Outside the Comfort Zone: Genres, Rip-offs, and DIY with Jem from DEAD
Onstage, he’s a gargantuan rock-beast with a voice like gravel, furiously pounding the skins like he’s got four arms and is powered by steam. Offstage, he’s a teensy little dude who’s maybe the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. Welcome to the idiosyncratic world of Jem from DEAD.
MB: Before we get into it, I just want to admit that I was a huge fan of your old band Fire Witch (I still actually think of you as “Jem from Fire Witch”), and that, when I first saw DEAD, I actually went “oh well, they’re no Fire Witch are they” and kinda stopped following your work. Now, in hindsight, this was completely a terrible decision on my part, and I want to apologise for that. I’m sorry. Because DEAD are fucking great. Not really a question, more of an acknowledgement, I guess. Perhaps not the best way to start an interview.
J: Ha! I think that’s perfectly fair - they are very different beasts even if my fingerprints are all over both bands. I’ve had the same experience with some bands/musicians before too. The music Fire Witch made is still very dear to me. I would never try and recreate it elsewhere as the sound we made was very much something created together and entirely democratic. Fire Witch was perhaps more my natural state whereas DEAD challenges me to step outside the comfort zone more. We’re now ten years in and I still feel that way about us. If anything I’ve just gotten more comfortable with making music outside my comfort zone. It’s still the same approach as Fire Witch though in the sense that our sound is the result of the two of us and that result is kind of a third person that neither of us can control - if that makes sense? It’s about respecting each other and exploiting our strengths while also challenging ourselves.
MB: What’s most challenging about DEAD for you? Where’s your comfort zone extend to, and in what ways is DEAD outside of it?
J: For me my natural state as a drummer is to be locked in with a bass player and forming a foundation of a song - pretty typical rhythm section stuff. With DEAD we are often doing this two piece version of a power trio thing where I guess we are both playing that little bit extra. It requires a lot more focus on what each other is doing and how our individual parts combine to make a whole. This means sometimes spending more time in my head than I would in my comfort zone. I sometimes have to tear apart what my hands want to play and force them to do something different. Then I spend a long time learning my part to the point that I’m not in my head anymore and I can play the part naturally.
I’m also just not naturally a traditional song structure kind of player. I love the challenge of doing that with DEAD (when we do it) but I feel it’s pretty obvious that I’m a bit out of my comfort zone doing it. I’m not worried by this, I’m more than happy to be out in the open and have never strived to sound normal.
MB: DEAD has the perfect combination of immense brutality and inexplicable weirdness, and an almost inhuman level of tightness. What drives DEAD? Is it this never-ending search for the world’s heaviest riff? Is it finding that place where the expected and the unexpected lock together? Is it a desire to balance that brutality with that supertight emptiness – the contrast between the sound and the space between sounds? What makes DEAD happen?
J: To put it really simply we care a lot about writing good songs. “Good” in our opinion of course. But I say that in the context of a lot of heavy music putting an emphasis on tones and riffs but less so on the songwriting. We are always trying to (and excited by) growing the band. We are both utterly obsessed by music as people and it’s very important to us. There are so many elements to music that we are interested in; tones, riffs, dynamics, melody...I realise I have just named the basic elements of music! The element that is perhaps the most important to me is tapping into the primal part of it. I don’t know why but I have always been drawn to that. But sometimes I feel like we are like kids in a candy store with this stuff; We are not trying to hone one particular sound but rather just gorging ourselves on the bits we love about music - and there is so much to love!
The emptiness, the space in between notes is very important to me and it means a lot to me that you notice that. “Heaviness” is also very important to us, it is something we are drawn to. Again it’s something that is a matter of opinion but you know it when you feel it. It’s the feeling music can have on you where it’s almost too much and you kind of just have to drop to your knees.
At all times we are driven to make the music we want to make. There is no one else we are trying to impress or win over. Of course it still means a great deal to us when it does resonate with others.
MB: So, is there anything that DEAD can’t do? I find myself constantly creating new projects to channel some particular idea or concept or sound or set of “rules” that doesn’t fit one of my currently existing projects – but you’re saying DEAD is capable of going absolutely anywhere you both want it to? Are there areas of music that you’d love to make but just won’t fit the DEAD scenario?
