A couple weeks ago we posted a few tracks by Salem, a noise pop band that has been making waves in indie music circles with its druggy, bass-heavy beats, foreboding synths and distorted vocals. In other words, their music sends a sensation up our spines that celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe likes to call “Witch vibes! Witch vibes!”
Formed three years ago in Chicago by John Holland, Heather Marlatt and Jack Donoghue, Salem have released two EPs and a few singles. They’re in the midst of recording a debut LP, but will take a break to play a one-off Halloween gig in Toronto tomorrow night. We rang up Salem’s John Holland in his home base in Interlochen, Michigan to chat about the band, his favorite hip-hop acts and his Halloween costume.
So you are performing a Halloween party in Toronto. Are you big into Halloween?
Yeah I am. Halloween is my favorite holiday. I think I’m going to be an Indian.
Like from India?
No, like a Native American [laughs].
What will that entail?
I went to this powwow in Michigan at the end of the summer because there’s a reservation by where I’m staying. There was this guy who had this really nice face paint. He had a red stripe across his eyes and three black lines going down on either side of his face. I’m going to paint my face like that and make this thing out of this really weathered leather. Heather is going to be a porcelain doll. I don’t know what Jack’s going to be yet, but we’re going to dress up for Halloween.
I’ve never seen Salem perform before. What are your live shows like?
We usually have a lot of smoke. We use fog machines and we have a video that we project of clips we put together of burning cars, car chases, cops and different things. There’s a part with a contortionist and there’s a part where there’s fireworks and there’s lasers. It’s all found footage but it correlates with the music.
It’s in time with the music?
Yeah. We haven’t played live that much. We just started playing live, I think our first show was in Chicago and that was not last spring but the spring before that.
How did the show go?
It was fine. It was in this artist’s space. We had this little platform we were on and there weren’t too many people there. We didn’t have the video projections yet but we had a lot of smoke and we had this really cool laser machine that this guy let us borrow because he lived in the space. It’s like this place where there’s a big area for art shows and performances and upstairs there’s apartments.
Do you enjoy performing in front of people? Are you good at it?
The first time I did it was actually my favorite performance. I don’t know why, maybe I was really well prepared? I doesn’t really make me nervous. I’m not really one to feel comfortable performing in front of people, but I’m not really one to be that shy if I am. So it’s not like, either or.
What about the other guys?
Jack is like really outgoing and he really likes performing. Heather likes to perform too but out of all three of us she keeps to herself the most.
Can you tell me about your musical background?
I grew up around music because my dad teaches viola at this school in Michigan called the Interlochan Arts Academy. I grew up on campus there. My dad teaches viola and conducts the string orchestra and my mom teaches harp. I was classically trained in piano and percussion growing up.
It’s like a boarding school for music and dance and visual art and writing and academics and I went there for four years and I studied visual art but I didn’t study music there. I was making music with a four-track in high school and college and stuff.
What is Salem working on right now?
We’re trying to put out a full-length album. We’re trying to figure out who we’re going to put it out with, what label. So we’ve been working on making all new songs for that. We have 20 [songs] so far.
Are there plans to sign with a record label?
We’ve had a lot of offers but I think we’ve made a decision but I’m not really sure yet. I’m not that business-savvy so I don’t know too much about record labels and business and lawyers and shit. Heather deals with that a lot because she’s really good at it.
You guys have a rep as being ‘mysterious’. Why are you so mysterious?
[laughs] I don’t know? I think maybe people started saying there was some sort of mystique or some sort of mystery around us because our MySpace page didn’t have any pictures of our faces but I was confused because our personal pages, you can go right down to the friends and see pictures of all three of us ? like a whole bunch.
We perform and we have interviews and we talk about things and we talk to people. I don’t know. I think there’s this thing going around in new music these days where people are like ‘I’m going to wear a mask’ or ‘I’m going to be mysterious’ and I think they’re just trying to put us in that realm.
How did you meet Heather and Jack?
I live Michigan, I just moved back here three months ago from New York and Heather lives here too. I met Heather at that school I told you about and we were really good friends since I was a freshman in high school and after high school she went to New York and I went to Chicago and I lived in Chicago for five years and she lived in New York for seven years. And then she came to live with me in Chicago for a summer and I had already met Jack and we were really good friends and already working on music together. And then when Heather was there the three of us were working on ? we were all working separately on our own music before we started making music as Salem.
At what point did you decide to form Salem?
It just sort of happened. I would be working on music with Heather and Jack would be in my apartment too and we’d all just be working on music and progressively anytime anyone would do anything we’d all send it to each other via email and be working on it together. It just sort of progressed into always working together.
We can work on music wherever we are. Jack doesn’t live in Chicago right now but he had up until a couple months ago. He lives in Kansas City right now but we work on music wherever our musical equipment is ? we don’t have a studio.
How come you decided to move back home?
