Monroe was maybe killed by the U.S. government (that last one isn’t a joke). They are all rooted in our feelings and emotions. A lot of those feelings are universal, but a lot of them are rooted in our experiences with gender and the stage of life we’re in: figuring out relationships, identity, and self-expression. I hope that people find something that they identify with in the EP and feel a little less alone in their anxiety, anger, wistfulness, or late-night conspiracy theory binging.

What’s your favorite gig you’ve ever played? What do the three of you find makes for a great show?

SS: My favorite gig was our single release show at the Station.  We had such a huge crowd, but more importantly, so many of our close friends came out to see us play.  There was a lot of excitement in that room. My favorite thing about a show is the audience, mostly because I’m trying to speak directly to them when I sing. I prefer a crowd of friendly and supportive faces, but also enjoy a crowd of absolute strangers.  I’m confident in our ability to connect with the audience, so I enjoy playing for strangers and watching them react, even having no idea who we are or what our music is like initially.

CK: Playing The Cave in Chapel Hill for Manifest 2017 has been one of my favorite shows to date. The crowd packed it in, there was a lot of interaction and smiles, the energy around the fest (featuring artists of marginalized identities) was buzzing, and we just really felt embraced in that moment.

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Q&A: Kattalax on Collaborating Remotely, Evolving Triangle Music Scene

Electronic duo Kattalax sound off on their unique creative process and what makes the Triangle music scene special.

Paul Gallant and Wayne Leechford of duo Kattalax have not made a typical electronica debut- but then, they’re not your typical electronica musicians. Leechford is best known for his work as a classical baritone saxophonist in addition to playing in Triangle bands, and Gallant has run the gamut of genres in a wide variety of musical acts that include Battlestar Canada!, My Kat Randi, Scientific Superstar, and many more. Both have witnessed the maturation of the Triangle music scene as active members since the 80s. Their unique perspectives, and unusual method of songwriting- almost entirely remotely via the Cloud- have resulted in Kattalax’s truly individual sound.

Kattalax’s eponymous debut album is composed of eleven songs, defined by the vocorder-heavy conceptual lyrics, unusual instruments (horns and sax, anyone?), and driven by electronic beats. What results is a richly-textured ride, guided by two staples of the Triangle music scene. Gallant and Leechford spoke to The Triangle Guide about the evolution of music in the area, and the genesis of Kattalax’s distinctive sound.

Kattlax in rehearsal.

You’ve been musical collaborators since the early 90s. How did you two meet?

WLIt was so long ago I can’t remember! I knew his brother Danny first. I probably met Paul through Danny.

PGWayne was a friend that hung out in my brother’s circle. The first song he ever heard of mine was My Kat Randi’s “Funky Puppy.” After he heard it he was always saying, “Play that funky fish song again!”

How would you describe your pre-Kattalax collaborations with one another?

WLI always had a good time working with Paul in the past. His style is unique. The past projects always had a sense of humor. Kind of in a Zappa-esque kind of way. My role was more limited in those projects. I didn’t have much of a say in the songwriting process. I would just add to what was already there. Like, coming up with horn lines and solos.

PGWayne joined My Kat Randi in the second phase of the band where we decided that horns would be a good addition. He played guitar in the local prog band Mind over Matter at the time so I think being able to play sax in a different kind of band seemed appealing to him. He would always be happy to come play sax on songs in my later projects when I asked him.

What inspired you, in 2016, to form Kattalax?

WLI have been listening to electronic music since the 90s. I’ve always enjoyed it. It was only in the past several years that I started to see “bands” playing electronic music live. I put that in quotes because most of the bands I see performing are one or two people and usually not playing “instruments”. Another quote because most of these bands are just turning knobs to pre-recorded material and not playing traditional instruments. It’s the vibe, energy and presentation of the material that are enjoyable. And, the actual music coming through the speakers, of course. I have been a traditional multi-instrumentalist for most of my life. Earlier in my life I would have shunned these type of performances. I think that is the problem with some people when it comes to this. They don’t see anyone playing and it’s obvious there is canned music. The stereotypical DJ set. A lot of people don’t get it. They don’t see the musicianship. It took me a while. But, after attending Moogfest, Coachella and a bunch of other shows, I was sold on this way of making music. Then, I had to embrace the technology that artists use to create it. A huge learning curve! So, back in 2013 I bought some gear and tried to start making some of my own music. The technology broke me. I gave up quickly. But, in all fairness, I was busy managing a career of traditional performances and teaching music. I knew I would get back around to it sometime. That time happened in the summer of 2016 when I ran into Paul at Duke Hospital. Unfortunately, my wife, Julie, was there as a patient for several days. Paul and his wife Ann were some of the few people that visited us. We got to talking and it turns out we both wanted to start a new project. I was itching to get back to electronic music and write music of my own since most of my work is playing other peoples’ music. Paul was interested. So, we started writing soon after that and the rest is history.

PGKattalax was Wayne’s idea. He approached me with the idea a couple of years back. At first I was kind of hesitant because I had it in my mind that I wasn’t interested in being in a “Band” anymore, but I had never tried to write vocals for electronic music before so I decided to give it a shot.

