Salem interview: "You’re not scared…it’s music." American trio interviewed ahead of their journey into ‘Night.
Gabba is an aggressive form of musical expression and frequently noise is seen as incomprehensible; neither would I describe as beautiful. Salem do, in the hurled beats of “Asia” or the ambient drones underlying “King Night”, play music both harsh and dense. But they seem also to have created an oeuvre of chopped’n’screwed darkwave that surpasses the abrasiveness associated with these sounds. We’ve all stood watching Sonic Youth blast out a wall of sound or danced ourselves into a bloody mess at a Venetian Snares show. But I at least have not felt, listened or danced to a song like “Trapdoor” before. Neither aggressive or placated or even somewhere in between, Salem have been able to not only step away from genre-tagged music but also genre-tagged emotional response.
Is this pop music? You can look to Gaga or Hurts for a post-modern, paint by numbers aesthetic. I don’t look to diminish them but they know the game and have played it well in their perfectly groomed Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Key Change-Chorus-Finish. You could also just glance at the indie landfill to remind yourself what pains a revival can bring. Salem are extraordinary because they are case No. 1 or 7 or 32 in the truly contemporary pop song. The popular song that does not work with cynicism or bourgeois nostalgia but stands as a vanguard that can still be seen. It’s all too easy for the avantgarde to lead in a direction no one else can make sense of – I just can’t get Om. To create brilliant music, which holds at its core something unexplainable and universally understood, is a much harder feat; something Salem have accomplished.
Their forthcoming LP King Night – released on IAMSOUND this month – embodies all of this; a contradiction that makes perfect sense. Over the phone, Salem, possibly through bad sound or genuine feeling, seemed detached. It felt as though that removal stemmed from their approach to describing themselves. John Holland, Heather Marlatt and Jack Donoghue know how they feel about ‘Salem’ and possibly could articulate that. But they made clear that they had no interest in shrouding their music in descriptions or taglines, they just wanted to create. This makes sense to me now and it will make sense to you on 27th September, trust me.
So, how are you guys doing?
Jack & Heather: Good.
Jack: We’ve been working on our live set; working on the video, working on remixes, working on new music.
I thought you didn’t like the live setting, why are you trying to improve it?What is it at the moment that you’re not really content with in regards to the live show?
John: It’s not that we don’t like them, at all. We’re just always trying to make it better.
Heather: We don’t think it’s that interesting to go somewhere and watch three people playing instruments. We wanna make it more environmental.
In a similar fashion as Fever Ray did last year? That was quite the experience.
Jack: No, we don’t want our show to be like that at all.
So…what kind of atmosphere do you mean then?
Jack: We don’t want to put on a show with costumes. Just an environment that is more conducive to the feeling that our music has. Not so dramatic like Fever Ray’s show might be, as you said before.
That seems intelligent. What seems most pertinent for me is your relationship with the music you make. Both in regards to the technical process and your motives for making it. So first off, how is it a Salem track comes to be, generally?
John: We don’t really have a set way of doing things.
John: Usually we record our music in my basement – that’s where our studio is. But I don’t know, we can do it at any time of day and it doesn’t have to be there.
Jack: We’ve recorded music when we’re all in different states. Once I was making beats with this guy in Africa in a little studio in a town and then travelling miles to send them to John and then he was putting guitar and shit on it. I think it could go down any time anywhere. That’s a nice thing to have.
Do you feel as though location – a studio, a basement, outdoors or whatever – bears a clear relationship with how the music sounds?
Jack: Well, certainly the sounds that I had when I was working with this guy in Africa were different. If Me, Heather and John are all sitting with each other it’s more like a discussion and we’ll be like “no I don’t like that” or “yeah, that sounds great”. So songs are gonna be different when we’re apart but only we would know what songs were made when or where. Because, it doesn’t matter that much – it changes the music as much as any other factor.
It’s true that whether you’re listening to the Yes I Smoke Crack EP or King Night you can hear an overarching production throughout. When and how did you find yourselves making something like that do you think – when did you find “Salem”?
John: I mean, it’s always been like that; we’ve always been making music like this. It’s just a natural thing that we have to do; it didn’t just happen one day.
So have you guys been in bands before then?
Heather: Yeah, I mean, I was…but we all made music on our own. I used to play with another of our friends that me and John went to high school with.
And what sort of music were you making? Was it like this or some terrible college rock band?
Heather: It wasn’t electronic at all…He played the guitar and I played the keyboard. But there weren’t really any beats – it was more like …
Jack: I dunno…it was a little bit more psychedelic.
Heather: There weren’t songs; we were just playing tracks that’d be like ten minutes long. We’d record onto an eight track and then slow it down.
OK. What was the bank of influences that led to Salem? Influences in regards to anything – literature to music or of course with a name like Salem, demons or the occult. What is it that led to not only the music but to the overall concept of the band “Salem”?
John: A lot of movies have influenced us but we’ve listened to so many types of music that it’d be hard to pinpoint it; spirituality for sure. Petty much everything that’s happened to us in our lives goes into our music; past and present.
Do you think that the music itself is looking back, engaging with the present or looking forward?
Jack: I’d say all three. I feel that people are taking notice of what we’re doing now because it’s new and because it sounds like what people want to hear. So it’s definitely firmly in the present and future but I also think that in a sense of making it…personally, a lot of things [in the music] will be about stuff that has happened to us.
Of course! There’s always the need for inspiration to draw from. I’m sure your records inspire many people as well. Actually, in regards to reception, many people have described it as pretty terrifying music. Yesterday a friend of mine who loves the record thought it felt like being dragged threw a sewer by rats…
Jack: What? Like what?
Heather: Like being dragged through a sewer by rats.
Jack: Like rats?!
John: Everybody can interpret it differently.
