Sweethearts of the Occult

I. A Loud Outcry in Texas

TripAdvisor, Livability, AOL News, and other institutions have all deemed Traverse City, Michigan, a top ten destination for its charm, delicious food, and vibrant autumn foliage. It is even recognized as one of America’s ten best beach towns due to its location on the edge of Lake Michigan.

The city of Traverse City is a Mecca for certain musical subcultures, as it is the home of the band Salem.

It is not because of the beauty of the area, the abundance of food, or the deciduous splendor, but due to the remoteness and mystery it offers. This is a group surrounded by stories of teenage prostitution and drug addiction, combined with a look that brings back the “heroin chic” of the mid-1990s.

Even though they have kept a low profile, Salem has gathered an impressive following among art and fashion fans, such as Terence Koh, Ryan McGinley, and Liv Tyler. Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy even featured Salem’s music in their spring/summer 2011 collection runway show in Paris.

Despite the critical acclaim that Yes I Smoke Crack (2008) generated, launching a movement of dark electro-pop labeled as “witch house,” “drag,” or “rape gaze,” the band, according to multiple accounts, was met with boos when they took the stage at South by Southwest on March 20, 2010.

A Pitchfork reviewer later wrote that the performance could be showcased in the dictionary as an example of “not giving a shit.”

Right before taking the SXSW stage, Salem put on a show at the tiny Glasslands in Brooklyn. The New York Times commented on the event, noting that it was “hollow at the core, aspirated, almost soothing in its inconsequence.” (Michael Stipe and Terence Koh were present.)

It could be argued that Salem cares more about their music than their fans are comfortable with. One radio host who hosts the Witch House and Ambient Drone radio show stated, “Musicians must be open to new experimentation and not take themselves too seriously.

This is true for many genres, but Witch House has a reputation for being pretentious due to its promotion by sites such as Pitchfork and Nylon.

Salem has long been thought to be unclassifiable, leading to questions about their attitude and use of irony, their drug use in the past and present, and if they can reconcile their lo-fi and horrorcore aesthetic with their newfound fame. Additionally, people have wondered if they can sing songs about sexual assault while still carrying the Christian Mass aesthetic. This has left many listeners and critics pondering why such questions are even relevant to Salem’s music.

In the aftermath of their performance at Glasslands, the popular alt-culture blog Hipster Runoff provided several detailed accounts of the ongoing Salem controversy in their posts.

Do you have an affection for Salem or do you detest them?

Salem, a group often mentioned in the context of the “rape gaze” subgenre, has a repertoire of songs that explore darker topics. Opinions about them vary wildly, with some decrying them as “suck” and others lauding them as “brilliant”.

Labels like “brilliant” and “sucky” can be seen as an attempt to simplify the perceived mysteriousness of the band. Seva Granik, a promoter from New York, noted, “I heard many amazing accounts from people who were familiar with the group. This just added to the mystery of it all. Traverse City? Where is that? It almost sounded like something out of a teen movie.”

2. Initially

At the start of it all,

John Holland, Heather Marlatt, and Jack Donoghue make up the trio known as Salem. An editor described John as being emotionally sensitive and always close to tears. Heather is the most talkative and is the caretaker of the group. Jack is reportedly the craziest. Together, the group is known for their peculiar sense of humor, and although they are former drug users, they are not at all hostile.

The origin story of Salem may start with John, set in the high school of Interlochen, Michigan (where John and Heather met) and in a store of American Apparel in Chicago (where John encountered Jack). Before attending the Art Institute of Chicago, John had been a teen prostitute to fund his drug addiction.

Then, he began creating music under the pseudonym “WHORE-CE” and when he and Jack became acquainted (possibly having a brief love affair) they began to collaborate together with John asking Heather to lend her voice and play the keyboard (John singing and playing the keyboard and Jack rapping and playing the drum pad).

This is how Salem was born. Their first album, Yes I Smoke Crack, was released by a new label called Acephale and was released in limited-edition white vinyl, selling out right away. Then, in 2008, they released another EP called Water, on the British label Merok and this too sold out quickly.

Salem’s sound is a combination of heavy-handed, exalted, churchlike music along with the embracement of sexual taboos, occult symbols, and everyday violence – something Three 6 Mafia and Koopsta Knicca were already fusing with hip-hop in the 90s.

Although some may classify Salem as “witch house,” “drag,” or “rape gaze,” John prefers to call it simply “electronic” with “electronic goth with juke influences” (Chicago juke being a style of music where people keep their upper body still while moving their feet fast).

Salem is known for their edgy, personal sampling – a perfect example being the time they sampled a recording of a neighbor crying after discovering their crackhead girlfriend had stolen all of her valuable possessions. They also sample choral songs.

In an interview with BUTT magazine, John mentioned that Salem’s songs contain lyrics about murder and sexual violence, including “choking out,” which could mean cutting off oxygen to the brain to increase sexual pleasure or forcing one’s penis into another person’s throat so hard it causes them to think they are choking.

The sounds of their music have a sacred quality that clashes, in strange and entrancing ways, with the topics of the songs. (The music video for “Skullcrush” commences with a nude woman, either sedated or lifeless, being taken out of a wintery wood and transported by a man outfitted in black. Subsequently, she’s dragged over a rug, her face covered in ash, with a cross hanging near her head.)

Jack declared that they frequently listen to Gregorian chant as well as classic church music.

Heather suggested, “We could sing hymns while we are out and about and hear traditional spiritual songs.”

Jack commented that the Catholic Church does an impressive job of utilizing powerful things. He noted their abundance of attractive items, along with their pretty masses, traditions and appreciation for art.

