The ex-black metal singer explores male vulnerability using Fleetwood Mac-esque songwriting craft on his debut album for Tri Angle.
After three albums, and at the peak of their critical success, James Kelly decided to pull the plug on the black metal band that he was leading, Altar of Plagues. Feeling that the band had reached its capacity for the ideas that he was most excited about, Kelly embarked upon a new project, WIFE.
At its heart, WIFE is a pop act: on ‘What’s Between’, his debut album for Tri Angle, Kelly uses traditional songwriting craft and instrumentation to create soaring, melodic pop songs – albeit pop songs that draw audibly on styles like dubstep, techno, ambient, and drone – to explore lyrical themes of masculinity and male vulnerability with naked emotion.
‘What’s Between’ was recorded with labelmates The Haxan Cloak and Lie (early sessions also saw him working with drone musician and former Vex’d member Roly Porter), who bring their own sonic textures and flourishes to the record. The result is in a record that’s traditional in its basis but modern in its presentation.
Meeting on a sunny afternoon in an East London beer garden, Kelly discussed the conception behind WIFE, the limitations of any one project, and the (literally) stormy creation of ‘What’s Between’.
When did you start writing solo?
WIFE: “I started doing it when I lived back in Ireland, maybe three years ago. I was always into tonnes of different types of music. Pop, rap, whatever. I remember when dubstep came out, of all things, and getting this mad excitement about electronic music which I hadn’t had in a really long time. I caught on the early wave of that and I just downloaded Fruity Loops and started making beats.
“Fast forward a bit, and I moved to London. I was going to university, doing environmental science, as a hobby, at nighttime, I started making beats. It makes sense that there’s so much electronic music in this city, because you can’t make any noise – you’re confined to your bedroom; you have to be quiet. I was making music with headphones on. I think that was essentially the start of what WIFE was. Later on, it became a combination of how I used to write, and applying everything I’d learned to make on a computer.”
When did you start working with other producers?
WIFE: “I wrote the songs, and then I worked with Bobby [Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak]. Initially, Bobby was just helping with making, like, a kickdrum sound bigger, or a snare drum hit harder, but in the end he ended up offering advice on song structures and things like that.”
So more like a traditional producer role.
WIFE: “Definitely. Then Lie, which is Robin [Carolan, head of Tri Angle], got on board, and there was a lot of advice in terms of the general vibes, which for me was pretty important because when you’re making a record on your own, it’s pretty hard to see the wood through the trees. You can get a bit too close to it, and you can make bad decisions because you don’t know what’s right for it anymore. So it really helped to get them in at a later point to help out.”
I read that The Haxan Cloak’s recent production with The Body was done entirely over email. Was that the case with this?
WIFE: “No, we actually got a studio. Initially, it was all emails – sending over demos, getting feedback – but then me and Bobby started working together. Initially it was in London, and then later we went to a studio in Osea Island for a week.
“Osea Island is this crazy little island off of Essex. It’s a getaway for b-list celebrities, but it’s also got this very beautiful, remote, kind of spooky, haunted vibe to it. So it was a pretty appropriate way to end it.”
Yeah, I can remember seeing the photos on Twitter now.
WIFE: “We just hammered it out there. It felt like a very traditional record-making process, the type you hear about in the quote unquote 'good old days', where they give you a lot of money and you can stay up all day and night drinking and making music in a studio. We got to do it for a week, but it was a really productive way of getting things done. You can be as loud as you want, day and night, and you have access to all these live instruments.”
Why did you decide to go there?
WIFE: “It was Robin’s idea. It was essentially just to get away from everything. If we’d hired a very expensive studio in London, you’ve got it from nine to six, and you leave and on the way home you might go to a bar to meet friends. There are distractions.
“On the island, there’s nothing else to do. It didn’t have a shop. We bought so many bottles of whiskey. You stay in the studio, and it gets a bit funky when you’ve drunk a lot of whiskey and you’re still working on the tracks, but at least you’re completely immersing yourself in the process. You’re sleeping and you’re eating and you’re breathing it.”
"We bought so many bottles of whiskey. You stay in the studio, and it gets a bit funky when you’ve drunk a lot of whiskey and you’re still working on the tracks, but at least you’re completely immersing yourself in the process. You’re sleeping and you’re eating and you’re breathing it." - WIFE
Was it just you guys out there?
WIFE: “It was just the three of us – and a caretaker, who provided more than enough. We actually had to leave early. The only way on and off the island is the boat that brings you there. There’s also a bridge that cars can go over, but the bridge is only exposed two times a day because the tide submerges it. There were really bad storms, and we had to get evacuated from the island because they got so severe. It was a very dramatic experience – fittingly dramatic.”
What did you get out of that experience that you couldn’t get elsewhere?
WIFE: “Personally, working with other people, I like being with them because you can see their reaction – you can see it and feel it when they listen. They don’t need to say a word. Also, you can just vibe off each other. It’s a really effective way of getting things done.
“I feel like the first EP that I did definitely sounds like a producer’s record, made very much on a computer, and as atmospheric as it is, it’s an artificial atmosphere – it’s created by reverb plugins. So with creating this record, I really wanted to make sure that the atmosphere was a real thing, and I did that by recording all my instruments live. It’s big, live vocal takes, not cut up samples.”
Yeah, I guess with preset reverb settings or whatever, they’re just emulating a space.
WIFE: “Exactly. Everyone starts to sound the same. As much as I love electronic music, I think the reason a lot of us come back to live music is because every record has got so many different characteristics to it.”
What sort of electronic records first inspired you because they were like that?
