When I heard HEALTH‘s new album, I was transfixed by the progress they’ve made over the past six years. I’ve seen them play countless times; their live shows are some of the most intense experiences of my life and the cause of at least three chipped teeth, a badge I drunkenly showed off when I interviewed them in 2008. Their self-titled debut was formative to my music taste, and the follow-up Get Color took it a step further with melodies you could actually sing along to. Not to diss Merzbow or anything, but with noise, sometimes a good proper anthem is what’s needed.
Death Magic, their third LP out August 7th via Loma Vista Recordings, feels like one BIG anthem, and they underpin the noise I’ve come to expect with imminently danceable (or thrashable) beats and what seems like critique of youth nihilism, as noted in my review, which was actually wrong and proves I shouldn’t read so much Thomas Ligotti. I sat down with the band in a room with a friendly dog—pretty much my favorite kind of room—to catch-up after seven years apart. My first order of business was asking about the European shows they’d been playing recently.
Benjamin: The tour has been really good. We’ve had dedicated fans obsessively coming to multiple shows all across Europe. A funny comment I’ve gotten from them is, “Your sound is so varied?”—spoken like a question, like they were surprised. Like, why would you have each song so different?
John: “You should create a similar sound for a dance floor.”
EB: Like techno or something.
Benjamin: Yeah, I guess so.
Jake: We’ve always done that to our own detriment, where we want every song to be different.
EB: I don’t think it’s necessarily so confusing; with your albums and any time I’ve seen you live it’s always felt very cohesive. Of course, Death Magic has its highs and lows, noise and pop, but that’s what makes it interesting. When something maintains a single level without evolution, that’s when I’m bored.
Benjamin: We think it’s cohesive, but most people think in rigid genre parameters. You know, “Oh, it’s a garage rock band. I get it, I immediately understand.” We try to stay away from that idea. But we do also want to be cohesive.
EB: It must have been a bit of a struggle when you toured with Nine Inch Nails.
John: That was such a mainstream experience, though. It’s totally removed from anything alternative or independent. That crowd probably goes to one show a year.
Jake: It’s not the intelligentsia of the music scene, really.
John: They have a very different relationship to live music.
Benjamin: They have a tattoo and a poster on the wall.
John: But it’s for one band! The average person goes to one concert a year.
Benjamin: Now it’s changing, though, because of large festivals like Coachella.
John: So they don’t even go to a show—they go to one festival a year. It’s a very different idea of being a music fan.
EB: Do you find that there’s a higher level of musical apathy nowadays in the US?
John: As a guy who’s been going to shows and music festivals for a very long time, I definitely notice a change. I’ve been going to Coachella since high school. The majority of people there would wear band shirts. For several years, I’ve seen almost none.
Benjamin: I think now it’s more about the event itself rather than the music.
John: And since the advent of social media, it’s about the perfect photo. You never see shots of young kids watching the band or the DJ; it’s just about capturing the perfect moment of having been there. I feel like, in a certain way, everyone’s in the industry now. I’m not saying they don’t enjoy being at these shows, but they’ve got work to do promoting their own personal brand.
EB: When I was listening to Death Magic, I felt like it was commenting on this idea of apathy in youth clubbing culture: being in a place where you only respond to drugs and don’t care about anything other than the moment, if that. The phrase “So what?” definitely appeared a lot.
John: We didn’t mean that in a negative way, though! We’re definitely not trying to criticize anything. It’s more about feeling a real human emotion about what you’re doing at the time, you know? Feeling like someone is saying, “Have fun, you can do your own thing.” It’s a positive thing.
Benjamin: Positive or negative, we’re just here. So what can you do about it?
John: Times have changed. In LA there’s now a very active party scene. There’s a lot of older people—people who’ve been in the noise and experimental scene for a long time and who now do a lot of party drugs because that’s the vibe—staying up all night at these parties. It’s a fun thing, but there is this certain…not sadness, but it feels like everyone is reaching for something.
Benjamin: That’s the whole reason you’re doing it anyway.
John: It’s profound, but we wanted to reflect that in a non-cheesy way. But it is a very real thing.
