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Kate NV: “Sometimes you don’t even need lyrics to understand what the author wants to tell you”

How computer games and Japanese music have so playfully abstracted the Russian musician’s new album, WOW

“I can’t access the wi-fi here, but I’ll just quickly show you where I am,” says the 4G-buoyed Kate NV, only momentarily appearing on screen before switching back to voice-only. She’s walking around inside what I would later find out is a recently completed building of Amsterdam’s University of Applied Sciences, a 25,000 square-metre structure with multiple floors and a vast, open plan central foyer. It has a glass grid ceiling that you can apparently see all the way up from the bottom floor, which is where Kate appears to be grinning from.

A former student of architecture, it isn’t completely surprising that such an impressive place would draw Kate’s attention whilst out on the road. She’s on the tail end of a mini European tour; a few shows in Brussels, Utrecht and Amsterdam. She’s also made a pit-stop in Rotterdam to record a video for one of her other projects, Decisive Pink. Her bandmate, Angel Deradoorian, is roaming nearby, looking for somewhere to charge her phone. They’ve just seen Bones and All, a movie where Timothée Chalamee and Taylor Russell play a couple of cannibals. Kate went in blind. “For me, it was too much,” she laughs. “My friends said, ‘well, it’s called Bones and All, what did you expect?’ I don’t know, maybe it’s an English saying…” As far as I know, I say, it refers to using every part of an animal for sustenance, like cooking the meat and using the bones for stock, that sort of thing. Grossed out, she cheerily suggests changing the subject.

A structural marvel and a movie about cannibals; it feels somehow fitting that, even though Kate NV is driven by a fascination for sounds both popular and mid-century avant-garde, we begin by talking visuals. Where her 2020 breakthrough Room for the Moon’s generous number of music videos recall the soft blurriness of 1960s-70s TV programmes from Europe and her native Russia – campy news broadcast (‘Plans’); stylishly choreographed commedia dell-arte clownishness (‘Marafon 15’); cat-costumed children’s afternoon theatre (‘Lu Na’) – one of the inspirations for the world of her new album, WOW, is decidedly more contemporary: early-to-mid-2000s video games. “I can probably say that it was the time I formed as a person,” she reflects, now nearing her mid-30s. “I recently got a Nintendo 3DS from a friend – I only play Super Smash Brothers, but all of the games look so great.” Sure enough, the gently looped visuals of new track ‘Early Bird’ – a procession of low poly birds feeding their young across multiple branches of a jagged tree – brings with it a flood of gaming memories; The Sims, Nintendogs et al, their emulations of reality charmingly naive from the point of view of the polygon-wealthy 2020s. “They look stupid and unfinished,” Kate says. “But they’re perfect in their imperfection, you know?”

Unprompted, Kate brings up Katamari Damacy, a video game series in which you play as a small cosmic prince. Your goal: correct the mistake of your passive-aggressive father, The King of All Cosmos, who, by some act of hubris, has destroyed the stars and the moon. The method: rolling up, dung beetle-style, everyday objects of increasing size, from push pins to entire continents, into clusters which are then made into brand new constellations. Though Kate and video director Vladimir ‘Vova’ Shlokov did not have Katamari as a reference, Kate expresses delight that its influence was apparent for the ‘oni (they)’ music video [WOW’s opening track], in which a low poly rendition of Kate, lifted from a previous video Vova made for her band Glintshake, struts across virtual rolling hills, as objects – guitars, traffic cones, beachballs, pink lawn flamingos – stick to her like lint on a jumper. “I’m sort of homeless right now and I have to travel,” she explains, unexpectedly linking her whimsical music video to her sub-optimal situation. “I just realised during this year that people have a lot of things, and you have to carry all these things with you wherever you go. It’s basically what we do during our whole lives – we just gather stuff, and then we lose stuff, and then we gather more stuff. We produce a lot of garbage.” The song’s lyrics, sung by Kate but written in Japanese by producer Takahide Higuchi aka Foodman, chime in staccato; “lost item roll / rolling on the roadside / vegetables and fruits / rolling on the roadside”. “It’s the weirdest way to collaborate with someone,” she says with a laugh, the irony of having one of the world’s most outlandish footwork producers write lyrics for a song being a vital part of the song’s appeal.

