Interview by Parisa Eshrati
In their most recent release, Careful, Massachusetts-based synth pop duo Boy Harsher finds a ground between stability and fragility to deliver ethereal cinematic soundscapes. We speak to Augustus Muller and Jae Matthews in this email interview on exploring themes of escapism in order to recontextualize grief, inducing trance states through repetition, and more.
Let’s start off discussing the roots of Boy Harsher. The initial project was Teen Dreamz, where Gus was scoring Jae’s short stories. I read that that project was more abstract in nature, so what was the shift into making this project less conceptual and more personal? And do you still work in this dynamic of Gus essentially scoring the lyrics after they’re written, or has the songwriting process evolved as well?
Gus: Teen Dreamz was never recorded, it was live and mostly improvised. Once you’re in the studio you take a step back and you look at the music in a bigger way. We started to give the project more structure, we talked about what was working and what wasn’t. Then we broke up.
Jae: I think both the projects are personal in their own right. For Teen Dreamz, I would read my unedited prose, without translating the content into the more figurative style of Boy Harsher. That to me always felt far more vulnerable - so intimate. I had trouble facing an audience. So I would just hide on the floor and read these diary entries through delay and Gus’ noise. Once we started with the kick drum it was easier to face / confront the crowd. I watched video of one of our earliest performances (at International Noise Conference) and I’m really giving it to the crowd. It’s amazing how tempo can give you that confidence.
And somehow breaking up mid-genesis really helped put everything into perspective.
Escapism is a big theme of your new album, Careful. The theme is portrayed in a cinematic way, carrying this romanticized vision of just packing up and leaving somewhere, though you’ve explained that these themes are still coming from a very personal place. How do you feel that you balance confrontation vs. escapism when it comes to your own music? By creating these narratives, are you extending a space for more personal escape, or is it being used to confront your own story through a cinematic perspective?
Jae: I’m romanced by escape. Maybe it’s cheap or cliche - but as you get older and running away is no longer viable, the fantasy can be real enough. Lyrically, the music I tend to vibe to usually embodies that daydream - the sexy escape, like Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. There’s always a little self-loathing in the reality, so desire gives you strength - and the notion of what it could be keeps you going.
Going off that idea, you stated how the song “The Look You Gave (Jerry)” is about re-contextualizing grief. Can you talk about sonically describing grief in that song with both this brooding aesthetic as well as the brighter, metallic synth notes? How have your perspectives of grief, loss and love all shifted since working this album and song in particular?
Jae: While we were writing this album my stepfather died suddenly and we paused the process to grieve and be with family. When we started writing again - it was hard to not write about Jerry. I felt like I needed this song to process the sadness, the loss, and my mother’s trauma. Jerry was such a supportive, positive person in the darkness that is my family, so the bright notes were born out of that feeling. I wanted to make something only for him / to send him my love or something. A radiant thing.
Gus: That song is so tragic to me. The sounds are made mostly with the D-50 vst, really melodramatic sounds. The pan flutes are kinda silly, but it really works for me. Jae’s vocals just wrecked me. I could feel the grief and trauma she went through in such a visceral way.
There’s this beautiful contrast in Boy Harsher’s music of very precise, beat-driven rhythms with spacey, droney vocals. There’s fragility and stability cohesively sharing a space, which I think is an interesting reflection of the idea of being “careful”. Can you elaborate on the harmony between those two spaces and how those traits reflect your dynamic?
Gus: It’s all about balancing structure and harmony with dissonance and noise. At the end of the day we’re making pop music, but it can’t feel too perfect or neat. I play around a lot with tuning the synths in and out of key and using beat up percussion sounds.
Jae: Sometimes I try to give a more melodic or refined performance, but it never feels right (I also cannot really sing, lol). And honestly singing / performing dingy and raw and guttural is more honest to our sound. Sure, we’re making pop music, but we want it to be honest and true to our nature. So it always comes out a little abject and unembellished.
Throughout your discography, there are a lot of tracks where certain words or phrases are repeated over and over, to the point where the words almost lose meaning and it just becomes a part of the rhythm. Can you elaborate your relationship with the original intent of words vs creating your own through motion or aesthetics? And what’s your intent of creating a trance-state through repetition?
Gus: When we first started out we talked a lot about how to make repetition effective. Suicide was a big influence because they could make such amazing music with such sparse and simple compositions.
Jae: In the beginning, I would convert my prose to lyrical content by crossing out lines on my printed passages. I would zone in on the fundamental word or locution and use this until I found the vocal rhythm. I never wrote songs before and cannot read music, cannot play any instruments. So the process of vocal repetition helped me connect to the music and feel like part of the production.
I saw you recently played Berghain, which I thought was a great fit for that aspect of your music that falls into that sort of perverse/erotic sound. I know Lynch's Lost Highway is a big inspiration for you on that front, but what other films, places, stories, etc. helped developed that particular aspect of your music? And how was your Berghain experience?
Gus: Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line is a big influence. Hans Zimmer's droning score with the tragic, tired monologues really affected me. The visuals feel secondary to the sound design.
Jae: Berghain was intimidating + I really did not know what to expect. It turned out to be an amazing night - the sound, the room, the audience, everything was perfect. I couldn’t have asked for anything more - I was so happy. The space too - totally lived up to the mystery. It’s striking and beautiful, somewhat foreboding. Very cool.
Jae - I’d like to talk about your photography. Your portraits and hazy, b&w shots kind of remind me of these sort of surreal landscapes and cinematic narratives in your lyrics. How do you feel that your photography is an extension of your lyricism/storytelling?
Jae: Whoa - thank you. I haven’t made that connection, but it feels nice to think that there’s cohesion in my work :) The photography actually came out wanting to document our life. I have trouble feeling present - it’s hard to accept that our life is this way, writing and working on our art, traveling, meeting our heroes, it’s the utmost privilege and blessing. In order to feel more connected to this dream, I’m trying to collect our moments. I’ll photograph my friends or persons met on the road, typically my favorite part of touring. As for the style - I use a twenty year old point-and-shoot with 3200 Ilford black + white film. I really like the extreme texture, the grain. My mom got me started on the high speed 35 mm when I was younger, and it still feels so special and accurate.
Augustus - I want to ask a bit about your gear. I saw you had a custom built midi controller for a Moffenzeef Modular synth, can elaborate on that and any custom other gear that you used for the album? How has your setup evolved since the start of Boy Harsher?
Gus: Thanks for asking! Ross Fish who runs Moffenzeef was a friend in Savannah. He’s been building stuff for us since the beginning. All the custom gear is primarily for the live set. We’re always looking for something new to play around with live. We’ve switched out things here and there, but the setup is pretty much the same.
I was listening to your Noisey mix which starts off with that Tony Soprano audio and had to ask, if there were a remake of The Sopranos who would you play?
Gus: Artie Bucco
Jae: I think I’m kinda a Paulie Walnuts.
What else can we look forward to from you both for the rest of the year?
Both: Right now just trying to live through this tour x