25-year-old Irish artist James Kelly may always be defined by his past as part of the successful black metal band Altar of Plagues, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, in addition to being an intriguing part of his narrative, it provides some context for his new music, which is a far cry from metal but applies some of the genre’s sensibilities to electronic music. The result is more contemplative and patient than it is dark, with vocals that explore “the space between,” both in his mind and in his music.
After releasing his Stoic EP in November 2012 on left_blank, James found a home at Tri Angle Records and recorded an album throughout 2013. On January 23, 2014, Tri Angle founder Robin Carolin tweeted, “I guess the WIFE album is finally finished. If anyone needs me I’ll be getting drunk on a street curb in Brooklyn, weeping.” James added that it was “a long process of blood/sweat/tears with left_blank, Robin, the Haxan Cloak, and Roly Porter,” and you can hear it in the music. This was a cathartic piece of work.
Today, the album What’s Between is finally out, so hopefully celebration (instead of weeping) will take place. We spoke to James about his lucid dreams, vulnerability, and pornogrind.
How do any of the approaches behind your work as a metal musician inform What’s Between? Do you feel that you’ve put that chapter of your music completely in the past, or is it still part of your process?
I don’t feel that there are many differences in my creative approach other than the fact that WIFE draws upon a very different set of influences, ones that Altar of Plagues never had the capacity for. That said, many of the things that inspired Altar of Plagues now continue to inspire my current work. I wouldn’t say that my time writing metal music is in the past, but ending Altar of Plagues was very much my way of drawing a line in the sand with regards to the particular style we had explored. I believe that artistic and creative discipline are very important, and I have always had set goals for what I personally hope to achieve with music. With that in mind, it had reached a time when Altar of Plagues had achieved more than I had ever envisioned, and I felt it was time to close that door in order to open another.
I’m intrigued by your tweet, “former label mates are in jail or rehab or graves. new label mates are well dressed and handsome.”
As far as that tweet goes, it’s just a crass remark on the fact that the electronic music scene is seemingly so timid. An artist is deemed outlandish if they go off on Twitter whereas the first act I ever toured with as Altar of Plagues… well, the original singer blew his own head off, their guitarist was murdered, they play with pigs heads on stage. Electronic music just feels very safe by comparison.
How did lucid dreams help in making this album? Do you have them often, and what kind of dreams are they?
Lucid dreams are something that I have been experiencing for some time and are an enormous source of inspiration. They illuminate my subconscious mind and can be entirely abstract or extremely vivid. I have been free floating above a valley of blinding light in an ascent towards the skies, and I have also been in a love triangle with my best friend and Courtney Love.
What is your musical process like, both in terms of production and songwriting? When do you prefer instruments over electronics? Do you create at all hours of the day or in any particular places? I think of your lyrics, “The world is darkest in the light.”
One of the things that blew me away about electronic music when I first experienced it, is how alien and dehumanized it sounds. It never sounded like it was created in a familiar space, whereas “band” albums always have a unique studio sound. As far as WIFE goes, I’m striving for the latter as I want my work to have that sound that is of its environment. When I began writing the earliest material, it was all composed entirely “in the box.”
I struggled to put my own stamp on the music and it always sounded too clinical and digital to me. I quickly adopted a process, which I now continue to use, where I combined this digital production with the more traditional way of making music—jamming things out with drums, guitar, and vocal. My process involves sampling a range of live instruments and then working with them in my computer. This process at least allows me to capture some of my living environment and preserve it within the music.
So for example, most of the cello on the album was recorded at my home some day last year when I went to one of the music universities in London, posed as a student, and took home one of their cellos for a day. I like the looseness of live performance, but I also like the possibilities presented by digital production and, from a production point of view, my tracks tend to explore that middle ground.
I tend to work whenever I can really, but I think that my best ideas come from when I am affected in some way. Thats when I reach for a guitar or play a piano. The last thing that I want to do in those instances is to jump on a computer and click around a screen.
What was it like working with The Haxan Cloak and Roly Porter for this project? How did they help you achieve your vision for the album?
It was great. We had decided very early on in the writing of my record that I would later work with other producers as a way of gaining some extra insight and outsider skills. I also wanted to have the space to work on vocals and lyrics, and not get worn out with details like EQing a snare drum. Roly and I worked together in Bristol quite early on and focused a lot on compositional things as well as creating the earliest versions of the tracks and getting some of the first vocal takes. Bobby (Haxan Cloak) came on board later in the album process when things had all been recorded for the most part, and we focused on every aspect of the tracks from sonic details to song arrangements and choosing vocal takes.
How are you exploring lies and how people feel compelled to tell lies on your album? Do you believe in always telling the truth, either based on personal experience or otherwise?
I have been having a bit of difficulty articulating the sentiment behind the title, as I feel that its intent is bigger than one anecdote or experience that I could share to illuminate its meaning. Basically, I think we are all guilty of fronting in some way or another. It’s easier to lie to people than it is to be honest about who and what you are. It makes you less vulnerable, almost immune to criticism. I see this as lying as an act of self defense rather than as a means of personal gain, and it’s something I’ve experienced particularly living in London.
