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Interlay burrows deep into post-punk on the “Cicada” EP

The Madison quartet formerly known as Wash explores broader soundscapes and themes of rebirth.

Photo: Interlay’s members are, from left to right: Alex Kaiser, Indigo Smith-Oles, Alexandria Ortgiesen, and Nathan Hahn. Photo by Geordon Wollner.

Madison band Interlay makes post-punk that’s rich in gothic timbre, combining powerfully emotive elements from each member into a fiery whole. The band’s sophomore EP, Cicada, is rife with spiritual conflict that pours out from the steely lilt of vocalist/guitarist Alexandria Ortgiesen’s melodies, Indigo Smith-Oles’ twisting guitar arrangements, and the deep-rooted rhythms of drummer Alex Kaiser and bassist Nathan Hahn. Cicada is likely to secure the spell Interlay has held over its fans since early 2018, when the band started playing out under its initial name, Wash

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Interlay will be performing this Saturday, November 21, via WUD Music’s Twitch stream.

After the release of Wash’s debut EP, Ritual, and the departure of bassist Adam Flottmeyer, the group entered a transitional period. Despite the following Wash earned early on in the Madison music community, the band found itself lost within a vast sea of artists who claimed the name on streaming sites like Spotify and Bandcamp. “You could never really find us,” Ortgiesen says. 

Enter Interlay, a name Ortgiesen says the band derived from a surgical technique called interlay tympanoplasty, a common procedure used when repairing a damaged eardrum. “The name change was my condition,” jokes Hahn, who joined the group in October 2019. Ortgiesen met Hahn through mutual friends, and recruited him for Interlay’s open bass position after hearing his band 745ish’s single “Drive”—a twanging, spaghetti-western gallup released in June 2019. While the new name suits their imposing sonic textures, the EP’s title evokes a mutation the band seem keen on using as its guiding light. 

“In mythology and literature, cicadas symbolize transformation—life to death to decay, that sort of thing—which not only inspired the blood you see in the ‘Spine’ music video but also our lyrics in general,” Ortgiesen says. Ortgiesen’s lyrics draws inspiration from the work of poets like Sylvia Plath, who advanced the genre of confessional poetry through poems like “Elm,” in which she contemplates the presence of death: “I am terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me; / All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” In Interlay’s song “Machinist,” Ortgiesen seems to welcome this same “dark thing” as a friendly companion, singing: “Machinist, razor / I can feel your / Darker pleasure / You’re in my veins again, / Harsher fever / When I’m clean again.”

Listeners and fellow musicians have often described Interlay as a shoegaze outfit, a label the band has tried to renounce from the start. Smith-Oles believes people box them into this genre because of their heavy use of guitar effects. The shoegaze element is clear enough, but so is the imprint of post-punk bands that seem to be branded onto Interlay’s skin—a list that includes Slint, Weed, Sonic Youth, The Cure, and Joy Division. Smith-Oles also credits the influence of emo artists from the mid-’90s—especially the Kinsella brothers, of bands including Joan of Arc and American Football—and the experimental, mercurial work of guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López from The Mars Volta, in helping to generate the “darker, more imposing” moods found throughout Cicada

The patient, glimmering climax of “Headland Toward The Harbor” captures this nuanced mix of ideas. It provides Cicada with a dramatic finale, beginning on a soft note that builds up into a powerful, multistory tide of tremolo-picked guitars. Cicada’s title track draws the listener in with ethereal harmonies, equal parts temptation and threat. It’s a bit like stumbling upon a cottage in the middle of a dark, thick woodland: you’re welcomed, initially, into a cozy, reassuring space, but suddenly the doors slam shut, and a boiling cauldron is rolled out. “Field” represses this aggression, as Smith-Oles’ nimble arpeggios fall over Hahn’s bass lines like two chilled hands pressed over a convulsing chest, attempting to keep things level.

Refining each track became a collaborative process that proved to be fruitful for the band’s development. “Being able to effectively communicate our intended moods and meanings for each song is something we’ve grown into the longer we’ve played music together,” Ortgiesen says. This growth allows for Smith-Oles’ earworm guitar riffs to tunnel through the melodic themes Ortgiesen pads around Kaiser and Hahn’s structures with resounding ease, as the band digs its way through each song in search of the core.

“We’ve been sitting on these songs for a while, and it’s really nice to be able to have it all down and be able to move onto the next thing,” Kaiser says. The band recorded Cicada in a Minneapolis studio owned by Seth Tracy, who engineered and mixed the EP. They also got to know Tracy’s dog Barney, who earned a credit as an honorary executive producer. “[Tracy] had a killer setup—it felt as professional as I could have possibly imagined a recording studio in someone’s basement could be,” Hahn says.

Tracy has also worked with the Eau Claire-based, cellar-dwelling punk band Gash, who Interlay had planned to tour with this past summer through the southern United States. “The Madison scene we are attached to is a pretty tight-knit community, which we love, but it also means that you sometimes end up with the same people at almost every show,” Smith-Oles says. The band was also slated to open for Dublin post-punk band The Murder Capital in March at the High Noon Saloon, “but that got canceled too,” Ortgiesen says. “Rest in peace, shows.”

While Interlay’s members ride out the pandemic, they’re still plotting for the future, hoping to eventually tour outside the Midwest and share bills once again with Madison-affiliated contemporaries including Parsing, Slow Pulp, and Disq. They also hope to make more music videos to follow the VHS-horror-evoking one for “Spine,” which Ortgiesen co-directed with Geordon Wollner. 

“Knowing that this epidemic, as well as the people who exacerbated it, will hopefully be gone at some point, it’s just a matter of staying well until then,” Hahn says. For now, listeners can think of Cicada as Interlay’s way of practicing well-being, and as an invitation into a transformative realm where dark things can be viewed as friends.

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