J: Of course there is plenty we can’t do. But....well I don’t see us reaching the end of what we can do anytime soon so I’m not complaining one bit! I’m a big believer in exploiting the strengths of any musician (or sound engineer when we’re recording) so, to state the obvious perhaps, whatever we do will sound like us. And so the only thing we really can’t do is sound like someone else.
I would make another album in a heartbeat with Elise Bishop or with Fire Witch or my friend Vern (who performs as Avola and is a sometimes member of DEAD) and any of those bands would make something that DEAD could not. I suppose to be a little more specific I could hark back to the old improvisation chestnut. While we are both capable of improvising I think we do approach it quite differently; my inner metronome will tend to slow down and Jace’s will tend to speed up. I think his brain is wired more as a songwriter and unlike other bands I’ve been in we never write music by just improvising and seeing what happens - we almost always start from some kind of an idea even if it’s very primal. And so sometimes I need us to sit on one riff or a long time, just for me to learn it and to experiment with it but it never enters cosmic jam territory. I think Jace kind of suffers through it for the sake of me learning how to play it!
MB: DEAD is clearly a “heavy” band, but is just as clearly not a “metal” band – it’s just as much “rock”, “punk”, “hardcore”, “sludge”, “stoner”, “prog”, and any other number of semi-meaningless genre terms. Do you find that fitting outside of easy genre descriptors makes life easier or harder for DEAD? Like, your genre-fluidity means you could play with almost any lineup and “fit”, but just as easily could mean you get excluded from any line-up for “not quite fitting enough” – what’s your experience?
J: It messes with my brain that the only two people who can’t hear our band from the outside is us - and we’re making the music! To me genres and descriptions are more for everyone else besides us. We honestly don’t care where it fits and are never striving to fit in anywhere. The only interest I have in it is how it might help me to promote the music. We tend to find kinship in other weirdos; bands who also cut their own path. But in some ways it’s not even about that - it’s not about trying to evade genre so much as it is about being true to yourself. I think if you believe in what you play it comes through.
As for how it affects our band out there in the world I can say it counts us out of around 95% of any larger international touring band support slots. It bores me to tears but for some reason bigger promoters are absolutely allergic to mixed bills and seem to strive to make lineups as homogeneous as possible. In 10 years of being a band we’ve been asked to do two of those and both promoters will never work with us again after we had the audacity to ask to be paid. It also counts us out of most festivals since again festivals are, for the most part, terrified of anything that doesn’t fit in a box. I’ll never understand this and it makes me sad.
But we book all our own tours and more underground promoters don’t care so much for that stuff so we’re not losing any sleep over it.
It also counts us out of working with most record labels but again… see above. A band like ours is never going to be an easy sell, we can’t change that. We’re foolhardy enough to keep going though.
For our own (possibly convoluted reasons) we tend to end up back at “metal” if we’re trying to work out where we fit.
MB: As a drummer, you’ve always been inspirational – you have this amazing restraint that I’ve never seen in any other drummer, this incredible ability to not play. Like, you’re amazing at smashing the living fuck out your kit, but you’ve also got this knack for shutting the fuck up, like you only hit stuff that needs to be hit, and only when it needs to be hit. As a complete free-noise flailer myself, this measured precision continues to baffle me. You’re like a Marie Kondo of the kit. How do you do it? Was it a deliberate paring down over a long time, or a conscious act of minimalism from the get go?
J: I learned to play the drums through improvising. Not in an avant garde sense but very much bass line driven music where the most important element was holding down a groove. I was lucky to have the opportunity to play with people much more accomplished than myself. Usually it was in groups of 4-6 people. I definitely over played a lot back then but I think it helped shape my playing. I spent a lot of time playing in one groove for sometimes hours on end. As far as NOT playing I think there are two distinct ways of approaching that; there is active silence and passive silence. The really good slow players, in my opinion, are the former. They are still playing the song even when they are not hitting their instrument. And this is the way I like to approach it - some players are more mathematical about their approach to minimalism and that doesn’t appeal to me. Ultimately it’s still about trying to serve the song best and not about proving how minimal I can be.
