Sweethearts of the Occult
I. A Booing in Texas
Traverse City, Michigan, has been anointed by such institutions as TripAdvisor and Livability one of the “top ten charming small towns,” “top ten foodie towns,” and “top ten fall foliage destinations,” and by AOL News as one of “America’s top ten beach towns.” (The town abuts Lake Michigan.)
For inhabitants of certain musical subcultures, Traverse City is better known as the place the band Salem calls its home, for reasons apparently having little to do with quaintness, the abundance of pepita-crusted tuna, and deciduous splendor, and possibly quite a bit more to do with remoteness and mystery-enhancement. This is a band trailed by David Lynchian stories of teenage prostitution and drug addiction, a band whose strung-out good looks threaten to bring back mid-’90s heroin chic, a band that has, even though the members exiled themselves to the Midwest and practice reticence and/or irreverence toward the media, garnered connected enthusiasts in the worlds of art and fashion, people such as Terence Koh, Ryan McGinley, and Liv Tyler. Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy played Salem’s music during the runway show of his spring/summer 2011 collection in Paris.
This is also a band that, despite the critical fandom that emerged around its first EP, Yes I Smoke Crack (2008)—a debut that validated a movement of dark, sludgy electro-pop subsequently anointed “witch house” or “drag” or “rape gaze”—was, according to many written accounts, booed off the stage at South by Southwest on March 20, 2010, during a performance that a Pitchfork reviewer later deemed could be “featured in the dictionary as the definition of ‘not giving a shit.’ ”
Just prior to the SXSW appearance, Salem performed at Glasslands, a small venue in Brooklyn, after which the New York Times wrote, “The performance was hollow at the core, aspirated, almost soothing in its inconsequence.” (Michael Stipe and Terence Koh were in the audience.)
And yet some would argue that Salem gives more of a shit than its fans are comfortable with them giving. One blogger—who runs the WNYU Witch House and Ambient Drone radio show, wrote, “A sense of humor in music means a willingness to experiment with new sounds at the expense of one’s reputation and above all—to not take oneself too seriously. Plenty of musicians in all genres are guilty of this, but Witch House suffers from a nasty case of pretentiousness as a result of being coddled and praised by the likes of Pitchfork and Nylon.”
Which perhaps only adds to Salem’s alluring (and frustrating) unclassifiability—an unclassifiability that extends to the witch house label they’ve been slapped with, and that some don’t think they deserve (about which, more later). So questions arise, as questions do, when a band does not fit into a box with a label. Does Salem not give a shit, or do they lack a healthy sense of irony? Are they current or only former drug users? Can they perpetuate their lo-fi, backwoods, horrorcore aesthetic while becoming darlings of the demimonde, appearing, for example, in the New York Times style magazine wearing Dior and McQueen? Can they sing reverent songs about sexual assault while invoking (sincerely) the music and smoky trappings of a Christian Mass? And why do these questions remotely matter to listeners and critics of Salem’s music?
Hipster Runoff, the popular alt-culture blog, accurately depicted the Salem controversy in several short posts following their Glasslands appearance:
“Do yall <3 Salem or do u h8 them?”
“Salem is a rape gaze buzzband who sing songs abt dark themes. Many ppl say they ‘suck’ while others think they are ‘brilliant.’”
But polarities such as “brilliant” and “sucky” can strike as schematizing attempts to defuse what is, for many, the more-enticing fact of the band’s mythic inscrutability.
“I heard lots of incredible stories about them from people who knew them closely,” said Seva Granik, a New York show-promoter. “So that created an interesting aura about the whole thing. Traverse City? I mean, where the hell is that? Their lives just sounded like a teen cult film.”
II. In the Beginning
Salem is a trio comprising one John Holland, one Heather Marlatt, and one Jack Donoghue. A music editor shorthanded the three as follows: John is sensitive and seems always on the verge of crying. Heather talks the most and looks after the other two. Jack is the most insane. Collectively, they’re described as having a weird sense of humor, as being ex-junkies who might be current junkies who aren’t in the slightest bit aggressive.
