The Cover Story

HEALTH: “We always thought we were making music for a post-Skynet landscape”

Through corruption, climate change, coronavirus and corporate greed, life in the 2020s is edging toward the kind of dystopian future we see in movies. Providing the soundtrack to the end of the world are Cali cult heroes HEALTH, who have called on some friends to bask in our existential dread…

HEALTH: “We always thought we were making music for a post-Skynet landscape”
Mischa Pearlman
Alexis Gross

It’s a beautiful spring day, and there’s not a cloud in the Los Angeles sky. Jake Duzsik, the vocalist and guitarist of HEALTH, is on the roof of a recording studio, and you can almost feel the warmth of the sun pouring through his screen on our Zoom call. He’s out there in a jet-black Bauhaus T-shirt and a slightly less jet-black cap that bears three words – emblazoned in red reverse capital letters – specifically aimed at him, or whoever is wearing it. Because whenever the wearer sees their reflection, they’ll also see this message: ‘DON’T KILL YOURSELF.’ That mix of light and dark, the simultaneous suicidal ideation and defiance, the sun beaming down on the black-clad Jake, all combine to capture the essence of a band – completed by bassist/electronic wizard John Famiglietti and drummer BJ Miller – who have long been determinedly difficult to define.

“These are actually HEALTH hats,” beams Jake enthusiastically, pinching the peak of his cap in his fingers, “but they don’t say HEALTH anywhere on them. I would never be the kind of guy that normally wears our own merch, but John designs it and this is one of his strokes of genius, because if you’re looking in the mirror it’s a good reminder. I wear mine all the time. It’s a great accessory for the 2020s.”

In much the same way, HEALTH’s new collaborative album, DISCO4:: PART II, is a great soundtrack to the 2020s. Featuring collaborations with a wide array of artists, from Nine Inch Nails to Poppy, Lamb Of God to Ho99o9, as well as rapper PlayThatBoiZay, experimental industrial punks Street Sects, anthemic Californian rockers The Neighbourhood and many more, the record not only captures a cross-section of alternative music’s current zeitgeist, but also the neurotic paranoia of the near-dystopian times we’re living in. Underpinning it all is the personal turmoil that Jake experienced in the run-up to the record's creation, so while PART II is a diverse display of musical talent, it’s shrouded under the all-consuming darkness that threatened to devour him.

“I feel uncomfortable waxing poetic about the spiritual importance of music,” he begins, “but, unquestionably, music has dictated the entire direction of my life. My experience during the pandemic, was that it was incredibly-”

Jake pauses, as he does many times throughout our time together, in a considered attempt to convey precisely what he means and feels. There are no standard, prefabricated answers here. He’s not just engaging with the conversation, but with his past, his memories, his experience, his truth.

“I don’t even think that ‘catharsis’ is the right word to encapsulate it,” he continues. “It was life-preserving. I realised how important it was for me to be able to work on music and how in certain ways that got me through a lot of really dark…”

Another heavy, pregnant pause.

“I had a particularly emotionally difficult time during the pandemic,” he starts again. “I had recently become a father, [and I was raising a child] in a house we couldn’t leave and we didn’t want him to get sick. I didn’t know what the fuck we were doing, all these kinds of things. It was a lot of traumatic shit. If I hadn’t been able to work on these songs, it’s really hard for me to project or imagine…”

He stops again, and it seems, if only for the brief few seconds of silence that follow, that the cap’s message was actually a good reminder, not just a cool, edgy slogan to showcase the band’s dark nature.

“It became almost like a lifeline,” Jake says finally, the weight bearing down on the silence that preceded these words. “Self-defence mechanism doesn’t encapsulate it, either. The words are escaping me, but it was elemental. I didn’t have any hobbies. I didn’t do anything other than try to eat enough food to not become emaciated and then just work on music. That’s what I did during the pandemic, so it was incredibly important to me.”

Jake is also acutely aware of the irony that although fatherhood is supposed to be wonderful, because of the pandemic, he hasn’t been able to enjoy it as he’s apparently meant to. On the contrary, it ushered him – at times – into a very dark place.

“We’ve always thought of ourself as a future primitive soundscape”

Hear Jake discuss how HEALTH accidentally soundtracked our “shitty future”

“Obviously, there’s a lot of fear as a new parent when you see the world,” he says. “We all know the world has gone down the shitter. Climate change is probably irreversible, and there’s some cognitive dissonance bringing another human being into existence. Like, I yanked him out of nonexistence and I saddled him with this bag of shit, like, ‘Hey, good luck with this when you get older!’ And there’s a lot of questioning that comes with that. But at the same time, toddlers and infants have zero concept that those things are going on, and the fundamental mysteries and joys of life are evident and ever-present for them. And it does allow you to see how relative reality is, and how caught up you are.