WIFE: “I’m gonna reference him, and I’m gonna be unapologetic about it: I think for a lot of people, what Burial did was remind you that electronic music can be so much more. I know it’s a serious faux pas to be a new producer and reference him, but the man’s huge for a reason. Like I said earlier, I was inspired by early dubstep…”
Well I thought it was interesting that you said that, because I read an old interview with Altar of Plagues and some of the words you used are exactly the same ones people use when talking about dubstep: “repetition”, “meditation”, “space” and sound economy…
WIFE: “When I performed with Altar of Plagues, it was a very introverted but aggressive form of meditation. I guess ‘catharsis’ might be a better word. It was very much like my eyes were closed and I wasn’t even looking at my hands when I played; it was very intuitive. Electronic music was the same for me; it’s this trancey, meditative feeling. I can definitely draw correlations between certain types of dubstep, techno, and things, and certain sounds in black metal. Overall, the way I see music and sound is more based on texture, vibe, and mood more than genre.”
What was it that you were getting out of WIFE that you couldn’t with a band?
WIFE: “Ending the band was a very difficult thing, and it was also very necessary. I didn’t end it because I was done with that type of music – because I felt unfulfilled writing metal or something – it was quite the opposite. I was getting even more excited about it by the time I ended it. But these artistic decisions are necessary: I was 25 years old, and I know how long it takes to build these things and how long it can take to make things happen, and I just decided to focus all of my efforts into pursuing so many other musical interests.
“With the last Altar of Plagues record, I injected so much of that electronic music influence as I could get away with without making it entirely something new. I didn’t want to force the band to be something new – I wanted to draw a line in the sand once it had reached the point where it was becoming something else.”
"When I performed with Altar of Plagues, it was a very introverted but aggressive form of meditation. I guess ‘catharsis’ might be a better word. It was very much like my eyes were closed and I wasn’t even looking at my hands when I played; it was very intuitive. Electronic music was the same for me; it’s this trancey, meditative feeling. I can definitely draw correlations between certain types of dubstep, techno, and things, and certain sounds in black metal." - WIFE
You need to separate your projects. You can’t fit all your ideas into something that’s already got a definition.
WIFE: “No, it wouldn’t have worked. That last Altar of Plagues record really had reached the capacity of what I, personally, believed was the right balance between all those different pools of influences that I had.”
But was there anything with WIFE that you approached that just couldn’t be achieved with a band – something that had to be done as a solo endeavour?
WIFE: “In my mind, WIFE is a big project, musically. I want it to be as big as I feel it can be. I’m unashamedly inspired by Fleetwood Mac, and I want to write songs that are that big. I refer to WIFE as a pop act – a weird pop act, but pop’s a great word because it covers everything – and I want WIFE to cover all the great things that I think about music. It could still draw on black metal, albeit subtly – tonally, that inspired parts of the record.”
Pop’s really just a songwriting form.
WIFE: “It’s just a big umbrella term. I like it because it helps me evade all sorts of awkward conversations – I don’t wanna bore people who don’t know much about music by giving them a long list of adjectives; I’d rather just say, ‘I sing pop songs. They’re a bit weird.’”
What was the step up between the album and EP for you?
WIFE: “The EP was definitely a producer record, made on the computer, and the album’s a vocal record. I really stepped up as a singer. Initially, I was thinking about writing songs and finding singers afterwards – it took a while to get more confident and used to hearing my own voice. My favourite vocalists often have flawed voices, whether that’s Morrissey, or Trent Reznor, or David Sylvian. I value those things more than a pitch-perfect, gorgeous voice that’s easy on the ears but lacking in any distinguishing characteristics. I decided if I want to write a big pop song, like the song Fruit Tree on the record, then I’m just gonna do that. I’m not gonna apologise or stop myself from doing it because people expect a guy who was in a black metal band to write something that sounds a certain way.
“I also became quite conscious of the fact that there has been an emergent ‘dark electronic’ scene, and it’d be very, very easy for a guy who was in a black metal band to make a heavy, oppressive, dark electronic record. That’s not what I wanted to do at all.”
Why did you want to get vocalists in initially?
WIFE: “It was just the shyness. The only time the record became scary for me was when I realised that, as a person who shouted lyrics in the past, I was aware of the fact that they were often inaudible. I was preparing myself, like: am I gonna sing lyrics that are effectively taking pages out of my diary? Am I really gonna be saying this to people? Can I handle it? It took me a while to get confident with that.
“There were also aesthetic choices: do I want female vocals? This was all very early on in the record-making process. As I wrote more and more, I got comfortable with everything, and that’s when I decided, ‘Fuck it, it’s gotta just be me.’”
"Something that the record covers is men these days who present themselves as these infallible, masculine, brute forces – fucking unapologetic, strong beings. Whereas actually, we’re all really fucking vulnerable and nobody really admits that." - WIFE
The last thing I want to talk about is the name of the project. I’ve seen that you’ve been asked this before, but I don’t know how satisfactory the response I read was. What does the word “wife” mean to you?
WIFE: “For all intents and purposes, it’s a word. I don’t really want to apply anything political to it.
“Something that the record covers is men these days who present themselves as these infallible, masculine, brute forces – fucking unapologetic, strong beings. Whereas actually, we’re all really fucking vulnerable and nobody really admits that. Those that do are chastised or mocked for it. If you write sad songs, you’re a wuss. Drake’s a cry-baby. All this shit. It’s becoming worse. Twitter and things allow this anonymity that allows you to be this prick, this man-prick. That’s the sort of stuff I cover, lyrically – I mean, I don’t refer to fucking Twitter in my lyrics – but all these things inspire the idea of ‘What’s Between’. ‘What’s Between’, to me, is: what’s between the people that talk this stuff and their actual selves? Because you know, I don’t buy it, personally.
Tri Angle released ‘What’s Between’ on June 9th 2014 (buy).