Heather: I’ve never listened to a piece of music and been terrified by it. I feel that when people say things like that it’s for shock value really. People feel the need to write “I’m scared” but…you’re not scared…it’s music.
I mean, when I listen to it there is a degree of that unease but the overwhelming feeling for me is one of beauty – they’re soundscapes and it’s near impossible not to totally immerse yourself in it. How do you feel when you listen to your own music?
Jack: I feel a lot of love for John and Heather whenever I get a new song that I really like. It makes me so happy that I’m working with them. Once it all comes together and it’s finished – I don’t know – it’s a really good feeling. I mean for all of us to have made that together. Some songs give me an immediate visual response and some won’t, it just depends.
There are lots of names that have been pan handled about but you guys describe yourselves as Drag, right?
John: We never described ourselves as Drag.
Jack: I think someone said that we did but we haven’t described ourselves as that. I mean sometimes we make screw remixes and call them drag remixes.
I guess there’s a desire to buzzword a band as quickly as possible and in many cases it’s misrepresentative. How would you describe your own music to someone who hasn’t listened to it?
[Groans and laughter]
Jack: I don’t know, I mean that’s one of the most difficult questions to answer.
Heather: I think it’s the same feeling as I had when I made artwork in school and people would ask me to write about my work. I’d always just be like “why would I want to write about it?”…”I’ve made some art. I don’t want to write about it.” That’s how I feel about our music.
Jack: And that comes into why I feel people would sometimes think we’re being secretive. I’m not trying to be cryptic by not saying something or not describing it, I’m just interested in making music and not talking about it.
I guess there’s a hope that by not talking about the music that you’ve made, even if you could articulate how you felt about it, you can stick your music in the foreground and not presuppose it with your own thoughts. Thereby allowing for a truly subjective experience of the music in your listeners, not an informed one.
Heather: Yeah. For sure.
Do you think there are any acts around at the moment that are playing music that you feel a certain kinship to?
Heather: Mmmmm no [laughs]
Jack: I wouldn’t say a kinship, but I would say that I don’t think we’re the only people making music that’s good. I definitely respect other musicians playing at the moment. But I don’t know any other musicians that I’d definitely say I feel a kin ship to.
You were saying that you’re flitting around a lot, but how did you all come to meet?
Heather: Me and John grew up together and then John met Jack when he moved to Chicago and then I met Jack when I moved here too[laughs].
So you’re all in Chicago at the moment?
Jack: I’m In Chicago and John and Heather are in Michigan right now.
In your music I can hear gabba and hip hop and noise and pop elements but what were you listening to while making the record?
John: To be truthful, the album we’re putting out has been in progress for like three years – some from a month ago and some from 2008.
Jack: So the question of what music we’ve been listening to for the past three years it’s…uhh, yeah.
Maybe then, completely regardless of the music you make, what music do you love?
Jack: I like…[laughs]you guys go first.
John: I mean we like a lot of stuff. We really like Footwork, Duke, Rap and a lot of classical composers. Lots of songs from movies and stuff…I dunno.
What are your plans for the future of Salem? If you’re working on live stuff, are you hoping to be touring soon?
Heather: Yeah, we’re going to be coming over there in November or something and we’re going to CMJ in New York to play some shows around there. I dunno, I think it’ll be really nice when we can be done touring and start working on another release. That’s our favourite thing and it’s why we’re doing this; to make new music. That’s what we’re most interested in.
Well it’s working out for you, which is nice. Did you guys produce the album or did you work with others in that?
Heather: We recorded all the songs and then Dave Sardy mixed the album.
Any reason for him?
Heather: Well…Dave Sardy …he mixed Marilyn Manson’s album.[laugh]
Production and ultimately your sound brings me back to the name, Salem. I guess you’ve probably had to churn this out rather a lot but it really interests me. Where did it come from? Why Salem?
Jack: Because…I dunno…why not…I mean, it’s just our name. It was just a name that we all agreed on.
Jack: It came completely naturally and it wasn’t like a big discussion. It was just that we decided upon it and it made sense.
It’s clearly a name which has led to a lot of speculation about the occult, demons – witch house – but is there anything true in that? Do you guys have personal interest?
John: We have a lot of interest in that sort of stuff but it’s not easy for us to talk about.
Jack: It’s not even something we’d necessarily be interested in talking about. It is a much more private thing than a public one.
You reading anything at the moment? I always like to know a band’s literary interests, that’s tends to be a fun one.
Heather: I’m reading the biography of Malcolm X.
How’s that going?
Heather:It’s so good…it’s really good.
John: That’s the last book I read, as well. But I like never read. But It’s sooo good.
Has it got a good title? I always think a biography’s the perfect place for a brilliant pun.
Jack: Like…The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Bugger, lost opportunity there. Any great name ideas for a Salem biography?
John: We’d have to think about that.
Jack: I’m not even sure I’d ever want a biography about me.
Heather: But we thought of what we’re going to call our dog.
Heather: We’re going to call it The Quest For Little Mongolia.
Incredible, it’s better than Arthur isn’t it. What new music are you falling in love with then? This stuff you respect.
Jack: I actually really like Soulja Boy and the music he’s putting out right now.
John: Yeah, me too.
Jack: I like the idea that Ciara is putting into some of her songs. I like DJ Nate. I like ooOOOoo as well. What else do I like? I dunno.
What do you love about Soulja Boy?
Jack: I didn’t say love[laugh], but…ummm. I think that he’s really good at expressing himself in a really minimal way and he has really good energy. I like a lot of his beats. Yeah, I just like his music.
John: Yeah, his production is really good and he raps really slowly, really well.
Jack: The songs I really like are Black Diamond, Pretty Boy Swag and Pass it to Arab. Yeah…so many hits. He had so many good songs actually.