LA noise band HEALTH discuss playing Willy Wonka, writing a pop banger and making a sad new album
Stood next to the four members of HEALTH, we watch an east London tower block burn to the ground… or at least the mass of grey concrete will do if the fire brigade don’t arrive soon. Hypnotised by the flames that dance in the derelict window frames, Jake [vocals and guitar], John [bass and noises], BJ [drums] and Jupiter [guitar] are only distracted by one other impressive spectacle – girls. Lots of girls. Between the smoke and a constant wave of approaching admirers, the band are unexpectedly trapped; a stranded hardcore troupe that continue to surprise.
Last year, when we met John and Jupiter as they promoted their self-titled debut album – a ferocious record of thrashing grindcore, zombie vocals and experimental noises and structures – they told us of how the studio had been a place of pedantic accuracy and frustration. In LA’s DIY mecca The Smell club, they would spend whole nights recording single snare drum sounds, like four fussier Martin Hannetts. In retrospect of how precise ‘HEALTH’ sounds (in its pauses as much as its sudden shrieks and tumbling drum fills) of course that’s how the album was conceived. Then, in April, came the first glimpse of new material. Limited 7” single ‘Die Slow’ was the band’s most accessible track to date, sounding more like a highlight from remix album ‘HEATH/DISCO’ than the abrasive avant-garde punk we’d began to expect. Brilliantly, the dance track thumped like you wish Liars would, but are incapable of. The initial shock over, HEALTH were now angling for wider appeal and we were ready for a second album of imaginative club bangers. Only the rest of ‘Get Color’ – released September 7th via City Slang – sounds nothing like that at all.
“I think the song fits on the record in the context of ‘Get Color’ but, yeah, it definitely isn’t [representative of the whole album],” says Jake, now nowhere near a burning building or a gaggle of gals “and that’s something we’re afraid of, critically I guess. Like, that song has been really well received by fans, probably more so than any other song we’ve ever written, but we were worried about a backlash. Everyone who reviewed it was like, ‘New direction for HEALTH’, and it’s like, yeah, there’s a new direction but if you think it’s all going to be like the remix album then no, it’s not like that shit at all.”
“We wrote the song to be the single,” continues Jupiter “but when it came to releasing it we were like, ‘Fuck! What if people misinterpret this direction and how it relates to the rest of the album?’ It was kinda angling for a top ten hit but obviously our music is fucking weird. Jake often tells this story about when we were writing this song we were like, ‘Fuck yeah. This is Radiohead; we’re ready to go!’”
Jake: “Yeah, I was already having the ground dug out for my pool.”
“I spent a lot of money ahead of time,” deadpans John. “I thought this was going to be a lot bigger than it was. Bought a fur coat, bought a girl a car – I didn’t even know that girl.”
Jake: “I invested into all of this research by some guy I found on the internet who said he could… like, you know how there’s all this stuff on the internet about recreating dinosaurs, I was like, ‘Fuck dude, ground level! I’m going to build a billion-dollar empire!’ Totally fucked me. I should have known he wouldn’t have been using Paypal.”
Jupiter: “My warnings fell on deaf ears – ‘I dunno guys…’”
This is how HEALTH tend to conduct press interviews, serious answers snowballing into layers of quick-witted dry jokes that stack higher as each member trumps the previous gag. As well as being highly entertaining (infinitely more so than well rehearsed mews of “We just do what we want and if other people like it, great”) it’s a fitting way for this band to carry themselves.
‘HEALTH’ was musically uncompromising and aggressive but Jake’s ghostly vocals also provided a certain amount of serenity amongst the chaos. It was a Jekyll and Hyde of an album: dark and light, pissed and content, manic zoothorns next to sweet if inaudible chirps. The same applies to ‘Get Color’ with one notable difference – Fuck Buttons-esque megaphone screams and metal cutter buzzes are still there but Jake’s otherworldly singing is purposefully more melodic. Tracks like ‘Severin’ and ‘Before Tigers’ are proof that HEALTH still sound as bi-polar as ever.
