Containher, by Robert Alleyne

“We’re always the oddballs,” jokes San Jose-based musician and songwriter April Gee while discussing the humble beginnings of her synth music night: SYNTHesthesia. Gee, who performs under the moniker Containher, is energized as she talks about the challenges synth musicians can face booking gigs. “A lot of our bands end up on a strange bill, with metal bands or just things that don’t quite fit,” she explains as her mind seems to whirr back to previous shows.

The idea of uniting the “oddballs” and finding a space where they could celebrate their sonic strangeness was central to starting the monthly night at Oakland’s Stork Club. “Even if no one else shows up, we’re having a badass time!” she beams. It is about more than just having fun and celebrating music: Gee is hoping SYNTHesthesia can be a place to build a supportive and diverse community around the musical synth misfits.

For Gee, this notion of community spreads beyond just the music to the cross-pollination of the Bay Area. “I noticed a lot of South Bay artists weren’t making it up to Oakland or San Francisco and vice versa,” she explains. We talk about the importance of diversity, and how it is something that can sometimes be missed by promoters when they are booking shows. “We need to consciously include people of different genders and colors, and subgenres of electronic music in my event — I notice a lot of the synth-based events, they want only very pale, white guys dressed in black…they want one kind of bro-tronic music.” She says this without apportioning blame, and more with the understanding of someone who feels they can make a difference in the way things are perceived, even if on the small scale of a club night in the East Bay.

Containher, by Robert Alleyne

A recent experience brought these notions of race and identity crashing together when one of her songs was turned into an award-winning music video. In 2016, she collaborated with Stellar on “You’re Dead Wrong.” “he basically sent me a beat, and I wrote a song over it,” she says. “He was like, ‘I need your vocals,’ so I wrote the lyrics and the vocal parts,” she explains. Time passed. Then at the end of September, she heard the news about the Hamilton Film Festival win.

“I learned that the song was turned into a music video I wasn’t aware of, and it won best music video at this film festival in Toronto,” she shares of the video directed by Craig Lobo. At the time of our interview, she had not yet seen the video. “I didn’t even know it was out there…

[and] I just found out there’s an actress pretending she’s singing with her voice. That’s, like, tripping me out right now,” says Gee.

Seeing stills from the video, which suggest the actress is pretending to sing, is something Gee is trying to reconcile her feelings around. “I’m cool with the creative interpretation [to] turn it into a music video, but the only part that really gets to me is having someone pretend they’re me singing…that really bothers me,” she says. “I’m a person of color [and] I’m sensitive to being a person of color in America because we’re not allowed to be pop stars,” says the musician of Asian-Mexican heritage. “It really bugs me that someone would love the song enough [to make a music video] but then want to cast, you know…[whatever] the norm is — a white-complexion girl singing with my voice and thinking that’s probably preferable.”

Gee is not rushing to make judgment just yet, though, as she still does not have the full context around the video. “I feel like I need to get the actual video to look at it carefully before I digest that and have that conversation,” she explains.

Containher, by Robert Alleyne

The burgeoning community she is building in the Bay Area was instrumental in helping her through a difficult period when her equipment being stolen in Jack London Square during the summer. “You could tell they hit every single car on that same street…there was glass everywhere,” she says. In the midst of this traumatic event, she learned a lot of lessons, and also found the burgeoning community she was building rallying to her support. “I was so frustrated I announced it on Facebook [and then] all these people came out of the woodwork to support me in different ways,” she says.  This support was not from people offering to give her stuff, however — it was through people offering her work, or to collaborate. A band she worked with asked her to sing on a song. Another friend commissioned her to paint two art pieces. Through the negativity of crime, she was able to create as a way to get her things back.

“I’m not too worried about it,” she says, “It’s just stuff, but it’s hard when you’re playing shows, you’re hardly making any money at these shows, and then all of your stuff is taken. It was like a punch to the gut,” she offers earnestly.

While discussing her experience, she mentions Dave Deporis, the musician who was tragically killed in Oakland, whom she had met previously. “I actually met him at a party where I had to leave to play a show. I had just met him that day and he played me a set of songs just for me, like two feet away from me because he was that kind,” she remembers. “That guy was the guy that was dragged for his laptop. He was killed over a laptop in Oakland. That is absolutely brutal, ruthless, ridiculous, and I feel like these days in the Bay there’s pressures that are forcing people to be almost barbaric about this,” she says as she reflects for a moment. While these events shook Gee, she looks back on them as ones she hopes others can learn from.

Containher, by Robert Alleyne

Despite the challenging year, Gee has released her debut album and did so with a bang at the San Jose Mexican Heritage Plaza theater. There were dancers, extra musicians, and at times she found herself watching what was going on on stage.

Alongside the bold album launch show, Gee has decided on another brave decision for its launch: to not put her album on to Spotify (or any streaming service). “I love using Spotify. I use it every day, but at the same time…really don’t think that they’re fit for independent artists at this point,” she offers. “I feel like any time I sell a single CD, I just imagine that was probably about 10 years of Spotify [streaming]!”

For now, Gee is taking the independent route. “I’m taking a more personal boutique approach to it, the same way I’ve done with my little shop [Petite Galleria], which is it’s a hidden secret if you’re privy to it,” she says.

As for using Spotify in the future, she is open to it but feels like right now musicians need to make themselves heard to force the changes they want. “I do believe that as artists we should be hassling these tech companies to get what we want as well,” she says. “I think it could actually benefit them in the end.”

As Gee embarks on this musical experiment, she hopes no one judges her for not embracing streaming services just yet. “I’m trying to think of a way to spin that,” she ponders before a spark ignites, and she offers an angle she could use: “Maybe I’m Spot-less!” she jokes.

SYNTHesthesia feat Jane Machine, Jonah Sun, Flour Flour, Kamerin, and Variable J
The Stork Club
November 11, 2017
8pm, $10