Kattalax’s eponymous debut album takes electronica in inspired directions.

In your time as a musician in the Triangle, how have you seen the music scene evolve?

WLI hate to say “back in the day”, but I will here. Back in the day (80s/90s), the music scene seemed more vibrant in the Triangle and there was more of a community. There were less clubs and bands, so it was easier to put your finger on what was going on in the scene. There are so many bands and so many clubs now, you really have to do your homework to tell what is going on. Also, there is very limited coverage of the scene by the few major, local print outlets that are still left standing. You gotta get your info on Facebook now and it is disseminated in a way that is hard to navigate. There are so many talented artists in this area and a lucky few have reached stardom. There is no question that there is something in the water here.

PGThe Triangle has always been an interesting music scene over the years because we are smaller than the big metro areas but we always seemed to have people around here making it big in one genre or another. I remember in the 90’s when Chapel Hill was going to be the “Next Seattle.”

In your view, what distinguishes music from the Triangle from music coming from elsewhere in the country?

WLIt seems the music that is most celebrated and applauded in the Triangle is Americana and garage rock. In reality, it’s a big mix and anything goes. You just have to find your place.

PGThe one thing the Triangle has always has been good at is making bands that have their own sound. Folks around here tend to pull from all kinds of influences to make their music. We are happy to continue that trend.

You wrote Kattalax’s self-titled debut album in an interesting way. You collaborated separately, working through the Cloud, and only came together in person for the most essential production processes. What were the benefits and challenges of collaborating this way?

WLWorking this way is fantastic. One of the things I loathe about bands is rehearsal. Usually, someone doesn’t show up (at the last minute) and it is hard to come up with something collectively by “jamming”. Paul and I have found a way to collaborate that is more efficient and that we both enjoy. I do not see a downside to this method. We are saving so much on gas, time and polluting the environment less by doing it this way, so it’s all good. We do get together to rehearse our live show.

PGThere really isn’t much “jamming” in electronic music so it really was a good way to write stuff. It was common that we would toss a song back and forth dozens of times before it really took shape. We are adding elements to the live show that gives us the freedom to jam some and go off the path of the written track. It’s always been a goal to play real instruments on stage. We never wanted to be a group that hit play on a laptop and let the laser go.

Will you continue to collaborate this way going forward?

WLMost definitely.

PGIt’s working great now so I’m sure we will. We keep adding new instruments all the time as technology continues to evolve.

“Immigration” is Kattalax’s latest single.

Wayne, you’re a woodwind performer, instructor, and music coordinator- and are probably best known as a classical baritone saxophonist. What skills have you brought from the classical world into electronica writing and performance?

WLI feel that everything I have done in my life has led me to this point in time. I am able to integrate my classical training in woodwinds, my love of electronic music and my creative muse all into one package. My classical side demands that things be precise, clean and in tune. Paul is a self-taught musician and sometimes we butt heads about my perfectionism. We have managed to overcome this because of our friendship. We understand each other. And, collaboration is compromise. You have to know when you can push something and when you can’t. Also, I hear things orchestrally. I have played in so many orchestras and pit bands in my career. I love integrating different instrumental textures like harp, vibraphone, strings, etc. It is so easy now with sampled instruments. The orchestra at your fingertips. I feel it has let me tap into the music I am hearing in my head without limitations. Also, there has been a boom in alternate ways to create music via MIDI controllers. And, recently MPE MIDI – ways to use a MIDI controller with 5D touch like the Artiphon and Roli. It has opened up my creativity in ways I did not expect and could not do with traditional instruments. Sometimes, my writing starts with the technology and I go wherever it leads.

Paul, Kattalax and your previous musical projects pull from many genres, moods, and “vibes,” but all of them sound cinematic.

In My Kat Randi, you were inspired by 60s spy music and 70s cop show soundtracks. Your body of work under Battlestar Canada! sounds very scifi. And the Scientific Superstar albums were intended as an extension of the storytelling of an accompanying comic magazine and its universe- they were, in essence, soundtracks.

How have film scores and television show soundtracks inspired you as a musician? Which were most influential?

PGWhen I was a teenager I learned how to play guitar by playing along with “spi” type music like Henry Mancini/Peter Gunn, The Ventures and the B-52’s. It always kind of stuck with me over the years. Before Wayne approached me with this project I was thinking of getting into soundtrack work as full time hobby. I wrote all the music for a local film titled “Basilisk” a few years ago. It was a lot of fun.

Besides yourself, who are your favorite musical artists working in the Triangle right now? Who do we need to be listening to?

WLUnfortunately, with everything else going on in my life, I do not get out to clubs very often. And, if I do, it is usually to see a touring artist. Maybe I am out of touch, but it seems like it is harder than ever to get people out to see local bands. People seem so content just sitting around looking at their phones. I think to get people out you really need to make it an event. Book several bands together and hope a collective fan base will make it a success.

PGI listen to a lot of local music but the one artist who has always stood out to me is Wendy Spitzer/Felix Obelix. Her music is always genuinely different and her own thing outside of what may be going on musically at the time. She really goes out of her way to add visuals as well.

All images courtesy of Kattalax.

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