EB: There’s definitely been a shift in America’s party landscape in the last five years toward some kind of idealization of Berlin—especially Berghain, which represents the dream of a massive techno club where you can party all night on drugs. I suppose on some level it can be traced to the rise of EDM, which acted as a gateway for many into electronic music.
John: I think it was also reactionary to EDM. The underground sees it’s crap, so they have to seek out the “real thing” instead. So many people think, “I can only have this big techno experience in Berlin,” but now every weekend in LA there’s “Berlin-style” all-night warehouse parties. Berghain is definitely the model for it. And the people doing this are the same ones who were doing weird noise or punk shows before. The underground has a wide breath of sounds from different periods, so it’s always changing.
EB: How do you think that this idea of reaching for a higher quality of sound has impacted the DIY scene?
John: It’s weird, because there’s a lot of artists striving to make what, to them, is “authentic” techno or “real” music, but the real good shit can be hard to differentiate from the other shit.
Benjamin: Also, it’s really easy now for anyone in the DIY scene to make totally hi-fi music.
John: There’s no separation between the quality anymore. You can make something that sounds as good as anything on the radio with your computer. That’s exciting. But the thing about the underground is that it’s still tied to this idea of an authentic method or sound. So someone makes “authentic” techno the “right” way, but I can’t tell the difference between their real techno and some other techno.
Benjamin: We’re not huge techno or house fans.
John: No, but I mean that it’s just hard for songs to stand out sometimes.
EB: It’s interesting, though. Can you imagine James Ferraro five years ago being where he is now?
John: Exactly. With modern technology, there’s no reason why your music can’t be hi-fi.
Benjamin: It’s great that you ask that question, actually, because we’ve been getting asked why there’s such a stylistic change in our sound a lot. But I mean…how can you not do that? Unless you want to be a retro band, you have to respond to what’s going on. You have to be excited about the possibilities of music around you.
Jake: Some interviewers seemed almost disappointed that we’d changed.
Benjamin: “You’ve really changed your ghetto-ass record production style.” Well, sorry we made it better!
EB: When I saw you play Berghain a couple years ago, I was surprised at how pop-y the material had become—but even more surprised at how it made the more noisy parts sound fresher. It captured the same spirit in a new way.
Benjamin: What would be the point of waiting for a record or a show if you just knew you were getting what you already heard? It was very important to us not to go that route. It also speaks a lot on youth and progressiveness. People are afraid of change. They want to say, “I know what that band sounds like and it should stay like that.” No. There’s no integrity to that. You have to take a risk.
John: All the punk and noise stuff, if there was a button or some easily-accessible technology they could have used to make themselves sound high-end, of course a lot of them would have used it.
Benjamin: If the Misfits could have recorded at Abbey Road, they would have.
EB: This technology has really allowed freaks to come into the mainstream on their own terms.
John: That’s the thing about the internet too; these genre sub-divisions are all great because they’ve created interesting culture around them, but they’re out of necessity. Now, there’s really no rules. Anything goes.
The contrast of disaffection and emotion on their latest EP sets Crim3s apart—it’s honest, touching you in strange ways, giving cold comfort like a record pressed in the Black Lodge, says Daniel Jones.
If you’re a music genreist, blogger, or just on a ‘dark‘ tip in general, you probably know about the much-maligned witch house. You know, the stuff with the triangles and crosses and a dozen articles expounding on the unGooglebility of it all? Yeah, that didn’t really end up so well. As with many underground genres, the inclusion of a definitive sound as well as an overused and inauthentic attachment to occult aesthetics spelled (heh) the end of the mini-movement almost as soon as it began. Those still involved, be it peripherally, erroneously or otherwise, generally shunned the name, considering it a tag for trendy laziness—not without reason. Yet the sound and vibe of it continue to exist and evolve in a variety of different sources even as music writers struggle to pin the idea down (I’m slapping my own hands even as I type). Crystal Castles, for example, draped the shroud over their recent LP III. It was probably the best album they’ve ever made, possibly because it felt so inspired by London-based co-conspirators and friends Crim3s, whose latest EP Stay Ugly is also a harshly searing combination of blown-out electronics and harrowing vocals. The difference being that Stay Ugly also feels more honest.