To the degree that a Salem origin myth exists, it begins with John, and is partially set in a high school in Interlochen, Michigan (where John met Heather), and in an American Apparel shop in Chicago (where John met Jack). John, prior to studying installation and drawing at the Art Institute of
Chicago, worked as a teenage prostitute to support his drug habit. After quitting the art institute, John began making music under the name WHORE-CE. When he and Jack became acquainted (and possibly or possibly did not engage in a brief romantic relationship), they started making beats together, at which point John recruited Heather to sing and play keyboard. (John sings and plays the keyboard; Jack raps and plays the drum pad.) They became Salem. Their first record, Yes I Smoke Crack, was released by a new label called Acéphale on limited-edition white vinyl. It sold out immediately. They put out another EP in 2008, Water, on a British label, Merok. That sold out, too.
But to return to the witch house (or drag, or rape gaze) moniker, and whether or not it’s an accurate or useful classification for Salem (who, it’s true, like many bands that fall within the genre, play the slowed-down “chopped and screwed” style popularized by Houston’s DJ Screw), Salem specializes in a heavy-handed, exalted, churchlike sound combined with a sincere embrace of sexual taboos, occult symbology, and everyday violence (not a witch house invention; both Three 6 Mafia and Koopsta Knicca were blending occult subject matter with hip-hop in the ’90s). But John prefers to call Salem’s music simply “electronic”; he’s also OK with “electronic goth with juke influences.” (Chicago juke is a kind of music to which people move their feet very fast while keeping the upper body still.) Salem also has a unique knack for edgy, personal sampling—they once sampled a recording of a neighbor crying after discovering that her crackhead girlfriend had stolen everything of value from her apartment. They also sample choral songs.
John has also said (in an interview in BUTT magazine) that Salem creates “rape songs.” Their lyrics deal with murder and acts of sexual brutality such as “choking out” (which can refer to the act of cutting off oxygen to the brain for the purposes of heightening sexual arousal; it can also mean putting your penis down someone’s throat so violently that it makes them fear they are choking).
And yet there is a reverence to their music, a religious sincerity that collides, in dark and dreamy ways, with their subject matter. (The video for their song “Skullcrush” starts with a nude woman, either drugged or dead, being lifted out of a snowy forest and carried away by a man dressed in black. Later, she’s dragged across a carpet, her face covered in soot, a cross pendant by her head.)
“We listen to a lot of Gregorian chant,” said Jack, “and a lot of old church music.”
“Or hymns,” said Heather. “If we’re just, like, out somewhere and we hear old spirituals and stuff.”
“I think the Catholic Church is really good at using things that are really moving,” said Jack. “And they just have a lot of pretty things. And, like, even their masses are really pretty, and their tradition, and I think we just appreciate them like beautiful art.”
“Sometimes I go to church to listen to the music,” said John. “Sometimes we go to church on Sundays to listen to the music.”
From their blog, you can access Salem’s Twitter and Tumblr accounts. The Twitter account is Jack’s. The Tumblr is John’s. Jack follows Barack Obama, CNN, and fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson (the Style Rookie). At the time of this writing, he
follows 36 people and has 1,090 followers. His Twitter handle is “Jacky_Jack_jack.” Some of his tweets are:
“Trevr got pulld ovr last night 4 speeding but cops was lisning 2 salem and let him go cuz he know us!”
“In SF 🙂 whos going to Turk and Leavensworth 4 me? #HUH?!?!?!”
“Red eye flight home to chicago… get in at 5am… pick me up from the O’hare if u got a fat-ass & like being choked.”
“Just got to see part of MTVs True Life feat #SALEM. They made us look f****** insane!!!”
John’s Flickr photo-stream from his Tumblr account includes some trees at night with something shredded and white caught in the branches, called Garbage Inda Trees; a woman’s black shoe abandoned near some trash, called shoe; and grandmas bed, a picture of his grandmother’s single white bed. There’s a stunning picture of snowfall in Leeds against a dark purple sky and another picture of two men having sex on the side of a road.
III. Fantasy Chinese Traffic Jam
A theory: The reason the SXSW crowd booed Salem off the stage in 2010 was because of the venue, not the performance. They played during the day on an outdoor stage, without any special effects. The sound stage was too crisp. The vocals too clear.