“There are so many different things,” he continues. “There’s a simultaneous catastrophe that’s been happening in the dissolution of the modern world, that is inextricable from our devices and our news cycle. It’s bad to have bad news. A pandemic is a terrible thing, but to have a constantly-updating 24-hour cycle that’s always in your face is soul-crushing. And even if you’re lucky enough to have the stability and the means to protect your family from getting sick or to not lose a loved one, then you’re still trying to contend with things like, ‘How do I not make myself go crazy looking at this fucking phone and reading about how bad everything is?’”

He laughs awkwardly as he lets a thought that’s clearly consumed him many times before do so again.

HEALTH started life in 2005, but it may as well have been centuries ago. At the time, the then-four-piece were a traditionally untraditional noise-rock band that made scabrous, abrasive songs that sounded, as Jake once described, “like the rock band playing in the shitty club in the movie that was made in the ’90s about the future”. Which is to say that HEALTH have always been both behind and ahead of the times, evolving their sound and process significantly over the years. Not only did they release counterpart remix versions of their albums with the subtitle of DISCO, they also began incorporating more electronics into the mix. That started in earnest when they scored the atmospheric soundtrack to the 2012 video game Max Payne 3, which then bled – profusely – into 2015’s third record, Death Magic and 2019’s fourth, Vol. 4: Slaves Of Fear.

“When we did the Max Payne score,” remembers Jake, “we had to generate so much goddamn music that it just forced us to expand our musical palette that, in the process, there’s just an inevitable discovery that points you in other directions for where you want to take your own songs.”

That essentially brought the band to where they are today. With DISCO4:: PART II, however, the world has – sadly, worryingly, depressingly – pretty much become that previously only-imagined retro-future.

“Since our inception, we’ve always thought of ourselves as like a future primitive soundscape,” Jake says, “like Alien or Terminator after Skynet. It’s like there’s crazy technology. It doesn’t sound anachronistic, but it’s a shitty future. Everything is covered in grime. Everything has gone wrong, but we have made incredible technological advances and maybe one of the things we’ve gotten lucky with, unfortunately, is that now it seems we are arriving at that moment anyway. So the band seems prescient or more fitting or something, I don’t know. Even when we first started, we always thought we were making music for a post-Skynet landscape. That’s what it should sound like. That’s what it feels like. It feels like technology, but technology that’s breaking down, and that just seems to be where the world is at right now.”

As its title suggests, DISCO4:: PART II is the follow-up to DISCO4:: PART I, HEALTH’s first record of collaborations. Released in October 2020, but put together across several years before that, it included collaborations with artists as eclectic as Ghostemane, Full Of Hell and hyperpop duo 100 Gecs, all of which were made pre-pandemic. Like everything HEALTH have ever made – even as that noise-rock band – PART I’s aesthetic had elements of their now-trademark retro-futuristic cyberpunk grit, but that’s been taken to extremes on these 12 songs. Everything isn’t just covered in grime, but made out of the stuff, creating a brutally hopeless, nihilistic cloud that smothers this record. Identity – made with Italian producer Maenad Vey – could be the soundtrack to a dark, rainy alley at 3am just before robots or aliens attack Earth, while the Lamb Of God track, which follows immediately after, is that battle set to music. Of course, the real enemy isn’t robots or aliens or anything found in science-fiction or cyberpunk tropes – it’s ourselves. Humans. That very real and ineluctable sense of impending, self-made doom is something that, Jake says, everybody involved in the record naturally gravitated towards.

“I know things are always bad,” he says, “and they’re always bad for a lot of people, but it’s pretty undeniable what’s happening. And this record was finished before the war in Europe. I was speaking to my dad the other day on the phone. He’s not a pessimistic guy, and he was just like, ‘Man, these last two-and-a-half years have been just dogshit, there’s just really no denying it.’ So I think that that is just the inevitable through-line of the record. I didn’t ever give anybody a directive. I don’t want to tell people what they should write about. But everyone – including myself – has been just awash in isolation and doubt and fear, and we’ve all been locked into this existential moment of clarity in certain ways, and people are dealing with it in different ways. Everybody's sort of struggling with this, and I think that, almost unavoidably, is the concept of the record.”

“Getting out of how you normally write is what makes the collabs so fresh”

Listen to Jake explain HEALTH’s collaborative process

Those struggles are perfectly reflected the agonising torment of Ad, the song with The Body, and the sultry, sinister chaos of The Joy Of Sect with Street Sects. Dead Flowers, the mesmerising track with Poppy, is – much like its title, much like life – both soothing and sorrowful, beautiful and bleak, at the same time. But it’s probably the Nine Inch Nails collab, Isn’t Everyone, that sums up the main fear and concept at the heart of the record. Which is this: that just as it’s said we all die alone, so we’re also all alive alone. ‘Are you alone?’ Jake asks, before following up with the brutal truth: ‘Isn’t everyone?’ So overpowering and emphatic is that as a statement, the song title doesn’t even have a question mark. For Jake, you see, it isn’t even a question.

