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Soundchecking with… WIFE

In 2012, James Kelly (singer and chief songwriter in metal band Altar of Plagues) released his debut project under his new electronic alias, WIFE. The release, the ‘Stoic EP’, made a massive impression and led to the hallowed Tri Angle records inking a deal with Kelly for his forthcoming full length album. Whilst ‘Stoic’ marked a departure from his black metal roots, the LP, ‘What’s Between’ enlarges the gulf between Kelly and his previous work. Due for release on June 9th, ‘What’s Between’ is WIFE’s own interpretation of a pop album, exercising his range and devastating capability as an artist to experiment with emotion through sound.

 

I think we’re all a bit guilty of being precious about the first thing we hear from an artist.

 

The album is called ‘What’s Between’, where did that name come from?

I just liked the idea of either what’s between two people emotionally or physically, and also what’s between all of our bullshit. The record is predominantly about how all of us present ourselves as something we’re not. I think I’ve definitely experienced that, whether it’s in personal relationships or  with politicians or popstars doing it in popular media. More specifically, instead of politicians and popstars, it’s really about that relationship you have with someone and asking why it is the way it is. Rather than being this real representation of ourselves, we’re this false front.

I feel that subject resonates with the darkness that was within your earlier work in Altar of Plagues. Did you disassociate yourself with metal when you left that project behind?

It definitely wasn’t a disassociation. I’d say it was more of a case of having spent so many years doing that kind of thing. I’m just happy to take a break from it and pursue other interests. I was always into so many different sounds and styles, I just never planned on the band getting as big as it did. I never expected it to take up as much of my time as it did, so it came to the point where I had to draw a line in the sand. Any kind of aggression that ended up on the WIFE record has come about as a result of my interest in that kind of music though. I don’t think it has to be mutually exclusive – I think there’s a lot of really aggressive electronic music that has parallels with metal, but people don’t draw on them because they’re not the exact same sound. For me, the music I’ve always enjoyed has been about things that sound a certain way and draw a certain sound palette rather than things that fit in one niché box.

When I was listening to the album, the one comparison I drew fairly quickly was Nine Inch Nails. Was that conscious?

I don’t think so, but for me one of the biggest compliments I could get is a reference to Nine Inch Nails. Mainly because Trent Reznor is a massive inspiration in terms of his ethos and his career path.  Nine Inch Nails only really have a handful of songs that are important to me but they’re a major example of a heavy pop band. What I’ll always respect about Trent Reznor is that he’s not  afraid to be really aggressive, but if he wants to pull back and do a more pop orientated track then he’ll do that.

The thing about NIN is that they don’t fit into any kind of mould, and there’s something very similar about that with WIFE.

I feel like it’s that way because I kind of pre-empt some people may say the record goes from too serene to too heavy, that it goes from one extreme to another. For me, that’s my reaction to wanting to make a pop album. If you listen to a Drake or Beyonce record, they literally tick off every mood in the box – they have the sad song, and the happy song, and the club song. My reaction to that is,  I’m going to make a pop record. Pop is a free pass to do whatever the fuck you want. That’s the way I was thinking when I was throwing all these different sounds at the what I was doing.

I think that’s a cool ethos that you have in common with the label you’re on too. With Tri Angle, how did that link up come about?

It just came off the back of the first release (Stoic EP). Tri Angle heard what I was doing and thought it was right for them. It was weird because I wasn’t aware of them specifically at the time, but I do remember at some point having some people saying “James, you’ve got to check out this witch house thing that’s going on”. Obviously that has all since been and gone, and I think that’s a testament to the label that that didn’t stick to them either. They’ve pushed forward more since then. Seeing how big The Haxan Cloak is becoming is incredible because that guy is going to be scoring major films in a few years with the way his career is going.

The Haxan Cloak himself helped on this album. What was his input into the creative process?

For the most part, it began as a technical role. He’d make kick drums bigger and snare drums harder. Bobby (Krilic, The Haxan Cloak) and I have very similar tastes and he really got what I was going for with this. So in a lot of ways, he was a producer who was there to help with some decision making. You can get too close to your work when you’re on your own and you can’t see the wood for the trees, almost to the point where you can’t tell if it’s even good or not. He helped a lot in that regard. Everything was written when I was by myself, then I went with him and developed it into that last place that it needed to go.

How does the creation of WIFE’s music differ from your older projects?

There’s too many possibilities with WIFE. When you’re making music in a computer, the sky’s the limit. That’s possibly a fault I picked up on early on. With Altar of Plagues, it was very much a band. Working within those parameters is a very good thing because it gives your a certain songwriting discipline. I learned really early on in the WIFE record that I need to involve some sort of discipline like that. Otherwise the songs would never be finished, there would be too many options with what I could do with them. I stripped back my sound palette a bit and wrote from there. They’re similar in the sense that with both acts I wrote everything myself, and to a certain extent, I’d written the whole thing in my head before it would every manifest itself into a track. With Altar of Plagues, I’d write a guitar part and already be able to hear what the drums are going to sound like. WIFE is kind of similar – if I write something, I can usually hear what is going to be built in around it.

I feel like the album, even more so than the WIFE EP, mixes lots of different elements together to create its sound. What were your wider influences for the album?

