The LA noise band's change of direction is more accessible than the group’s atonal work in experimental thrash, but ‘Death Magic’ has been coming since the band formed ten years ago
If you like HEALTH, there’s a good chance that you’ve been trying to push them on some of your friends perhaps since 2007. It hasn’t been easy, has it? Try again after August 7 and you’ll almost certainly have better luck.
Habitually referred to as a noise band, HEALTH were so ensconced in LA’s mid-2000s DIY scene they recorded their debut album at The Smell – a downtown all-ages/no-drink-or-drugs venue that is to Los Angeles experimental punk music what The Hacienda was to acid house. Eight years after its release, ‘HEALTH’ is a strikingly original record of precise thrash that can only be described by the sum of its strange parts, and vaguely likened to Deerhoof and Japanese thunder drums band Boredoms. It’s a short, atonal album, made up of unidentified noise, occasional, ghosting vocals and what seems to be zero structure, chopped through with half-second silences. It was recorded at night by a band without a clue but with an exact concept. Rats would run out from underneath The Smell’s stage. HEALTH would have to stop recording when the neighbouring gay bar’s reggaeton would register on their archaic soundboard. Every morning they’d have to step over a fresh turd as they left, which they wrote off as a joke by some local homeless guys. “One time they hid it under the lock and Jake touched it,” bassist John Famiglietti told me when I first met the band in 2008. “That was pretty funny.”
Two years later, HEALTH released ‘Get Color’. A note on its inner sleeve read: This record should be played at a minimum of 90DB. The Smell and its founding manager, Jim Smith, remained the first two acknowledgements on the thank you list, but the band had recorded their second album in a studio with a producer – Manny Nieto. There were more vocals and a noted move towards the verse/chorus structure, but ‘Get Color’ was still a noise record above anything else – Jake Duzsik’s disembodied vocals were still too indecipherable to sing along to; a recurring metallic grind still put your teeth on edge; the record was even louder.
There was an anomaly on ‘Get Color’ though, and ‘Die Slow’ – released five month’s before the album – became its red herring. It’s an electronic banger. Fans heard it following ‘HEALTH//DISCO’ – a remix LP of the group’s debut album that featured reworks from Pictureplane, Nosaj Thing and Crystal Castles – and presumed that HEALTH were sticking with dance music. Many welcomed the idea, too – a whole album of tracks that were just as heavy but made for boiler rooms in industrial clubs rather than DIY noise venues.
Six years later, HEALTH have made that album and called it ‘Death Magic’.
In 2009 I interviewed HEALTH for Loud And Quiet’s August cover feature. “There won’t be two years until the next record,” they told me. “We’re going to shoot while we’re hot.” Six years later, I arrange to meet the band in the lobby of The Princess Hotel, Barcelona, which lies at the bottom of a ramp near the sea. At the top of the ramp is the entrance to Primavera Sound. Once a year the hotel is block-booked by the festival’s organisers. Conducting interviews here is a blessing and a curse. It’s a convenient and glamorous location, but distracting for it’s proximity to the beach and the likelihood of bands bumping into old friends also on the bill. Most of the people inside are either jetlagged or hungover, and four of those people today are HEALTH.
Singer Jake Duzsik is the latter. He’s already been in town for a week, having spoken on a panel at the festival’s Pro conference – a programme of discussions about almost everything connected to the music industry, with a keynote speech this year from Steve Albini. Duzsik scores a milk of magnesia from someone he bumps into on our way in. The rest of the band (drummer Benjamin Jared Miller, bassist and electronics John Famiglietti and guitarist and more electronics Jupiter Keyes) flew in from Los Angeles last night. It makes for a fuzzy couple of hours, although the band are friendly and accommodating, even when we photograph them on a staircase overpowered by the smell of piss. Occasionally the conversation slides into delirium, in that way it tends to between sleep-deprived friends, although, from my experience, HEALTH just communicate that way – or at least they do when there’s an outsider present.
As Duzsik says, there’s no good answer to why the band have taken six years to get ‘Death Magic’ together. “It’s not like I’ve been in jail,” he says. There have been rumours that the band are splitting up since promo for ‘Get Color’ wound down, but Miller puts that down to an over zealous fan called Logan tampering with Wikipedia and making himself the group’s drummer.
Largely, HEALTH got sidetracked writing the score for third-person video game Max Payne 3 – “A lot of hard work… for a really long time.”
The band say they wrote 67 hours of foreboding ambience for the game in total, all for vigilante Payne to drown out with rapid gunfire and ridiculous bloodshed.
