SALEM: An interview with our pick for the Best New Band from Michigan

L-r: Heather Marlatt, John Holland, Jack Donoghue

Salem are a hard band to pin down. We recently named them the best band from the state of Michigan, mostly because of growing hype surrounding their particular brand of mysteriously mournful dirge-crunk. Their music kind of slips through your mind’s fingers as it attempts to get a grip on what is exactly going on: murky and gauzy synths, washed-out and elegaic vocals, and oddly whumping and skittering beats. Salem’s music can sound like a hopeless anthem with all human feeling drained out in a rainstorm, or like the most blisstastic vision of redemptive hope, or both at the same time. Moment to moment slips from a menacing vortex to a wash of sun after the rain.

Two-thirds of the group hail from Traverse City, Michigan (John Holland and Heather Marlatt); I got the chance recently to sit down with the one member who isn’t a Michigan native, Jack Donoghue, who had some interesting comments on being in a band with such a decidedly ambiguous aesthetic. Salem are currently gearing up for the fall release of their debut lp, King Night (IAMSOUND)-- and figuring out how to rise to the challenge of presenting their bizarre music in a live setting. After all, most music scene know-it-alls only know the band for having been been boo’ed off the stage twice at this year’s SXSW, and not for their string of powerful self-produced singles and ep’s that stretch back to when the band members were all school-aged. Ladies and gentlemen: Salem.

BOSTON PHOENIX: Hey! So I saw you live last week (at the Creator’s Project in NYC), and I was surprised to see that all three of you take turns on vocals. On record, it’s hard to tell that different songs are sung by different people...

Jack Donoghue: if you listen to our music, the songs sung by all three members, it’s obvious that we’re all interested in similar feelings and aesthetics and stuff, but the focal point I think is different. Mine is more like rap and juke and weird house or some shit. But I mean, I was making music in high school that some of the beats we’ve used are weird lifts of. And John has been making things like that before he was in grammar school, making it on cassettes, same with Heather. You couldn’t, like, call us out for making something that doesn’t fit, all three of us, everything we make fits in the Salem aesthetic, but not until we’re all together does it sound the same. does that make sense?

Sometimes people will ask us: “So there’s three separate sections of Salem?” And I’m like no, there’s different things going on but it’s not sectioned out.

Yeah, I had no idea who sang what, aside from a few tunes that obviously had a female vocal.

It’s almost a bit disillusioning, almost like that’s what it is when we play live, just like visually, you know, “that’s this person’s song, and that’s this person’s song”, and that isn’t the way it is at all. i dunno-- we’re still figuring it out.

Your music is really ambiguous, and on record it’s almost as if there is an intentional distance between the music and the listener. Is this intentional, and if so, what are you guys trying to do with this approach?

Rather than saying that we’re trying to hide, or that we’re masking something, I would say that nothing is necessarily more important than anything else in our music. So where someone might bring the vocals super-loud over everything else in a normal song, we don’t do that. The feeling is what our songs are about, we try to make affecting music, like it’s supposed to be affecting. And not necessarily with the words, with lyrics, you know? It’s just not something that we-- I think it would almost distract people to think that they could relate to this thing based on some words that mean one thing to me and one thing to someone else. We’d rather give it to people raw and pure, and make the music almost universal.

That’s a really interesting concept-- and especially unusual since a number of your songs feature your rapping on them, and even the rapping is somewhat indistinct.

I think we’re more about the big picture, you know? We’re trying to express ourselves, and it’s more of a painting than a poem, you know what I’m saying?

Totally. Another thing I find interesting about Salem is that you guys use elements of what would be considered “goth” and “crunk” and a bunch of other genre touchpoints, but it would be kind of a disservice to really use those terms to define what you do.

You can analyze our music all day and say “Oh, it has elements of this and elements of that”, but whatever-- it’s just what we’re drawn toward. And so if I’m been exposed to this drum hit in a rap song, and i liked it, I’m going to try to emulate that, that one drum hit. If I like this thing in this other thing, I’ll use that. We’re just three people doing our part to collaborate in a way that-- we’re definitely not thinking about where we’re taking things from, we just care about the content that needs to be there in the end.

The way that your music has rap beats taken out of context, and used with somewhat ethereal textures almost gives the music this menacing feel-

I mean, I don’t know that I think that rap is menacing, or that that element of what we do is menacing, but i think that i personally connect with rap music because- I don’t know, I just think that I like how rap beats sound better than drum beats, you know?

Interesting-- it kind of raises the question of whether you guys even see your music as “dark”-- because that’s how it’s often described. And yet, there’s so much about it that isn’t dark at all, that’s almost hopeful or blissful. What are you guys going for, if anything, specifically.

I’d say first of all, as a precursor, that we aren’t going for anything, ever. But between all of us, we’ve had a fair amount of sad things happen to all three of us. But we’re not trying to be dark-- if that’s a part of us that comes out in the music, then that comes out. But other parts come out as well, so it’s not exclusively dark. I mean, there’s sensitivity, a lot of things. I don’t necessarily know what “dark” means. I guess we see our music as enveloping a full spectrum.

Someone just said something to me recently that I’d never thought about before. He’s a friend of mine, and he said “When you first brought me your music, I didn’t know how to listen to it”. I think that people don’t know what to compare it to. But just listen to it, it just is what it is. Like, you don’t have to put it in the whole thing where, you know, “This kind of music is supposed to make you feel like this”. We’re just making music, and if it’s new or interesting to people, that’s just a by-product of us trying to be honest, not following in the footsteps of someone. Does that make sense? We’re not trying to emulate a specific thing, which is why it is not a specific thing. We don’t even know what to call it.

Yeah-- I mean, so many bands today come across as so calculated--

-And we’re not! We’ve played bad live shows, we’ve done things because we’re just figuring this thing out. You’d be hard-pressed to find a band more painfully honest than us.

When was your first live show?

It was in Chicago, maybe a year and a half ago.

But you’ve recorded a ton of stuff before that, right?

We’ve been recording for three years, but we haven’t been playing shows that whole time. The number of live shows we’ve played is pretty small, there are a lot of gaps there where we didn’t play. We get asked, but, you know.

Playing live is a challenge for us, to be honest, but I’m positive that we’ll find a good way to make it work. It’s only a challenge in trying to do either the most basic thing or the best thing. There have been shows where it was like “let’s just do the most basic thing and get paid.” But we’re just working towards really figuring out a more hard-hitting aesthetic for the live show.

Like what?

I dunno, we’re working it out! That’s what we’re doing right now, trying to figure out how to present things live. Cuz we have this new album coming out, and it’s totally sick, and we haven’t figured out how to express it live, so that’s what we’re working on now.

So far, all of your music is self-produced, right, even the new album?

Yep. We did it all in Michigan, in Traverse City.

Is Michigan, and Traverse City, significant to your music, as a presence?

Oh, most definitely. Michigan has a really high unemployment rate, and for John and Heather, you know, they’re just from a really different than the rest of the country, just a different mood. They know people who were in weird desperate situations, and they don’t have a lot of people to judge what their actions are around, they’re isolated but still around people, and-- I dunno, it’s hard to say, but it’s definitely interesting components for a situation. Traverse City is a really cool beautiful place, but there’s definitely some very strange things going on there.

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