Steve and Katie Petix speak to ReGen about the creation of Technophobia’s recently released and long awaited sophomore record.
An InterView with Steve and Katie Petix of Technophobia
By Ilker Yücel (Ilker81x)
Washington, DC’s Technophobia has been steadily building up a reputation as one of the city’s most reliably innovative acts. Despite the connotations of the band’s name, the duo of Steve and Katie Petix infuse into their musical style a healthy dose of technological exploration and electronic wizardry, blending elements of synthpop, dance, industrial, and EBM, creating a sound that casts a wide net in the underground music scene. That – along with their non-profit record imprint, Working Order Records – has led to Technophobia becoming one of the capitol city’s go-to entities, not only opening for the likes of Skinny Puppy, Laibach, Douglas McCarthy, and Youth Code, but also organizing and hosting several charity events over the years and raising over $12,000 for various community-based causes. December 2020 saw the release of the duo’s long awaited sophomore record Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars, demonstrating the evolution of the Petix’s style toward less abrasive atmospheres into more melodic territory. Steve and Katie took the time to speak with ReGen Magazine about the creation of this new album, bringing 2021 to a sharply focused and positive start despite the difficulties of the global pandemic.
It has been four years since the release of your Flicker Out debut. What has been going on with the band in the interim? What necessitated such a length of time between albums?
Steve: As I am sure you can relate, there are many other factors in life that often come between yourself and your creative endeavors. We have been working to strike a healthy work/life balance over the past few years. While there has been four years between album releases, we have not been idle. Flicker Out was released in 2016 and a large portion of 2017 was spent touring and supporting the album, which included a five-week U.S. tour. In 2018, we decided to take our nonprofit record label Working Order Records to the next level and hosted a two-day dark music festival called Tiny Cat here in Washington, DC. We had influential artists from the U.S., Canada, and Europe come together to raise money and awareness for charity. I have to say it was pretty amazing. The lineup for Tiny Cat included Kontravoid, Hante. (her first U.S. appearance), Crash Course in Science, Tempers, Void Vision, and more. At the end, both nights sold out and we were able to raise $7,000 for the Greater DC Diaper Bank. After all this, I had noticed that I had been stretching my efforts a bit too thin and I was exhausted. Booking tours and organizing festivals takes six to eight months of planning, if not more. It’s a lot and I had noticed I was not focusing on what at the base was my passion, which was our music. So, in the beginning of 2019, we refocused and started writing and eventually recording our new record Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars. It was a long road, but we finally got there.
What would you say have been the biggest developments in Technophobia’s music that people will hear, both from a musical and lyrical standpoint? With the title of Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars, what are the record’s themes?
Steve: The approach for this record was the complete opposite of Flicker Out. Our first record had a very specific sonic palate and overall theme. All of the songs had been performed many times live and developed over time and there were strict parameters that I kept to. For Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars, we threw all of those preconceived notions out and lifted limitations. This was very freeing in the creative songwriting process for me. One thing I had been struggling with was doing things the same way and expecting a different result. I had written dozens of song parts and they were all sounding similar. The last thing we wanted to do was release an album that was essentially more of the same, more Flicker Out. We always want to push our sound and ourselves to grow as musicians and grow as a band. I feel this new record definitely reflects that. This record is much more personal and accurately reflects our current mood and feelings.
What is the working dynamic like between the two of you? Are there specific roles or functions that you each serve?
Steve: Katie and I approach music a bit differently, but I feel it produces a unique outcome. We build upon each other’s strengths. I get heavily into the technical and sonic aspects and gear while Katie focuses on themes, content, and the emotion of the songwriting. I often get lost in the weeds and Katie is great at seeing the bigger picture.
Katie: I’m not lit up by figuring out how things work, so most of the technical implementation stuff falls on Steve. My strengths definitely lie in melodic content and editing. I love to get in there and weed out all the extra layers that just aren’t enhancing the songs. One thing we end up struggling with when we’re in creation mode is totally on me though. I am easily discouraged and embarrassed, so it’s hard for me to create in front of other people. I usually have to take bits and pieces Steve has started and work on them privately for some time before I can bring them back to the table in a productive way. It’s something I’m working on, but it definitely has created challenges for us.
