Amy Klein and Catherine Tung have known each other since college—both worked for Harvard’s student radio station, WHRB—but it wasn’t until each had moved to New York City that they formed the noise-rock band, Hilly Eye. “We knew that we agreed with each other’s taste in music,” says Tung. “[Amy] was in need of a drummer and I was in need of a place to play.” They got together and started writing songs a few years ago, but other projects (such as Klein’s stint as a guitarist in Titus Andronicus) kept the duo from recording a full-length record until last year. Released in January, Reasons to Live combines Klein and Tung’s shared influences—punk-rock, riot grrrl and Japanese noise music among them—into a cohesive, at times aggressive whole. TONY chatted with the pair before a practice session to find out how the record came together, and how being a two-piece band informs Hilly Eye’s sound.
You released Hilly Eye’s debut album, Reasons to Live, in January. What kind of music inspired it?
Klein: I was really interested in noise music and in psychedelic music. I had also seen this Japanese band, Afrirampo, which is a two-girl noise band; I was just really into the idea of two girls making a lot of noise and being kind of loud and crazy. My reference point for music is that the feeling is more important than technique; that you try to communicate a certain type of energy that doesn’t have as much to do with being a virtuoso as it does the feeling or energy behind it. That’s what’s important.
How does that attitude affect your playing, or the band’s approach to making music?
Tung: I think it’s affected to a huge extent. The drum parts that I wrote were limited by whatever skills I had at my disposal at the time, and the more I played and the more I learned, the larger that back of tricks got. It’s definitely shaped the sound of the band; the label that we’re on has a lot of straight-up punk bands, and we don’t really sound like that, but there’s a similarity in the sense that punk traditionally has built within its limitations and gained strength from that. That’s how I’ve always felt about our sound, in terms of me experiencing this learning curve, but also in that we were only two people. We’re always looking for ways to sound fuller and make as much noise as we can.
Was Hilly Eye always just you two?
Tung: When I started playing with Amy there was another guitarist involved. But I think that’s another way in which things evolved organically—once we wrote all the songs, then it became clear that this was a two-piece band. We’ve definitely jammed with other musicians but I think it’s another circumstantial factor that’s shaped our sound.
How does the collaborative process work?
Klein: We experimented and did a lot of jamming. We’d just get together once a week and hang out and jam, and see if we could come up with some good ideas. I do think a lot of our influences as far as what we listen to has an impact on the band. We both have a strong sense of taste and what we like, and what we want to try and take from that and work into our own music.
Tung: As far as the album goes, our engineer, Danielle DePalma, had a hand in some of the songwriting. We came in with those ten songs already written, but there were definitely times where she’d have suggestions.
Amy, fans who are familiar with you from Titus Andronicus might be surprised by this record—it’s very different from that band’s style.
Klein: Some of these songs have been around since 2009, which is before I was in Titus. [Laughs] I’ve always made really kind of out-there, experimental music. Maybe people would be surprised, but one thing about Titus is that I did not contribute to the songwriting process; I was there to play the parts. So there would be obvious differences in terms of the style of the music.
Reasons to Live can be quite a dark album. Was that intentional, or did it just go in that direction as you were writing?
Klein: In general, music, for me, is a way to express some of the darker emotions that I feel and put them into something constructive. So I do find naturally that I’m writing some darker lyrics than stuff I’d say in my everyday life. I find darkness kind of interesting, and I like music that has a certain amount of mystery about it, and whether that’s darkness or something enigmatic, that’s cool.
Tung: I never really thought of it that way. Reasons to Live is also the name of an Amy Hempel collection, and her stuff is dark but there’s a certain stubbornness in her writing that I think is encouraging or uplifting. Another thing I thought about a lot was the Weakerthans, the Canadian band; their album Reconstruction Site is about a cancer patient. That’s a dark theme, but all the songs on that album are so much fun to listen to. At the end of the day, I think [Reasons to Live] an optimistic record.
Amy, you’re also really involved in feminist activism. How much does that influence your music?
Klein: Being inspired by other women in music and in the arts has given me the guts to try and do this myself. In a very personal way, I feel that if I hadn’t seen examples of women doing what I want to do, I wouldn’t have tried. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible for me to give it a try. The other way feminism comes in is that I do feel some kind of responsibility, or drive, to make things that are surprising or unexpected—that sort of push boundaries, whether that’s musically or what some people expect a girl to do. I never really want to do something that’s mired in sadness or despair—I always want to do something that’s uplifting or triumphant, even if it expresses darker feelings. There’s a need for strength in what I do, and I think some of that comes from feelings I have about being a female person in the world.
Amy, you’re also in another band, Leda; what are you trying to express with one that you can’t with the other?
Klein: The arrangements are very different, because [Leda is] a five-person band. So rather than minimalism, things get a little orchestral; it’s totally different from this kind of sound with Hilly Eye. The difference is there, things feel a little more composed; I’m sitting in my room alone, figuring out what it is I want to say, and presenting it to other people. This band is more of an opportunity to collaborate, where Catherine brings in a lot of her own ideas, and we just jam for a while and experiment, and see what we can come up with together.
Hilly Eye plays the Don Giovanni Showcase at the Music Hall of Williamsburg Fri 8.
Follow Amy Plitt on Twitter: @plitter