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A Quietus Interview

Bewitched: Salem Interviewed
John Doran , October 4th, 2010 06:43

John Doran asks Salem some questions and they answer. Very slowly. Videos not work safe

Conference-Call >n.
Mechanickal Impossibility wherin a Fool attempts to be closer to his Fellow by shouting in to a BARREL."
Dr Johnson’s Dictionary Of Modern Life

Transatlantic conference calls to several domestic landlines at once are almost always nightmarish. I don’t know how anyone sees this as desirable way of doing business. Today we’ve got three separate time lags competing with each other meaning there are two noises on my tape at the end of an hour... eerie crackling silence or a babel of four voices jabbering at once. So in some respects our conversation is exactly like a Salem track; disjointed, confusing and hard to pin down what exactly is being said or to what end. Add in to the mix your interlocutor’s thick northern accent and you’ve got a situation that keeps on transforming itself into The Two Ronnies Mastermind Pass sketch; except not funny.

I immediately and accidentally offer the trio an open goal (and ice breaker) by starting with my usual conference call gambit, “Can you all say your names for me one by one slowly so I can tell who’s who when I’m transcribing.”

Guitarist and singer John Holland slurs: “Jjjjohhhhhnnnnnnnnnn Hollllllllannnnndddddddd.”

Singer and keyboard player, Heather Marlatt giggles furiously before offering her name, followed by deadpan rapper and beat maker Jack Donoghue.

After making demented collage electronica with a ragged juke edge to it as Young Cream while in High School, John initially started Salem as a solo project in 2006 before getting his best friend Heather on board in 2007. How they recruited their third member already seems to have become obfuscated. What seems clearer is that John was living on the margins of society as a drug dependant prostitute at the time and that the group was a means of him helping himself out of trouble.

Two EPs, Yes I Smoke Crack on Acephale and Water on Merok was followed by no small amount of hipster panic. Blog hype, stories of heroin and crack use, male prostitution, middle class, white use of hip hop culture, extreme latheration of fashion magazines all combined in a way that made Peaches Geldof and Die Antwoord look like John Lee Hooker and CRASS by comparison to Salem. All of this was doubtlessly fuelled by the unforgivable fact that they are very good looking and well dressed of course.

Their music continued to speak for itself however. When many modern musical Francis Fukyamas had pronounced progressive popular music all but dead and buried, it was slightly gauche of them to just roll up with a completely new sound. This woozy and threatening miasma draws together strands of Houston's chopped and screwed rap, Memphis crunk, Chicago juke, icy electronica (referencing bands as disparate as Fever Ray, Gary Numan and Autechre), the gothic end of post punk, shoegaze and chillwave. And the sheer unforced sensuality of the music suggests an ease of process and assurance that almost doesn't seem fair.

The word gothic is interesting as it has been used to describe the band many times before. And there are some surface similarities... They do sound like they are making music from God’s waiting room. The monolithic synthscapes, heavily distorted minor key bass rumble and partially occluded and ominous vocals do come from a dark place but there is nothing of the purple-lipped dandy sipping a snakebite and black about this. All goths, bad or brilliant, are actors in a giddy melodrama, drinking or daydreaming themselves into a fiction that they can report back from. This trio are exemplars of existentialism, they just reflect what they can see and how they feel, albeit refracted through the cracked prism of narcotics and sleep deprivation. If their new album King Night had come out a lifetime ago it wouldn’t have been by The Cure or Sisters Of Mercy but by Joy Division. (This can be heard literally on the track 'Killer' whose doomy post punk riff reverberates round John Holland’s stunned croak and in the synthesized coldness of ‘Atmosphere’ which permeates the album.)

Their aesthetic was further cemented by a series of haunting mix tapes in 2009. (If you want an introduction to their world, you could do much worse than listen to their We Make It Good tape for Fader.) These were undertaken at the same time as a series of remixes; most notably some chopped and screwed versions of the Gucci Mane tracks 'Bird Flu', 'Round One' and 'My Shadow'.