“Ugly” is an apt description for the five tracks here, which seem to revel in alienation even as the beautiful ache of need and hope seeps through. Sadie Pinn’s voice often hides below the throbbing bass, emerging in sub-decipherable gasps and shrieks. While the vibe hasn’t changed much since 2012’s Crim3s EP, the production feels fuller, and Pinn never more sure of herself. It’s hard not to be swept away when she wails, “I miss you! I need you here!” on “DOSE”, sounding only moments away from a breakdown. It’s this contrast of disaffection and emotion that truly sets Crim3s apart—it’s honest, touching you in strange ways, giving cold comfort like a record pressed in the Black Lodge. There is hope here, though it struggles thin and weak beneath the thickly-spread layer of garmonbozia. “Stay Ugly” plays with the idea of being caught between emotional states—“Keep your soul/Burn all hate/Take, plead and cry with the saints”—while the crystallized rave bounce of closer “stress” finds Pinn’s throat sounding ready to split in ecstatic agony.
There’s no escape from labels; it’s simply human nature to ascribe roles and names to ideas. Whether it’s accurate or not often depends on perception, and even more often makes little difference. To my ears, the witchy influences here are obvious, but the people making it (and this is the important part) are pure punk in the truest sense, possessed of a strong DIY spirit and a no-fucks-given attitude. Ugliness is antithesis to mainstream society—whatever ideals of kindness and acceptance society may espouse on the surface, in practice it shuns the aesthetically “unpleasant” in favor of whatever happens to be beautiful to the eyes and ears of the masses. Whatever you chose to label them, Stay Ugly proves that Crim3s go beyond trends and names. This is a soul laid bare, stripped raw and given voice. One has only to listen.
Stay Ugly is out now via Crim3s’ Bandcamp. Stream the full EP below.
In the next part of our series assessing the impact of Depeche Mode through personal narratives, German DJ and electronic music producer Stefan Betke—aka Pole—recalls the influence Depeche Mode had on him as a teenager in Dusseldorf, and beyond.
The very first time that I heard of Depeche Mode was through a music show on German television in 1981—I was 14 years old. I’m not part of the generation which saw the big musical developments between ‘75 and ’85, my active listening began in the late ‘70s and early 80s. However, I shared a room at my parents’ house with my older brother which meant I was exposed to a lot of music from that time. When I first saw Depeche Mode on TV I thought: ugly hairstyles, bad clothes and cheesy melodies. I was more interested in Richard Hell, Wire and the German punk band Hans-A-Plast, so seeing Depeche Mode on TV was alright and… That’s it.
Back then I already knew I wanted to be a musician. I was playing a Fender Rhodes in my school band, but for us it was unaffordable to buy a synthesiser or to even think about being a part of this new scene. I grew up in Dusseldorf and the bigger influence during that time was definitely Kraftwerk, who are obviously from Dusseldorf too. When I used to go out we’d see them in cafes. In our scene in Düsseldorf Depeche Mode were received as a purely pop phenomena; in conversations I had everyone said Depeche Mode were interesting, but, in the end, commercial. It took a while before it become apparent what their long term imprint on the music scene would be.
At this point in my life I was undergoing two angles of personal development, musically speaking. On the one hand I was into listening to punk; Hans-A-Plast, as I said, Chrome, as well as experimental jazz like John Lurie, John Zorn, Fred Frith etc. Yet at the same time, and as a musician, I was trying to learn what was possible in the musical language and how to use instruments, especially electronic instruments. This is where Depeche Mode’s worth came in, I saw the band as breaking through limits. They were the first people to introduce electronic music into a popular scene, before that it was really underground and only really focused on English scenes and Kraftwerk. Depeche Mode were using synthesisers to explore what everybody else said was a no-go area: not real guitar, not real drums, not this, not that. They tried to break the rules and go further, and they succeeded because it spread all over the world. This is what I appreciated about Depeche Mode from the early days onwards: the habit, the idea, the haltung. For me the haltung—the attitude—is a very important thing, it’s not a question of what you do but how you do it. In my opinion you’ve five percent talent and the rest is work. You have an idea but it’s the attitude that’s important, that you finish that work is important, and you have to go as far as possible. That is what I saw in Depeche Mode. They broke the rules, the purism of real instrumentalism, they went one step ahead.
