Heart of the City: Khattie Q

by Morgan Davis

Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos

Khattie Q

Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversations with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, veteran hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, beloved Austin producer and musician Jim EnoMohawk stage manager “Jesus” Josh Siebert, prolific fan favorite singer-songwriter Betty Soo, veteran booker and artist Aaron Miller (aka Multi-tracker), Continental Club icon Dianne Scott , Danielle Renae Houtkooper, who handles marketing for Spider Houseand now Khattie Q, an eclectic performer who has played for groups as diverse as the Tuna Helpers and BLXPLTN and has recently been seen on the stage at Salvage Vanguard Theatre.

Ovrld: We’ve been beginning these interviews by asking people what their journeys to Austin were like— when they came here, where they came from— and I know you have an especially interesting journey to Austin in terms of where you relocated from…

Khattie Q: I was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico and went to college there and everything. And when I was done I felt the need to leave the island. I love being from there, don’t get me wrong. I love it. It’s a great culture to have and own, and I think that’s what brought me back to this lady you might see later, Catalina La O, it’s like what my mom used to listen to when I was little.

Ovrld: Yeah, Puerto Rico has an especially rich musical culture…

KQ: Oh, yeah! Music was all over my house, all over my childhood. If you didn’t know how to dance, it was a pretty big deal.

Ovrld: It’s like a way of life…

KQ: It’s a way of life, yes. So after I finished college, I tried New York City, and I was too little, I think. Not ready to do the big city. It’s intimidating for someone who only knows one way of doing things. I didn’t have much life experience. I had school, I was really good at school, but New York shows you a whole different life experience. When I got there, I was trying to find a job and be really serious about life and I was way too young.

I had friends who had moved here and they were doing music and that was in my blood, that was what I needed to do instead of having a “real life,” being “professional.” I wanted to do music. And they said “This town in Texas has a really cool music scene.” And I was like “Where? Austin? I’ve never heard of it.” I’d heard of Dallas, I’d heard of Houston, but never Austin. So I trusted my friends, but I still got a two-way ticket [laughs].

Ovrld: Just in case.

KQ: Just in case! And I came in after being in New York for four months. I mailed my stuff, because that was the cheapest way to move it. I had my two way ticket but I never left for any reason after that. I stayed, I got a job immediately. I was welcomed here. My whole life, I never felt as welcome as I did in Austin. People were just so nice and warm to me. I always felt like the black sheep, I was the weirdo everywhere I went. Even in New York City! And it’s New York City! But hey, I don’t know, something about me makes people want to stare. But in Austin everyone’s like “Hey, what’s up?” Everyone is very nice.

Ovrld: So you feel like it’s a very supportive community?

KQ: Very much so. From the beginning, and every time I’ve tried to find a reason to leave, I get a phone call, or an email these days, “Hey, do you want to do this? Do you want to play in this band? Do you want to go on tour? Do you want to be in a play?” It’s been very supportive. I’ve grown so much. I feel like I’ve grown up here. Now I’ve been here 19 years and it feels like it was the blink of an eye. It went by really quick. I’ve lived many lives here.

Ovrld: When you came out here in the late ‘90s, what were some of the things that were different then versus how Austin is now?

KQ: Well, honestly, I’d never seen a girl play drums before, and that was the first time I had ever  seen that face to face. I guess I knew the drummer for the Velvet Underground [Moe Tucker] was a girl, but you couldn’t tell that really, which is cool!

Moe Tucker

Moe Tucker’s bold and minimalist drumming helped the Velvet Underground stand out from their more technically fixated peers

Ovrld: That whole band was kind of androgynous…

KQ: Androgynous, yeah. But seeing her made me think “I want to do that!” So immediately, the first year I was here, I saw a girl playing in a punk rock band, and I said “I want to do that!” And then I started playing drums. I never played drums in my life before I moved to Austin. Before, I would see one girl in a band here and there. Now, almost every single band…or a lot of them…have females. And that is a big change. That is amazing. Before I would get a couple of my friends’ bands together for a show and they would call it “Girls’ Band Night.” Now it’s just like a regular night and it’s so awesome. I really do think that has changed, and it’s not a big deal.