All of this innovation helped invent a genre... or rather their very distinctive sound has thrown up a bunch of copyists. It will become a genre as and when another band takes the sound and does something else original with it. There is a guy who trades under the name oOoOOO who shows some promise but the jury's still out. This new sound is referred to either as Drag or Witch House. But to be honest, this is probably the least interesting thing about Salem.

Their new album King Night should make its way into your home somehow, given that it's one of the best to be released this year.

I've been listening to this constantly for weeks now. Sometimes when I shouldn't be. For example: two hours before this interview I was home alone transcribing the tape of a talk I’d just had with Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. I was listening to King Night at the same time. It’s probably deeply unethical or something. It’s a good job I’m not a heart surgeon. Anyway, Mustaine, like a lot of recovering addicts was overflowing with energy and caffeine and talking at 100mph. I hit the slow button on the Dictaphone to be able to type at the same pace that he talked at. 'Asia' came on the stereo. Dave, who was now drawling like a boxer with a head injury started slurring like his mouth was full of treacle and cotton wool: “I guess I’m just blessed."

His voice was time stretched as if it was about to break apart into loose syllables, with throbbing, distorted ambience in the background: "That’s a really good question... I wonder about this myself... There were times... when I was a horribly sloppy drunk... and a terrible junkie..."

The combined effect was so unpleasant I had to stop both the LP and the Dictaphone and go and have a cup of tea.

SALEM - ASIA from SALEM on Vimeo.

I take it you were aware how much this album was going to polarise people before it came out?

Heather Marlatt: No, not really. We don’t really think about whether people like us or not. Or care.

Jack Donoghue: People either love our music or hate it? Well, people either have good taste or they have bad taste.

John Holland: I think if that’s the case, then that’s a really good thing because anything I’ve ever been passionate about then people either really love it or really hate it.

JD: There’s a lot of music that is designed to be played in the background. Sometimes I find that it’s hard for us to show our music to people if it’s not going to be played loud. I think our music deserves to be paid attention to and not all music does. I think some people don’t listen to music in that way.

You seem to get called gothic in some quarters - personally, I happen to think the opposite is true - but how do you feel about this?

JH: First of all I really, really don’t even know what any of these genre names mean. They just don’t make any sense to me. So if anyone calls it a certain type of music, they can do that, they can do whatever they want but I don’t think that we consider it to be any type of anything.

JD: Yeah, I agree with that totally. And I think in all types of music people put too much importance on defining genres. I don’t know, that’s just not how I think of things.

When you’re recording original material is there any extent to which you’re trying to recreate intense feelings or trying to escape from intense feelings?

JH: Everyone has intense feelings - and we have a lot of intense feelings - so it’s going to come through in the music but we don’t sit down and think we’re going to sit down and make this really intense song. If one of our songs is really emotionally charged it’s because we are.

Well, personally even though I don’t take drugs any more I still chase that psychedelic effect through music. How much are these things tied up together? I mean, Spacemen 3 once wrote a song ‘Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To’...

JD: I feel like there are experiences we’ve had that regardless of what they are can’t help but go into the music that we’re making but I don’t feel like we can make any statement that says we are making this is [drug music].

JH: I don’t feel like I’ve ever wanted to take drugs so I can listen to music. I kind of feel like if there’s a song, that you shouldn’t have to want to take drugs, that the song should be enough. You shouldn’t need to have anything else to enhance it. Drugs? I mean, whatever... drugs have nothing to do with our music.

JD: But come on John! Sometimes music sounds really good on drugs! [laughs]

Yeah! And, you know, it doesn’t have to be drugs. I guess I picked the really obvious example but I could easily have said is it an attempt to recreate how music sounds when you’re very ill, or how music sounds when you’ve just had sex, or how music sounds when you’ve just done intense exercise, or how music sounds when you haven't slept for days. I think illness is perhaps even a better example, especially, in your case. The bottom line is, there is something about your music that suggests a state other than normality. An altered state... it’s all the same from where I’m standing.