There was no smoke.
Salem likes smoke. Lots of smoke, and also lights. For a show they played at Ramiken Crucible in 2010 (which coincided with New York’s CMJ Music Marathon), the smoke was meant to look not like smoke exactly, but like exhaust. The stage set for the Ramiken Crucible show, according to Alex Gvojic, one of three videographers for Thunderhorse Video, which designs sets for Salem, was meant to evoke a huge traffic jam in China. “That was, like, the main inspiration,” said Alex. “A traffic jam that went on for a week or something. Cars parked forever.”
Each band member wanted their own lighting style. Jack wanted a hard stadium light. John wanted his lighting to cue a sunrise or a sunset over an oil refinery. Heather wanted purples and oranges, like the northern lights. (During their 2010 CMJ show, Salem performed songs from their newest album, King Night. King Night is hallucinatory and rapturous. It is music suitable for welcoming a spacecraft of aliens to Earth, taking narcotics, or canonizing dead people in heaven. “How do they pull off this Star Wars shit with all seriousness?” said a man in the crowd. “This is like seeing Lil’ Wayne in 2001.”)
While Salem is doubtless more exciting with smoke and northern lights, how much of their appeal is derived from the many aspects of their performance that are not, technically, music? The Salem experience is as much about the album art, the homespun videos, and the social networking as it is about the songs. Additionally, one has to wonder how much of their Twitter and Flickr presence is fictional, created for the purpose of disseminating a manufactured image, and whether, like witch house—a genre that couldn’t have existed without the capabilities afforded by the internet—Salem couldn’t exist without the supporting imagery. They’ve helped proliferate an idea of themselves as crack-smokers with troubled pasts who live
hermit-like in the woods of the Midwest, and that at least one of them has had to resort to prostitution to support a crack habit. Yet John and Heather met at a prestigious, forty-two-thousand-dollar-a-year boarding school that touts among its former attendees Norah Jones, Sufjan Stevens, and Rumer Willis. Their perpetual mystery only supports the accusation leveled at other bands grouped within the witch house genre that they are actively trying to deny that they are white and entitled (in their case by singing about smoking crack) while paradoxically appealing to a white and entitled audience. But this pairing of the elite with the trappings of social outcasts doesn’t invalidate the work, per se. And Salem’s die-hard fans are a testament to the ability of their music to captivate audiences.
“I think that we’re less trying to be like a traditional band,” says Jack about why they didn’t perform at the 2011 South by Southwest festival. “I think we’re just working
together like artists.”
“It just doesn’t really make sense for us to play a venue like [SXSW],” says Heather. “It doesn’t represent what we’re trying to do. It’s confusing to the audience. I don’t see the benefit, I guess.” (Salem prefers to play in churches, like Shoreditch Church in London, Jack’s “favorite show.”)
“I don’t think they are more artful than any other band out there,” said Seva Granik. “Salem isn’t creating art. Bands aren’t creating art. They’re creating music, and that’s still as exalted a calling as art ever was.”
IV. But Are They Ironic?
What bothers some is the possibly not terribly helpful question of whether or not Salem means what they sing (and in the way that they sing it). Does Salem mean it when they say they are not an ironic band? That they elevate the hymn sampling and the rape-and-murder lyrics to a nonconflicted, rapturous state, and that’s no joke to them? And is it really such a crime to take one’s work seriously? The band responds.
“It’s not funny to me,” Jack says when asked if he has a sense of humor about Salem’s work. “But I think there are people who think that you have to have a sense of humor to listen to, like, metal. And, like, I don’t think that. But I can understand someone who thinks that it’s, like, over the top.”
“One of my least [prominent] traits,” says Heather, “is, like, irony, I think.”
“I think we’re pretty sincere about what we do,” says Jack. “I think there’s a trend, though, in people our age, using irony so much that they don’t even have any sense of sincerity left. I think it’s safe and less interesting.”
“I think I take myself less seriously than I take the music,” says John. “Like, I take it the most seriously, I think.”