Hannah Lew on Cold Beat’s New Album, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Music for Machines


Chaos By Invitation is the name of the third album by San Francsisco’s Cold Beat–though, to hear the band’s founder, Hannah Lew, talk about its genesis, chaos may be the last thing that comes to mind. The sound of the group’s albums have veered from urgent postpunk to a more ethereal sound, the main constants being Lew’s vocals and her distinctive lyrical sensibility. We talked about the role of science fiction in her work, how the work of Ursula K. Le Guin was influential on her songwriting, and much more.

You’ve talked about astronomy being an influence on Cold Beat’s new album. Was that something that you had in mind from the outset with this record, or did it develop later on?

I think I’ve always gravitated towards thinking poetically about things that I don’t know about. The moon and other astronomical things are just distant enough that they help me make analogies for how I’m feeling on this earth. I’ve always been interested in sci-fi and imagining different realities, other than the one we’re in. Especially these days, with all the news, it’s been really healthy for me to think about the big picture, the whole universe, and not just this tiny little piece of it.

Also, we’re having to be creative with our resistance right now. It’s good to imagine totally different possibilities and keep your mind open. I like astronomy for that.

Where do your tastes in science fiction fall?

I’m a big Ursula K. Le Guin fan. I really like her ability to imagine totally different realities and possibilities. She puts out philosophical what-ifs that are really valuable to consider about gender and the way societies work in general. It’s always good to imagine something really different. Beyond the entertainment value, it’s really healthy to imagine things being a different way, especially when the systems that are present aren’t working at all.

I watch lots of science fiction movies as well. I recently re-watched Altered States. That movie is so good.

I got a book about the singularity called Superintelligence that I’ve been really trying to get through, but it’s really heady. I’m really interested in that stuff. I’m interested in how we use technology and where we’re headed as a society. Science fiction goes there; it imagines, “well, what is this did happen?” And it’s based in science, which is really interesting. Science itself is interesting–even just finding out things that are happening in our world right now. I love it when people like Italo Calvino or Ursula K. Le Guin take those pre-existing things and make them fables. It’s allowing yourself to be really creative with reality.

Do you remember the first book of Le Guin’s that you read?

I started with The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s definitely still my favorite. It’s a book that presents the idea that all humans could be both male and female at different points in their life. In the book, there’s no rape culture; there’s no war. All these things are gone because there isn’t this fundamental division. There isn’t this fundamental othering that’s part of society. She lays it out in this way that makes you think about gender politics and how that informs who we are as a society. I love that book so much. It’s really cool. Her voice is great. Once you get into her voice, you get addicted to it. You want to read all of her other books. That one definitely started me off.

There’s also The Dispossessed. They’re all about someone being isolated, being an alien entering a new land. I think that’s a place I often write from, so I I relate to that kind of character. All those books have that similar thread of a world that resembles ours, but has certain elements that are totally different. She tackles a lot of political and moral things through cool analogies, and she’s really smart.

I’m slowly working my way through one of her collections of short stories right now. I need to actually…finish it, though.

I always like people who read a few things at a time. That’s what I’ve been doing with Superintelligence. It’s almost like a textbook, and I feel like I need to read something light to compare with it. Honestly, a lot of the reading I do is The New Yorker. I read a lot of articles. What I like about that is that I end up reading about things that I never would read about on my own. I always learn something new.

That’s how I came across Nick Bostrom, who wrote Superintelligence. I thought, this guy sounds really interesting. It’s a good way to learn.

You’ve written about the impact of tech culture on cities in your own music. Has any of that come up as you’ve been reading about the singularity?

In the Bay Area, there’s a lot of cultural tension. Whether you want to be a part of it or not, there are people with a lot of money here. That amount of wealth has created a lot of new fancy things that are for those people. The city’s landscape has actually changed–there are taxi lanes now, and there’s a lot of traffic. It’s really overpopulated. It is interesting to be in this tech city. Sometimes I think about it and try to think positively about it: “There’s so much innovation!”

But honestly, a lot of the people who are working on stuff here aren’t working on very exciting things. They’re working on video games or Facebook. Facebook, to me, is a really ugly side of the way we’ve chosen to use technology. There’s a lot of self-surveillance. Remember when you were younger, and you’d go, “I wish I could know what people were thinking right now?” Now, that kind of stuff is possible. You know what people are thinking constantly. And I think it’s changed the way people act. If you go to other cities, like New York or LA, I feel like people are a little more in the moment. People here are living on their phones. It’s really crazy.

Culturally, it’s really changed people here. There are people who want to be served, because they’re people with a lot of money. There are a few people that we still know who live here, but they’re mostly living here because there’s some loophole or some exception, where they have rent control or some crazy job.

