Cold Air, the new album from Portland’s Drowse, is a gently noisy rumination on fear, sadness, dreams, and death helmed by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Bates.
It’s a far cry from the runny noses, untied shoes, and playground giggles that fill his days as a preschool teacher. But Bates’ job and his music are intrinsically linked, since the demands of the latter help keep the feelings explored with the former at bay.
“If I’m really stressed out or feeling down, when I go [to work], it’s sort of impossible to feel negative, because the kids are so cute and you have to be really present to interact with them all the time,” he says. “If I’m feeling bad about stuff it really helps to take my mind off things.”
Bates has been fighting negativity for most of his life, and he’s used Drowse to document and process that battle. An early EP, Songs to Sleep On, revolved around a severe mental breakdown that happened when he was 18. (He’s 25 now.) The band’s debut LP, 2015’s Soon Asleep, examined Bates’ feelings and experiences with post-breakdown prescription drugs. And 2016’s Memory Bed EP was a bit more abstract, exploring memories and the way they change and fade over time.
Which brings us to Cold Air, released earlier this month via the Flenser, one of the leading record labels for dark, experimental music. At 12 tracks and 45 minutes (including snippets of an interview with Bates’ mother and melodies written and sung by Bates' partner, Maya Stoner), it’s strange and unsettling music, but also endlessly beautiful and extraordinarily honest. “Oh, let it be known/That I’m afraid,” Bates sings on “Rain Leak,” his voice a low murmur buried in the mix.
Cold Air is Drowse’s finest work to date. Sonically, it wanders from sketched-out neo-classical swells and fuzzy drones to warped slowcore, quiet acoustic passages, and rock songs that sound submerged in static and molasses. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the album also marks a shift in Bates’ songwriting perspective.
“[Older Drowse recordings] were more reflective, looking back on things that happened when I was younger,” he explains. “I was separated from the event. With this one, I was trying to write more directly about ongoing struggles that I have. And that was way scarier for me.”
He was concerned for how his parents and others might feel about Cold Air’s themes, “but I wanted to be honest about the things that were going on while I was making it.”
Bates grew up in Portland and has lived here most of his life, save for a few years at college in Bellingham, Washington. He was a “huge metalhead” in middle school, discovered more melodic noise like My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth in high school, and then got heavy into the droning acts on Kranky Records. Major influences on Drowse’s sound, he says, include lo-fi indie heroes the Microphones, Grouper, and Eric’s Trip, plus a strong interest in DIY home recording.
Bates connected with the Flenser through friends in two of the label’s bands, Planning for Burial and King Woman. He feels at home on the label, even though many of the acts on the roster are heavier than Drowse, which he’s taken to describing as “gray pop," a term conceived by Stoner for her band, Floating Room.
“I try to avoid having a genre, really, as much as I can,” Bates says. “I don’t really think of music that way. Or at least, I try not to.”
Instead, he thinks of music as a diary of sorts. A storytelling opportunity. A chance at catharsis. An effort to self-psychoanalyze. A path to candor.
“If you try to hide from fear, it just makes it worse,” Bates says. “For me, it’s kind of a good way to control the fears. If I was keeping all that stuff closed off from people, I feel like I would be worrying about it a lot more. It’s a lot better than just trying to ignore it and letting it build up, I think.”
Not that he necessarily wants to have a conversation with you about it out in the real world, mind you. That’s what Cold Air is for.
“I’d rather just be alone and work on music than talk about this stuff with people,” Bates says. “I think it’s good to be open about it, but my favorite part of music is definitely recording by myself, because that’s when I can kind of forget about everything else in my life.”