“That line,” explains Jake, “was my response to the chorus lyrics that Trent [Reznor] wrote. Specifically in the United States, that was right around the same time when we’re watching the Capitol get stormed and the fucking President refusing to step down, having all digested the George Floyd killing and the riots, and then being terrified that our loved ones or ourselves are going to get COVID-19. It was a very dark time, and I think that’s just stitched into the psyche and the DNA of the music. Everyone has been in this same place. That’s the other thing that’s so strange about it all, because we’re all so interconnected and it’s also so incredibly lonely.”

Interestingly, it’s a song that Jake doesn’t think would have ever happened without the pandemic. To be fair, he’s pretty adamant that none of these collaborations would exist today with the impact of coronavirus. Because with everyone stuck at home, artists couldn’t exactly say they were busy touring, could they?

“There would have been a PART I,” he admits, “and then we would have gone out and toured and then started making our own record again. I don't think that there would have been a Nine Inch Nails / HEALTH track without COVID, because those guys are incredibly busy. But I had this hunch that, 'Everyone's at home… like, everyone is fucking at home.' It just so happens we have a prior relationship with Trent, so I could ask him. That was at a moment in the pandemic when nobody was travelling so you were just at home, there was no vaccines, everything was shut down. A global pandemic is a pretty large price to pay for a HEALTH / Nine Inch Nails track, but I guess it’s a small silver lining.”

It's perhaps the ultimate irony that through these collaborations HEALTH have been able to establish their own identity. By working with other people, they’ve found themselves, and with DISCO4:: PART II they’ve made the album of their career (so far, anyway). It’s a record that, once again, reinvents who they are and destroys any preconceived notions of genre. More importantly, it’s one that shows how, ultimately, the band have outgrown rock. In fact, they’ve totally transcended it. By letting all these songs form naturally, they took on their own lives, completely rewriting the rules in the process.

“Getting out of how you normally write is what makes the collabs so fresh,” says Jake. “You know that you're not going to do what you would normally do, because someone else is going to bring a different melodic or production sensibility. You want to have the structure be as tight and as effective as possible, but you just let the songs be what they are. You really don't want to overwrite, because if you do that, at best you're going to get what would be like a feature in the hip-hop or pop world. We really found that keeping it skeletal and allowing there to be broad-strokes at the beginning allows each artist to bring their own sensibilities. It's not in my DNA to say, 'We made a great fucking record,’ but I am proud of how the record came out.”

“It was a very dark time and it’s stitched into the psyche and the DNA of the music”

Jake explains how world events and the idea of being alone influenced the record

He should be. DISCO4:: PART II feels not just like a significant chapter for HEALTH, but also massive in the world of alternative music. While it sees them assume their own identity and assert their purpose more than ever before, it also marks the band out as one of the most important in this relatively new post-genre landscape we exist in. Not that that was ever their intention. Having released a series of remix companion records between 2008 and 2021 with the DISCO title – hence DISCO4 – they were just looking for something different to do, simply because they’re not a band that likes to settle or rest on their laurels. They’re constantly restless, inspired, excited to try new things.

“When we started with those companion albums,” Jake explains, “there was an incredibly fertile remix culture. It was a very exciting and galvanising time for that form of music. But that’s not so much the case now, so we were just sort of exploring and wondered about doing a collaboration record instead. We really had no way to take the depth of what it would be like to do that, but we discovered when we started doing it that it was really fun and rewarding. We’ve always made a point of trying to make, if not a sea change shift, then a very significant aesthetic and production shift with every record – and we have enough anonymity and weirdness to us that, for better or worse, we can experiment like that.”

All of which is to say that HEALTH are a band on the absolute cutting edge of music – not rock, not punk, not rap, not metal, not EDM, not whatever, but music itself. In fact, it’s not too much to say that they’re at the forefront of some kind of as-yet-undefined musical revolution, helping to boldly take music to places it’s never been before. Put that to Jake, however, and – humble, modest guy he is – he immediately refutes it.

“I wouldn't go so far as to have the hubris to call us barometers or arbiters of taste,” he says. “But I think that if we have a strong suit, it would be on our shortlist of attributes that we have that we’re just very avid listeners of music. We're just happy to find ourselves be a part of it all. I have no specific, overwhelming talents. I'm not a great singer. I'm not a great guitar player. I'm not a critic. We're not a good enough band for it to be like, 'Oh, I'll just high-five God, we just plug in and fucking magic comes out.”

Don’t listen to him. What HEALTH have done with this album is shake things up – perhaps more than any band has in a long time. They’ve looked beyond themselves, both into the scene around them and the current void of humanity and crafted the perfect soundtrack for it. It’s not pretty, but it’s very, very real.

DISCO4:: PART II is released April 8 via Concord

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