The link between Foodman and Kate NV is closer stylistically too, particularly where both artists’ approach to sampling is concerned. “There’s something about hearing voices being pitched very high and very low… that’s a part of me that’s very childlike. It makes me laugh.” Recognisable words are largely absent from WOW, and pre-lingual vowels and sampler-whirred utterances become as palpable as wooden or plastic tools, one more instrument among a polyphony of synthesisers and drum machines. I point out that much of her vocal shenanigans across the album brings to mind KK Slider, the troubadour dog guitarist and singer of Animal Crossing, who sings in a pleasantly alien autotune gibberish. As well as chopping up material on Ableton, Kate used a certain pedal to achieve interesting musical phrases, the now ultra rare Korg Miku Stomp, gifted to her by a friend, which imitates the clipped speech of the world’s most famous vocaloid singer, Hatsune Miku.

“I listen to a lot of music where I don’t understand the language,” says Kate. This has been the case for a number of years, informed by her friends from far East Russia who first got her into Japanese music and culture. “I remember feeling that I knew what these songs were about, even though I couldn’t understand the words. When I finally had a chance to check using Google Translate, I realised that I was able to correctly guess the meaning. Sometimes, you don’t even need lyrics to understand what the author wants to tell you.”

Where Room for the Moon revels in protracting pop and new wave structures, WOW is more openly experimental and occasionally, tantalisingly illegible – a difference in Kate’s mind of being a “tracks record”, as opposed to being a “songs record.” “It’s very toyish,” she says, bringing to mind the explorative playfulness of one of the album’s prime musical influences, Nokukazu Takemura. “It’s full of little details,” she adds. It’s all the more satisfying that both Room for the Moon and WOW were, in fact, made in tandem with one another between 2016 and 2019, and presented to label RVNG Intl. at the same time as a planned duology of form and abstraction.

Kate still has a bunch of tracks in her back pocket, but she’s having some trouble finishing anything lately. “I started making some new pop tracks in 2021, and I still can’t finish them. It’s just… not the right vibe for those sounds at the moment.” It’s difficult not to draw conclusions from current world events – the on-going conflict between Russia and Ukraine – given that Kate has been primarily based in Moscow. Bouquet, an album of electronic improvisations she made with longtime collaborator Andrey Bessonov, was released in May 2022 to aid Helping to Leave, an organisation that aids people seeking evacuation from areas of military conflict. “It’s still insane,” Kate says. “It’s the least we can do to help people suffering from this crazy war.”

It’s well documented that Kate is a fan-disciple of John Cage; “he’s like a scientist,” she once said. “His approach to music and life in general is more like scientific research, and I’m trying to do the same.” With that in mind, Cage served as a focal point in researching this interview, and there’s one gem of a clip. Interviewed by Richard Kostelanetz, Cage is talking through one of his pieces, an aleatory text made using James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “we do good work when we don’t know what we are doing.” Kate thinks on it for a second. “In a musical context, you’re talking about improvisation, or like playing in a live setting. Because it’s happening here and now, in the moment, it’s super honest. When you start playing in a band, before your fingers have memorised your songs, you’re in a very raw, pure place. The imperfection at its core – it’s very interesting. I’m not Cage, but I think he was probably looking for that feeling all the time.” Trite as it is, it resonates when I listen to WOW, an album created from pieces of immediacy, arranged like bricolages across multiple levels of play. “The context is very important though,” Kate adds. “Like surgery or architecture… no, you need to know what you’re doing with those.”

Photography by Jenia Filatova