DEAD tend to operate at both extremes; I still absolutely love playing in a more minimal realm but we also spend a lot of our time both playing a LOT of notes and generally trying to create a lot of sound for two people. I find it really hard to judge when to apply which method of playing. If I played the way I do in DEAD in a three piece I’d be overplaying but for us it’s a big part of our sound.
MB: Interesting that you mention improvisation – to me, a DEAD set always appears almost impossibly precise, like there’s absolutely no improv in it at all. Is that the case? Or are you both just so fucking shit hot that even when you’re pulling it out of your arse it seems like it must’ve been written that way?
J: No there’s definitely improv in there to varying degrees. Jace lets me have free reign with the setlist and it’s something I really enjoy putting together. Some songs are set in stone structure wise but within those structures we’re still playing it differently as we choose to. Other songs have parts that are loose and rely on visual cues and then often intros and outros are a bit of a free reign affair. In a way it’s a series of micro improvs hidden inside an otherwise fairly structured set. One reason it’s important to me is because it makes us pay more attention to the music when we’re playing a set - we have to both stay on our toes.
MB: Your latest album, “Raving Drooling”, went places I really did not expect it to – in particular, the synthy/soundscapey weirdness of Side B completely took me by surprise, although it absolutely fits that minimalist aesthetic I was describing earlier, and the fact that I was so taken by surprise by it now takes me by surprise. What inspired the whole “having other people on the release” aspect of this album? Was that always something you had in mind for the project/release? Or did it all kinda happen organically? Was it a matter of “these are our songs, play what we tell you” or “just go sick, do what you do, thanks”? And should every two-piece have a go at getting other people on board?
J: We collaborate a fair bit, we made an album and a half with BJ Morriszonkle as 3rd member. It’s one of the benefits of being a two piece that it’s very easy to work in other members. And it’s fun and rewarding for us. When we work with guests we always want them to bring themselves to the music. If we wanted something done a particular way we would do it ourselves. I don’t want to tell people what to play but I also learned a while back that guests benefit from some direction. So I usually write pretty comprehensive notes for the guests before they record their parts. I see that more as helping them understand where we are coming from. A bit like when actors are shooting scenes in a film they don’t know what the Director’s final vision is and so need some guidance. But there are times guests come up with parts completely on their own and it still goes on the album. As far as we’re concerned when we have guests they are IN the band for that moment - they just don’t have to do all the boring stuff that goes with running a band!
MB: Do guests ever resist/ignore/disagree with your notes? How do you deal with creativity clashes?
J: I don’t know that we’ve ever had clashes. I think the people we work with tend to be upfront and if they don’t want to play a certain part we’ve got them in mind for, they’ll say so and we respect that. Perhaps we’ve just been very lucky.
For this album I had a pretty strong feeling of where I wanted it to go. I say feeling as opposed to “vision” because it’s something where you don’t necessarily know exactly what it’s going to be but when you get it right you feel it and you know it. Those Synths are played by Vern Avola and Joe Preston who are both excellent friends of ours and of each other and both musicians we admire greatly. We had Joe track his synth part first and then had Vern play her part in reaction to his. They are panned hard left and right so that…..I guess so that you can hear their conversation. I want to make more records with guests and I want to make more songs without guests - we are greedy and I don’t see why we can’t have both!
MB: Has someone else’s input ever changed the whole direction of a piece? Like, someone lays a part down and you’re like “holy fuck, we should go that way!” instead of what you had initially planned?
J: Well our friend Vern (Avola) was supposed to do a short intro and outro to a song we recorded in LA with Toshi Kasai and then play over the whole song. She ended up tracking pretty lengthy parts before and after the song and we just couldn’t bring ourselves to edit them down so that one song ended up taking up a whole side of vinyl. And that’s exciting to us when that happens. BJ Morriszonkle also added some parts to the record we did with him that just bent their shape enough that again it was really exciting to hear. I mean the songs were still written by us but he just coloured them in a way that perhaps we would not. To me that’s an ideal outcome - if we’re going to have someone else in the band we want to hear them.
MB: You seem a really DIY kind of person, with that old school punk ethos. How important is that ethos to your musical world – and non-musical world? Does that attitude have any negative aspects to it?
