A conversation with Boy Harsher: "We wanted to convey this sense of desperate longing, while running
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE 405 (NOW DEFUNCT)
Provocateurs of darkwave splendor, Jae Matthews and Gus Muller are Boy Harsher, a burgeoning act currently carving out an image as leading voices within the recent renaissance and reimagination of darker synth music. Wielding a chaotic formula that marries brooding synths with intoxicatingly danceable beats, Matthews and Muller’s art attempts and succeeds in capturing emotional instability, while allowing listeners enough room to dance their worries away.
Despite their musically synthetic exterior, Boy Harsher is a grassroots act in the purest sense. In fact, Since The 405 last spoke with Boy Harsher, they started up their own label, Nude Club Records, which they’ve already reprinted their two prior releases, and now, their sophomore album Careful.
In line with everything (for the most part) Boy Harsher previously produced, Careful sees Matthews and Muller more in tune with who they are as musicians, and of course, as a couple. Reflective of overarching and overwhelming grief, Careful cleans out the skeletons from the duo’s closet and somehow manages to exude a sense of hope amid the brutally honest accounts of romantic dysfunction and strained familial ties. It is no secret that we here at The 405 have been unabashed fans of the dark-minimal wave duo for a while now, so getting the chance to speak to Jae and Gus again was a no-brainer.
Fresh off their European tour and now gearing up for their U.S. venture. I spoke with the duo from Northampton, Massachusetts to break down their alluring new album, southern-gothic literature, and the evolution of their relationship relative to their musical evolvement.
In another interview, Jae, you mentioned that you’d love to go on tour with Deftones, but it would be very uncomfortable. Why was their album so important for you?
Jae Matthews: I grew up in a very small, rural town in upstate New York, so the music I had access to was whatever came out of K-Rock (Utica, NY). Deftones’ White Pony was in heavy rotation in 2002—lol it took a couple of years to make it up North, plus it really resonated with me. I felt so alone during that period of my life and found companionship in music. Now, White Pony just feels so classically teenage—both raw and tender, but I definitely still listen to it.
Aside from the music that you have consumed in your lifetime, are there any pieces of literature, movies, fashion designers, or anything of that nature that has influenced the way that you express yourself through your own art?
Jae: The first big moment for me was with Raymond Carver - his writing really got me. I spent many years trying to write that way. Later, I started reading a lot of southern gothic, starting with Flannery O’Connor, then moving more contemporary to Harry Crews and Larry Brown. I felt a kinship to the south—my father once lived there and talked often about North Carolina and Florida and Alabama. But I had never been - so those narratives fed into the place and my desire to wind up there.
Augustus (Gus) Muller: Filmmakers like Terrence Malick and early David Gordon Green had a big impact on myself and Boy Harsher. They convey such a heavy beautiful atmosphere. Particularly the narration. Hearing the narration in films like George Washington and Days of Heaven really changed how I thought about telling a story. There’s this beautiful ASMR quality to them too.
Outside of the darkwave, industrial, and even cold wave genres, who are some artists and bands we should all be looking out for?
Jae: Lately I’ve been getting into that contemporary minimal-ish folk-country stuff, I really appreciate this Joshua Tree-based musician Itasca, our friend Daniel Bachman, the last Weyes Blood album Front Row Seat to Earth—although her split with Angels in America will always be my favorite. I’ve been totally intrigued by Orville Peck. If I am in a certain type of mood, I just want to listen to this shit and pretend I’m living fifty years ago. I romance some idea of desert living, with country music in-house bands.
Gus: Divine Weight by Alex Zhang Hungtai and Deep Listening by Pauline Oliveros, Stuart Dempster, Panaiotis has been big for me recently.
What’s the inspiration behind the label name, Nude Club Records, and when did you decide it was time to release your own music on your own label?
Jae: I made a zine years several years ago entitled Nude Club. It was a collection of my friend’s art, writing, and conversations. It’s the name we kept coming back to when considering all the ideas for this imprint.
What are some difficulties you’ve faced starting a label?
Jae: It’s a petty thing, but I always find typos, like after printing two hundred shirts or 500 records. It’s crazy! I cannot BELIEVE we keep missing them.
Gus: It’s just doing a million things at once. It can be overwhelming.
Can you take us behind the decision of releasing ‘Face the Fire’ as the “first taste” per se from your new album?
Jae: The melody behind ‘Face the Fire’ felt very anthemic to me, so I ran with that feeling. The lyrical content evolved into this “pushing through” narrative, that action feeling. We were talking about the look of To Live or Die in LA, the giant red sunset, the dry heat. So I tried to create this story around your imperfect self, your vice, your hateful qualities, and that acceptance while imagining it within that setting. That process probably only makes sense to me, but there ya go.
Gus: It’s a nice fade into the album. We haven’t released music in a while, so wanted to ease back into it with a nice slow burner. Also, the narrative we developed in the music video really reflects a lot of the narrative and sentiment of the record, so it was nice to have a strong visual aspect as well.