John remarked, “On certain occasions I attend church to hear the music. We often go there on Sundays for the same reason.”

One can find access to the Twitter and Tumblr accounts of Salem from their blog. Jack’s Twitter account is among them, and John’s is to be found on the Tumblr. On Jack’s profile, he follows Barack Obama, CNN, and Tavi Gevinson, the fashion blogger (Style Rookie). As of now, he follows 36 people, and has 1,090 followers. His Twitter handle is “Jacky_Jack_jack”, and some of his tweets are…

Trevr was stopped by the police last night for speeding, but the officers were listening to Salem and decided to let him go due to their familiarity with him.

Who in San Francisco can I count on to visit Turk Street and Leavensworth Avenue for me? #What’s The Big Deal?!

A red-eye flight is taking me back to Chicago, I will be arriving at 5am. If you have a large vehicle and enjoy being choked, come collect me at the O’Hare.

I recently had the opportunity to watch a portion of MTV’s True Life featuring #SALEM. They portrayed us in a really wild manner!

John’s Flickr photo-stream from his Tumblr account is a showcase of a variety of scenes. The pictures range from Garbage Inda Trees, a nocturnal image of trees with something white and torn in their branches, to shoe, a lone black shoe near some debris, to a portrait of his grandmother’s single white bed labeled grandmas bed. Additionally, there is a breathtaking shot of snowfall in Leeds set against a deep purple night sky and a picture of two men engaging in sexual activity on the side of the road.

III. Imagined Chinese Traffic Congestion

There is a notion of a dense Chinese traffic jam, one that is so crowded that it is almost impossible to move forward. This is a concept that has been imagined, yet not actually experienced by many.

At SXSW in 2010, Salem was met with boos from the crowd, but it may have been due to the specifics of the venue rather than the performance itself. The outdoor stage lacked any special effects, making the sound too precise and the vocals too sharp.

No smoke was present.

The band Salem enjoys a good deal of smoke and illumination for their performances, such as the one they did at Ramiken Crucible in 2010 during the CMJ Music Marathon.

The visual set for this show was designed to be reminiscent of an extreme traffic jam in China. Alex Gvojic, a videographer for Thunderhorse Video, which coordinates Salem’s sets, stated that this was the main influence for the display. “It was meant to be like a traffic jam that lasted for a week or something. Vehicles stopped for an indefinite amount of time,” he said.

Each of the band members had a distinct preference for their stage lighting. Jack wanted a bright, stadium-style luminescence. John asked for his lighting to resemble a sunrise or sunset over an oil refinery. Heather wanted a spectrum of purples and oranges, similar to the Northern Lights.

At their 2010 CMJ show, Salem performed songs from King Night, an album that is both hallucinatory and rapturous. It’s music that could be used to greet aliens as they arrive on Earth, to listen to while under the influence of drugs, or to commemorate a dead person in the afterlife. A spectator in the crowd commented, “How do they manage to pull off this Star Wars-esque atmosphere with such earnestness? It’s like watching Lil’ Wayne in 2001.”

The appeal of Salem is not only related to the songs, but also their album art, home-made videos, and social networking. It is unclear how much of their Twitter and Flickr presence is genuine or a fabrication for the purpose of projecting a particular image.

Furthermore, the genre of witch house was made possible by the capabilities of the internet, and Salem’s success has been supported by a narrative of them being drug-users living in the Midwest, with one of them allegedly becoming a prostitute to fund a crack habit.

Nevertheless, the two members of Salem come from a prestigious school with a forty-two-thousand-dollar-a-year tuition, which brings up the criticism that they are trying to deny their privilege while appealing to an audience of the same. However, the dedication of their fans indicates that the music is captivating enough to be successful.

Jack asserts that their reason for not participating at the 2011 South by Southwest festival was because they were not aiming to be like a conventional band, rather they were collaborating much like artists.

In Heather’s words, “Playing at a place like [SXSW] just isn’t really the right fit for us. It’s not in line with our goals and it wouldn’t be clear to the audience. I don’t think it would be beneficial.” Instead, Salem enjoys performing in religious venues, like Shoreditch Church in London, which Jack cited as his “favorite show.”

Seva Granik declared that although Salem is not crafting art, they are still producing music, which can be just as highly esteemed as art. He further stated that he does not consider them more artistically talented than any other musical group.

IV. But Could They Be Considered Ironic?

The concern of some is the potentially unhelpful query of whether or not Salem intends what they perform (and in the way they sing it). Does Salem intend it when they insist they are not a sarcastic group? That they raise the hymn sampling and the rape-and-murder lyrics to a nonconflicted, ecstatic level, and that’s no laughing matter to them? Is it genuinely wrong to take one’s work earnestly? The band provides an answer.

Jack expresses that he does not find Salem’s work humorous when asked if he has a sense of humor. He acknowledges that there are people who believe a sense of humor is required to enjoy metal music.

However, he does not share this opinion, nevertheless understanding why someone would consider it to be too excessive.

Heather stated that her less well-known quality is irony.

Jack states that they are very genuine in their endeavors. He then goes on to add that a lot of individuals in their age bracket are using irony so much that they no longer possess a sense of earnestness. He believes this is simply safe and not as exciting.

John claims that he does not take himself as seriously as he takes the music, indicating that he has a great respect for the latter.

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The tremendous effect of technology on us is undeniable. It has transformed the way we interact, conduct our businesses, and do our daily activities. We have become so dependent on it that it has become an essential element of our lives.


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