“I think the first album sounded evil and the second one sounds sad,” says John.
“It’s darker…” adds Jake, stopping himself. “Well, the first record is very dark but it’s more atonal and really abrasive, and there are qualities from that that are definitely on this record but it’s more melodic and those melodies are more dark and sad.”
John: “The first record was you in middle school punching your bed and shit, this record is you crying like a bitch in high school.”
“The third record’s going to be you at a keg party in college,” adds Jupiter. “You’ve pulled through it all and you’re finally getting laid.”
Jake: “Then the bottom drops out on the fourth record when you’ve graduated and you’re unemployed. That record’s going to be very depressing.”
BJ: “It’s all like 15 years later, just like in TV, like how Monica is supposed to be 26 in Friends but she’s actually like 40 – we’re way too old to have those feelings but we’re going retro.”
“By the fifth or sixth record we’ll just suck,” ends Jake. “No one will hear it, it’ll be like that last Clash record. I’ll be a total alcoholic and no one will be doing anything so our manager will write it and it’s going to suck. He’ll be rapping over it and shit.”
First serious, then jovial. The band probably do have albums 3 to 6 in mind though, even if shitty raps from their manager are unlikely to be featured on them (although rule nothing out where HEALTH are concerned). Sessions at The Smell would end up with “some bums taking a shit next to the door every morning”, so, unsurprisingly, the band changed tact for ‘Get Color’, recording it in – get this – an actual studio. Long nights at the technically illegal venue felt cursed, this time around was, says Jake, “the same shit, although not literally,” he smiles. “We definitely did it faster but we always feel like everything’s going wrong.”
“At first it seemed like everything was going really smooth,” adds Jupiter while BJ orders the most obscure beers the bar we’re in has to offer. “We were working with an engineer who was recording everything for us and that was one of the biggest problems on the first album: we did it ourselves and didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing. We did it all to tape this time and when we’d hear playback we were like, ‘fuck yeah, this sounds really good.’ So the whole process of recording it was pretty smooth, other than it not moving as quickly as we wanted it to because the guy we were recording it with… er… has his own pace, I guess.”
“Sushi breaks,” says Jake on an out breath, raising his eyebrows.
“He knows what he’s doing,” continues Jupiter “but we had differences in artistic vision. Like, it’s our album, it’s not his album, so we argued a lot, like, ‘hey man this is how we wanna do it.’ ‘No, you can’t do that.’ ‘We’re doing that, it’s how we want it!’ And there’s some things that ended up how we didn’t want them, which is frustrating.”
John says: “It’s definitely soured us on working with other people.” HEALTH – an island of a band who design and sell their own merchandise – had let someone into their cottage industry and been let down. But the bassist who’s serpent-like onstage, snaking his hips to a hidden rhythm and tossing his head as if performing Howard Donald’s come-to-bed dance from the ‘Back For Good’ video, also says: “The third time’s a charm,” referring to his band’s next album, which will take the faeces-stained lessons learned from recording alone and recent tricks picked up from ‘Get Color’’s sessions to produce “a perfect album man.” “There won’t be two years until the next album,” says John. “We’re going to shoot while we’re hot. We’re ready to roll some sevens.”
There’s no doubt that HEALTH are best off left to their own devises. They rigidly work to a rule that means as soon as a new track sounds like anything else they’ve heard they bin it. Writing such a righteous manifesto may not be that impressive, but following it to the letter is. Even for those who couldn’t stomach ‘HEALTH’’s relentless experimental hardcore blasts and 50-second assaults couldn’t ignore that it was a record like no other. Now though, HEALTH do sound like someone – themselves. For the band, this meant a) adding another band to the ‘Vito if we sound like…’ list, and b) accepting that they have become artists unique enough to not be considered copyists. That’s how ‘Die Slow’ made it from its conventional beats beginning all the way to track 2 on ‘Get Color’. It’s also how the band’s new album has ended up full of songs that sound more complete and stand-alone than before.
