House of the Seven Gables. It’s a colonial mansion that has been standing, gloomy and impressive, since the 17th century, at 54 Turner Street. Salem is also known as Witch City and annually receives millions of pilgrims. The majority visit the House of the Seven Gables in the hope of perceiving some of the immanence of the witchcraft rituals that were carried out in the house and left it forever possessed of the devil, as is described in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. It’s not the only witch house that gets visited in Salem. In fact, the official Witch House is the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, on Essex Street; that’s where the historic Salem Witch Trials of 1692 took place, to punish the supposed witchcraft practices and demon invocations the people of various towns in North America were obsessed with in the 17th Century.
The most important house of Traverse City, Michigan, where there’s too little to do, doesn’t stand gloomy and impressive. It’s a modest building, identical to dozens of modest buildings. It’s the house of Heather Marlatt and John Holland, two corners of the triangle called Salem, the gloomiest and most impressive band of this year. Since just a few months ago a few pilgrims, the total number of which can still be counted on the fingers of one hand, have been getting together at the house with Heather and John, who are joined by Jack Donogohue –the third corner–, who lives in Chicago, to interview them. Most of them spend the day with them. Others even stay for several days, reliving something beautiful in musical journalism: dedicating hours and hours to getting to know a band that will be talked about later and that has interesting things to say to fill all those hours. Salem are elusive –it’s not easy to get an interview with them–, but once passed the exam, they are sweet, affectionate, honest, intelligent and very innocent. Photographer Hugh Lippe, who did an incredible shoot with them for Dazed and Confused, says in an email “they are adorable creatures who I learned to love immediately.” In the house where Heather and John live, the only judgement that is passed is on food: in one of those interviews they confessed to be obsessed with eating low-calorie foods because they were becoming fat.Other people’s music isn’t judged, nor is their own. Behaviour regarded by others as implacable isn’t judged –behaviour regarding sex and drugs– and, in exchange, is talked about easily. Heather and John’s home, where Jack stays over on a very regular basis, is the Witch House of the 21st Century. That’s where the inspiration is invoked of the darkest musical genre of this year: witch house.
Witch house is a perfectly evocative and original label, but it seems like the alternative term “drag” has spread much faster, even though it’s imprecise, less literary and refers to something that already existed before Salem, while the musical rites practised by the Michigan band are practically unique. Witch House –also known as Ghost Drone, Gothic Chillwave and Haunted Disco– is a spectral mix of deconstructed, electronic, industrial- and also hip-hop-flavoured bases, with a dramatic deceleration of the voices, which produces a very surreal gothic effect, at the same time induced by its connection with shoegaze. The dream of that entire genre produces monsters and leaves a sensation of sadness that is quite comforting. Salem are the most visible witch house band. They’ve already released several songs –including the “Yes, I Smoke Crack” EP (Acephale 2008)–, but the influence of their first album, “King Night”, has been unstoppable.
They know they’re the starters of something that came out of the woods of Michigan –the same woods where Zola Jesus used to play as a child and where her dad used to hang from the trees the deer heads he had hunted– and that has spread among more bands thanks to three obscurantist and esoteric labels. They form a triangle (an omnipresent symbol with most of the witch house bands, like ///â–²â–²â–² , Bâ–²Lâ–² M â–²Câ–² B, PWIN â–²â–² TEAKS, Vâ–²GINA WOLF y â–²): Disaro (based in Los Angeles but originally from Houston), Pendu Sound (New York) and Tri Angle (New York). Salem don’t know and don’t want to say if witch house is a fad or a sign of the times. On one occasion, Jack stated: “ I think it’s a bit of both. I feel like the music we are making is very of the time, which is probably why people is so responsive to it. It's just in the air .” John Holland went more deeply into the “drag” connotation and the “screwed and chopped” echoes of southern hip-hop that is so present in their compositions: “Screwed started in the South with guys drinking sizzurp. Rappers would mix sprite with a whole bottle of codeine cough syrup cause, like, slowed down music sounds really good when you're high. I've titled some of the mixtapes I've done with the name drag, so I guess people aren't familiar with the term could think we made it up, but we didn't. ” In any case, “King Night” is the incarnation of everything witch house represents: melancholy, darkness, apathy, love of gloom, dreams that are nightmares and vice versa.