There’s a lot of tension here. People are sort of sizing each other up. Mixed in with the tech culture, you have a lot of homelessness, which you don’t have in other cities to the degree that you do here. There’s this dichotomy. People I grew up with– I know someone who’s been homeless for 13 years on the streets of San Francisco. A lot of people walk around dehumanizing those folks, but–at least two San Francisco natives that I can think of live in tents in the city here. It’s a reality. To me, it’s not that alien. There are homeless people who live here, and then there are really rich people. It makes for a really crazy dynamic. There are rich people who are impervious to what the city’s actual culture is, where it’s like a big Google campus. It’s really bizarre.

There are still a lot of really cool people, who I relate to more, in Oakland more than San Francisco. I want to feel like I’m in this city of innovation and interest, but I think that at least half of the big companies that everyone works for here are creating things that I’m not that inspired by. They’re platforms to make life more convenient, and platforms for more surveillance and self-surveillance. I could imagine so many more interesting things.

There are a lot of weird key phrases I’ve learned about, like “an experience.” “Oh, what’s the work experience like?” It’s a lot of people who aren’t from here, and they want a whole different culture. The main thing is, it’s about money. There’s just a lot of money here. Sometimes I try to think of it in a sci-fi positive kind of way. Most of the time, it’s a lot of CEOs that are in their 20s. It’s weird.

I was just out of town for a week. When I got back, I really felt the tension in the air here. You don’t notice it when you’re around it every day. When you’re back, it’s like….weird tech bros are everywhere. I think there’s probably a lot of interesting stuff that I don’t know about, and I just see the fallout from it. I’d like to believe there’s a connection.

I saw something on social media recently about someone who’d created a Bluetooth-enabled salt shaker. I couldn’t tell if that was a parody or not.

We haven’t found a cure for cancer, and there are people in much of the world who don’t have access to clean drinking water.

I just wish that more of the energy was put towards equalizing out the planet and getting more resources to people who don’t have access to things. It’s a telltale sign that we have the biggest homeless population in the country here, and the people having the most money. But the people making that money are totally impervious to their surroundings. I can’t believe we have that problem here, when there are people making the amount of money that they do. They don’t see themselves as part of anything. It’s really bizarre.

Was there a point where you decided that science fictional metaphors were better for writing about that kind of tension?

When it comes to the classic Ursula K. Le Guin character, I can relate to that here. I feel that alienation on a day-to-day basis here. It’s part of my reality. When I read about characters like that, I relate to it. It’s interesting–we just played our record release show last week at the Starland in Oakland. It was such a beautiful night, and all these people came out, and there was so much love and support. I had this moment where I thought, all these songs are about my deep alienation and sense of not fitting in to anything–yet there are so many people here that are so supportive. Sometimes I think it’s just me being a weird alien, too. Or feeling that bigger cultural picture. There still are a lot of people making art and taking time to abstract on what our world is here. I just feel it a lot–but it’s not the only thing that’s going on here.

Are there artists you’ve seen play music recently who you’ve been particularly impressed with?

Our record release show, the whole lineup was amazing. There was a moment where I went, “Man! I talk a lot of shit on the Bay Area, but these bands rule! And they live in my town!” We played with Cube. He’s on this label Left Hand Path out of San Francisco, and he was just amazing. He had a video element to what he was doing. It’s kind of electronic/analog, and he has a great voice. We also played Marbled Eye, they’re a new band out of Oakland, and then Magnetizer, who’s so awesome. He’s a solo electronic guy. There are definitely people making really interesting music here right now, which I’m grateful for. It’s been a while since I felt like I related to a lot of other bands around. Those bands are really great; definitely check them all out.

I was really taken by the cover art of the new album, because it has an astronomical feel to it, but it almost reads like a strange bar code. What do you see when you look at it?

I made a lot of the album by myself. This is the most solo time I’ve spent on an album. I recorded it on a computer, using a computer program. I got into this place where I was collaborating with machines more than I usually do. There’s less guitar, so I was collaborating with the computer, making weird algorithms that are based in me but rippling out through the computer and into different synthesizers. It was really me and machines, and feeling both the isolation of being alone with a machine and also the reliability of a machine. So there were two different ways of feeling about technology.

I liked the idea that the music could be machine-readable, and somehow just be understood or identified with. Imagining the singularity, and imagining what a robot would think of it. I was just tripping out about that stuff, and thinking about the golden record that NASA sent into outer space. They sent up all these songs, but there was also this machine-readable element to interpret what we were trying to say about ourselves through our music, our songs. I was thinking about that stuff a lot.

Kevin McCarthy made the art. It looks like a QR code, but it’s actually a really blown-up photograph. I liked the machine-readable fonts, and the idea that there are certain things that were created by humans that aliens or machines could understand. We spend a lot of time trying to understand machines, so it’s cool to make something that’s made for a machine to understand. It’s about having a dialogue with the machines. I guess that’s what happens when you’re creating stuff alone at your computer. You get into a zone.

Photo: Hannah Lew

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