Notes on Katipcore and how we talk about music

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It’s a divisive term that has become a bit of a meme. But what is Katipcore, really? File photo by JL JAVIER

Live in a city long enough and you get to see music history unfold in front of you. Think back. NU Rock 107, great purveyor of the hottest noise, seemed to pass its torch of championing promising talent to Jam 88.3. The nu metal renaissance of the aughts made a wave Pulp Magazine surfed for years. Then, the advent of bedroom beatmakers in the early 2010’s, which reared today’s finest producers. There was even a math rock moment, fuelled in no small part by toe's fateful concert in Manila in 2013.

There is so much to know. A music scene sheds its skin many times through its great, long life. And one way to keep track of a music scene’s history is to arrange its life according to chapters, or in this case, sounds, genres, movements.

That’s Katipcore, in a nutshell — a sound, genre, movement. That’s the short answer. At least, that seemed the case when we think back to one of its first known recorded usages in a review by Elijah Pareño for The Flying Lugaw, a music journalism platform, of Devices’ 2018 EP “The Element of Surprise.” A comment in a post cites Arnald Paguio as the term’s origin.

“It came from a need, I guess, to make the conversation easier, when we’re talking about stuff,” Paguio says on the word “Katipcore.” The term sprung from conversations Paguio had at the time with Luis Montales (a.k.a. Pikunin) and Pareño. A tweet from Montales, ostensibly a product of these conversations, mentions Katipcore, and came out around the same time as the Devices piece. Another review of “The Element of Surprise” by Paguio would come out later on Vantage, the online magazine of Ateneo De Manila University’s student publication The Guidon, in 2019.

The term recently resurfaced, kind of by accident, in January this year through a tweet by user @chollibee, which referred to an “Ateneo Sound.” Discourse bubbled up from there, as it does. Katipcore is almost a meme at this point. In Pareño’s words, “It sounds very… you know who you’re pertaining to when you say Katipcore. You wince eh. (Laughs) Ano ‘yan? Ang polarizing niya eh. That’s what I like about it.”

But what the hell is Katipcore? Why try to name things? How do genres happen? These questions are interwoven.

Sound practices

If I told you to imagine what “indie rock” sounds like, it’s the same with Katipcore. It is a sound buzzed both in tone and lifestyle. Strums sitting steady in gangly-armed mid-gain, jangly as all hell. Percussively cuts a rug. Highly danceable in its best moments. Katipcore doesn’t play fast — it’s upbeat. That’s good for loose rhythm sections and the occasional horns. Consider the staccato leads on “The Sun” by Any Name’s Okay, or almost anything on SOS’s 2012 EP.

And while it isn’t a highly electronic genre, it likes to use electronic textures — MGMT and Phoenix were getting their synth on, so why shouldn’t we? Yes, it takes a lot of its cues from West-based indie rock, but we’ve always drawn inspiration from Western acts, as our Jingle magazine forefathers did many moons ago.

Lyrically, Katipcore loves making love songs. But they’re love songs expressed through the lens of modern behaviors — staring at your phone, ghosting and orbiting, swiping through Instagram stories. “Stranded in time / Lost on the screen / Slowly losing high / Was I out of line?” goes “Trying Too Hard” by Rusty Machines. As Paguio says, “The vibe is forlorn.”

But the most distinct feature of the Katipcore genre is the vocal style, at least according to Paguio. “I describe it as a croon? It’s very distinct, eh. Like, a lot of vibrato, but a lot of falsetto also, and surprisingly also very shouty.” He draws parallels with emo, in that the vocal style is the genre’s most apparent symptom. I have to agree. Listen to any track on Devices’ “The Element of Surprise,” like “Conquistador,” and you’ll find that vocalist Austin Tan does indeed wield a crooning affect, one that calls to mind the likes of Julian Casablancas or Alex Turner. The Katipcore vocal style likes to woo when it sings of love, and languish when it sings of malaise. It is the charismatic host to a banquet of grievances. It sings from the diaphragm and subsists on beer stubs. It drinks irresponsibly, and smokes anything but menthols.

