Interview: Bonnie Baxter on Kill Alters’ Harrowing Debut

Bonnie Baxter’s music as Shadowbox is tons of fun – even when it’s got elements of darkness inside. That’s why her newest record – under the name Kill Alters – is such a surprise. Dark, raw, and unnerving, it’s one of the most difficult and fascinating records we’ve heard in a while. The 2013 Red Bull Music Academy grad started the record when she came upon a stash of home recordings done by her mother.

Bonnie Baxter

These recordings aren’t music, exactly. Bonnie’s mother suffers from severe OCD and the recordings were done as a way of coping. As Bonnie listened to them, she began to hear moments of her childhood that she had forgotten, both good and bad. She says that the record – which mixes her mother, her younger self and bracing music – was something felt she had to do. It’s available now on GODMODE and it comes with our highest recommendation.

We caught up with Bonnie late last year to talk about the making of the record.

I listened to your record this morning. And it’s a terrible record to listen to first thing in the morning, I have to say.

Oh my God. I think I might have said that to a few people, “Don’t listen to it first thing in the morning. Maybe later at night.”

What were you listening to when you were creating this music? Was there anything that was a specific reference point?

Not really. Now I’m obsessed again, listening to a load of music and going to shows. Sometimes when I make stuff, there are references to stuff. During that time, I really was just diving into the tapes a lot. It was a weird time. I was kind of listening to stuff, but not really feeling like, “Oh, I want to make something like that. Let me try and...” During that time I was trying to get out of my comfort zone with my vocals. I was very tired of my voice and I wanted to do things that felt a bit uncomfortable without ruining my voice. I was just kind of like, “What feels weird?” Hitting different registers. Now, I’m listening to a lot of Mike Patton and stuff like that. That’s been really inspiring me a lot.

Is there anything you have to do to keep your voice “safe,” so to speak?

There’s a lot I should do, but I don’t. I’m trying to. Especially now we’re working on more of the Shadowbox stuff and the next Kill Alters. In order for me to do the things I want to do, I have to definitely try to do some exercises. I’ve been trying to rehearse the Kill Alters stuff to perform live, and I know that my voice is going to be shot if I don’t do some exercises. It just doesn’t feel natural to me. There are a lot of words – and not a lot of breaths in between.

How many effects did you put on your vocals for this?

Not many. To me, it was more about cutting out the effects. It was trying to stay away from reverb. More so now. There’s still a little bit of reverb in there, but I’m trying to really disconnect from that. It’s easy, especially when I was learning more about production, to add a little bit of reverb. It can hide some of the imperfections or make vocals sound a little sweeter. Now I’m trying to really dry things up more and be careful with distortions. I want to use distortions, but that can go wrong too.

It seems like everyone – when you’re starting out – thinks that reverb is their best friend.

Yeah, exactly. Especially the digital reverb. I’ll still want to play with reverbs, but it’s the digital stuff, the stuff that comes in your DAW. That stuff I can’t even... Especially since friends that are better at engineering, they’re like, “Oof. You’ve got to stop using the reverb.” Audio professionals know when someone’s using a quick in-the-box reverb. But I don’t have a lot of outboard gear or money to buy that stuff, so I use a lot of guitar pedals.

What kind of pedals are you using?

PitchFactor is the big one. I throw everything through that thing and come up with different sounds. I throw my drum machines through there and can create a thousand sounds with one kick sound. It’s pretty amazing.

You mentioned “the tapes” earlier. What was the process of going through that stuff like?

Yeah, well that was the kind of dark side of the whole thing. We were working on a Shadowbox record, which was fun. We were just playing with toys and hanging out. But when I got my hands on all these tapes, I started listening to them and was, “Oh...” It kind of put Shadowbox on the back burner, it just needed my attention...

When you listened to them did you immediately think you needed to make something from them?

Well, just listening to the stuff my mother did was kind of fun for me in a way. She did a lot of fun stuff. Some of it wasn’t fun. There’s some sad parts where she’s on the phone crying to her sister... She used to tape everything, fights with my father. There’s so much stuff in there. Some of it’s really funny and that is what kind of caught my attention. As I listened to them more, though, it brought up a lot of repressed memories. So this music was kind of half done for a while. I was in a deep slump, but I just felt that I had to finish it. Just for myself. It was really hard.

Trying to record it was really hard. Most of my vocals are just live takes, and a lot of the stuff, the instrumentation, is not separated at all. It’s was just, “Turn everything on and start playing it.” Trying to make it shine and master it was the most difficult process ever. I thought it was never going to get done. It still sounds pretty raw, but I think it’s supposed to sound that way now. It was really hard because all the drums weren’t separated, all the keyboards Everything was like three or four tracks.

A friend across the street named David Little mastered it. It took like seven months to do. If you go to some of these heavyweight mastering engineers, they’re like, “You’ve got the money? Great.” And then they’ll probably just pop it through whatever. With David, there was a connection. He was patient. It took a long time. We took him out to eat a lot.

Where does this fit in in the Shadowbox universe?

I don’t think it does. A lot of my electronic friends don’t really connect with it. Some of them do, but I don’t know. I’m sure a lot of people that like the more fun Shadowbox stuff might not connect with this because it’s just so different. Some people were like, “This scares the shit out of me.” Or it made them feel weird. Some just were like, “I don’t know, this is too weird. I don’t know what’s going on.” Some were like, “Whoa, this is really cool.” This definitely wasn’t made to be a crowdpleaser at all. It was kind of like my own self-help in some ways. I do hope that people can connect with it.

What form did the tapes come in? Was it all the same?

No, it’s all scattered. She didn’t really think about quality. They all have multiple names on them. She taped over a lot of them. Stuff she was probably embarrassed by, I could tell. I could see a situation unraveling on a tape and then suddenly it would cut into a TV song or something. I was like, “Damn, I wanted to hear what was going to happen next.” It’s pretty amazing. I’m still weeding through them and that’s pretty exciting. I always get nervous that I’m going to run into a dark moment, though, like somewhere where I’m on the tape and I’m crying.

It must be really fascinating and scary to be listening to this.

Yeah, I’m finding out a lot of things about myself too. Because I always had this deep fear of this Emerson, Lake & Palmer song, and I always wondered why I was so scared of it. Then I was listening to one of the tapes and all of the sudden the song pops on and my mom is like screaming in this really alien-like gremlin voice. I could hear myself... It’s really fucked up. I’m like crying in the background, but she...

Wow. Was there anything that made you laugh or that was funny along the way with this?

Yeah, and it sounds kind of messed up, but a lot of her Tourette’s moments, because we used to laugh about it. My mom has severe OCD and Tourette’s. It’s not the OCD that people think they have when they’re like double-checking things or turning off the stove or washing our hands. She suffers every day and it’s gotten worse and worse to where it’s debilitating. She was able to somehow have fun with it at the same time. These tapes were the only way she was able to deal. If you listen to some of the stuff, I’m laughing. Her laughing was Tourette’s, but I’m laughing with her, and it turns into this funny answer callback thing. That’s just always how we’ve dealt with it.

By Todd L. Burns on February 3, 2015

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