Many years later I saw them at the Waldbühne in Berlin. I was totally focused on them, I was openminded enough to let them affect me. I was standing in the middle of the crowd listening to all these old tracks that I had on CD and vinyl, I thought by myself and in these surroundings, with this volume and this impact that they are producing, how Mr Gahan is acting with his body and how he is treating the microphone stand… I was like, that works. All the records before, they only worked for me on a production level. I remember I was listening to Construction Time Again, the album that was recorded at Hansa Studios, I was just sitting at home and thinking how can they have such a precise sound and such a huge stereo image? I was looking at it from a producer’s perspective rather than a musician’s. The thing is, when I first saw this concert I felt that there was something touching me.
Daniel Miller did come to me asking if I’d look to do a remix for them. I’d done some other remixes for artists on Mute before and the band wanted me to do one as well, so it was a mutual idea. Daniel was sitting at my home and said, “You can do whatever you want, but you can’t use the vocals.” The idea was an instrumental remix, which was fine with me because I prefer instrumental anyway. So I worked on it, did it, sent it over but I got told that the band said we couldn’t use it. Why? There were no vocals! I still have it, somewhere in my archive.~
Photo: Luci Lux
While many may decry rock music as dead, Fat White Family’s garage-punk sleaze proves it has at least one more filthy road to travel, says Daniel Jones.
Rock music has pretty much hit a wall in terms of forward-thinking; there’s just not many places for it to go at this point, if any. Even the phrase ‘rock music’ sounds like something your grandpa would say. So when a rock band comes along with even mildly catchy music, it’s easier to just shrug and go, “Well, sure, okay; that’s fine.” How else can you possibly explain the success of Mumford & Sons? Once in a while, however, some bastard sneaks into the musical ice cream factory and dumps toxic waste in the vats of vanilla. That’s where things like Fat White Family are born.
The Fam have been called the best band in London right now, with comparisons ranging from the unchained weirdness of The Birthday Party to the swampy lovelorn Gun Club. While those are certainly apt starting points, the 11 tracks on their debut album Champagne Holocaust have a modernist decadence to them that speaks of eyes more empty than bright—this isn’t music for thrashing, but rather for shambling. From the opening psychedelic licks of “Auto Neutron”, The Fam’s bluesy, disinterested punk shimmies beneath the skin. You can almost hear the down-heel boots clomping along to the beat on the dirty bar floor, struggling against that moment when they know they must leave their ass-warmed chairs and head back into the hateful sunlight. There’s a lot of the Americana romance to the album, be they songs postulating the nature of Lee Harvey Oswald’s death or gold rush-era prairies. It’s a fascination I didn‘t really get back when I was listening to all those Theatre of Hate albums, and I’m not sure I get it now—so I ask you, British people: why do you guys romance our past so much? Aside from the whole inventing R&B thing, I mean.
There’s more than a touch of the soundtrack aspect to Champagne Holocaust, the tracks arranged to form a modern outlaw tale of dirty desert deals gone wrong, a sweat-drenched paranoia like the offspring of Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch. “Without Consent” swaggers like the most disreputable gigolo in town, giving way to the hog-killin’ squeals and shrieks of “Special Ape”. By this point, the album has hit a stride of garage-punk monsters, so as much as tracks like “Heaven On Earth” and the manic “Bomb Disneyland” make the nasty drunk in me rise up on shaky legs, it’s the touches of gentleness that stand out a bit more—gentle like the breeze of old cigarette smoke, anyway. “Cream Of The Young”‘ floats about on a simple Casio beat and raw chords, while album closer “Garden Of The Numb” cements the theme of nodding-off hatred apparent throughout: “I see you on the corner with your friends. I can only hope it won’t be long for them.” Smash-cut to filthy, yellowed curtains sliding closed.