For Paguio, SOS is a key player majorly responsible for the realization of Katipcore. “At least to me, their influence can be found literally, I’d argue, in a lot of band music outside of really distinct scenes.” 2017’s “Whatever That Was” was a formative record in that regard. One could also count “Tama Na Ang Drama” by Ang Bandang Shirley, and even Autotelic’s “Papunta Pabalik” as important records that helped shape the sound, whether they meant to or not. Bands like The Itchyworms, Ciudad, and The Purplechickens aren’t necessarily Katipcore, but they helped rear that generation.

Acts that could reasonably fall under the Katipcore sound include Devices, Kremesoda, Lola Amour, Any Name’s Okay, Sofa Sky, Rusty Machines, Perkywasted, The Ransom Collective,  and Ang Bandang Shirley. One could reasonably count Never the Strangers, back when they were called Leonecast, and SOS, also circa the era of their old name. Ben & Ben definitely qualify. (This isn’t to say that all successful acts that came up at around the same time wielded the Katipcore sound. I don’t think Ourselves the Elves, for example, is Katipcore. They are in a league of their own, but that’s my bias as a fan. Neither is Nanay Mo.) But these are not the only acts — a sound’s proliferators are legion, and it’s impossible to name all. And while not all of these acts necessarily accept being described as “Katipcore,” a genre isn’t a category that really asks for permission.

Meet me where the beat doesn’t reach

But what determines this taxonomy? The schools? This is the part where we talk about geography. A lot of people in these bands aren’t from the Katipunan university belt, which consists precisely of the schools you’re thinking of in the north. But many of them do happen to trace their formation to these schools’ premier music orgs, like Ateneo Musician’s Pool and UP Music Circle and their associated prods. These orgs act as little communities, which reach towards each other to share their passions, put on shows, and make larger communities that populate the gig scene. Key venues like Route 196 and Mow's help shape the landscape, and guide the way people navigate their music scene’s geography. Acts from these movements are certainly free to play at other venues, and even tour within and out of the country, but the scene is centralized to a specific area. It’s not an accident that Ang Bandang Shirley namechecks Maginhawa street.

So the “Katip” part of the name is more of a wisecrack, one that betrays its conyo origins.

But in all seriousness, geography is important — perhaps not as important as a genre’s key players, but it’s indispensable. Geography is both memory and the stage of memory. It situates the way we experience art, and betrays the material conditions that influence its creation and consumption. On what he refers to as the “yuppie-ness” of Katipcore, Pareño cites socioeconomic conditions. “When you think about [Route 196] logistically, ang inaccessible niya, na you can’t just ride a jeep and go down at the mismong venue. You need to have a private vehicle to travel there. Putting up a gig there, mahal din. Mahal din yung beer. May sine-serve na specific demographic yung Katipcore.” On top of that, Pareño warns of the risk of feudally dividing different music scenes as separate territories, which runs counter to the spirit of community. “If you have this feudalistic way of thinking of specific scenes, you’re not gonna benefit if you’re a member of one.”

To my understanding, a big reason for the term “Katipcore” drawing derision is the implied idea that a bunch of rich kids from a private college are designated as aesthetic hegemons, arbiters of taste that eclipse other movements. Let’s temper the notion and say that most Ateneans aren’t nearly dangerous enough to imperil art in any significant way, and that anyone who thinks Katipunan-based bands tyrannize the gig circuit just isn’t working with a holistic understanding of the scene at large.

I also believe “Katipcore” draws ire because of the tendency of the chronically online to graft the “-core” suffix onto anything. As valid as it is to be vexed by that, it is still a more accommodating word than something as nebulous as “OPM” or just “indie.” “The Ateneo Sound” is a fun thing to say just to be glib, but it’s reductive, shoving the University of the Philippines and all their amazing acts to the discursive periphery. There is a danger of using the term “Katipcore” to stereotype acts, but we can curb that risk with thoughtful usage.

“When you describe Katipcore, there’s this aura of coolness to it. It’s like saying ‘sleaze.’ The term isn’t meant to be taken too seriously."