Vaccines are supposed to be on the way, but… who knows what will happen with an extremely agitated populace, an increasingly unhinged government, etc.?
Being based in DC, to what extent do the current social and political events play into Technophobia?
Steve: I think it is safe to say that even with vaccines being rolled out, we are still looking at 2022 until we can start to get back to any semblance of normalcy. I would not say we are a political band, but we very openly brandish our ideologies. This is a large part of who we are as individuals. This year, due to the pandemic and so many other factors, has been extremely challenging, emotional, and upsetting. Living in Washington, DC, it is very difficult to escape politics – it’s everywhere. So much has happened and so many people are hurting that it of course has affected us. We are both sensitive and empathetic people and have been deeply moved by the tragedy and unrest. There are many themes on this record that, for me, are currently relevant. Our song ‘One Spark’ is based upon the fact that movements and social change are moved forward by individual people. I saw Howard Zinn speak once and he said to not try to take on all of the world’s problems. He believed that individuals turn the tide of change. That is why we strive to support community-based charities though Working Order Records. These are the people who make a direct impact in people’s lives. This is powerful to witness and be a part of.
Katie: I am a deeply emotional human. It is completely outside of my experience to be able to fathom how anyone in the U.S. right now can separate our nation’s social and political climate from their creative ventures. I suppose I can see it from the standpoint of fear and scarcity – people being afraid to upset others, or to be attacked for their opinions, people being afraid to lose fans, influence, and money… Maybe it’s also because I feel so strong in my convictions. I know I cannot control how I am perceived; all I can do is speak my truth. So, to ignore what’s happening in our world and not include those feelings and themes in my art would be disingenuous and out of integrity for me.
On the broader end of things, we seem to hear more and more (thanks to social media giving everyone a voice, for better or worse) ‘stick to acting’ or ‘stick to music.’ I’ve also noticed more musicians (ones I actually quite like) saying they feel it’s not their place or that of any musician to ‘tell people what to think’ by engaging in political discussion or proselytizing.
What do you feel are the responsibilities of an artist, musician, actor, etc. to engage in political discourse?
Steve: For me, I feel a lack of willingness to engage with people who think differently than you do is a big part of the problem. I do not feel that expressing opinions or personal views equates to telling people what to think. Using your platform to express your political or social views is totally reasonable. I also recognize that for many people, this is uncomfortable, and we should not crush people who choose not to express their views publicly, but this idea that artists should have no opinion is ridiculous. For Katie and me, we never feel the need to tear someone down to express our views or make ourselves look better. I feel people need to learn that Facebook is not a place to have a healthy discourse on anything. When you post anything political or controversial on FB, it will either descend into terribleness or your community is so siloed that it really is just an echo chamber making zero impact anywhere.
Katie: I don’t think it’s acceptable anymore (as if it ever was) to sit silently and ignore what’s happening while continuing to promote as if everything is just hunky dory. But I also appreciate that not every musician is necessarily equipped to handle being a spokesperson to a cause. And honestly, that’s no slight on them. I’ve had a hard time with it a little bit, not because we are shy to speak up… we’re both very willing in fact to talk about the issues globally, nationally, and within our scene. But rather because I am not the best at keeping up with our Instagram. Steve takes care of the Facebook page and does a way better job than I! So, on Instagram anyway, it was kind of like I’d take a stance and then disappear to process. I do intend to change that this year and start showing up in a much bigger way. I think we all get to figure out how to be vocal in a way that won’t break us down, especially when it comes to strangers online.
Your music blends different aspects of dark electro, pop, and even some industrial flourishes, and there does seem to be a propensity in modern music to mix genres to the Nth degree. What are your thoughts on the validity of ‘genres’ in music?