J: I’ve been playing and releasing music very consistently now for over 20 years and so far DIY has been the only option. I never expected anyone else to make it happen. I released my first album at 15 and in a way maybe I was at an advantage having such little understanding of how the industry worked. We made (and printed) our own posters because it was cheaper than getting someone else to do it. And of course it felt right to maintain control over as many elements as we could - even if other people could do some of it better than us.
It was not until many years later I even discovered the term DIY. I remember me and Tommy from Fire Witch laughing so hard at the term and being so confused - who else was going to do it???!! I then realised there was this whole DIY scene and honestly was pretty cynical about it at first; it seemed to be more about an aesthetic and some fairly contradictory politics than about a genuine ethos. It took me a long time to learn that for other people their relationship with music was often quite different to my own. For me it was just always something I had to do. There was not a social aspect to it or a sense of belonging to a scene - when Fire Witch was starting out in High School it could not have been a less cool thing to do, to play in a band. We did it despite it alienating ourselves from the masses. Of course within ourselves it was the cause of a strong bond. But along the way I met great people and begun to work with them and in many cases have formed decades-long working relationships. So as my friend Pete Hyde once said it’s really DIW (Do It With eachother) or DIT.
There is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy around it too though. I have always been very driven when it comes to music. And so that’s meant that I have got on with it and got things done myself and not waited for anyone else to do it. Perhaps this has in turn meant that people have tended not to offer things for us? I don’t know...I’ve never played in a band that was an easy sell. I’ve never had people beating on the door offering to book a tour or release a record. I’m always open to that. In fact I would love to spend less time on admin and more on the music. But I’ve been doing it myself for so long now that I’d want to feel confident anyone else we worked with was going to do a good job. And I can say that in the case of the other indy record labels we’ve worked with they have done a good job. I think anyone willing to get behind our music knows it’s going to be hard work.
As for negative effects... I’m always struggling to balance the running of the business side of the label, the booking of tours etc with the fun part; playing the music. I would always like the balance to be less of the business and more of the music. But I wouldn’t hand it over to someone else entirely either. Yes I want to be in control but I also just don’t want to be ripped off. The only people ripping us off is ourselves!
MB: Yeah, when you rely on yourself to do everything, it can be kinda weird trusting someone else to do something for you – you’re taking a huge risk with something you really care about. Have you had negative experiences in that area, or is it just a fear that other people just wouldn’t do things the way you would do it? Is it an independence borne of shitty experiences, or is it just a matter of habit?
J: Well I’ve never expected anyone else to care as much about my music as myself. That sounds kind of negative when I say it. I don’t mean I don’t think it will mean anything to anyone else because it does and for that I’m ever grateful - it’s a great feeling when your music connects with other people. But you take your poster or album to a printer and most of the time it’s just a job to them and if they fuck it up they don’t care ‘cos you’re too small a client for them to worry about. So I’ll tend to elect to do it myself.
I’ve always been open to the idea of working with other people be they a booker, manager, label etc but it isn’t something that presents itself very much for us. Also I’ve got no interest in waiting around for these people to materialise. In general this industry is a really good one for getting royally fucked if you don’t watch out; I’ve lost count of the amount of times we’ve been ripped off by venues, promoters, record stores, pressing plants etc. I put a lot of time and care into minimizing this happening. For example when we tour overseas we can’t always print our own merch but we have made some solid contacts - people who take pride in their work and so we’re confident in working with them. Negative experiences - I’d say that’s mainly getting ripped off on the road; Venues and promoters not paying as per the contract or delaying the payment for 6 months in the hope we’ll give up is probably the most common.
Also we used a PR firm once and I regret letting them convince us to re-word our press releases. They had a logic behind it but ultimately they were trying to re-shape us to appear as something we were not rather than to try and celebrate who we are. In hindsight that just seemed insincere and not helpful in the long term. And again we’ve had much more success doing our own PR so… I would happily hand it over to someone else if it was going to benefit us. I would rather spend that energy writing more music!
At this point I’d just like to repeat that the labels this band has worked with have all been great and never promised stuff they can’t deliver.
MB: So, given this general distrust of the industry and this insistence on doing it all yourselves, what does “community” mean to you? Because, despite all this self-reliance and idiosyncrasy, you always seem such a community-minded chap – the recent decision to sell your entire discography to Bandcamp supporters for a pittance and then donate that all to charity, for instance, would seem a pretty community-minded act.