Oh I don’t know, I got bored of New York. It was too expensive. Sometimes I miss it, but I really like nature and it’s a lot more peaceful here.
I honestly don’t really know why, but I can focus and think about the music a lot more. I can think of it in the bigger picture of the songs better. In Chicago it was different I guess because when we were working on music there, it was like really good but I think it was because of my apartment. There was something about my apartment ? it was really easy to feel creative there.
The music video for “Legend” by Salem.
Can you tell me about the song ‘Legend’ from your new single?
I made that song ?I think it was two summers ago. I was working at this gallery that was really boring so I had a lot of free time. I would write lyrics sometimes and I spent all day writing lyrics and there was a church nearby the gallery. I think it was a Sunday because the church bells were ringing really loud all day and I started writing the song based off the church bells. It turned into something else that’s like, about um, like other things that are sort of private.
When I sing I don’t really want anyone to make out what I’m saying. I guess there is sort of a mystique in terms of when I’m singing and writing lyrics and the relationship between them. I know what they are and what they mean but I don’t really want anyone else to. I want to keep it a secret. I’d rather have the music express what I’m saying.
You don’t go straight for the lyric sheet when you get a new record?
No, not at all.
Don’t you want to know what songs are about?
It’s not that I don’t want to know. Sometimes I really enjoy lyrics that other people write. In terms of other people’s music, I like lyrics a lot but if the music doesn’t sound good, I don’t like the song at all. If there’s a song with good lyrics and the music is bad, I would never listen to it.
Do you write songs about guys that you like?
No ? I do once in a while. I did that in high school. I wrote songs about these two particular guys that I liked and that’s what I wrote about a lot but that’s not really what I write about anymore. I write about one person sometimes if I’m writing a song about a love interest or something romantic, but I guess that’s why I want it to be a secret.
Are many Salem songs romantic?
Some of them are, yeah. The song ? I don’t know if you heard it ? it’s called “Baby Daddy”. That song Heather and me wrote. It’s about Heather and like this person she used to see. It’s not romantic but it’s about a romantic time that turned sour. It was released on this split seven-inch. Shit, I can’t even remember what the other band was, The Fader put it out. Heather’s lyrics are a lot more audible when she sings. When I write lyrics sometimes I write them for her to sing and sometimes she writes them. A lot of the time we write them together.
Does the hip-hop element come from Jack because he raps a lot?
No, no, we all like rap a lot but Jack’s really good at it that’s’ why I don’t rap.
MTV recently asked Jay-Z about why he went to a Grizzly Bear concert with Beyonce and he responded by saying that he feels rap has become what rock was in the ’80s ? a commercial stranglehold and rap had to dethrone it. And now rap is the established mainstream and indie rock shows are where it’s at creatively. So he hopes indie rock will push rap to be more innovative.
I think rap is way more creative and interesting than shit like Grizzly Bear.
Maybe because I think I can just relate to it better. I can relate to the sound and the form and the flow. A lot of indie music, I just can’t really keep in touch with it as much as I can with a lot of rap music. It’s like more real or something. A lot of people say it’s superficial. I just got asked this question in an interview the other day that it’s like rap music and trap rap and footwork and screw and chop is pure entertainment and they were like ‘it’s weird you use a lot of elements in your music, explain that blah blah blah’ and I just thought it was like really weird that someone would think that because I think that kind of music is so much more expressive than people who are trying consciously or that are being high up on their horse. Like I’m making this real music it’s not mainstream. I feel like the reason why music is mainstream, why people like it, why the majority of the world really likes music is because the majority of the world… like, the word ‘entertainment’, they used it really weird. I think entertainment speaks to real feelings and not just something superficial. I have a lot of thoughts about it, it’s not really making sense.
The kind of hip-hop I heard more of growing up in the ’90s was coming from people like B.I.G. who started out telling stories from a street perspective and now that style has been eclipsed by a ‘booty-in-the-club’ focus and that’s watered down the sound.
Well I don’t know, I think that rap about bitches and hos and money in the club, there’s a lot of emotional tones to that entire experience so I don’t see why that would be any different than…
… writing a song about selling crack.
Yeah, I guess [laughs].
What hip-hop acts or bands are listening to now?
I’ve been listening to Plies a lot and Soulja Boy and DJ Nate, do you know him? He’s the best. He does this amazing footwork music. I think he’s 19 now but I found him when he was 17 and he’s like amazing.
Have you met him before?
No, Jack and me tried to and we were writing him all these emails and he just sort of blew us off.
Do you get a lot of fan mail from people wanting to meet you?
Not really, we have a P.O. Box and we always want people to send us fan mail but nobody ever really does. People write us email and stuff, people who want to collaborate or work on videos or put on shows but we never get anybody who’s like I want to meet you!
Write to Salem:
P.O. Box 2013
Traverse City, Michigan
Salem play Vazoween at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor St W) in Toronto on Friday, Oct. 30. Doors are at 10pm; cover is $10 with costume, more without.