It’s also true that, in spite of their videos and the majestic record sleeve with that beautiful and macabre cross, Salem are a sophisticated and rather clean version of the movement, as are Creep. But in the Disaro catalogue, the extremely cryptic discographic sanctuary of witch house, the darkness holds its most sinister and twisted forms; both musically and visually. From that temple, Robert Disaro and James Weigel conjure up a very powerful audiovisual world that goes way beyond the video of Salem’s “Asia”. Ugliness, the occult, the satanic, decadence, terror, the deviant and the paraphilic, all thrown in the centrifuge of the fascinating, is materialised on Disaro, where everything is released on CD-R and, sometimes, on vinyl and even cassette. On Disaro the majority of witch house is released, but they also love their gothic and post-punk. The gems of this particular witch’s house are oOoOO, GR†LLGR†LL, ///â–²â–²â–², Party Trash, Fostercare, âœ NO VIRGIN âœ y †‡†. But Mater Suspiria Vision are pure genius, giving the genre an ultimate twist: maximum deconstruction, altered states that end up in trance, dying echoes, drone to the death and infinite phantasmagoria. The best thing is their passion for Dario Argento and all things giallo (Mater Suspiria is a direct reference to Mater Suspiriorum, one of the three arcane witches from the trilogy The Three Mothers), which materialises in their visual work, which is pure madness. More things from beyond the grave: Mater Suspiria Vision dare to suck the blood of Madonna tracks and, in this Succubus spiral of pop, a side-project of one of the band members, ?? ??? ??, spectrally deconstructs Euro-dance tunes like “Rhythm Is A Dancer” and “No Limit”. Tri Angle (with an inverted triangle as a logo) is another great bastion of witch house, albeit, so far, less prolific. They release Balam Acab (also known as Bâ–²Lâ–² M â–²Câ–² B), oOoOO, Nowa Huta and Stalker. They have in their possession a work of genius: a mixtape called “Let Me Shine For You”, which they say is “Inspired in part by Lindsay Lohan’s grotesquely fascinating black hole existence and in part by my unwavering belief in the power of pop music as an artform.” And they assure us that all of their intentions are “very sincere.” Bravo.
With Pendu Sound, the label has a declaration of intent as a business card: a triangle and an inverted cross –an alchemist symbol that is also related with the Hanged Man from Tarot– which announces the occult and necromantic tendency of a label praises “The Aesthetic Of The Ecstatic”. Todd Brooks is their guru –who, judging from his appearance and esoteric tastes, could play in Tool– and he has worked with all of the itch house cast: Salem, Light Asylum, White Ring, Robin C, Gatekeeper, Veronica Vasicka. The best of Pendu Sound is, for now, the release of “A Cassette Tape Culture”, the first LP of aTelecine, Sasha Grey’s band (yes, that Sasha Grey): industrial devotion with incredible laments from beyond the grave by Sasha. Isn’t it great that Sasha Grey has an industrial band that release their records on a label that reveres the darkest side of music, life and art? Sasha is a Goth. Supreme happiness. It’s all there, in witch house.
Various Artists: “Isvolt” (Disaro-Robot Elephant Records) When this collaboration of Robot Elephant Records with Disaro was announced, it was presented as a compilation “featuring a host of artists who are regarded as the harbingers of an exciting new kind of electronic music, amalgamating elements of Hip Hop, Industrial, Shoegaze and Noise, referred as Witch House or Drag.” A spectacular combo that includes †‡†, Modern Witch, White Ring, Party Trash, Mater Suspiria Vision and the few things that have been released on 12".
?? ??? ?? : “Zombie Rave Mix” (self-released) One of the Mater Suspiria Vision members gave birth to this cosmic piece of madness from beyond the grave that already has four chapters as very limited download and some CD-R releases. Some of the remixed artists: Lady Gaga, Eminem, Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Bon Jovi, Erasure, Duran Duran, Madonna and Tears for Fears. Also on the tracklists are tunes by Salem, Mater Suspiria Vision and other witch house bands. Zombie Rave is the invention of the year, by the way.
Various Artists: “Tarot Compilation” (self-released) A compilation of the genre’s rarest stuff (even though that sounds quite redundant), made by Cosmotropia from Xan and distributed on CD-R, including tracks by GLâ–²SS †33†H, MULHOLLâ–²ND DRIVE, UNISON, Worthless Waste, SHAZZULA and EXCEPTER, and also by the omnipresent, prolific and very necessary Mater Suspiria Vision, by which we recommend “Exorcism Of The Hippies” and “Seduction Of The Armageddon Witches”.