Fat White Family’s sound is special not because of any particular uniqueness; aside from the aforementioned older comparisons, more modern acts like Bird Blobs, Preacher & The Knife, New Thrill Parade, and myriad others have poked and prodded at various levels of nihilistic garage and Americana. What set the Fam apart is the wonderfully ugly use of musical mythology in their sound and performance—it’s almost like a parody story of all of the overblown nastiness that makes up rock’s history, which I suppose would make this a soundtrack after all. To be honest, I can’t think of one more appropriate.
Fat White Family’s Champagne Holocaust is out April 1st on Trashmouth Records.
From the moment the CD is inserted in the tray and that cockney voice declares, “Here comes the bus again” you’re thrown headfirst back into Patrik Fitzgerald’s world, like you, or he, has never been away.
His music, as always, seems to grow seamlessly out of some secret sound-fabric or process, where no strain or doubt seeps into the production and recording but instead all the elements seem to have been designed to slot into place, as if by magic. Whether in a combination of voice and guitar (or band) or assisted by electronic beats, keys and loops, the merging creates a triumphant and exhilarating soundscape. There is the feeling that only a few months have passed since his early ‘hits’ such as “Safety Pin Stuck in My Heart” or the second, electronic loops-based album Gifts and Telegrams and now he just happened to make another album.
The collectable six-page gatefold card pack with booklet is sold by him through his website and Facebook account, bypassing the kind of promo hype and blunt attempts to gain listeners so prominent within online networking. His anti-marketing approach is a unique model and worth exploring. The original cockney punk poet has truly returned and his message is as uncompromising as ever. Lyrically it is at times hard to swallow in its brutal realism (pictures flashing in my mind of Gary Oldman’s directing debut Nil by Mouth) but assisted by the inspired arrangements so as to carry the listener through the album without the temptation arising to ‘look the other way’ when things get a bit uncomfortable.
The injustices bestowed upon the working classes by the ruling elite—so essentially British a concern—are again subject matters deeply ingrained in Fitzgerald’s psyche but embedded as always in personal experience and accounts of the individual’s plight in the artificial construct of society rather than by use of political platitudes. He hit the punk scene at the right time and fitted seamlessly into a landscape where there was ample space for individuality. His first and to this day most successful record “Safety Pin Stuck in my Heart” ensured a secure place within punk history. Yet his career has been a rocky one, as it is for anyone with ‘too much’ individuality in a world in thrall to numbers, of units. Remarkably the music never suffered. Thus it is with childlike excitement that I am able to interview the master.
Subliminal alienation sounds like it could easily have been a follow-up album of either Grubby Stories or Gifts and Telegrams. How do you manage to stay so true to your style of writing and production and yet with each recording find inspiring ways of dealing with the classic elements you use?
I only write and record things in my own way and never try to copy anybody. I don’t think there is a particular art to that other than “don’t follow trends or try to be something you are not”. I am lucky in that I find different instruments to use or different computer studio systems to record with that are easy to use—I am not very good with technology.
Supposing that the alienation of the album title is your own (and those of your characters you describe) I find that there isn’t much that’s subliminal about it. You describe bleak lives in sometimes brutal surroundings. The music is anything but bleak, however, but your alienation seems to be more direct and terminal than ever. Am I mistaken?
The reason it is called Subliminal Alienation is because I think a lot of people exist in a state where they don’t even realize that they are alienated, they just go about their daily lives. I would say that this is pretty terminal but it seems to be the way things have gone. People have become used to a sense of complete powerlessness.
After you released Grubby Stories what inspired you to use electronic sounds and loops for your next album Gifts and Telegrams? Were you concerned that people would hold the unexpected change against you, like Dylan going electric and reaping much resentment as a result? How was the album received?
After playing acoustically for about three years I had a group, which featured acoustic and electric guitar, saxophone, flute, drum box, Casio keyboard, electric piano and a Wasp synthesizer. So when it came to making my next album I had got used to my songs using those sort of instruments and I couldn’t imagine the songs without those things. A friend lent me a Revox tape recorder, so I just sat at home recording the songs myself and added things like saucepans and kitchen utensils, recorder, and speeded up voices and an octave divider pedal which turns a guitar into a bass. I also used the drum box as individual beats, usually out of time and just had a lot of fun turning my songs into soundscapes, again not attempting to sound like anyone.