Then again, “Katipcore” is also inherently glib. “I had this discussion recently with Miguel Loanzon, the guitarist of formerly Maryknoll, who by the way is a graduate of UP Diliman,” says Pareño. “When you describe Katipcore, there’s this aura of coolness to it. It’s like saying ‘sleaze.’” The term isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. It’s only a thing that matters if it’s useful to your enjoyment of music.

So what is it exactly about Katipcore you like the most? And I don’t mean favorite bands — what’s your favorite thing about the sound itself, a sound that scores some of your fondest memories? I have answers for other genres I enjoy, like nu metal, hyperpop, or dungeoncore, and can name my favorite qualities of those sounds. To be able to do that is important to my enjoyment of music. But the answers don’t come easily for Katipcore. It’s important to codify its qualities if we are to recognize it as something of a genre.

Whatever that was

It’s important for us to understand how genres happen.

Imagine this. A bunch of kids grow up listening to all kinds of music, through shared TV channels, radio stations, or online communities. They fish from the same deep psychic well. Sponge Cola, Sheila and the Insects, Terno Inferno acts, the works. The sounds are formative, the kids have found their influences. They pick up instruments, write songs, form bands, go it solo, meet others like them — kindred spirits taking stylistic cues from their favorite songs.

Convergent, divergent, and parallel evolution happen. Independent species of musicians develop their sound, influenced and inspired by those around them. Trends develop. Sounds emerge, with their own distinct aesthetic traits. The musicians make the sound, the fans make the movement, and whoever has the gumption to coin a term for kicks is the one who makes the name.

And other generations of kids listen to that music, and new sounds emerge, for as long as we have time left on this Earth. With that understanding, we acknowledge Katipcore’s moment as a sound of its time, as a style in its own right. And while Katipcore as a sound isn’t completely, truly gone, it’s safe to say it fell off. What happened?

Pareño cites two key reasons: 1) the effect the pandemic had on the gig scene, and 2) natural artistic evolution.

Key venues like Route 196 and Mow's helped shape the "Katipcore" landscape. File photo by TONY BATTUNG

“Over the past three years, there [have been] venues that closed na, which means na you can’t pinpoint where a specific sound came from, or where it was focused on.” It’s hard for Katipcore to proliferate when one of its strongest anchors. Route 196, is now extinct. The acts of today, coming up post-pandemic, must find new places where they can build their legacies.

READ: A trip down Route 196

Additionally, Pareño communicates that many of the acts which might have qualified as Katipcore then are evolving as musicians, trying new things. He cites Toots Orosa of Kremesoda going solo, Andrea Ramos of Devices pursuing a singer-songwriter direction in sound as Andrea Obscura and Lower Myth, and SOS, departing with both an old name and a style they’ve outgrown. “I don’t mind genre,” says Pareno. “I’m more fixated on how these people evolve themselves, as key players, as alumni of a specific place or whatever.” It’s also useful to look at the way artists evolve, to give us an idea of the sound they left behind, or the sound they’re saying goodbye to. (As an aside, Paguio says, “Someone was telling me, [SOS] isn’t Katipcore, they’re LU-core now. [Laughs] Even saying it, you just get it!”).

What’s the shape of the musical landscape now? It might be too soon to say. Many exciting things are currently happening with pop, pluggnb, and the revival of '90s alternative rock. 123 Block filled a vacuum left by other bars no longer with us, and Dirty Kitchen is doubling as a headquarters for Elephant Party. We are coming into a post-pandemic, vaccinated gig circuit, where we can be in community with each other in a very tangible way.

But how will we write this chapter in our music history? How will we remember it, encapsulate it? By noting its key players, its aesthetic qualities, and even its geography. The Philippines has a rich tradition of music journalism, but we lack historicization of our scenes. Conversations that are sparked by terms like “Katipcore” invite us to pursue historicity. Where are you based, and what can you say about the aesthetic tendencies of the acts in the scenes you navigate? What are your favorite things about what you listen to, and why? On Katipcore, Paguio says, “It’s something that we have. It’s something that no other scene in the world has. It doesn’t mean that it’s my favorite genre, but it’s something worth talking about.”