In the music video for ‘Face the Fire,’ there are scenes involving someone strolling lost on the beach, while there are other moments where the individual tosses themselves on a bed. Can you dive into how this video reflects the song and why did you choose this specific still from the bed scene as the album’s cover art?
Gus: When we were writing the song I always pictured a burning sunset on the beach. So we just riffed off of that. We both started to see similarities with Larry Brown’s novel Fay. So we based the narrative around the runaway. We wanted to convey this sense of desperate longing while running away.
Are there any creative challenges when making art with your significant other?
Jae: The benefits are immense, you’re fully connected and a part of this intimate, trusting bond. Feeling this way in the studio is the reward. But it can also be really painful if your relationship isn’t faring well. It’s easy to take things personally, and the stakes just become higher and higher. Most of the first two releases detail a lot of the pain and angst that Gus and I went through during a rather rocky period. We’re more patient now. So I guess the music also becomes so reflective.
Gus: It’s very involved. We’re learning to be more patient with ourselves and also putting limits on how much we work. We need to leave enough time for ourselves.
It says in the album press release that your chaos made the project vulnerable and invariably lead to momentary destruction. “Jae had ‘careful’ tattooed across her back while Gus fried his speakers.” At that point, it mentions that you were not on “speaking terms.” That sounds pretty chaotic, but I’m a little confused about what happened. Would you mind diving into that particular moment for a bit of clarity?
Jae: Gus and I broke up, in a rather extreme and dramatic way. But, we still had a show to play, actually an event we curated called Cry Fest. We wanted to play the show, but we couldn’t be around each other— so we didn’t plan a set or anything. I asked a friend to tattoo my back, and while I let the vibrations kinda travel through my vocals, I don’t think I was really saying anything. I was crying and screaming. Gus was somewhere else in the room—making a huge amount of noise and threw a lit candle. I am sure it was overwhelming to witness our mutual breakdown. Also, the cops came and we got a noise violation.
Can you talk about the significance of the spoken or sampled interlude ‘Crush’ to the rest of the album?
Gus: The ambient tracks have always been important to us. That’s how we started. It also reflects our live sets. ‘Crush’ was a track that starts as that simple drone we made, we liked it and wanted to expand on it, while the sound bytes are found recordings.
Speaking of the track L.A., as someone from the L.A. area and I tend to forget what I love about the place sometimes. As someone who has played there numerous times, what is the draw of the city for you?
Jae: We love L.A.; our fans in L.A. are incredibly enthusiastic and warm. I’ve always felt really connected when we play there. Every time we go I fall in love with someone, it must be the place—it’s just totally foreign and embraces this false sense of possibility.
Gus: L.A. represents a fantasy for us.
You’ve moved from Georgia to Massachusetts in the past and it seems to have done your career well. Do you ever foresee yourselves moving on from Massachusetts to a place like New York or L.A. in order to launch your careers even further?
Gus: We benefited a lot from being close to New York. It’s such a strong music community and definitely helped us get a leg up. I’m starting to accept I’m not a city person. We spend a lot of time in cities touring, and I really like the split lifestyle.
Jae: We talked about moving to LA. But I think we both realized that we really thrive in an environment that is isolated, more anonymous. I really appreciate my solitude.
I’m not sure if it’s meant to be ambiguous, but who is Jerry in the track ‘The Look You Gave Jerry’?
Jae: Specifically, Jerry is my stepfather, who passed away two years ago—right in the midst of writing this album. And Jerry is also my father, who died when I was sixteen. This song attempts to process this cyclical grief, the way that these losses have hurt me and my family. The “look” in the song is this phenomenon that my mother described—her inability to forget the look of her husband as he left her—just really heartbreaking stuff.
Jae, it is mentioned in the album’s press release that trauma of losing someone is almost in tandem with your understanding of love, how have the emotions of losing someone helped inform your understanding of love?
Jae: I can’t say that it’s made me steely or anything. Maybe just realistic and tired. The fear of natural abandonment and death allows me to expect that loss.
Has the recording setup remained the same?
Gus: Not really. Same laptop and horrible speakers. We got a few new synths that have contributed a lot, but the set up is still very minimal.
It seems your music is a manifestation of your tumultuous but very loving relationship which is reflective in the sometimes chaotic yet melancholic sound, is it possible that as your dynamic evolves, the music will reflect that as well?
Jae: It’s certainly possible. We’ll continue to make music that feels right!
You mentioned in a recent interview that all our your songs represent a different location, even though the latest releases have a more rural influence. Can you maybe go through which locations are reflected in a few of the tracks?
Jae: We move every couple of years and the music tends to reflect the different settings. The first two albums feel completely drenched in southern heat and lust, where the latter two—to me at least—have more of a nostalgic cold presence, much like the Northeast.
I've been to one of your shows in L.A., and they are hypnotically hectic and seems to play off that small packed atmosphere well. As Boy Harsher garners more recognition and gets to play bigger venues, how do you foresee this project maintaining that chaotic intimacy that has become synonymous with your shows?
Gus: Our music definitely is designed with intimacy in mind. We’re going to just keep doing what we’re doing and see how it translates into bigger spaces. I could never see us getting a drummer or anything like that, but who knows!