With this album, in comparison to the EP, I just became a bit more reckless with the influences I drew on. A song like ‘Fruit Tree’ is my big nod to how much I love bands like Fleetwood Mac and Duran Duran. I’m very aware that you can be instantly dismissed for writing a happy pop song, but it’d be really easy for me to make a dark record. It wouldn’t be challenging to me as a songwriter and I just didn’t wan’t to do it. The EP was pretty dark overall and I just didn’t want to do that again.

I remember hearing ‘Heart Is A Far Light’ for the first time and hearing those opening guitar sounds. I’d only heard your EP before so was kind of shocked by what I was hearing.

I think we’re all a bit guilty of being precious about the first thing we hear from an artist. Plenty of people say “The demo was better” or something like that, but early stuff has this naivety to it that’s either charming or underdeveloped. So for me the album is just a much bigger picture. It’s much more vast. There’s a lot more live instrumentation on this record which was all recorded in a real studio, whereas the EP was very much an ‘in-the-box’ computer record.

Did you feel any pressure coming into making the album? Or did you feel free because you’re a relatively new act?

I think because I’m new to it and not many people had expectations, I just went for it. I’m lucky coming off of the back of being in a band that did some albums because I can be thick skinned about it, shut out the inside world and do my thing. Generally, I think you should just go with your gut. That’s not to say I’d disregard the opinions of people I trust because it’s really important to have a few key people who can tell you you’re on the right track, because you can get so lost in everything.

The album itself is full of emotion. If you could have people feeling something after they listen to it, what would it be?

I want someone to feel good after they listen to it. It kind of beats you up and breaks you down for the first few tracks, but the last three are supposed to really supposed to bring you back up again. I think the last three tracks are a really good indication of where I might go with it in the future. I’m just trying to ignore all thises expectations people have of  “He was in a metal band, he won’t write something that sounds happy”. I just want to ignore all that.

There’s a lot of juxtaposition between serenity and industrial distortion on the album. It brings up this really prevalent sonic texture. Is that something that’s always been in your head?

Not really, I think that’s just down to a habit I have of going really heavy on the atmosphere and the things I make. I guess that’s just an issue of taste. What I tried to do with the record was achieve atmosphere in the most natural way. When you listen to a studio recorded album, everyone sounds different because every room sounds different, but on a computer album it’s all the same because the atmosphere is artificial. By tracking strings and live drums, it created the stmosphere I wanted in a much more natural way. To start with, I hired some cellos and drums, recorded them into my software, then rebuilt them. It was kind of me sampling my own raw recordings in that sense. There’s two guest singers on the album, then I play everything else.

So you can play string instruments?

Yeah. I went down to Goldsmith’s on Valentine’s day last year because at the time I was doing a singing course there. While doing that, I posed as a student and hired a cello for two days and just sampled it as much as I could. By the time I dropped it back, they’d realised I wasn’t a student and banned me from hiring anything again. I don’t need to hire anything from them again, I’ve got my cello!

I felt like the EP put you in the field of a producer, whereas this album really places you at the forefront as a songwriter. Did you always want to be the centrepiece of the project?

Originally using my voice was an incidental thing – I would sample my voice instead of singing. But I’m really inspired by vocalists. There is a difference between a vocalist and a singer in that vocalists aren’t always pitch perfect, but it’s their voice. Trent Reznor is a really good example of that, as is David Sylvian from Japan. Not everyone has to have an amazing falsetto voice. It’s my music, so it has to be my voice. I had to do it warts and all. It’s supposed to be a singing record. I would call it a pop record as it covers it all. I was getting booked for a lot of club shows last year, and I’m definitely not a club act. It came to the point where I was either going to have to become a club act, or just enjoy these club shows but not accommodate my bookings. When I was in Altar of Plagues, we were never playing big ‘moshpit’ shows and it’s the same for WIFE. I’m not a club act, but I am hopefully making music that’s provocative, getting people talking, and perhaps most of all, feeling something.

Where do you see WIFE going from here? You said you’ve got no boundaries.

I would love nothing more than to keep writing and recording music. I’ll keep writing music whether it’s 10 people that listen or more. The last year or so I’ve got the opportunity to perform a lot and it’s something i’ve really enjoyed and I think now I can create a really great live set with finished material. I spent the last year playing shows with unfinished songs.

I’m already writing more music and I’m really interested in getting into more songwriting. I’d rule nothing out as long as it was right. If Beyoncé asked I’d be up for it, but if it’s someone really low key, I’d be just as excited if it’s something I believe in.

I felt like the EP put you in the field of a producer, whereas this album really places you at the forefront as a songwriter. Did you always want to be the centrepiece of the project?

Originally using my voice was an incidental thing – I would sample my voice instead of singing. But I’m really inspired by vocalists. There is a difference between a vocalist and a singer in that vocalists aren’t always pitch perfect, but it’s their voice. Trent Reznor is a really good example of that, as is David Sylvian from Japan. Not everyone has to have an amazing falsetto voice. It’s my music, so it has to be my voice. I had to do it warts and all. It’s supposed to be a singing record. I would call it a pop record as it covers it all. I was getting booked for a lot of club shows last year, and I’m definitely not a club act. It came to the point where I was either going to have to become a club act, or just enjoy these club shows but not accommodate my bookings. When I was in Altar of Plagues, we were never playing big ‘moshpit’ shows and it’s the same for WIFE. I’m not a club act, but I am hopefully making music that’s provocative, getting people talking, and perhaps most of all, feeling something.

Mitchell Stevens

WIFE’s debut album ‘What’s Between’ is available June 9th through Tri Angle records.



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