Shades of Grey
It’s time to do an exercise here: close the door, dim the lights, make sure you’re completely undisturbed for the next hour or so, and press ‘play’ on Salem’s debut album, “King Night” (IAmSound, 2010). The title track opens the disc and sets the tone for an almost out-of-body, ultrasonic experience, one that would take you on a grand adventure and eventually plunge you in a melodic pool of emotionally-charged tracks and mixed musical styles, ranging from ambient and sampling to dubstep and hip-hop.
The WILD took the opportunity to have a comprehensive talk with the members of this Michigan-based trio ( John Holland, Heather Marlatt, and Jack Donoghue) and discuss a variety of topics.
Every idea and proposal has a genesis to it. I imagine that Salem did as well. How did the three of you meet and how did the thought of making music together come about?
John Holland : We have been friends since we were young. We were always working on art and music [projects]–often times in the same vein. One day in Chicago, we just started working on stuff since the three of us were always together anyways. Things just happened. There wasn’t a plan at all.
Heather Marlatt : All of us were working on music separately so it made sense to work together since we were together all of the time anyway.
Living and recording in Michigan sure hasn’t been easy lately, with increasing unemployment rates and an overall harsh life for the younger generations. What’s your view on Mid-western America and what role does it play in your music?
JH : It plays more of an unconscious role in our music–it has an effect in that where a person grows up affects everything they do–and who they become. It’s easier to record music here than in a city a lot of times though. I think being young is hard in general–not so much just for kids in the Midwest.
HM : Midwestern music definitely has a distinct sound, maybe desperation, maybe lower expectations. There is not a sense of glamour or decadence like you would find on the coasts; I think that translates to everything that is created here. We find it’s a lot easier to record in the country though; we have our house and our own studio so we never have to leave to practice or record.
Let’s talk about the social and moral issues you’ve been confronted with throughout your lives. How does your back- ground shape your vision on the country, and the Midwest in particular?
JH : I’ve always taken an active stance on “playing dumb” and being clueless about a lot of worldly things. The more I find out the truth about the way the world is, the less I want to be in it.
HM : I have a lot of problems with this country, right down to its founding. At the same time, I don’t delude myself with hope for change. I guess I am interested in our reality more than that of society. If there is one issue that I care about within the greater community it’s conservation of wildlife and resources. If I think about it too much it’s overwhelming.
Jack Donoghue : USA! USA! USA!
Listening through “King Night” and watching some of your live performances, I noticed that all of you switch turns sing- ing lead vocals. Apart from that, what would be the main con- tribution of each member to the sound you’re creating?
JH : Our sound just came about more intuitively. We all have pretty equal parts in recording our music.
HM : Or not recording for that matter. Jack might be somewhere where we can’t reach him, but he still has an influence on a song that John and I may be working on.
Some of the songs do feature lyrics, yet they seem to be buried inside layers of instrumentation that, nonetheless, evoke emotion. What is the message or feeling that you’re trying to convey through the tracks?
JH : Sometimes the lyrics are more for us to know and the listener to feel. A lot of times even if you can’t hear something with your ears–your brain or heart can still hear it.
HM : Yes, a lot of times I know things I didn’t know that I knew. It’s really mystical intuition.
Some recognize obvious electronic and hard rock infusions in your sound, but what are Salem’s musical influences?
JH : We don’t really rely on much to make music–other than the health of the three of us. We listen to almost all kinds of music. Sometimes, though, one certain song will be on repeat for a week or more. I’ve been listening to a remix of the trance song “Castle in the Sky” for a few days.
HM : I don’t get influenced by other music as much as thoughts and vision.
JD : Lil Lody and swimming in the lake.
Are you planning to maintain this formula that you’ve been working on for so long, or do you want to incorporate more elements to the musical mix?
JH : We don’t think about our music in terms of a formula really. Sometimes it’s easy to do things the way you know how though, without consciously pushing yourself further. We want to elaborate on the production of our sound and the equipment we use.
HM : I don’t think we have found a formula by any means, nor do we want to. None of us are interested in finding a formula since that would mean we weren’t progressing and advancing. We are just starting out in this industry so there is a lot to learn.
People have a bad tendency of placing a category on singers, bands, or just anyone, and many of those people seem to label you as “dark”, “goth” or “crunk”. Some even declare you forerunners of a so-called “witch house” movement. Do you feel like you belong in a category? What is your response to those people?
JH : I don’t really care about these terms. If someone wants to call our music something, they must have a reason for it. We don’t think about it really at all.
HM : I think a lot of those terms are invented by music journalists –not listeners and not laymen - so to me that makes them uninteresting. You know, what is the motivation behind the semantics? Things that are purely reactionary are not that captivating.
JD : True.
As I said earlier, I watched through your live performances and one of the most recent, at the Primavera Sound Festival, was so powerful in the way you recreated your sound. For those who haven’t been to your live shows, what would they expect from you onstage?
JH : We are continuously working toward making our live show better and better as well as more stimulating for the audience –and for us.
HM : I couldn’t tell them what to expect as we are always trying to improve.
Most of your videos, if not all, have a great lo-fi aesthetic, and each present a different image that goes along with the songs: for example “Asia” is an ode to David Lynch with the woods at night, the nudity and the use of firearms. Would you ever consider making music as a soundtrack to a film, or better yet, writing and producing a feature film of your own?
JH : Yes, we think about doing this so much.
HM : We would like to, no one has asked us to though.
JD : Yup!
One of the coolest things you’ve done so far is reworking Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends” into a truly apocalyptic piece, accompanied by a montage of war footage. Was there any personal intention to the use of military conflict images? What are your feelings surrounding such a delicate issue as war?
JH : I try not to think about war. That remix was part of a mixtape we made.
HM : I was really interested in the way night vision looks to the soldiers. Originally I used that footage in another video but we thought it worked better here. Though war is terrible, the missile flares at night look really beautiful. When you are looking at videos on YouTube it is easy to analyze them aesthetically and forget about the tragedy of which they are involved.
You’re still riding the wave of “King Night,” plus the remixes and the mixtapes you’ve made, but is there new material in the works? What are your future plans?
JH : We are always working on music. Sometimes even just in our heads. We have a lot of plans for releasing new material.
HM : If it were up to us we would be releasing things all the time.
Speaking of the “future,” the music industry is undergoing some serious changes at the moment. People’s taste is evolving, and now it’s more digital than ever before. As musical visionaries, what do you see as the future of music in 10 or 20 years time?
JH : I don’t want to think about that either. I really have no idea.
HM : I’m not sure, but it is declining. It’s good that music is more accessible now, but at the same time craftsmanship has gone down. For awhile the internet made things easier for musicians and artists to be independent, but now it has been overcome by corporations just like everywhere else. I hate thinking about this as well.
If you were to create a movement, like world pillow fight or Earth Day, what would it be and why?
JH : Friend Day, [laughs].
HM : One time we were in Chicago during “lights out day” and it was so fun because Jack has the most candles. I think mine would be “do something kind for animals day”.
JD : Buy Jack a matte black Lamborghini day.
What would you like to leave to next generations?
JH : Don’t take money for granted.
HM : This scares me for my son. I hope we still have a world then.
Finally, is there any WILD wish that each of you’d like to accomplish?
JH : What is a WILD wish?
HM : For us to be a success so that none of us have to worry or be sad ever again.
JD : To be a super producer in the rap game.