Ovrld: It seems like Austin is especially well-represented on that front. In other cities I’ve been in they’re still struggling with that.

KQ: Yes, that is true. That is very true. I think a lot of it has to do with Girls Rock Camp. It’s really getting a lot of girls interested in music and empowered and not scared to be on stage and very confident, like “Hey, I can do that too, why not?” And Austin is really cool about that, having women in bands. That’s a big difference from the late ‘90s to now. It seemed like it would stand out before, so I would choose to be in only girl bands before because of that. For the first like ten years I only played with girls.

Ovrld: You’ve been involved in a lot of great projects. I’m trying to make sure I’ve got the chronology right, but the Tuna Helpers was the first band you were in, right?

KQ: Yeah, I played with them for about seven years. We toured all over the United States and Canada. Our second record [I’ll Have What She’s Having] was produced by Trey Spruance of Mr. Bungle. He called us “witches” and said “What have you done to me?” He couldn’t get our songs out of his head. That’s another thing about Austin that has changed, because Trey saw us at a SXSW gig, randomly walked in and I don’t know if that happens anymore. Or not as much.

Ovrld: Right, and SXSW is too big for that to happen as much anymore.

KQ: Yeah, it’s all about selling you stuff.

Ovrld: Free drinks.

KQ: Free drinks and product placement rather than an actual cool musicians and producers and labels looking for bands. Maybe it’s happening, I just don’t see it. I’m not trying to knock anybody or anything, but back then you would see it a lot. I wasn’t here in the beginning but that was in the case in the late ‘90s, early ‘00s. It was more about the music and less about the free drinks [laughs].

Ovrld: It seems like a lot of things in your career have been serendipitous because you recently told me one of your other projects from that era just had a song picked up to be used in a new movie…

KQ: Yeah, [Blue Ruin and Green Room director] Macon Blair emailed me out of the blue. Because I never took myself too seriously, this band was called the Hot As Shits because the singer was hot as shit…she was! And we thought it was hilarious, and so did everybody. I really appreciated people liking it. I work in a coffeeshop and I had someone come up to me last week and say “The Hot As Shits is still one of my favorite bands ever! Yeah!” And my coworker was like “What’s going on?” And I had to be like “Sorry, sorry.”

Ovlrld: “I’m kind of a big deal…”

KQ: Not really, but kind of [laughs]. Just kidding. But yeah, that happened, the email happened, all of a sudden we get a contract like “Hey, we want to buy the rights to your song to put it in this movie.” Awesome. That’s the stuff that happens in Austin. I haven’t lived for a long time anywhere else, so I can’t say it doesn’t happen anywhere else, but I feel like I have been very lucky and blessed in this town, musically and not just musically. The play…

Ovrld: Denim Doves?

KQ: Yeah, I had just left my last band [BLXPLTN], and I was thinking about leaving Austin again and I get this email “Hey, I’ve noticed you around town and we were wondering if you wanted to audition for a play.” And I’m like “I’ve never been in a play, so yes!” [laughs].

Ovrld: You played a really interesting character in it, too.

KQ: Yes, they knew I played drums, so they introduced me by having my character play drums.

Ovrld: Right, you literally introduce yourself with a drum solo.

KQ: I was like this female that was dressed like a man because she was trying to start a revolution, I thought that was pretty cool. It was in the future, where religion ruled everything.

Ovrld: And the religion is very phallo-centric.

KQ: Very! The main boy was called Penis, that was his first name. It was a great play.

Ovrld: It’s a very music play too, it integrates early Sleater-Kinney stuff, and Bikini Kill…

KQ: Yes! That is true. But yeah, serendipity, Austin, I’m just wondering what’s gonna happen next.

