Dana Schechter of Insect Ark drones and scratches into her Chicago roots | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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Dana Schechter of Insect Ark drones and scratches into her Chicago roots

Her ambient psychedelic metal shares the iconoclasm she learned three decades ago from the roster of local noise-rock label Touch and Go.

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Dana Schechter of Insect Ark - MICHAEL JUNG
  • Michael Jung
  • Dana Schechter of Insect Ark

"Chicago always feels a little bit magic to me," says Dana Schechter. "The associations I have with it are filtered through the memory of a child. It's nice."

Schechter has led ambient psych-metal band Insect Ark for the past eight years, and though she's based in Brooklyn, she has roots in Chicago. Her parents lived in the Jewish community on the south side when they were growing up in the 50s. They moved to the Bay Area before Schechter was born in the 70s, but they often returned to Chicago to visit aunts, uncles, and grandparents. "My first experience with a big city was Chicago," she says.

Schechter's aunt took her and her sister to see jazz in Chicago, but her early musical inspirations weren't tied to the city. Schechter first got into music via the Bay Area thrash-metal scene in the 80s, when she was still in her tweens. She listened to Metallica, Slayer, and Exodus and became friends with Metallica's Cliff Burton, who promised to teach her bass. She picked up the instrument after his death in 1986 as a way to remember him.


Oranssi Pazuzu, Insect Ark, Varaha
Thu 10/10, 7 PM, Reggies’ Rock Club, 2105 S. State, $20, 17+


There isn't much thrash in Insect Ark's slow-building atmospheric compositions—the track "Daath," from 2018's Marrow Hymns (Profound Lore), is basically five and a half minutes of throbbing drone—but Schechter's work reflects Burton's eclectic, adventurous approach to his instrument, whether she's playing bass, synthesizers, or lap steel.

The second major influence on Schechter's musical development, though, was the roster of famous Chicago indie label Touch and Go. She and Jef Whitehead (later known for his avant-garde black-metal project Leviathan) would go see Touch and Go bands when they came through San Francisco: the Jesus Lizard, Big Black, Scratch Acid, the Butthole Surfers, the Dirty Three. In the early 90s, Schechter formed a noise-rock band called Gifthorse with Whitehead on drums and Doug Hillsinger on guitar.

"I didn't really get to go see that many shows in Chicago, and I didn't have any connection to anybody at the label," Schechter says. "But I was very, very interested in it." She still regrets that she didn't get to participate in the scene as a musician. "Chicago really transformed in my mind," she said, "Because it's my family birthplace in a way, but it was also this scene that I held it in such high regard."

Schechter says Touch and Go bands are still on her regular playlists, and you can hear their influence here and there in her work. Marrow Hymns tracks "In the Nest" and "Skin Walker," with their grunged-out fuzz of detuned feedback, could almost be Jesus Lizard outtakes with the vocals stripped out and all the upper-register frequencies dialed back. "The Collector," from 2015's Portal/Well, is built around a grinding industrial riff that sounds like they might've borrowed one of Big Black's jackhammers. The fingernails-on-a-blackboard distortion from "Lift Off," on 2013's Long Arms, is distant but recognizable kin to the hideous noises Scratch Acid used to make, albeit transposed from a quasi-rock context into a more abstract setting. In general, Schechter's sideways relationship to metal—obviously a fan, but not quite in the genre—feels of a piece with the willingness of the Touch and Go stable to mix large helpings of heavy into whatever else they had lying about.

"Some of those bands were really not using normal song structures," Schechter says. "And I think that's something that burrowed its way into my musical psyche. These bands were combining this really raw energy with heavy music, and sometimes it had hooks and sometimes it didn't. Those are all things that I really strive for in the music that I write. So I'm sure that it did influence me, though it gets filtered through my own vision."

  • The video for the Marrow Hymns track "Skin Walker"

Schechter says that her current tour, which starts in Chicago with a show at Reggies' Rock Club on Thursday, October 10, will feature almost all new material prepared for her next album. After splitting with drummer Ashley Spungin, who performed on Marrow Hymns, Schechter has partnered with Andy Patterson, who's fresh from the breakup of much-mourned Profound Lore band SubRosa. The two have been spending eight-hour days practicing in his Utah studio.

Schechter doesn't have as much family in Chicago as she once did, but visiting the city still evokes childhood memories. Her grandfather used to take her to the Berghoff when she was little, so she likes to visit the restaurant and remember him. The waterfront is special to her too: "I try to go to the lake, because that was part of what really set Chicago aside for me as a kid," she says. "My family lived near it, and I had this sense of the vastness of it. It had this huge impact on me as a child. So I do try to go and at least look at the lake once, just to put my eyes on it." Not at all by coincidence, Insect Ark makes a good soundtrack for staring out over the water—big, dark, filled with shapes that are hard to grasp, like some hauntingly unfamiliar home.  v

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