Los Angeles noise rockers Health return to a changed music scene
In the six years since Health's last formal album, music's avant-garde has discovered the virtues of top 40 pop and hip hop
On a bright, hot weekend morning in July, Jupiter Keyes of the Los Angeles noise rock band Health walked onto a black-curtained set at Mack Sennett Studios in the trendy district of Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Health were filming a video for Stonefist, a throbbing electronic-driven track that had just debuted on BBC's influential Radio 1.
Keyes slid into a haze of blue fog. He was shirtless, wearing a dark blazer and thick gold-link necklace. Co-director Andrew Barchilon shouted stage directions - "A little more lip bite … try a smile and a snarl now."
Keyes' face came into focus, and he was absolutely hideous.
The band's make-up intentionally mimicked cut-rate plastic surgery. Keyes had a distended, goatish chin. Singer Jacob Duzsik's lips were inflated and covered in chemical-peel goo. Bassist John Famiglietti had a new nose and septum, and looked like an underfed zoo tiger. Drummer Benjamin Jared Miller seemed normal, except that halfway through the video he's replaced by a doppelganger, an oiled-up bodybuilder with biceps the size and colour of hams.
Right when the band's new album, Death Magic, could vault it past the Los Angeles underground and onto big new stages, it's mocking the idea of changing to be more popular. It's a grim, funny visual and poses big questions for a rising act.
In the six years since Health's last formal album, music's avant-garde has discovered the virtues of top 40 pop and hip hop (see the roster of such brutalist producers as Arca on Kanye West's Yeezus). EDM festivals, fuelled by harsh bass and strobe-lighted spectacle, prove that there is no "too much" for young, pleasure-seeking fans. Death Magic draws from all those shifts, and it could make the band much bigger while redefining pop music's cutting edge.
Yet it's extremely hard to do both at once. At the Stonefist video shoot, while Duzsik sang its dejected chorus, the directors framed him against bloody, hard-to-watch footage of open surgeries. It looked as if the band was trying to literally slice open pop music to reveal something new.
"I find it bewildering that we're all alive, but existence is kind of magical," Duzsik says. "You can minutely change your brain's chemistry and have a whole new perspective. That's why we're not cynical about music at all."
A few days before, the quartet met at Famiglietti's home in the Echo Park hills. It's a rambling craftsman, a classic band-guy house: video game consoles and empty bottles of michelada mix lying everywhere; an above-ground hot tub in the backyard temporarily on the fritz from the last party.
In the past half-decade, the band members have been home more than they'd intended. They debuted in 2007 with an album that defined the scene at the downtown Los Angeles venue The Smell (where they were peers of several arty, punk-inspired acts such as No Age who earned national prominence) and returned in 2009 with Get Colour, an LP that laced their noisy freak-outs with danceable rhythms. They opened for Nine Inch Nails on an arena tour, released two remix albums and plotted their third LP.
Then Rockstar Games, the firm behind the smash Grand Theft Auto franchise, asked them to compose the score for Max Payne 3, a shooter-noir inspired by classic John Woo films. Their hours-long score of tribal percussion and bleak guitar noise earned wide acclaim and helped the game sell more than 4 million copies.
They now had resources to broaden their ambitions, but Max Payne 3 had kicked back their album recording schedule by years. In the meantime, rock and pop music went through some changes: EDM took over youth culture, rap radio got psychedelic and druggy, and the lines between experimental and pop songwriting collapsed. Now Skrillex headlines arenas and The Weeknd has chart-topping singles.
To stay ahead, Health had to cut up old formulas and start anew. Health turned to a range of producers and co-writers to help finish the album. The band first worked with Andrew Dawson, a longtime engineer and producer for Kanye West, and finished the record with Lars Stalfors, who helmed records by prog-punkers The Mars Volta and electro-pop duo Matt & Kim. The Haxan Cloak, the British producer known for his work with Björk, added to the album's doom-stricken bass sounds.
The end result took more time than hoped. But Death Magic is arriving at just the right moment for a band turning heavy rock, club music and edgy pop inside out.
"Even from the demos, I could tell that this was going to be an incredibly modern record," Stalfors says. "Today the indie world is so safe, but a lot of heavy music is pretty idiotic. This wasn't going to be any ode to the '70s or a '90s revival. It's just new."
Even at their harshest extremes, such as on Men Today, Salvia and Courtship II, Miller's frantic blast-beat drumming and the band's treated feedback wails are edited with precision and space. Slinky club singles such as Dark Enough and New Coke are some of the most focused in their career.
There might even be a rock radio hit. Life is Health's most pop-minded single, heavy in its sounds but unusually hopeful in its mood. "I had this weird dream where Dolly Parton was singing that 'I don't know what I want' chorus, and I immediately woke up to write it down," Duzsik says. "I wish I could just turn that kind of songwriting on and off, but I can't."
The record's also striking for its plain-spoken lyrics about mortality. Flesh World (UK) is an existentialist reversal of a festival anthem - "We're here, there's nothing else/ We're not here to find ourselves … We die, so what?" Album closer Drugs Exist inverts pop's recent obsession with Ecstasy to find the loneliness driving those late-night warehouse raves.
"The same people who were in the noise scene are now all 30 and doing this cool-guy, party-scene thing where they're taking drugs and staying up until 8am," Famiglietti says. Health's members are in their early to mid 30s, and they've seen the more sordid, regretful sides of that lifestyle. "At that point of the night," he says, "you have to ask what you're really doing there. It's not just because it's fun."
So how do you sell the EDM generation on an album of party music steeped in death and anxiety?
The band signed with Loma Vista Recordings, an indie label founded by former Warner Bros. Records chief executive Tom Whalley. The label successfully pushed acts such as St Vincent, Little Dragon and Rhye into mainstream success, and helped reinvigorate the career of Marilyn Manson.
But Health are a more complicated project: a band who antagonise their audience while delivering unorthodox pleasures. Their video for the single New Coke starts at an alluring party, but it ends with a slow-motion, 4K-resolution shot of the band ferociously vomiting in a club bathroom, topped with an invite to call Famiglietti's cellphone (and he will answer if you do). The band's members all follow the city's acerbic outsider comedy scene and fans love their deliriously vulgar Twitter feed. But that sense of humour might go down differently with the more middle-of-the-road audiences in Los Angeles.
"We clearly think they've made a record that can go a long way," says Ryan Whalley, head of A&R at Loma Vista. "We want to appeal to a lot of people, for sure. But you have to build a culture around them. We want people to understand how important this record is."
That sense of importance might be the way in. The band are collaborating with title designer Pablo Ferro for a video project that evokes Dr Strangelove for after-hours clubs. The band can play to thousands at Coachella but also score a 3D-mapped live ballet at New York Fashion Week.
On the final night of the band's three-night, sold-out stand at The Echo late last month, the disorienting blue grid of their stage set-up dimmed and the fluorescent house lights flicked on. Some of the crowd headed to Famiglietti's to keep partying. But the shows were over, and soon everyone would have to go home.
"That's kind of what the record is about. We're all just gonna die," Duzsik deadpans.
But until then, he says, laughing, "music is pretty sweet".
Los Angeles Times