Kate Simko is Making Gritty Chicago House With an Orchestral Flair
This Chi-Town native has spent the last decade carving out a reputation as one of dance music’s brightest lights.
Photo by Antony Price
A Chicago native, Kate Simko has spent the last decade carving out a reputation as one of dance music's brightest lights. With a unique take on house music that landed her on the iconic Spectral Sound label—alongside the likes of Matthew Dear, Ryan Elliot, and Seth Troxler—her catalogue has since grown to include releases on Get Physical, Hello? Repeat, Leftroom, No.19, and most recently, Sasha's Last Night On Earth imprint.
A classically trained pianist with her roots in Chicago's revered house scene, Simko's musical education began at Northwestern University. Shortly after, she was studying composition in Santiago, Chile, and recorded her first album Shapes of Summer with Chilean electronic producer Andres Bucci. Since then, she's continued to excel through a variety of projects: whether it's remixing Philip Glass to Guy Gerber or touring with interactive audio-visual live sets.
Her backbone in music theory has been a major aspect of her musical endeavours, allowing her to layer melodies and harmonies no matter the genre. "I'm not afraid to break the rules... My DJ style stems from my Chicago roots—jackin', raw, driving house—and Detroit techno. I was a classically trained musician when I went to my first rave at age 15 in Chicago, but those two worlds were always different until I founded LEO."
Simko created the London Electronic Orchestra, or LEO, while getting a Master's at the Royal College of Music. It was her first experience writing for orchestral instruments, but certainly not the last. In a recent collaboration with Jamie Jones on Emerald City, the pair included strings and harp. "It just adds so much dimension, emotion, and richness," she explains. "I'm sort of addicted! And I plan to keep using live instruments in my upcoming house tracks, film scores, and whatever else. Learning to write for orchestra is honestly the best thing I've done in the past decade music-wise. It gives me and the classical players so much joy to be working together."
Despite the hybrid musical environment that Simko finds herself in today, the initial differences between her life in Chicago and London were as stark as night and day. Initially scared to move across the pond, she found the music scene to be a lot more supportive in London than back home. "Everyone in the electronic music scene was very welcoming," she proclaims. "There's a great sense of community amongst the producers, DJs, film composers, and classical musicians I've met here. Artists have studios near each other, they support events, suggest collaborating, and help one another."
She admits that she never got this sense of community in Chicago. "It probably existed in the older generation of Chicago producers," Simko laments, "but I was too young to be a part of that. And the Chicago house sound seemed to be petrified in 1995 when I was exploring my own in the 2000s. In Chicago I was really on my own path."
Feeling a bit isolated, Simko found inspiration in joining forces with fellow Windy City native Tevo Howard. "We did a little record exchange. From there we met up regularly and had good chats about house, the music industry, etc. We then ended up working together in the studio."
As Simko puts it, Tevo "lives to record songs in an old-school way"—such as recording the drum improvisation live and then mixing the track after. "That was all new to me, and refreshing to not spend days micro-editing and overthinking things!"
Eight years later, what's resulted from their extended collaboration is PolyRhythmic, an album inspired by Chicago that combines classic devices with her and Tevo's experiences abroad over the past few years. Written on Roland drum machines, a 303 emulator, and vintage Korg and Roland synths, the LP is an offering designed to transport both artists and listeners back to the sounds of the Second City.
Take the standout track "No Regrets", which Simko cites as a good middle-ground between her and Tevo. "It has the feeling of Prescription Records—the Chicago label run by Ron Trent and Chez Damier—then Baz from Pirupa added vocals. Her lyrics give me the chills! They remind me of some of the ups and downs Tevo and I have been through, and our 'keep it real' Chicago roots."
"Beat Behavior" makes a big impression too, dripping both old school and modern Chi-Town flavour with its distorted snares with a melodic vocal hook.
Simko defines the eclectic and dynamic PolyRhythmic as "modern Chicago house music." Although the release incorporates many new influences acquired since first stepping into Tevo's Chicago studio way back when, it ultimately retains that old-school, vintage sound of the analog gear. The gritty feel of Chicago.
'PolyRhythmic' will be released on October 9 through Last Night On Earth.
Catch Kate Simko at Fabric on October 31st. For more info, click here.
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