JD: That’s very true actually. I feel like there’s a lot of surrender in our music. Surrender of the self. Surrender away from the self. I think people presume that because it can happen when you take drugs - you surrender part of yourself up to something else, that’s what our music is about but there are a lot of other ways that this can happen as well. It can be sickness but also it could just be to surrender yourself spiritually or to surrender yourself to another person. I would almost say it has more to do with that, to me, than just drugs. Drugs is a small, small way of looking at it.

There’s a song called Sick on the album. Is this a joke? The double meaning of the word sick?

JH: No. I’ve never used the word “sick” to describe something being cool. It just means having a fever.

Do any of you have particularly vivid memories of being ill as children?

JD: I do. I sometimes like being ill. It’s because I’m sometimes very restless and if I’m ill it’s time for me to stay still. If I’m sick it forces me to stop moving for a while. And when I was young I would take not entirely bad things [to make myself ill].

JH: When I was very young I would get fevers. I’m allergic to Aspirin, so sometimes this would happen when I was given Aspirin. I would get an allergic reaction. I used to get these really, really, really fucked up hallucinations where all of my sense, my hearing, my sight, my taste, everything would turn into one sense. Even if I closed my eyes everything would combine to be the hugest, hugest thing ever and the tiniest, smallest, skinniest thing ever, the quietest possible thing and the loudest possible thing. All at the same time

JD: Up until recently I’ve had trouble sleeping. I wouldn’t say that I’ve used sleep deprivation as a creative tool but certainly stuff has come out of it. I can’t just do nothing, so if I’m not sleeping I’m likely to be working so that would affect the work but I’d never consciously be trying to stay awake. I’d sooner be asleep!

SALEM - DIRT from ACEPHALE on Vimeo.

Heather, do you think your vocals are necessary to the balance of the sound? That it would be maybe too intense and too creepy if it were just the vocals of Jack and John?

HM: I guess people have said that but I don’t really think about it like that.

JH: It’s very straightforward in that Heather sings on a song where it will sound best if she sings on it.

HM: Yeah, and if I wasn’t singing or writing things the music would be totally different. But sometimes John’s singing is pretty and melodic and stuff. It’s not always down...

JH: I sing on a lot more of the suff that hasn’t been released yet.

HM: It’s hard though. People aren’t used to hearing a band having all this stuff coming from one mood. They’re used to getting maybe one level from the record and ours isn’t like that. We seem to cause confusion.

Yes. You do cause confusion. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, despite having read a load of interviews with you I’m still not really sure what you all do in the group.

HM: We tell people all the time what we do... they just choose not to put it in there!

Well, I’d like to include this information so can you break it down for me?

HM: I sing, play the keyboard and write lyrics. Sometimes I help John with working out guitar parts.

JD: I make the beats and rap.Sometimes I get the samples and work on stuff with John.

JH: I sing, play guitar and keyboards and sometimes help Jack with beats. And not often but sometimes I do the sampling and looping. We all do different things but it’s very much a collaborative effort.

JD: And it’s not a super-defined thing. Like if someone wants to mess around with something they can.

JH: Yeah, there’s no position for each of us that we have to take.

How is the process? Do you record at home? Do you demo first?

JH: Recently I’ve been listening to older songs that we’ve made and thinking of them in that way because I want to make a demo because I want to redo it. But usually when a song’s finished, it’s done, the end. Well, actually, it’s not the end but that’s the finished song. There’s no rough draft. We just start at one point, it can be anything, the beats, they lyrics, the melody... and just work up form there.

JD: It’s more like we’re building something together, all adding things on to it instead of sticking three elements together.

How has your love for hip hop changed? I take it you’re long term fans of Memphis crunk and Houston chop and screw?

JD and JH: Yeah. We’ve always been big fans.

When you first started, do you think the hip hop element was more pronounced in your sound?

HM: When we started we all lived in Chicago and we just used to hang out in this tiny room. Me and John lived there and Jack would come over. I feel at that time we were listening to a lot of rap but we still do, it’s not really changed.

JH: Yeah screwed and chopped rap music is so exciting. When I first heard it I was really excited but it’s a good idea to slow down any music, not just rap music. It’s such a good thing to do.