Various Artists: “Pendu NYC Mixtape” (Pendu Sound) From one of the main witch house labels (which also operates as art gallery and occult library) comes this mixtape commissioned by their head honcho, Todd Brooks. Fourteen cuts and a bonus track, by bands like Modern Witch, Ghxst, Twilight Ritual, aTelecine, Vita Noctis, Mater Suspira Vision, Underground Resistance, Chris & Cosey and Coil. Perfect.
///â–²â–²â–²: “Void EP” (Dream Damage)
Previously and simultaneously known as ///HORSE MACGUYVER, released on Dream Damage, this is one of the standards of deceleration turned into death dance: dehumanised voices that induce a state of trance in which head-banging becomes a ritual. “Beta Tape Warp” is one of the best songs in witch house.
†‡†: “s/t” (Disaro) Many of the artists who have found musical meaning in the apathy of drag sound too similar to Salem or Mater Suspiria Vision. Not †‡†. They are original as f*** (check out the CD-R’s sleeve, with the ultra-weird figures worshipping three crosses and a triangle), and the tracks on this CD-R released by Disaro, great. Especially “Psychic Teens”, “Misery Walk” and “San Marino”. Various Artists: “Let Me Shine For You” (Tri Angle Records) Lindsay Lohan is an inspiration on many levels. To witch house, the existential emptiness of her life is attractive enough to spend several nights, all expenses paid, in a cemetery with great acoustics. Tri Angle Records (the other drag sanctuary) asked various artists of the genre to play different Lindsay Lohan songs in order to explore the possibilities of pop. The label warns that it’s an experiment, that their intentions are sincere and that it’s not a “Free Lindsay” shout out. The mixtape includes Stalker, oOoOO, Babe Rainbow, Oneohtrix Point Never, Laurel Halo and Autre Ne Veut.
oOoOO: “oOoOO EP” (Tri Angle Records) This bubbling name has the same level of recognition as Salem, †‡† and White Ring, with whom he shares a 7” of which the B-side is his ( “Seawww”). He participates in almost all the mixes and was one of the first dazzling witch house artists. This EP is much better than the first CD-R the San Francisco artist released on Disaro, where is this going to end?
White Ring: “Black Earth That Made Me” (Disaro) The 12” EP debut by White Ring is one of the most acclaimed drag releases among fans. Literally. It’s extremely hard to find original copies, even more so on vinyl. Tricks are exchanged on forums among buyers. There have even been people who sent money in an envelope to Robert Disaro when he got desperate with his PayPal account. No wonder: the five tracks on the EP are incredible, especially “Roses”, “Hands 2 Hold U Down” and “King”. By the way, the other collector’s item on Disaro is the Gone Away 7”, “How I Quit Crack” (great response to Salem’s “Yes, I Smoke Crack”). Salem: “King Night” (IAMSOUND)The whole cult of the witch house universe converges on “King Night”. Like Patricia Arquette said to Balthazar Getty in “Lost Highway”: “We have to go to the desert.” On the way, at night, they listen to “King Night”. When they get to their destination, a house in the middle of nowhere is on fire.
On the next page: an interview with Salem
The Cult of the Triangle
John Holland’s voice trembles a bit when he talks and you notice he’s incredible affectionate when you hear him stuttering, “thank you, thank you, oh, that’s great, thank you,” when you tell him Salem’s debut album “King Night” is amazing. He answers with very short sentences from his hotel room in London. It’s the first time he’s visited London, he says. It’s about to start snowing, something he later confides is one of the most beautiful things in the world. When Jack Donoghue and John Holland got to know each other a couple of years ago, Jack demanded absolute dedication: “From now on you have to disconnect from everyone you know. And you can no longer meet other men. And if you want to speak to somebody, you’ll write it down in a notebook. We will then see together whether you can speak to them or not.” John accepted Jack’s terms. In part, he says, because he knew it was a joke. In part, because he knew it was Jack’s way of saying he wanted to be his best friend. In part, because Jack was the hottest guy he had ever seen in his life. John already knew Heather Marlatt (the third part of Salem) from art school. Their friendship came about in a less dictatorial way: he saw her and told her he wanted to be her friend. And so they were. John Holland has said in various interviews that he used to be a drug addict and that he has exchanged sex for drugs, that he didn’t attend any classes at his very exclusive art school because he was drinking and doing drugs, and that he has a depressive personality. He has a great Flickr page where condenses the essence of Salem in photos: beautiful, hyper real, disturbing, terribly hypnotic. We’re talking with John Holland, who shares his name with a North American reputable medium and spiritualist, about forests, isolation, enchanted houses. Things that matter. You said once that the forest could be considered your place of birth. I don’t know what the forests of Michigan are like, but when I think of them I mentally depict them as the ones from “Twin Peaks”; except those were where evil lived. Is your forest a place to fear or a place of safety?