Steve: (Laughter) You have touched on our Achilles heel, my friend. This has been something we have struggled with since our inception. Having a very hyper-specific genre or micro-niche is super important these days. We landed on dark pop for this record because we feel it best reflects this collection of songs. Our music is our creative amalgamation of all of our musical, artistic, and outside influences. I do not see Technophobia as mixing genres really; I see our sound much more organic than that. We just write songs from our own creative point-of-view. That being said, we have always tried to adhere to a pop aesthetic. All of our songs range from three- to four-and-a-half minutes in length and have a specific direction. Melody and song structure in music has always been important to me. All of the songs I love and find myself being drawn to or even redrawn to seem to have these elements.
Katie: I think your word choice is really interesting, ‘a propensity in modern music to mix genres to the Nth degree.’ I hadn’t ever considered it this way! I consume music at an incredible rate. I am always seeking to expand. It lights me up. We have more music accessible to us than ever before. I take everything I hear and process it though myself. It seems only natural that it would be sewn together. Why wouldn’t I take all that I’m inspired by and love and create with it? Maybe it’s naïve of me to assume everyone is like me, but why would anyone want to create only one kind of music and reach only one kind of person when I myself am so intensely multi-dimensional? You know?
Creative thoughts aside, I work in marketing, so I fully understand the industry’s desire for genres. But… I think we can do better. Take TikTok’s algorithm for instance. It’s brilliant. In about 60 minutes of usage, it had me totally figured out. I think there’s so much more room for advancement that will make genres less important.
There is an ironic quality to the band name, of course. So, for the gearheads out there, what sort of advances in technology – musical or otherwise – have brought you the most excitement since the last album’s release?
Steve: True, although that was not really what was intended originally. The intent of the name Technophobia was more of a reflection of the existential idea of isolation and how we really only have our own consciousness. Obviously, I am paraphrasing here, but we see self-isolation through technology and the fear of truly being alone ironic. In retrospect, this was a bit of a reach and not at all easy to get. So, no one got it, and people only focused on the irony of being a hardware-based electronic band, which is fine.
I took a deep dive into our analog gear and spent a long time crafting the sounds and modulations that are reflected on Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars. The two synths that were used most on this record were our Sequential Circuits Pro-One and Dreadbox NYX. Both synths have a heavy analog sound and interesting architecture in terms of modulation and workflow. We took time finetuning the pulses and cycles in the studio which was really rewarding actually. Neither of these synth have any preset capability, so you need to dial in the separate sounds individually. We also used a lot of our Korg Polysix (which I would argue has some of the best and warmest pads and strings ever) and our Oberheim Matrix 1000 in addition to a few random softsynths. Sampling has always been a big part of Technophobia’s sound and we did a lot on this record as well. While there are no vocal samples like we used on Flicker Out, there is great deal of sampling in the beats that were created. One sound that stands out is the pipe sound in ‘Silent Sailor.’ There is a sound throughout the song that comes across like a pan flute or some other instrument but is actually a manipulated recording of hitting a PVC pipe with a piece of wood. We had a lot of fun with the sampling on this record.
You worked with photographer Nick Fancher, and the imagery surrounding this new album is full of vibrant color, while the imagery for Flicker Out was rather monochromatic. Was this an intentional contrast? To what extent do the visuals play into Technophobia’s themes, on this album and in general?
Katie: It was absolutely intentional. I’m of course still proud of the work we did on that first album, but its darkness is harder for me to personally connect with now. My father died just weeks before I went into the studio to record Flicker Out, I had just left my professional career with no solid idea of where I would go next, I was newly off of my mental health medications, which had caused me to gain weight and feel not only out of touch with my brain but also my body. It was a dark time for me, and I feel that comes through in the album as a whole.
Since then, I’ve had personal, spiritual, and professional growth that is immeasurable. I wanted this album to honor where I came from, but most importantly look to brightness ahead – a beginning, an awakening. I’m a really visual person; part of my creative process is to pull artwork and colors that evoke an emotional response from me. Before we went to Nick’s studio, I went back through those mood boards I created before I started writing and looked for common themes. There was lots of deep saturation, gold and yellow, navy and dark ocean blues; and also, lots of movement, water, and air.
I’m so happy with the images we accomplished with Nick, and I really hope we can continue working with him in the future.
Steve: We were really excited to collaborate with Nick on this project. He was absolutely amazing to work with – such a great guy and true artist. All of the treatment and artistry is done in camera. It’s not photoshop.