“Ten people needed to say ok to everything,” says Famiglietti. “Like, if one out of ten say no, you’ve got to do it again. So they’d be like, ‘Greg from accounting thinks it should have more of this,’ and you have to do it again.”
“Probably not Greg from accounting…” says Duzsik.
Famiglietti: “Well, no, probably not Greg from accounting, but someone not in the music department.”
“Rockstar Games [the creators of Max Payne and also Grand Theft Auto] are like family to us, so we’d definitely do it again,” says Duzsik, “but at the same time we’d also be given these really funny notes. Our favourite one was when they said, ‘yeah, we’d like it to be something more remarkable.’ No shit! Isn’t that the case with everything? I guess that’s a euphemistic way of saying, ‘this is no good.’”
Famiglietti says the best thing about writing the Max Payne score was that it “delayed this white elephant of getting the sound right for this record.”
“We were very aware of the fact that we wanted to make it sound really… good,” says Duzsik. “‘Get Color’ was a noisy, punk rock kind of record – we wanted the fidelity of this one to be… we were pretty obsessed about getting the production right,” he says.
“‘Get Color’ was not suppose to sound like it did,” says Famiglietti. “We were trying to make something that sounded incredible. We got kind of burned by that experience – now it’s like, not on my watch; we’re not putting this out until we get it right.”
“Some people love the way that record sounds, because it sounds dirty and raw, but we were trying to make ‘Dark Side of The Moon’,” adds Duzsik. “It came out and it worked OK, but this time we wanted to be really happy with how it sounds.”
HEALTH have always been preoccupied with the sonic quality of their work. DIY doesn’t have to mean lo-fi, and even when they were recording their debut album themselves, they’d take a day to nail the sound of a particular snare drum, in the face of their ability to do so.
Producer Manny Nieto, incidentally, is not thanked in the liner notes of ‘Get Color’. It was the first time the band had collaborated with a third party. “We argued a lot,” they told me in 2009.
When I sit down with HEALTH today, my opening question is: What do you think people will make of ‘Death Magic’? Nobody really knows what to say.
“Instinctively, they’re going to love it,” Famiglietti finally says with a laugh.
“I don’t trust my instincts,” says Miller.
Famiglietti: “We’ve said before that we’d be terrible A&R people – most predictions we make are wrong.”
“I hope people like it,” says Duzsik after another pause.
Famiglietti: “I know our fans will like it.”
“Well… you’ve trumped us on the first question,” chuckles Miller.
“Well, you don’t want to be like, ‘people are going to love that shit’, but you don’t want to say it’s pretty bad,” says Duzsik. “We’re proud of the record – that’s the easiest thing to say.”
I’m surprised the band don’t have an answer ready to go, although it’s only at this point that I register the jetlag in the air, and admittedly I’ve worded the questioned badly. Fans. Not people. I wanted to ask what they think their fans will make of the new album, and of course the reason I wanted to ask that is because I’ve got my own opinion on the matter.
I’m probably like most HEALTH fans – ‘HEALTH’ was a record that fascinated me to obsession, bolstered by the first time I saw them ferociously play it out live. ‘Die Slow’ then turned up and floated the question of something more accessible, yet no less visceral – a heavy, melodious dance track that until then you were hoping might come from Liars. A whole album of that sounded pretty appealing to me, and now it’s here.
Still, ‘Death Magic’ probably doesn’t sound how you expect it to. It features two truly pummeling noise tracks (‘Men Today’ and ‘Courtship’) and a brilliantly brutal trap-influenced number of machinegun drums followed by ambient wash called ‘Salvia’. The chances are that the first time you hear the record, though, it’ll be the other nine songs that’ll leave their mark, and ‘songs’, perhaps for the first time ever, is the correct word for them. On more than one occasion Jake Duzsik’s vocals strongly resemble those of Neil Tennant, with the Euro techno of ‘Flesh World’ and ‘Dark Enough’ following Pet Shop Boys suit. Maybe he’s always sung like that, but it’s only now that Duzsik’s vocal is high enough in the mix to fully hear them. The verse/chorus structure has been fully realised, too, and where before you’d struggle to liken HEALTH’s sound to any other group, Depeche Mode join Pet Shop Boys, courtesy of the industrial, quiet-loud-quiet anti pop of ‘Stonefist’, and New York chillwave forefathers Small Black, thanks to the glistening ‘L.A. Looks’, which features the refrain, ‘It’s not love, but I still want you,’ in rather summery fashion.