Khattie Q Denim Doves

Khattie Q in reverse drag in the satirical dystopic work Denim Doves

Ovrld: Something else I admire about the stuff you do is that you take a lot of risks and seem to do a lot of things that maybe aren’t in your comfort zone, or you haven’t tried before. Not just with deciding to be a drummer, but like you were saying with Denim Doves, where you never acted before…

KQ: And I was shaking from head to toe. For some reason, I think maybe I’m an adrenaline junky. That feeling is just so great. I love playing drums, don’t get me wrong. I can wake up, roll out of bed, play drums and go back to sleep. No problem. So now I’m trying to do all these other things that make me scared, make me shake. I see that opportunity there, that opportunity to learn, to grow myself, to see what people like.

I’m really surprised about the reaction I’m getting for this new character [Catalina La O] that I thought was just a one time thing and I keep getting calls “Hey, we want you to play this thing, can you play this thing? Can you please come?” It’s pretty amazing. I get emails the next day like “My parents think you’re amazing!” I’m like “Cool!”

Ovrld: I think you also just have a magnetic personality. People are drawn to you and the passion you bring.

KQ: I started playing this lady in more serious venues and shows. She’s a very sad, sad woman. And I was trying to show the audience that. But it turns out that I think it’s better in a comedy setting because she is just so sad. I want them to laugh about it, I don’t necessarily want them to cry. Though I have made people cry. And that’s not my point, but I am still into it. And I give a 110% and I want people to take whatever they want. You can laugh, you can cry. Just have a good time.

Ovrld: Yeah, I tried to describe it to someone earlier as how Bryan Ferry was in his early solo career, but like being more self-aware. He would wear these odd, extravagant outfits and be like a miserable torch singer but filtering it through glam.

KQ: Yes, indeed. I even think PJ Harvey went through a phase like that, where she was wearing all these beautiful gowns and all this make-up which isn’t really her but it is. It was for that time. I don’t know, it’s a different way of expressing what you’re going through. For me I think maybe it’s because I’m getting older? I was in a punk rock band so at this point I’m like “Maybe I’m a little too old for punk rock…”

Ovrld: But the character is pretty punk rock, in a way…

KQ: Yeah, they have called her punk rock, and I’m like “Wait a minute! It’s ballads!” But no, I guess I can’t really shake the punk rock. I’m just a rebel [laughs].

Ovrld: BLXPLTN was also a project where you got out of your comfort zone, because you played guitar and vocals for that…

KQ: Yes! And that was frightening also. I was shaking. I was trying to express myself. I was screaming. I wouldn’t even call it vocals, I was just straight up screaming my heart out. But it was really cathartic. But it did leave me drained. I felt like I was showing too much of myself.

Ovrld: Like it was too raw?

KQ: Yeah, after shows I would want to go hide. I don’t know why. I’m still trying too figure out why that is. I think because I just opened myself up and let it happen. I didn’t have a shield or any guards up. I think maybe if I tried something like that in the future, to be a lead singer for a regular band, not just these sad songs, I will try to put some kind of filter or some kind of something to guard me. I think I’m a sensitive person. It was too much. It was too real.

Ovrld: I think that came through in the music too. It really hit people. It had a potency. When you went to the shows, there was no way you could not notice it or not be completely sucked into what was happening. 

KQ: I really appreciate people taking that band in. They loved it from the get go. Which is really lucky. A lot of bands have to go through a lot of years of playing and practicing and playing and playing before anybody even notices. And this, off the bat, a couple months into it, people were just loving it. It was kind of too much, too soon for me maybe? But it was great, I loved it.

Ovrld: I remember talking to you when it first started and you told me “We don’t have any recordings yet but our name is BLXPLTN.” And I was like “I’m already sold.” 

KQ: [laughs] And we played your house! That was one of my favorite shows ever, because the people were just in your face! And there was no hiding. Everyone’s eyes were just so attentive. That’s one thing I don’t notice that much in Austin. So that was maybe intimidating in a way. Because you go to shows at like Hotel Vegas and stuff and people walk in and they watch the band for a few and they go outside. So that scene in my mind is going to be etched forever because there were all these faces right in my face [laughs].

Ovrld: When we put that party together, I was so excited to have you guys there and I remember after, everyone was talking about you. For weeks after I was getting messages from people wanting to know more about you guys, “I need to know more about that band! Who were they? Where can I see them again?” 

