“I don’t think you have to be young and depressed and doomed to make great art” HEALTH on rejecting labels and finding the fun in noise
The noisy Californian trio have been accused of making ‘sad music for horny people’ – just don’t expect them to be down about it, or be precious about perverting their instruments into whatever sounds interesting.
HEALTH. Image: Daniel Roland Tierney
Everything is breaking down – the economy, the climate, the time-honoured pattern of buying a house, getting married and starting a family. Doomscrolling oneself into a state of hope and panic becomes perilously easy to do. When it comes to music, however, things breaking down has proved to be freeing rather than fear-inspiring, especially when it comes to the breakdown of the fragile lines that distinguish one genre from another.
- READ MORE: How The Last Dinner Party embraced individuality to become the band everyone’s talking about
Put those things together – that feeling of apocalypse and the freedom to smash sounds together in endless combinations – and you find the scuzzy, silvery, synth-laden sounds of HEALTH. For better or for worse, the world has moulded itself in a way that’s enabled them to thrive.
Even when they emerged from the noise scene in the mid-2000s, the Californian trio found they never quite fit into any real genre or movement. Nowadays, they don’t shun categorisation as such, often describing themselves as neo-industrial, but this is done more for convenience’s sake.
“We’ve been a post-genre band our entire existence,” suggests frontman Jake Duszik, speaking to Guitar.com over Zoom while between stops on a European tour supporting Sleep Token. “But I think that, in a certain way, being a little bit reductive and saying ‘Okay, we’re a neo-industrial band’ is the easiest way to succinctly encapsulate what we do. It’s almost comforting for us; we’ve never really had a shorthand for describing our music, even when we came out of the noise rock scene and [we’d be called] a noise band. These guys who were fully avant-garde, experimental, improvisational free noise band personnel would take umbrage at that. We were just like, ‘Dude, I don’t really know what to call us.’’
Go Your Own Way
Then again, HEALTH’s habit of eluding simple categorisation with their music is no flaw. Why, some might ask, must they have to be anything but HEALTH anyway? Even then, despite their distant sonic relation to the industrial pioneers of the 20th century such as Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, their sound is a shinier, distinctively modern, yet equally fearsome beast.
“We don’t think of what we’re doing as a throwback,” Jake continues. “But if you look at what the heart of industrial music is, it’s about embracing modern technologies and production techniques within the aesthetic of cathartic, physically aggressive songwriting – that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
In 2023, however, those influences don’t feel as archaic as much as they feel like a wink towards the ahead-of-its-time nous of their industrial forebears, who were bending and breaking genres before it became widespread.
By refusing to be tied into a specific genre, the band give themselves permission to feel more like individuals, and also avoid being tied to a trend, or a time or place.
“I think it’s a blessing or a curse when you have a genre, especially when something explodes and gets really popular, it fast-tracks you to all the fans who want to hear that type of music,” Jake reasons. “The pitfall, of course, is that once that genre inevitably rotates out of the spotlight, the baby goes out with the bathwater. Having a genre can kind of fuck you.”
Cum As You Are
Instead, they invented a genre of their own, sort of. The other label that’s been applied to the band is a more humorous, and certainly unique, one – ‘cum metal’. The slogan even appears on their merch, while another popular t-shirt they sell features the line ‘SAD MUSIC FOR HORNY PEOPLE’. That sentiment is writ large across their social media, their pages filled with memes and a particular sort of chronically online humour, mostly from the brain of bassist and producer John Famiglietti.
In contrast, the occasional sensual undertones of their music (yet another thing they hold in common with Nine Inch Nails), their lyrics aren’t usually horny or even funny in the way that term might imply. Mostly, they’re deadly serious. Indeed, the trio’s new album RAT WARS sprung from a particularly emotionally trying period for Jake, particularly during the eerie quiet of the pandemic, and subsequently is their darkest release yet.
That doesn’t go to say it’s no fun, however. “There’s always been an exuberance to the music,” Jake considers. “If the subject matter for a song is lyrically very bleak, there’ll still be a way that we approach the instrumentation so it’s energetic and ideally enjoyable for the listener. It’s an interesting dichotomy because it’s not like we’re forcing ourselves, writing some terribly depressing song and then also reminding ourselves that we need to make it fun. It’s just an expression of the many shades of personalities within the band and contained within ourselves.”
Incidentally, it just so happens that in Jake’s eyes, miserable lyrics can make for tighter melodies, though he is conscious to emphasise that sadness is no pre-requisite for creating art and it’s rather unhealthy to suggest that could be the case.
“I tend to be more creatively alive and expressive when I’m maybe not in the best emotional state,” he says. “I don’t think you have to be young and depressed and doomed to make great art. But just in my own experience of being in a band, I find that the less happy I am, typically the more creative I am, and probably creatively effective, because it serves as a way to try and stay well and a form of catharsis. When I feel balanced and happy, I tend to work less because I have less to process.”
When it comes to the instrumental side of operations, although Jake will happily profess his and the band’s reverence for a six-string, HEALTH aren’t here to be precious with their instruments. “Everything is fair game to be completely cannibalized and perverted and twisted into whatever sounds interesting.” They’ll process their power chords to within an inch of their lives so they marry better with the thick, fizzing waves of synths that characterise their music, chopping them up to create loops, and their pedalboards will always be full to bursting. If it sounds “identifiable”, they don’t want it. Sonically, nothing is sacred, and nothing stays pure.
Would he say, then, that HEALTH see the guitar more as a production tool than an instrument per se?
“In the context of our band, everything is a production tool,” Jake says. “We’re trying to use everything holistically. There’s no traditionalism whatsoever. The whole aim is to create something that we think is novel and creatively gratifying for ourselves.”
Jake’s been playing guitar all his life and describes his playing style as “self taught and weird”, having been schooled in the craft through listening to Johnny Marr and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. However, the thrashier, heavier riffs that might jump out in a particular HEALTH track probably weren’t played by him, but if they did ever need any of those, they’d know who to call. With the spirit of collaboration still coursing through them after their all-star collaborative DISCO4 records, they brought in Lamb Of God’s Willie Adler to add some metallic magic to RAT WARS’ lead single CHILDREN OF SORROW after he played on the DISCO4 PT2 track COLD BLOOD.
As for Jake’s own fretwork, he’s been a Fender aficionado for most of his musical life, and on the majority of RAT WARS, he was recording with either an American Strat or an American Jazzmaster. This time around, however, the album called for something weightier, leading to Jake picking up a Gibson Les Paul. “I have some Fenders with humbuckers on them and they’re great, but sometimes you need that woodiness and the darker, rhythmic sound that a Les Paul has.”
Don’t expect to ever see him play a Les Paul live, mind. “I love Stratocasters because they’re extremely ergonomic and extremely playable. I can’t play a Les Paul on stage, I’m too much of a wuss – I think that’s why Jimmy Page had to do so much heroin! I weigh 140 pounds; if I play a Les Paul for an hour, I will need some methadone the next day. My fucking back! The way the weight balances, they’re so heavy on one shoulder.”
HEALTH seem to be guided, when they get into the studio, by a few instinctual questions. Does it work? Does it feel good? Rules need not apply, and all it boils down to is whether they have the right sound for the moment.
“The way we approach it is almost from the perspective of sound design,” Jake concludes. “It’s anarchic, in a way, our approach to guitar, because nothing is sacred. Nothing says the fucking main riff has to be five decibels louder than anything else in the mix. The way we look at it is asking, ‘Is it going to work in the context of the song?’ Whatever it is, it’ll accomplish the goal of making it feel physical, transgressive and powerful.”
RAT WARS is out now, the vinyl edition is released 16 February