J: I really wanna get the answer to this one right – I’m gonna do my best! I suppose Community and Industry are not always the same thing but they are also not always exclusive. I’m aware that some people are drawn to music in the first place because of the community aspect of it, of having somewhere to belong. But for me it was 100% about the music itself and just being magnetically drawn to it – regardless of whatever scene stuff was happening around it. I’m definitely less naive than I was as a kid starting out but even back then it was clear the music industry had plenty of people that you shouldn’t trust. There are a lot of people out there offering “advice” that serves more to inflate their bank balance or ego. Or just that they are very conservative and can’t see the value in an approach to something that challenges the norm. And we’ve been ripped off and fucked over by more people I care to count and sadly some of those people have been from “DIY” or “punk” or whatever other labels they have attached to themselves.
So it has always been a matter of navigating that and deciding what compromises do you want to make; do we play this gig ‘cos it might create some more opportunities for us or do we just play that house party and have a good time? Do we play a venue that on the surface seems more corporate but ethically is actually far better than the DIY space? I can get quite cynical about that stuff because for a lot of people I guess the term DIY is more of an aesthetic or a scene than it is about fostering community. For us part of community goes back to getting OUTSIDE of our comfort zone and maybe playing to a hostile audience and winning some of them over. In a way this decision is made easy for us because we don’t have a scene we just slot into. At its best it means a place where people have equal opportunity to make whatever weird music or art they want to and resources, knowledge etc are shared but not exploited.
Again for the most part it is not so much that we “insist” on doing it ourselves but rather that we either do it ourselves or it doesn’t happen – or at least won’t happen soon enough. And your use of the word trust is important. We have people in the industry that we trust and we’ve built that trust over years and years. Four our recent album we’ve worked with labels in Austria, USA and our own label here to release it. So we can’t maintain control over every little thing and nor would we want to, we want those labels to put themselves into it too.
But we absolutely feel a part of a community that is spread across the globe. This community or family has mainly been built by playing shows together but increasingly some if it is through people discovering us and connecting with us online. I think for me community means a network of people who support each other, share some values but also respect and celebrate the differences. And the other scene bullshit like image, genre etc doesn’t matter. Sometimes you play a show with someone and even if your music doesn’t sound very similar you just click, you just know that you share a spirit and that feels great.
MB: So even now, in our locked-down plague-riddled isolation-land, this thing we call “community” still exists?
J: Absolutely it exists and is more important than ever though I’m starting to feel the strain of trying to maintain it. I think especially for those who just cannot live without music we are all pressing on and in some ways it’s affirming to know that with or without an audience this is what gives us life. Jace and I have been writing like crazy and while I miss touring more than anything we also both agreed that if we never play another show again we will happily keep writing new music even if it’s just for us.
As a band we have always relied heavily on touring to promote our records so the fact we were able to release this recent album and sell out a pressing without playing a single show...well I feel lucky we have the ability to still connect with people via the internet. I feel like such an old man saying it but back when I started making music that would just not have been possible. I think a bunch of people have actively made a decision to buy more of our merch during this time to help the DEAD machine keep ticking over and we’re very grateful for that.
I generally try not to dwell on the past but it has also been a good time for checking the archives. I discovered some old Fire Witch recordings that we’re working on mixing and mastering and will hopefully release later this year. It’s been great to connect with those two over that as that band has always meant so much to me.
I also made my first ever solo piece for a compilation Campbelle Kneale put out at the beginning of this and that felt really great to see so many people together in isolation and for me personally the challenge was great.
I think it’s going to be a challenge to maintain these communities and to look out for each other. We’ve lost a few friends to suicide during this pandemic and that is utterly heart breaking. So I think the community aspect of it is more important than ever but it’s all new territory working out how to nurture it is not straightforward. We can only try.
*moment of sad thoughtful silence*
MB: Well, thanks heaps for chatting.
J: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
MB: So... what's next?
J: We are working on a lot of new music right now but for once there is no rush to release it. We turn 10 years old later this year so expect some new stuff to start coming out after then.
MB: Looking forward to it.