Besides the band, you two are heavily involved with the label, Working Order Records, a nonprofit label that assists various charities in the DC area.
What would you say are the biggest challenges for you in maintaining both your own music and a label with such a specific message and approach?
Steve: Working Order Records is not run and operated like a standard record label. We are not looking to release records on a long-term basis or own anyone’s music. The business model is set to partner with musicians, leverage their unreleased music and be a platform to raise funding and awareness for community-based charities. WOR focuses mainly on short-run vinyl and instead of ‘releases,’ we have ‘campaigns.’ It’s a new approach to the traditional record label. The challenge is in the business model itself. WOR donates 100% of the proceeds we raise through our campaigns, not profits. This means funding for all other resources comes from external donations or grants. For our Tiny Cat Dark Music Festival, we received a grant from Awesome Foundation DC to help pay the bands and procured a lot of in-kind contributions. These were like food donations, donated hotel rooms, festival shirts, etc. It is so much work. Even through the pandemic, we were able to raise $2,000 for Community of Hope DC through the pre-order of our new record. So, we are moving forward as best we can. We would love to land a bigger grant and put on a big festival here in DC… fingers crossed.
The band recently performed a livestream event at The Black Cat, and while livestreams obviously don’t hold the same power as a live show, they have become part of the norm due to the current crisis. What possibilities do you foresee for live music to survive or evolve in the wake of the current situation?
Katie: I’m not really sure. It’s a frustrating situation. I think once the vaccine starts to become more accessible, we’ll start seeing low- to mid-capacity in-person events with livestream elements. I know this is of no help to venues that are really struggling right now, but I fully anticipate that 2022 is going to be a killer year for live shows and tours. We’re all going to be so excited to get out there that you’re going to be guaranteed an amazing show any night of the week. My only concern from a booking perspective is how hard will it be for smaller artists to get dates booked if everyone is clamoring for the stage.
What sort of possibilities do you see for Technophobia and other bands to use new and online technologies to keep music alive and maintain the excitement of audiences?
Steve: I mean, livestreaming is one like you said. I am really unsure what the future will hold. I feel strongly that selfcare should be at the top of everyone’s list before anything else.
Katie: We’re so burned out that it’s challenging to even think about learning and implementing new technologies right now! I’m really not meaning to be a pessimist; I’m just so drained from the election cycle and violence here in DC, on top of going into year two of stay-at-home isolation… I’m sure you all get it.
Last year, I worked really hard on editing our first official music videos. I haven’t felt the inspiration for another yet, but that is surely a possibility. What I do hope to do is go back and find ways to repurpose and refresh things we’ve done previously. As so many new people are finding us through Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars, it’s a great opportunity to look back to Flicker Out… remix our visual assets, so to speak. I also want to really lean into showing up on social media in a much bigger way than before. I feel like I’m about to hit my next big cut as a front person – Katie2.0 – develop and nurture relationships, get personal, be vulnerable. I think that is something that all artists can be doing now to keep excitement with their fans. We’re all craving connection.
What’s next for Technophobia?
Steve: We had to adjust our entire plan for 2020, but we are okay with all that at this point. In 2021, we’d like to work on a remix album for Some of Us Are Looking at the Stars. Other than that, we look forward to the day when we can get back into clubs and play for and connect with people. Playing live and touring is the big payoff for us. It is what we love to do most.
Katie: If inspiration strikes, I’d love to try and put out another music video, so we’ll see. We’re on a bit of a pause for livestreams. 2020 left us pretty drained energetically and creatively, and 2021 hasn’t been very kind here in DC, but I really hope the tides are turning. I would say to not expect another livestream until March at the earliest. Definitely expect to see me more on Instagram in the coming months though.
I think the next big thing for us is shifting back into writing (we’ve got some new equipment to play with so that’s exciting!) and starting the remixes. I really want to work with more female producers and artists. I’d also love to figure out how to make some vocal collaborations with other women I admire happen, so hopefully I’ll get some clarity around that as we recoup.
Photography by Nick Fancher – courtesy of Nick Fancher Photography and Technophobia