The approach to electronic music on Gifts and Telegrams—and also throughout your work and on the new album—would be considered trendy and cutting edge in the present musical landscape. Kids around the world are trying to produce loops and tracks that sound like that. Does this surprise you to hear?
PF: If they have the same approach as me that isn’t really surprising. One of the biggest surprises to me was getting an email from Adamski who made one of the best techno tracks ever in “Killer”, who said that I was one of the reasons he started recording his own songs at home. Hardly the same style of music as mine but I felt really proud to know that I had made somebody feel that they could record their own songs.
Were the songs for Subliminal Alienation written within a specific time frame and specifically for this album or were they written over an extended time period as perhaps as part of a larger group of songs, which you then picked from for this album?
PF: They are a bunch of songs written over a number of years and I just chose the ones that I felt fitted best together. I wanted to represent where my songs fit in to the general scheme of things and which I felt lived within the realms of the album title. I always think in terms of making a demanding album as opposed to easy listening. An album has to be a collection of songs which leaves an impression as opposed to just 50 minutes or so of music that just takes up someone’s time.
The song “Knockabout” is a brutal description of a married couple’s bleak existence, held together by sex coupled with violence. What inspired this song?
Somebody that I know lived out this song. The violence was not consensual. I was able to use my platform as a songwriter to put this out there. I believe that songs should be more than just pointless entertainment.
The song “Laughter Far Away” is a typical Patrik Fitzgerald soundscape where all the elements merge seamlessly yet each part stands out on its own. Is the song about one’s continuing drift into loneliness as time passes? The sentiments remind me of a film by Lucino Visconti called Conversation Piece, in which an aged Burt Lancaster is terrorised by an eccentric family who have moved in above him. He hears the sound of death walking once they’re gone and silence remains.
The song was originally rejected as racist by a Patrik Fitzgerald band member in the ‘80s because I had explained that it was a song about white farmers waiting to have their farms taken over by black people in southern Africa (hence the line about “a dirty black cloud hovering above the ground”). It has since become clear to me that the song is actually about depression and alienation, which is why it was included on this album. I like the way that my track and the strings in the background seem to almost be playing a different song, It’s almost like the string track is playing through a haze of Valium. It’s a good aural evocation of living in a world where you are given drugs to help you adjust to living in the same world as everybody else.
Your attitude to an existence in and on the fringes of the music industry seems to be a truly independent one, both in your musical output as in your actions. Do you have a philosophy on how an artist can exist as a musician at the present time and in the digital age?
I feel quite on the edge of it all really, but I also feel happy in that position, because I think to be embraced by the music industry would feel like you weren’t producing anything of any actual value. It suits some people. It doesn’t suit me. After 50 years in the music industry I’d expect to be given a cheap shitty watch and then be packed off to a retirement home.
Trent Reznor coined the phrase: ‘We are the music industry’. Does this mean anything to you?
I’m not sure. Trent Reznor appears happy to have loaned out his musical skills to anybody who will pay. This doesn’t seem too different from anybody else in the music industry.
Have you embraced the digital marketing landscape, such as social networks?
I don’t really like having to make sales pitches or justifying what you do. If you are driven to write songs or do anything else that is supposedly ‘creative’ however, it’s just something that you have to do, to some extent.
I’m interested to know more about your personal outlook on your career in terms of getting exposure now and in future; gaining listeners etc. Are you bothered?
Yes and no. Everything is pretty temporary. I have days when I will tell everybody that I am the best songwriter in the world. That’s usually when I’m drunk. However, There are other days when I actually believe that. But I go back to yes and no. Everything is temporary.
Your song “All the Years of Trying” (one of my favourite tunes which accompanies my life always) was written when you were young. What seems remarkable is your understanding then of a long career and what remains at the end of it. Does this song mean a lot to you now?
Again yes and no. It was the only song my mother recognized as an actual song!
Let me end by saying thank you for your time. A safety pin is firmly stuck in my heart for you.~
Patrik Fitzgerald’s Subliminal Alienation is out now on Crispin Glover Records.