HEALTH pull all of this off by cloaking everything in unspoken dread and the sound of metal on metal that’s become their calling card. Still, it’s quite a shock if you’re familiar with the band’s previous material. There are even two ballads – the closing couplet of ‘Hurt Yourself’ and ‘Drugs Exist’ – and a song that the makers of Made In Chelsea might send back on grounds of it being too commercial.
That track is called ‘Life’, and if you were played it under the pretense of it being the new single from Miike Snow, you’d buy it. Duzsik moons of lying awake at night before reminding every teenager struggling with existentialism that ‘Life is strange / We die and we don’t know why’. And that’s before the chorus drops – a shiny, confused chant of: ‘I don’t know what I want / Know that I don’t know what I want’. It’s a pop hit. Not an indie pop hit. Not even a ‘We Are Your Friends’ hit. Bigger.
Context could be everything where ‘Life’ is concerned, and you’d have to be a pretty callous bastard to forbid it a band like HEALTH (these guys have touched human shit for you), but no doubt there will be some purists for whom it’ll be a bridge too far. And I guess that’s what I expected them to say when I asked what they think people will make of this record – that the trepidation they felt when releasing ‘Die Slow’ is now twelve-fold.
“Well, we have a different trepidation, I suppose, because it’s been a long time since we released a record, so you just hope people are still interested in what you are doing,” says Duzsik – an uncharacteristically straight response. “There was a little bit of a difference before because we put out that song [‘Die Slow’] that was so different to the rest of the record.”
“It’s a very different situation with this record,” agrees Famiglietti. “The fan reaction has been incredible.”
At the time of writing, HEALTH have only made public one track from ‘Death Magic’ – ‘New Coke’, a second song inspired by trap and featuring slamming drops. The band posted it with an accompanying video that ends with Jupiter Keyes and Duzsik sticking their fingers down their throats and vomiting in super slow motion to an extended serene outro. Famiglietti included his mobile number for fans to tell the band what they think. They liked it a lot.
“I think the vomit video helped a lot,” says Duzsik. “People got excited about that.”
“But now you’ve got to throw up onstage all the time,” says Miller.
“Yeah, we’re hoping it’s going to become like a wave; Stand By Me style. Hopefully people will start jamming their hands down their throats and if one person throws up on someone everyone will start throwing up, and the virus will spread…”
Miller: “… and there’ll be one guy doing the lighter wave, alone.”
Duzsik: “It’s like the natural progression of… gobbing.”
“We wanted it to not sound like anything else coming out,” says Famiglietti. “We didn’t want it to be a lo-fi thing. We just want to be as heavy as possible. It’s like, some pop star chick’s song is kicking our ass. We can’t have a weaker style than some pop singer.”
“We were all listening to a lot of modern hip hop,” says Duzsik, “and saw that they had a lot better production, and we just didn’t want to make another rock record.”
‘Death Magic’ does beg the question of what HEALTH are going to be referred to now. It seems incongruous to call them a noise band, even in relation to their new record’s most abrasive blasts. ‘Racket Music’ – the term typed next to ‘genre’ on the band’s Facebook page – is pretty good.
“We’re just doing HEALTH now,” says Famiglietti. “It’s our thing.”
“Even when we were referred to as a noise band, any noise purist would say that we’re not a noise band,” says Duzsik.
When I ask what type of band people will consider them to be now, Duzsik is dismissive. “Just shitty,” he says.
But this could be a crossover album for them, I insist.
“Hopefully,” he says. “We wanted to make an album that a lot of people like, but not in a cynical way. We’ll wait and see. You’re always rolling the dice with music. We’re proud of those songs, and there’s definitely something on there for fans of our first record.
“I think in a lot of ways the noisier tracks sound how we would have liked them to sound on our first record. Does that make the new record more accessible? I guess so. I mean, you’ve listened to it.
“It’s felt like a logical and natural progression. I don’t think any of us were like, ‘whoah, pump the brakes, we’re going to make a fucking calypso record and confuse the shit out of everyone.’”
“‘Life’ – that was one of the first songs we had,” says Famiglietti.
“Yeah, so putting it that way, it’s not like we’d finished the record and thought, we need a power ballad on there,” says Duzsik. “It was gratifying to us, without an indicator that it was going to be a pop success,” he laughs.
When it was announced that HEALTH would release ‘Death Magic’ via a new deal with Fiction Records, fans either balked at the idea of the band signing to a major label or considered it an outsider triumph story. On hearing the record it makes more sense. And Fiction’s Jim Chancellor is also the guy who signed Crystal Castles to the label in 2010. The band say it’s still a small team of people that they deal with, “and it still feels very cottage industry.”
“There’s certainly no guy in a suit,” says Famiglietti. “No Artie Fufkin, Polymer Records.”