JD: You’re trying to look at all these things as separate things when you should be looking at where they meet. We are influenced by a lot of different things but to us they’re not separate any more. When you say something like was there more hip hop influence before, it just depends on which song you’re talking about.

JH: Also, not all of our influences are musical.

HM: I don’t think of our music like that at all. The influences are all around you. We’re all just in to the same stuff. I’ve never heard something and thought, ‘Oh, I’ll have to try and work this into a song.’

JH: When we started making music we never sat down and said, ‘Oh we’re fusing this and that.’ It was almost unconscious and natural. I didn’t think we were making [anything groundbreaking]. I just thought we were making things we wanted to listen to. It wasn’t like, ‘Well we like these kinds fo music so we’ve got to figure out how to put them together. It was just like the natural occurence of us three working together.

I think it’s wrong to think of music having reached a full stop, I think there are plenty of spaces for music left to go. But it’s less and less common for music to sound new because of the number of people watching it and analysing it. So when music does feel genuinely fresh - at least over the last 20-years - it often comes from people or communities who are isolationist and aren’t affected by the internet or by globalisation as much. And I feel this is as true about black metal as it is about kuduru as it is about electronica made by loners who don’t have much contact with the outside world. Are you three inward looking? Do you keep yourselves to yourselves? Do you exist in an insular universe of your own making?

HM: Mostly I think we do.

JD: Now yes, but like everyone we’ve gone through stages. I mean, you guys are now but you haven’t always been right? There have been certain times when one or more of us have been very out there and out all the time and never even go home or stay in but there would be a lot of time when we would be secluded and isolated.

HM: I feel that even when I live in the city people are so cliquey that it’s easy to stay isolated and I do but that’s just part of my personality. [laughs] I really don’t like people and I don’t like to be around them.

JD: I’ve got to say as a contrast, I do like people.

HM: You’re more outgoing I gues.

JD: I like to work with other people. I like the three of us mixing. I feel less inspired to do things when I’m on my own.

HM: [sounding unconvinced] Hmmm.

Why did you revive Redlights for a third time for the album?

JH: It was supposed to make the album a little more cohesive I guess. I thought it would be cool to have really new songs and a really old song. There’s a little bit of a difference between the songs we make now and the songs we made three years ago, in terms of production. It would be totally cool to have some lo fi and some well produced songs combined.

Are there any other so-called witch house or drag acts that you’ve been excited to hear or do you find these other bgroups a bit of an annoyance?

HM: We like oOoOOO. We are sort of friends with him and he’s nice. But I think he has his own thing going on.

JH: I honestly don’t know what those other bands sound like. I know who you’re talking about but I’ve never heard them I don’t think.

How did you come to work with Gucci Mane and do you know what he thought of the remixes?

JD: He said that ours were the best. [laughs] No, I don’t know... but I guess he approved them because his label did. We’ve been offered more remix work since then and I’m sure that had something to do with it. Then we were put on that Diplo mix tape and they [came to us because of that]. Anyway, I think that Gucci is going to freestyle over this beat that we made later in the month. I’ve always thought it would be really great if we were to produce more rap songs. It’s like an honour thing that we’d all really be into.

Who would be on your wish list?

JD: Well, immediately I can tell you that we’d love to work with Soulja Boy. And Mariah Carey.

[laughing] Oh God. That would be amazing...

JH: Yeah, Soulja Boy and Mariah Carey would be the best.

I’ve got to say that I’m much older than you Salem and it makes me happy to see that you look a lot healthier in photos than you did a year ago. It pleases me.

HM: [laughing]

JH: It pleases you?!

JD: I agree with you that a year ago, we did not look healthy. I’m not sure what your definition of healthy is...

Well, maybe a year or so ago in pictures you looked a little peaky, not enough sunlight, not enough fresh air, not enough sleep or enough green veg. You may have made some lifestyle changes, which is a good thing. It makes me happy.

JD: Well, I’d say that we are all in happier places than we were a year ago, so I would agree with your statement.