Before Maxx Katz plays a single note of a FLOOM set, she looks out at the audience in front of her and thinks: “We’re all going to die.”
That thought in mind, she rings out one heavy chord on her silver sparkle Epiphone Les Paul and lets it tumble out of her bitchin’ amps and through the crowd like a slow fog, enveloping everyone in the room in a two-sided truth: Death is inevitable, but the fact that we’re alive “is really big and remarkable.”
It’s hard to escape the cloud of sound; it seeps into every corner of the room, and if her listener is willing to join her on that cloud, he might reach a certain level of mysticism. It’s what Katz aims to achieve, for both herself and her listener, with FLOOM, her solo musical project that yokes the weight of doom metal—heavy, heavy metal from a low-tuned guitar played at slow tempos, often with foreboding lyrics—with the haunting lightness of the flute.
We’re all going to die, but before we do, there’s life to live, Katz says, and we might as well fill it with rad music.
Katz, a highly trained classical and jazz flutist and an experienced doom-metal guitarist who’s toured nationally and internationally with Red Wizard and as Miami Nights, recently began combining the two out of boredom and sheer necessity. It’s nothing we’ve heard here in town before.
“I don’t know how other people feel about doom, but in my favorite moments—when the riffs are good—it brings you up to the edge of reality and you look over,” Katz says. “I kind of love the bleakness,” she says, because sometimes it’s empowering to stare down a scary thing, to release a powerful sound upon it.
But after years of touring with doom bands based out of Charlottesville, Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon, Katz tired of playing the same riffs and rehashing the same sounds; she began itching for the expressiveness flute affords her. When she put them together, she found that flute expands doom “not just in a register way, but in an emotional way. It adds this register of delicacy and beauty but still [has] strength and size,” Katz says.
Last spring, Katz applied for—and received—a New City Arts Charlottesville SOUP grant for FLOOM to explore what’s going on in the space between the high-end of the flute and the low-end of the guitar. SOUP dinner attendees pay $10 for soup, salad, bread, dessert and the chance to vote for one of the artists presenting projects in need of funding; in May, they voted for FLOOM. “I had this mindset that I was too weird, that [what I make] is too weird for people, and that I was outside society in this way. But then people voted for it, and I was shocked and very encouraged. Maybe people do want to experience reality in the same way I experience reality,” Katz says with a low, warm laugh.
FLOOM songs—Katz says she’s composed about two and a half of them—are less like songs and more like sonic journeys. Instead of traveling from point A to point B, then to C and back to A, a FLOOM song will jump from A to F, make a roundabout back to B and maybe stop at C along the way. Katz creates an atmosphere with tone and texture, one where every note of the song is played live (“I’m not into samplers; I’m not into recorded things,” she says) to heighten the shared unique musical experience.
When Katz writes for FLOOM, she says she tries to make the seemingly discordant instruments work together by creating layers of sound around and between them. She’s not just looping a guitar chord progression and playing flute solos over that—“That’d be boring,” Katz says. Instead, she plays around with which instrument carries the atmosphere, which instrument creates the texture, when both are needed, and how they can complement or contradict the other. Sometimes she loops the guitar, sometimes she loops the flute. She sings. She strikes. She provokes. The songs are quite composed, but Katz keeps a certain level of improvisation in each FLOOM set—speeding things up, slowing them down, ringing a chord a bit longer—depending on how the music feels that day.
She aims to evoke the intangible through music. Music is an elusive medium in a way—we can’t see it, or hold it in our hands; a chord doesn’t ring forever. But we can feel the vibrations of the sound in our bones and our blood, and the emotion of it in our hearts and minds. Music makes us feel the invisible parts of ourselves.
“There’s this level of heart and life that’s so hard to get to, especially with the way we live. Talking to that level is my goal,” Katz says. Sometimes when she plays, she says reality seems to open up and she feels free to move. Other times, a note will hit just the right sadness, “the good kind of sadness that blooms, and it’s like, ‘Oh, thank you for doing that.’” That’s what she listens for when she’s on stage, on the edge of existence, fully engrossed in life while death looks on from a distance. There’s a bravery, a brazenness to it.
Katz says she’s driven by “the undercurrent of wanting a more complete experience of life. That’s always going to win. The making of things is a necessary thing about living a real life that cannot be avoided,” and music will always be the way she works the chi of life into something we can hold on to together. “If a performer rings their heart like a bell,” she says, “it starts ringing everyone else’s.”
Maxx Katz performs as FLOOM, combining the guttural depths of heavy-metal guitar with the piercing lightness of flute in an emotional sonic collision. Photo by Eze Amos