Once, spotting the end of ‘Crimewave’ and the beginning of ‘Courtship’ was only easy for the four that wrote them, now new track ‘Eat Flesh’ grinds and scrapes to a definite, metallic end. Silence. ‘We Are Water’ follows with a ravey, electronic intro and a recurring metal riff, ‘In Violet’ is positively epic by HEALTH’s standards, clocking in at 6 minutes and 15 seconds. It’s something of the band’s take on balladry and the song that realises John’s interpretation of ‘Get Color’ being a sad/bitch-crying album.
All tracks feature Jake’s vocals this time around, but no, he’s not singing in verse/chorus/verse predictably. In fact, his ethereal coos are still inaudible, and even if you could hear them they remain abstract enough to not give away where the album title came from.
“I’d say the first record is more conceptually unified lyrically,” says Jake “although there were a lot less lyrics, but one thing that’s definitely still there is that things are still detached. It’s not like I’m trying to tell you a story about how I loved this girl once and then she broke up and that’s how life goes, even flowers bend with the rainfall or something like that…”
“That’s good, man,” interjects BJ. “Did you just come up with that?”
“Yeah, write that down,” says Jupiter in agreeance.
Jake: “Just don’t tell Paul Simon… But, yeah, so it’s still more detached, like third person, weird, abstract lyrics… well, not that abstract.”
“Yeah, the lyrics on this one are a little more like stories…,” grin John, leaning closer to my dictaphone “… but Jake didn’t know cos he can’t tell!”
What John’s referring to is the furore that HEALTH’s ambiguous lyrics have caused in the past. Finding the true lyrics from the band’s debut album was impossible even before Crystal Castles started chopping them up and reassembling for their remix of ‘Crimewave’. Since that track’s success fans have fought it out on blogs and Youtube comment columns, claiming the words ‘shark’s tits’ “are DEFINITELY correct”, and such like.
“We’re going to put the lyrics online this time,” reveals Jake. “You literally can’t find them for the first record.”
“The thing is that kids go on these lyric sites and just write what they think they are,” adds John. “It’s like, ‘Ah, shit!’ Technology has a way. I had a moment like that when I thought in ‘Careless Whisper’ he was saying ‘goddamn rhythm’, not ‘got no rhythm.’”
And guess what? It’s not ‘shark’s tits’ either.
Publishing their mysterious lyrics, writing songs with endings, composing a track down-tempo enough to be considered a ballad (!); this isn’t how you go about proving that HEALTH are still as innovative and uncompromising as they were pre-‘Die Slow’. But they are. ‘Get Color’ is no easy listen for dinner parties, and the opening ‘In Heat’ – racing off to chase the next shipment of debut albums where its thrash metal sensibilities belong – proves that. ‘Death+’ is meanwhile the band at their most demented and sinister, sounding like a malfunctioning machine of Willy Wonka’s, about to cough up a crooked Bum Gobbler candy. It burps and wheezes persistently, as if slowly cornering you like a B-movie mummy.
HEALTH have another Wonka-ism up their sleeve mind, and it’s one that only a truly DIY band would conceive and put into practice. In 66 copies of ‘Get Color’ are 66 golden tickets.
Jupiter explains: “We’re doing this golden ticket scheme with our US release of the album where implanted in CDs that go to indie record stores will be 66 handmade tickets, individually signed and numbered, and they each correspond to prize we’ll give you. And it’s all personal items,” he continues “stuff that is either meaningful to us or somehow significant on a person level; things like childhood photos, a record from our personal collections, signed and stuff, a book from one of our personal libraries. Other things like my mum’s an astrologer, she’ll call you up and give you an astrological consultation, BJ or Jake’s mum will knit you a scarf. And the grand prize of all this is we’re going to fly someone to LA with a friend and we’ll treat them likes kings or queens, they can sleep on our floor or couch, we’re going to make them breakfast, take care of them, if they’re of age give them drinks, just have a good time, take them on cool hikes, and then the final awesome thing we’re going to do is take them to Magic Mountain, which is the coolest rollercoaster park in LA.”