Twin Peaks? That’s a beautiful image. Very dark, too. The woods where I grew up are absolute beauty to me. Nothing evil, to the contrary.
Did you use to play in the woods?
Yes, I used to go there with my friends to play. Well, I didn’t have a lot of friends. But I did go there to play, walk, lose myself, think. To spend time, basically.
You say you didn’t have a lot of friends back then. How do you think your friends from university remember you?
My university friends are my best friends now. I knew Heather when I was a freshman; she was a couple of years above me at art school. I saw her and I simply asked her if we could be friends. Jack is younger than I am, but I also knew him back then. He was 18 years old. Our friendship has been intense and special from the start. I can’t say how they remember me because they are my present.
You once said you find the following absolutely inspiring: “a large burning fire in the middle of the forest, smoke and fog, large waves and expansive bodies of water.” Could we say then that the ideal place to listen to Salem is in the midst of nature?
Absolutely. Everything lives in nature. I love to see the water move. And the trees. The cities and the people that live in them are also inspiring. There are some incredible buildings, if you look well enough.
For those about to listen to Salem for the first time, what would you say is the best place and atmosphere to do so?
The desert. I’m fascinated by it. Or driving. I love to drive listening to music.
Do you think volume is an important element in the complete Salem experience?
Totally. It has to be loud. Very loud.
Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode used to say that when he was an adolescent, he used to play punk and rock ridiculously loud in his room, to piss off his mother. Can you imagine youngsters doing that these days, but with “King Night”?
[Laughs]. You now what I would like? That the kids and their families would listen to Salem together. I don’t want to piss anyone off. What’s the most terrifying place you’ve ever been?
It’s not about places that scare me; it’s more about how I feel at that moment. So any place can be terrifying or marvellous. It’s all inside me and how I feel that day.
I believe you once recorded your neighbour shouting in the middle of the night. Have you got more weird recordings?
Yes, it’s true. I heard my neighbour weep and sob one night, and I recorded it. We’re always alert and prepared to record stuff like that, there was a time we were obsessed with it. But sadly, I have no other stories like it to tell you.
Would you be interested in recording a psychophony?
Wow, would I ever. That would be amazing. But wouldn’t it be scary to be in a house where paranormal phenomena could occur?
No. I would love to be able to stay in a haunted house. It’s like I said before: if I’m feeling fine, there’s no reason for me to be scared. Even though there are ghosts.
Some time ago you said that Salem is more about isolation than about mystery. Is that still the case?
There are no words to describe the music we make. Others can try to find them and use them to talk about it, but I won’t. It wouldn’t make sense. So if I tell you other people used adjectives like “horrific” and “cruel”, you wouldn’t be able to tell me if you see your music reflected in those words?
I really wouldn’t. But I don’t like to think of the music as something cruel , that I do know. Although it’s true that there is very cruel beauty, but... No, I can’t.
Are you religious?
I would say we’re spiritual people, but not religious. We don’t follow any cult, but we do have very spiritual and strong beliefs.
You said: “We see a violent world, so that’s what we write about.” Have you written a love song lately?
Of course. Is there any Salem song you like especially?
My favourite is “Sick”.
That can be a love song, if you want. Would you say you have a slightly twisted sense of humour?
[laughs]. I don’t know if it’s twisted, but I would say it’s peculiar. There are a lot of people out there who think I laugh about stupid stuff.
Some time ago you said that you don’t like to show your faces because you don’t particularly like them. And that doing concerts is boring. That has changed completely. There are beautiful photos of you and you’re on tour.
Yeah. Now we don’t have a problem with showing ourselves. It’s okay. The gig thing gets better all the time. I think we’re improving live.
Can I ask you how your relation with death is?
Of course. When I was younger I didn’t care if I was alive or dead. I didn’t think any of the two was important. In time, I’ve discovered a powerful force that comes from something or someone at the time of their death. I couldn’t explain it better. It’s a nice thought but at the same time it scares me a bit.
What’s the most beautiful thing in the world?
That’s a lovely answer.
I just love them. Seeing how they lights up the sky. I also love snow. To see it fall.