But yes, I believe in truth telling and realness, and I’d rather take the shit that comes with that then pretend to be someone that I’m not. But I also have moments where I feel vulnerable and would rather evade the truth, whatever that may be. And on the other side of it, we all tolerate an enormous amount of bullshit in so many different ways, which again is a way of evading the responsibility of having to deal with the truth. So in my mind, the “between” that the title is referring to is somewhere between telling the lie, and accepting one.
I think that in a lot of ways this sentiment comes from the fact that, honestly, I had moments where I began to feel extremely vulnerable about sharing this record with people. That people might doubt my sincerity, intent, or misinterpret what the record means to me. Really, this is me finally making the record I wanted to make. I have always wanted to write songs that I could share with anybody, not just a niche underground community. I just reached a point in the record-making when I let go of my reservations and said fuck it. Frankly, given my musical background, I think pursuing this music is a lot more “extreme” then starting another metal band.
You seem very involved in the process of creating visuals for your music. Do you aim to have a thread throughout the visuals? They all take a visceral, acutely sexual approach to the alternately intense and soothing moments in your songs.
Yeah, I made the videos for both “Bodies” and “Trials.” I definitely intend for them to have a purpose or meaning beyond simply being visual accompaniments to the music, even if they appear more abstract. The video pieces can work as entities in and of themselves too, I don’t want to force a song-based narrative on them. I think of those videos as being sensual more than sexual, but I like hearing other people’s interpretations and I am not always aware of why exactly I make things a certain way while I am actually executing the work. I tend to just go with my instincts.
How did you link up with Tri Angle? Had you been looking for a home for your new music? Do you feel at home with the label?
I began speaking to Tri Angle shortly after I released the Stoic EP. They came into contact with my work and we spoke about my album plans. They liked what I had in mind and I liked what they had in mind, and it all went from there really. Despite the variety of sounds and styles among the artists on the roster, I think that we all share a willingness to push things into alien territories. That and the fact that a number of the artists are now close personal friends make it a great place to be.
What is the pornogrind genre? Can you link us to an example or is it a genre you’ve made and can’t share?
Pornogrind is one of an insane number of subgenres in the grindcore scene. Its characterized by pig squeal vocals and excessive use of porn samples. Cock and Ball Torture are one example.
It had zero merit on any level as far as I’m concerned but I came across it when I was really into grindcore as a teen. I still love grind music and it is really interesting musically and politically, but some of its offshoots are hilarious. I actually ran a grind label when I was 16 or 17. My first release was 10 band split CD. 10 minutes, 10 bands, 100 tracks, 100 copies.
You recently embarked on a cross-country train trip. Why did you decide to do this and what was it like?
I spent a bit of time out in the US recently so I took the chance to catch up with some family I have out there. I’ve traveled around the US a few times before as I think its an incredible continent. I went backpacking on my own through the West Coast a few years back, hitching and traveling on the coast with different bands as a roadie. The wheels on a van I was travelling in came off on the edge of a mountain in San Louis Obispo, I got stuck travelling in a car with two guys who had just gotten out of jail and wanted to make a truck stops to buy knives, and I took San Pedro Cactus from a garden in Arizona and spent two day in the desert with it. America is always a good time.
You also completed the album on an island, right? Where were you? Did you feel like you needed the isolation to finish the project?
Yeah, Bobby (Haxan Cloak), Robin (Tri Angle), and I finished the record on Osea Island, which is a tiny island off the East coast of England. It is accessible only by boat, or a car bridge that is submerged in water 20 hours a day. It felt like the closest experience I have had to making music in Ireland since I left. You are isolated and removed from everything, and are forced to focus on the work. It was an extremely productive, rewarding, and at times enduring, experience. We actually had to evacuate the island early because of a severe storm that hit the UK while we were there.
Do you feel more at home in Ireland or in London, or do you prefer to wander?
London has never felt like home to me, though it now feels much less alien that it did when I first moved here. The pace here is relentless and your focus shifts, particularly if you don’t come from a city originally. It is incredible to have so much art, music, people, food etc. here to experience, but on the other hand, instead of spending my weekends hiking a mountain or walking the coastline, I’m in the city browsing Givenchy. Ireland will always be home, but I find it very hard to envision any circumstances in which I’ll be going back there any time soon.
If money or any type of resources were unlimited for you as an artist, what would you do differently? Are there other mediums or genres you’ve yet to explore?
I’m happy to say that I’m at a place where I feel that I have many of the resources I need at my disposal. Yeah, I’d like to have a couple more things but really all I want at this point is more physical space. This is something that is very hard to come by in London, at least in an affordable way. I’d like to have more money to put into my live show, but that said I’m also not into the idea of boosting the theatrics of it until I have it nailed as my own show.
WIFE’s debut album What’s Between is out today, June 10, via Tri Angle Records. Buy here.