Words Lachy McKenzie
On the evolution of HEALTH’s sound, as they release their third LP.
When I interviewed HEALTH’s Jake Duzsik, he was coming off the back of a new album teaser, two Primavera shows, a pretty awful hangover—and was spending his birthday talking to the media (incidentally, I forgot to conclude our conversation with the requisite happy returns). All this, and he remained impressively chirpy and upbeat—a sentiment echoed in Death Magic, the most peculiarly ‘cheerful’ album of their now nearly decade-long career.
This balance between melody and dissonance has underpinned the band’s sound since their inception—even if the latter was more heavily indulged. “It was always a struggle,” Duzsik tells me, “I can’t really scream, and we felt that [screaming] really pigeonholes you. The latitude you have to expand upon your sound is very limited. So I just sang the way I knew how, which is very gently, and we found that an interesting counterpoint to the heavy atonal music, the merciless percussion.” Indeed a large part of HEALTH’s success has been their inventiveness in fitting vocal melody into the music at all. “On the first record,” he says, “a lot of the songs we had weren’t even in key, so finding vocals that can work with that—that is a struggle.”
It speaks volumes to their collaborative growth that the band who produced ‘Crimewave—three minutes of pounding drums and tensile build-up—have now released an album with tracks as commodious as ‘New Coke’ or as saccharine as ‘Life.’ But introspective exploration has always been part of their character: “newness is a pain in the arse,” says Duzsik, “but it’s an aesthetic ethos we ascribed to when we first started the band—we can’t stop now.” Charting their recording history attests to this; while this is only their third album, they have two much-loved remix records under the playful Disco series, and an award winning soundtrack for the videogame Max Payne. The latter has professionalised them as a band, providing a steady income and working environment, and also helped expand their sound by forcing it to fit into various narrative moods. Duzsik attributes this “just to the sheer amount of music we had to write … we learned a lot of tricks and new sounds that we were able to apply to this record.”
This process helped a distinctly neurotic band learn to stop worrying and accept when a track’s a bomb. Death Magic is six long years removed from their 2009 studio album Get Colour, and has gone through numerous incarnations prior to release. In the past, things were much more controlled and obsessive. Duzsik acknowledges a “procrastination we’ve been guilty of before … it’s more risky to work on creative material rather than production and structure. You’ll go into the studio and waste two or three days just fine-tuning the production saying: ‘let’s work on that snare sound.’ That way you’re not risking the fact that you might spend the whole day working on an idea that doesn’t go anywhere. People often don’t do rewrites because then they don’t have to change things. We learned not being afraid to start over.” The growth apparent on the new record, Duzsik attributes to experience learned from these long years of—for want of a better word—pissfarting around. “From the perspective of having made two other records we knew we weren’t going to put out something where we weren’t happy with the sound of it,” he says, “so, there was one point where we were supposed to be finishing the record and I had to make a call and be, like, ‘we’re not using any of this. We have to start over.’ And, my god, I’m glad that we did.” Though this arduous compositional process sounds exasperating, it also allowed Duzsick a sort of existential freedom. “If you try to write something more than five times, that part just probably isn’t good. So that was liberating, personally. I’d be working on a melody and if there were too many elements in it already, trying to make it work, I’d be emotionally calm enough to say: ‘fuck that part, let’s get it out of there, let’s do something else.’”
When a band releases new music, they are, in theory, abandoning their hold on it; liberating it to the interpretations of a greater public sphere. And yet HEALTH retain a sense of aesthetic control even after their product is disseminated ‘out there.’ From their media releases to their video clips, from their merchandise to ‘extracurricular’ interaction with fans, HEALTH is still devotedly concerned with the accoutrements that provide context for their sound. There is an almost cultish adherence (be it religious or advertorial) to consistency of presentation throughout the HEALTH catalogue. “Very early on,” Duzsik says, “our aesthetic mission statement was unification in terms of the imagery. We wanted there to be a narrative, as abstract as that may be … so that even if you took the song titles and band name off the records, someone who wouldn’t even know the band, if you put the records together, and the t-shirts, it would have a cohesion and they’d know it was all the same band … like if you went to an art exhibition or museum, there’s a continuity of aesthetic.”