Only 6 of these tickets will be here in the UK, but the needle is made bigger and haystack smaller by the fact that they will all be in copies of the album sold at Rough Trade stores. And if the grand prize ticket does turn up in London, HEALTH will still foot the bill for travelling to LA?
“Err, if you can get to NY we’ll get you there…” says Jupiter, before interrupting himself and reassuring: “we’ll sort something out. I think if you’re in Nigeria we can’t really afford to fly you out though.”
“And you’ve got to think about this too,” says Jake “Willy Wonka was fucking loaded and you still had to bring you lazy ass to the factory, so we’re taking you a step further and we’re not going to try to kill you 16 times. You won’t go down the bad egg shoot, be turned into a giant blueberry or be that fat kid that fell in the chocolate river and got sucked up a tube…”
Jupiter: “But you will get the shit scared out of you by Tatsu, which is one of the most amazing rollercoasters in the world.”
Talk of the golden ticket scheme seems to excite the band as much as anything we’ve discussed regarding the band’s new material. Perhaps that’s because it’s more than a dappy promo exercise – its plan is to reintroduce music fans to interacting with bands and records on a personal level.
“It’s not like a hard thing to realise from what’s going on with the music industry and world that most people don’t really buy records,” reasons Jake “especially not records of super fucking weird bands – those people know what’s going on on the internet and download shit – so we’re just trying to make it fun, like, ‘hey, if you’re still cool enough to give us money for a record we might as well make it interesting’. And things have become less personal about how you interact with a record. You used to buy a record, take it to your house and have to sit down and listen to it – it was like a personal conversation. Now the shit’s everywhere, on blogs or whatever. This makes it more interesting and a conversation again.”
September 7th looks like a busy day for Rough Trade then, Augustus Gloops and Veruca Salts tearing the cellophane of their new HEALTH albums in hope of a shiny ticket being within. And the indie store (HEALTH like to support the indie stores) is also where you can buy a UK-exclusive EP from the band… and then go home and have sex to it.
“If you like that weird noisy shit on the first records this is even weirder,” promises Jake. “It’s a 15 minutes jam, all ambient, weird improvisation…”
“It’s just us jizzing all over the analogue tape with our pedals,” interrupts Jupiter.
John: “It’s made for lovers. It’s very erotic, for making out to or doing it to.”
Jupiter: “I had sex to it, it was fucking great.”
Jake: “I was there.”
Jupiter: “He was watching, it was nothing weird. I think it’s cute.”
Around the time of the bands next album will be ‘Legacy Editions’ releases of both ‘HEALTH’ and ‘Get Color’. And there’ll be plenty more surprises until then, no doubt. Someone will be Charlie for the day (making their friend his weird Grandad who would leave his bed for sweets but not the toilet); another will own a new hand-knitted scarf. Tours will probably stretch lengthier than anticipated; fans will still argue about lyrics.
Words like ‘radical’, ‘innovative’ and ‘challenging’ have today become worthless compliments in music, largely due to their overuse in Jo Whiley-narrated adverts for bands like Scouting For Girls and solo songwriters that we’re told are, “the name on everyone’s lips”, even though we’ve never heard of them. For a few though, they genuinely apply and next to the Dirty Projectors and Battles of this world you’ll find the rule-less HEALTH. They – and ‘Get Color’ – continue to inspire.
“You can make up what you like really,” says John to me after the interview. “You can say that we’re watching a building on fire and 10 different girls keep coming up to us all the time. Make it into your own piece of art, just make it not crappy.”
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