By Simone Fohrman
Hannah Alexander AKA Sybil Attack struck a chord on a Saturday earlier this summer at one of the most captivating shows I’ve seen this year. Hundreds of Denverites poured into the city’s newest DIY space, previously known as the Evan’s School. The building, built in 1904, was silhouetted against the moonlit sky, appearing ancient and haunting like an abandoned mansion.
The stage was set with a 4’ x 4’ x 4’ engine/machine prop– the base coated in white sheets, the walls textured and metallic with chords strung to the backboard like a modular synthesizer. A deep red light lit up the scene in a soft amber glow.
Hannah writhed inside of her handmade structure and her body seemed to become a conduit for the sonic landscape. She crawled onto the floor, whacked drumsticks on the ground and did an interpretive dance with a partner, all the while convulsing as if she were in the midst of a possession.
The music was a melting pot of folk hymns, oddball art pop, and experimental industrial soundscapes. The show felt reminiscent of early Grimes or recent Lingua Ignota. Hannah’s vocal delivery was warm and ethereal, etched with dark and enigmatic religious undertones. The audience was completely enraptured, eyes glued to the stage, breaths abated.
After the performance I got to dive in and ask Hannah some questions.
Would you consider Sybil Attack a conceptual project? Can you expand on the meaning of your project name within the context of the music?
I initially started with the name Sybil Attack, but I’m shortening it to just Sybil. A sybil attack is a type of cyber attack where a single entity creates multiple identities (sybil identities) to appear as if they’re many people. I wanted a technological aspect in my name, both because it’s a theme I like to explore, and because it’s at the forefront of your mind when making computer/electronic music. Another aspect to the name is the ancient Greek sibyls, who were oracles. I like that Sybil is referencing something ancient/mythic and something technological/futuristic, in terms of a sound palette I don’t think those are at odds with each other.
What do you treasure the most about live performance? What energy are you trying to cultivate within your audience?
I often anticipate negative reactions, but I’ve been surprised and moved by how much it clicks with some people. Sometimes they’re picking up on the ideas I had in mind when making it, but I also like to see how the sounds mix with a person’s own experiences and associations. Most of the music I have made has come together with live performances in mind. They’re a good deadline for finishing music, and it forces me to think about the overall arc of a set and how different songs fit together.
When I perform I don’t want people’s take away to be that there’s a fundamental difference between us because I’m behind the speakers, I really want them to feel like they can do it too. I didn’t make music for a long time because I was intimidated and felt like I didn’t know enough to make anything good. I only broke that barrier after seeing musicians who demystified the process and didn’t take themselves too seriously.
A good portion of your music seems to have a religious tone— heard in your hymn-like chants and seemingly spiritual verses. Is there a direct inspiration for this songwriting style?
The religious vocal style comes from my background in choir, those are the melodies that are easiest for me to find. I decided to lean into it by making some songs in Latin. It’s definitely broken Latin, but it’s a dead language so I can get away with it.
When I started making electronic music, I couldn’t find a way of mixing in singing that felt right. This is partly because vocals feel so personal and vulnerable. If I don’t like how an instrument sounds in a song I can tweak and change it, but if vocals sound wrong, then that’s my voice that sounds wrong.
The first song with vocals I made was inspired by this conversation, the vocals start out very clean, and then the voice becomes modified by the other sounds. I sidechained a distortion on the vocals to a kick so that over the course of the song the distortion accumulates and the vocals become incorporated into the abrasive sounds. As I was working on the song I really loved the harmonies that were brought out by the distortion, it wasn’t destroying the vocals like I feared, it was transforming them and bringing out qualities in it that were exciting and beautiful. The song took on a cathartic tone to it, it became about discovering oneself instead of losing oneself.
I’ve also noted that your music feels otherworldly/ haunting/ dream-like. It is juxtaposed with sounds that oftentimes feel industrial/ abrasive/ jolting.
I love the harsh industrial sounds, the way the harmonies tear out and ring from the abrasion. It helps me make music when I think of the song as a physical place or scene, with each sound having its own weight, material, momentum, and position. I find that the haunting/dream-like sounds are appropriate for very heavy, clangy, scraping, noisy, dense sounds because they can glide and float freely between and above the noise.
Can you expand on your beat making process? What kinds of sounds speak to you/ communicate your vision?
I think that the melodic aspects of percussion are underrecognized. I like to use a lot of field recordings of things like switches, cranks , trashcans, flares, cracking nutshells, etc. as percussive elements. The fact that the sounds weren’t made for music can make them a bit unruly to work with, but this also gives room for surprises. In general I try to limit the use of sounds that imitate real life instruments. The strength of electronic music is that I can sample or synthesize impossible instruments. I want my songs to be filled with a bunch of weird little guys.