All Dressed

Phantom Power: in conversation with Ky Brooks

Ky Brooks is a forthright fan of Dad Rock.

“I really like Dire Straits,” Brooks tells me on the phone one sunny Friday afternoon in April. “I’m ashamed of these things, but they are a major part of my musical upbringing. So I just love them.”

It makes sense that such diverse influences, high and low, would filter into Brooks’ creative sensibilities. Ky — whose latest recording, Power is the Pharmacy, spans free jazz to coldwave, spoken word to electro — spent their formative years in Wakefield, Quebec, hometown of the legendary venue, The Blacksheep Inn, where nearly every hard-working rock band stops on tour.

Growing up, Ky’s parents curated an eclectic musical mix in the home: everything from Classical and Motown to Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. So much so that Country 105, the local Country and Western radio station, became a defiant aesthetic statement. “I remember my brother and I liked to listen to it specifically because my dad hated it,” Ky says. “It was very much a rebellious act — kids in a small town reacting against parents with highbrow taste. We were like, ‘yeah, we like Pop Country.’”

Yet omnivorous and inclusive palates for genre and style characterize contemporary experimental music scenes, and none seems more voracious than Ky’s new work, a densely layered recording that was conceived during the depths of the pandemic. “It was a long process,” says Ky. “It was a sort of two-year thing. It’s the first project of its kind that I’ve done, that was modular in the sense of different people in different places doing stuff, and accumulated over time rather than recorded all at once.”

The deliberative method bore fruit for Brooks, who suffered a number of significant setbacks through recent years. Ky was an early contributor to La Plante, the city’s long-running but now defunct DIY creative space, and a member of the power punk trio Lungbutter, whose drummer, Joni Sadler, died suddenly in 2021. We don’t discuss Sadler much, Ky gliding over her name like a burnt tongue testing its abilities to taste again.

One particular track on Power is the Pharmacy — “All The Sad And Loving People” — is Ky’s “most direct piece of writing in response to Joni’s passing.” It is, appropriately, some of the strongest material on the album, which Brooks, an accomplished recording engineer, mixed and remixed obsessively in the studio. “One thing I’ve discovered from this process of mixing,” Ky admits, “is that I really have a much harder time mixing my own material than I do other people’s material.”

Ky faced their darkest hour with a healthy dose of science fiction and self-care. “This album in particular, while I was making it, I was referring to it as a concept album in some way,” Brooks explains. “I was part of this Queer Sci-Fi reading group during the pandemic. And my friends and I did The Artist’s Way, which is this self-help book from the ‘90s. It’s about artistic blockages. It was a pandemic thing to do. I had a mentor who had told me it was a really important thing for her that she had done, and I was like, ‘everything is depressing, I am so alone, I guess I’ll do this self-help book from the ‘90s.’ And it was really quite an awesome experience. I recorded two albums’ worth of material in a month.”

At such a pace, Ky’s musicmaking is necessarily affectively driven. “I think there are different ways to experience music,” Ky says. “I really love playing live, and I always feel very present when I’m playing live.” But just as a movie is reborn in the editing room, a record is reborn in the recording studio.

“I feel most engaged with what I’m making when I’m actively singing,” Ky says. “Like doing vocal takes; that, I really enjoy. That makes sense because where I’m coming from is being a vocalist. That’s always what comes first for me. That moment is really important. And I also really, really like doing editing and mixing. It becomes very creative and I can get into a kind of flow state where it feels like I’m able to translate musical ideas really clearly and efficiently. Those are the two cases. They feel really different, but they are related. That’s where I’m quote-quote ‘making music.’”

“I feel most engaged with what I’m making when I’m actively singing.”
Ky Brooks photographed by Stacy Lee.

Intimations of A.I. and machine intelligence float close to the surface of Ky’s effected soundscapes. The voices are plural on Power — deformed, but also deeply personal and emotionally moving. Electronic processing at times obscures the album’s lyrics, like a protective film, and at others draws the artist and their audience nearer.

“There’s a distorted and pitch-shifted voice,” Ky divulges, “which is a very mournful voice. It’s looking back at wreckage in some ways. Then there are others that are more optimistic. I don’t want to get into the whole thing, like, man versus machine, or the natural versus the artificial, but I do feel like I had some of those cheesy narratives in my head while I was writing that material that were useful for figuring out emotionally what was going on.”

The difference between human and machine, between artificial and real intelligence, is precisely the half-baked idea, the natural ability to transcend the binary, to be neither 0 nor 1, or both at once, and ultimately, an awareness of identity and character.

“We don’t have any real reason to believe that there’s a self-experience of Chat GPT or something like that,” Ky says. “I think it’s really interesting seeing people’s responses to them. It can seem so human or living in some ways. But people’s responses are what’s interesting to me. They’re very limited tools, A.I. They do specific things. They don’t have a sensorium in the same way that a person does.”

Still, Ky’s emotional intelligence shines when fusing unlikely elements into some form of Canadian Gothic alchemy. “I love The Tragically Hip,” Ky confesses. “I feel like Gord Downie is a weird, unsung, major singing influence for me.”◼︎

Ky performs with Genital Shame and HRT at Suoni per il popolo festival, June 1st 2023.

Power is the Pharmacy is released through Constellation Records.

Photos by Stacy Lee.