They’d imagine this style as “future primitivism” in the vein of Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator 2, where the future is “all fucked up… yeah, there’s space travel, but everything is dingy, covered in grime. You have high functioning technology, but everything is kind of shit.” But in their video clips this grime hits closer to home, and is, incidentally, a lot more macabre. From the horror movie revenge of ‘We are Water’ (look it up—maybe), to the night-out-gone-wrong vomit porn of ‘New Coke,’ to the future boy-band plastic surgery of ‘Stonefist,’ their music videos work with a number of different collaborators to create a reliable fusion of abject revulsion and fascination. This is not the distant apocalyptic future they are concerned with, but something much closer: how are we going to live our lives tomorrow, when things may well be just as fucked up as 100 years either side of us?
See Reify totem
HEALTH are more concerned with provocations than solutions. That being said they are willing to take risks, even with their own privacy, to experiment with new technological platforms for interacting with fans. (Their recent Reify 3D sculptures are an interesting example.) In their teaser for Death Magic, a video for ‘New Coke’ with ‘Pain’ from the Max Payne soundtrack as a tacked on coda, the clip ends with the message “IF YOU NEED TO TALK” on the screen, followed by bassist John Famiglietti’s personal phone number. Fans, and the curious, proceeded to send him messages, which he would reply to at his own discretion. This was not a strictly ironic stunt or ploy—very few contemporary artists are willing to actively collapse their public and private spheres in such a way. It was more a means to interact with a larger community. Similarly, with the release of Get Colour the band had a ‘golden ticket’ placed in one record, where the lucky winner would receive a fully-paid trip to come and stay with them in Los Angeles. It turned out to be “a total grown ass man,” according to Duzsik, “a book editor from New York. We flew him out, got drunk, went to the beach, went to Magic Mountain [or Six Flags, the LA themepark] and rode rollercoasters, then we got him to smoke salvia.” (‘Salvia,’ incidentally, is an instrumental track from the new album.)
With the release of Death Magic Duzsik says they have plans to attempt a similar concept. Instead of flying the fan to the band, the band will come to the fan: stay in their house, eat with them, share in their life. It’s a fun but flawed concept that I’m sure they will carry out regardless: “Whoever gets that ticket may not want the whole band, so we’ll work out a raffle if you decline, other people can bid for it or whatever,” he admits. “You might be 35 and engaged and not want these arseholes stay in your house. We can stay in a hotel I guess, but we’ll come to you.” Famiglietti, after the phone number promo, went on Reddit to conduct an AMA. He was, throughout, both irreverent and sincere—teasing fans and offering to take them out for drinks. He refuses to protect the creepy groupie-artist power dynamic handed down from the music scene’s more glam past. “I wish we had more fans,” Duzsik concurs, “but the kind of fans that we have tend to be fanatical, [as] there is so much care taken around how we present [ourselves]. The people that get into it appreciate that. It’s like a world that you’re sharing together … We want our fans to feel like we’re connected to them.”
In many ways HEALTH’s approach to their music is surgical—deliberate, cutting, painful—but that’s not to suggest the surgeries they perform are always salubrious. The word ‘health’ can be pretty hollow without a modifier (good, bad, meh, shit). The band realise this, and punctuate their often-deranged congestion with just enough room to let the listener breathe. But they also extend their offer of HEALTH to their audience, beyond their albums.—they are willing to listen to their fans, interact, hang out Their YouTube promo messages, “IF YOU NEED TO TALK” and “youwillloveeachother,” may well be read as: “how is your health?” or simply “how are you?” Beneath the desolate visions of the future, the gore and the drums, there is more than a newly minted pop aesthetic, there is a certain optimism for what their music might achieve. Even if, as member Jupiter Keyes recently tweeted, “for some of us optimism is very hard work.”