Music » Music Features

Optic Sink

Confronting the heavy wheels running us down.

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Natalie Hoffmann is on unfamiliar terrain, and that's just where she likes it. It's a gray, treacherous landscape where the boundaries between human and machine are not so clear. And that tension between the heart and the gears, between our souls and the clockworks in which we're caught, makes for music that's both thought-provoking and, somehow, fun.

This is not a new project by NOTS, the group she's better-known for, but Optic Sink, her duo with Ben Bauermeister (Magic Kids, Toxie, A55 Conducta), where she sets aside her guitar in favor of stark electronic minimalism, mixing both sequenced and freestyle synthesizer lines with clean, cold drum machine beats and a touch of percussion. In an age where we're all at the mercy of algorithms and hidden networks of power, their new self-titled debut on Goner Records captures the zeitgeist beautifully.

Optic Sink: Ben Bauermeister and Natalie Hoffmann - COURTESY OPTIC SINK
  • Courtesy Optic Sink
  • Optic Sink: Ben Bauermeister and Natalie Hoffmann

Memphis Flyer: The feeling of this alienated voice struggling to be human while caught in the gears seems especially appropriate during this election season. It seems you take that subject head-on with "Personified," where you sing, "plain hate/personified/under your heavy wheels/are we alone?"

Natalie Hoffmann: I was trying to express this idea of how things ripple throughout the country and affect people's way of thinking and actions. So if hate is on display at the magnitude that it is with Trump, then of course that's going to embolden more hate in our country from his supporters. The trickle-down effect is on display. And then you see things like Fox News, and it's like a wheel. That's where the "heavy wheel" part of that song comes from.

Your voice on this record is like a deadened character in an automated landscape.

I really like the tension of a more human voice that is sounding pretty machine-like, but mixed with these actual machines. And I like the tension between a sequencer [playing automated patterns of notes] with stuff that I play completely by hand. And Ben has that going on, too, with his drum machine parts mixed with his live percussion overdubs.

In the song "Girls in Gray," it's like you're both protesting the machine and being assimilated into it.

"Girls in Gray" is about women in power who use that power against other women. Unfortunately, we're seeing that on display right now, too. "They laugh at all other pain," which could mean being bullied at school, and of course that's what's happening on a larger scale, when women who come into power think it's their job to tell other women what to do with their bodies or how they should live.

How did Optic Sink get started?

I always give Chris Williams and Amy Schaftlein a shout-out, and their Sonosphere podcast. They're really the ones who got me to play a show. When I started writing these songs, I didn't know what to do with a sequencer, but it was exciting to learn it. Just learning the process had a huge influence on this record. We recorded onto tape with Andrew McCalla at Bunker Audio. Andrew usually does really guitar-driven music. So having him doing this cold electronic thing, but through his setup, added a whole other layer to our theme of the human/machine.

There's a more intimate, personal side to the album, too, like the closing track, "Set Roulette."

That song is pretty heavy with the tension between wanting to feel hopeful and feeling stuck. Whether it's grief or a mental health condition, or whatever cycle you find yourself stuck in. It could be a more political cycle, of being depressed by the state of things right now. It applies to all of that at once. I wanted those lyrics to contrast with the synth. It's a sequenced pattern, but I manipulate it and give it a more human tension. Going from playing guitar, which is a more visceral thing, affects how I play synth, because I always want to mess with it [laughs].

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