HEALTH have relaxed their policy on vetoing material that resembles anything that’s gone before, also. When writing ‘HEALTH’ and ‘Get Color’ the quickest route to the dumpster was for a track to remind them of something else. No band officially sounds like another, but with HEALTH it’s always been true.
“We’re a little nicer about that,” says Famiglietti, “but we still have some aesthetic rules. There’s a lot of stuff that we try not to do, but we were a little bit kinder; we’ve been a little more chill on that.”
“But we still have to put our sounds on it,” says Duzsik. “Like, if we wrote a melody on a synthesizer, that’s step one, but it sounds like a synthesizer, so we say, ‘right, we’ve got to make it sound like something else.’ That’s a stamp we put on things – if we’re going to use a guitar, it doesn’t sound like a guitar. Or we try to have sounds where people don’t know what the hell they are.
“Referring back to ‘Die Slow’, we wanted to add song structure, so you know that’s the chorus and that’s the verse, but maybe you don’t recognize what’s making the sound. So I don’t think that’s less involved than vetoing anything that might sound like a particular band or song.”
I note that in the last eight years since HEALTH released their first album, and have subsequently become the experimental noise band to drop into hip conversation, I haven’t come across anyone trying to rip off their very particular sound.
“It’s too much work,” reasons Famiglietti. “It’s like we’re really good at doing tricks on a razor scooter. ‘That’s cool, but we’ll stick with the skateboard, thanks.’
“We even go through it – like, why are we bothering. I wish I was in a different band…”
“But we’re already locked in,” says Duzsik.
“Yeah, it’s like we’re locked into a time share, like when you can’t admit that you’ve made a terrible mistake in investing in some property. It’s a ponzi scheme.
“That’s actually a fear I have,” says Famiglietti, “ – this band comes along and is massive, like a generation-defining band, and people say, oh they took HEALTH’s sound and just gave it this little twist and it’s perfect. Like when the Cars came out and became huge, and everyone was like, that sounds like Television but that guy can sing – the Cars became huge and Tom Verlaine is sweeping up.”
“I don’t see that happening,” says Duzsik.
HEALTH’s Twitter feed has become more notorious than the band themselves – a darkly comic outlet for Duzsik’s and Famiglietti’s twisted sense of humour, which is, at best, in poor taste, and worst, pure filth. It has led to the band writing a Christmas column for us for the past two years: ‘Health Care’ has been the group’s year review of life on the other side of the Atlantic. Under ‘World Cup 2014’, last year the band wrote: We did OK. Once we get American black kids into soccer you’re all fucked. Another subheading read: You can’t joke about paedophilia at a dinner party in 2014.
“There’s a comedic, sarcastic bent to our Twitter,” says Duzsik, “so we don’t get much shit for the things we say on there. People know what they’re signing up for.”
“We’ve gotten into trouble with your family,” says Famiglietti to Duzik. “That was embarrassing.”
“Yeah. We used to link up our Twitter posts with our Facebook feed, and my fucking 87-year-old great aunt saw some shit we put up there…”
Famiglietti: “It was – ‘Why am I taking shit from someone I’m not sexually attracted to? Fuck you mom!’”
“And my aunt just commented ‘Shame on you, Jake.’”
“I got this emergency text from Jake, like, ‘go on Twitter now and delete this one, this one, this one…’ because his family are around the Thanksgiving table and it’s like, ‘you should see what your son has been saying’. It was like, press the red button, go, go, go!”
“My cousin was like, ‘the stuff he puts on Twitter is disgusting,’” says Duzsik. “She ratted me out. I put some stuff on there about having a dream about fucking your mom, and I was trying to push that envelope of there being some fucked up things that happen to all of us but we never want to admit to. But I can never explain that to my mom.”
“I was dating this girl I was really into and then her mom was like, ‘oh, I’ll check out the band,” says Famiglietti. “‘Oh, I didn’t realise John was so vulgar.’”
In 2009, Famiglietti summed up the first two HEALTH records to me in an attempt to poetically highlight their differences. He said: “The first record is you in middle school, punching your bed and shit; this one is you in high school, crying like a bitch.” He went on to predict what the band’s third record would sound like, too, and before the band return to their rooms to crash out ahead of their 2am curtain call tomorrow morning, I challenge him not to recall what he’d said then, so much, but what he’d say now. Impressively, both answers match up, and having lived with ‘Death Magic’ for a couple of weeks, I have to say that Famiglietti is on the money.
“You’re at college, baby. It’s dorm life, and it’s pretty sweet. Girls are there.”