KQ: That’s awesome! And that is a great feeling, I’ve gotta tell you. I feel blessed. And that’s the way I feel from Austin. It’s just incredible. And I don’t know if I’m lucky or I don’t know. But this town does have a lot of neat things to give. I don’t know, that’s probably a lame thing [laughs].

Ovrld: No, I think it’s true. I think the people that come out and see things, they really love it, and they really try to support it and do everything they can to help it. 

KQ: Indeed.

Ovrld: But to kind of switch that up, what are some of the challenges you think there are to being a musician or someone working in music that you might not be facing as much in other cities? 

KQ: Hmm. The competition, which is also a good thing. Because you want competition, you want to have choices. See what you like. But when you have this many bands in one town, it’s oversaturated. You end up having a lot of the same things. Maybe it’s not a challenge. Let me think about it for a second. Because at the same time, I love having this many bands. But when you have…how do I put it?

Ovrld: You think it’s a saturation issue?

KQ: Yeah, because then you go missing. There’s like a killer band playing downtown on a Tuesday night but then you go missing it because you’ve been going out for four days in a row already. You know what I mean?

Ovrld: I definitely know what you mean.

KQ: So then in another town with less to do, at least everyone comes out. Like one time I played Montana and there was one club and we played with a bluegrass band and my weird art band the Tuna Helpers and then a heavy metal band. And everyone was just so into each other, it was a grand ol’ time. Because that was what they had to do that night. In Austin, you have too much in a small town so then sometimes the show will be empty even though the band deserves to have 200 people at that show. And you feel bad if your friends come on tour and you set them up on a cool show but there’s a show across the street that’s way bigger so everyone is there. I see it as a challenge but it’s also a benefit. You can take full advantage of it being an oversaturated music loving town, but you have to know there will be a lot of nights where you’re just playing for the bartender [laughs].

Ovrld: Right, it’s never just one night of that. It’s like a whole year.

KQ: No! [laughs]

Ovrld: What about opportunities for taking your music to the next level? Is that present in Austin? Or do you think Austin musicians end up hitting a glass ceiling?

KQ: I think both. I think there are many bands that end up hitting it “big” from Austin, you have everything you need, you have really great recording studios, you have the opportunity to practice your craft while playing on a stage and a lot of people don’t get that. I think people do have to work too much at their day jobs to pay their bills, and then don’t have the opportunity to go out and tour as much as they should to make a name for themselves. Or they get lazy and comfortable [laughs].

Ovrld: Right, or they just play bills with their friends.

KQ: Yeah! You’re happy playing house parties, which I love, and maybe that’s all somebody wants. If you want to get it, and the people I have known that are so…what’s that word?

Ovrld: Driven?

KQ: Driven! They are all working it. And they are going to get it. So I think there is room for everybody. And if you want to make it big in Austin, I think you can. I think the opportunity is there.

Ovrld: What are some the best resources the industry has in Austin? What are some of the advantages we have here on that front?

KQ: Like I said, getting to play on a stage frequently, and learn how to talk to a sound person, and learn how you sound on a stage as opposed to recording. You have an opportunity to record in an inexpensive studio as well as an expensive studio. Everybody is here, so if you want it you can take that opportunity.

Also the radio stations here— KUTX, KVRX— are awesome. You can play on the radio. It’s all here. You just have to go get it and want it. Because not everybody wants it. You can be successful and you can be famous, they’re two different things. Some people feel successful playing Saturday night at Hotel Vegas and that’s cool, that’s successful. Some people feel successful playing a Monday night at Hole in the Wall, and that’s fine too! Everybody’s levels are different.

Ovrld: The closing question we’ve been asking people is what is something you would tell yourself when you were moving to Austin that you know now? It can be advice, or a warning…

KQ: Hmm….a warning…rent is going to be very expensive in about 15 years! [laughs] So watch out for that! See, I have felt so lucky and blessed with all the successes and failures and falling on my face and starting over that, I don’t know, I would keep it a secret. I like not knowing. Right now I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow, and I like it that way! [laughs]

You can donate to the Heart of the City project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. Thank you to our sponsors Rojo Hospitality and Distinctive Life.

Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.