How Ghostemane is changing the fabric of heavy music

Ghostemane’s pitch-black eighth album ANTI-ICON was a product of the most turbulent time in his life, yet he insists it is the ultimate cathartic realisation of his twisted vision. Kerrang! heads to Prague to find out why it’s taken an immersion in deepest darkness to rediscover the light...

How Ghostemane is changing the fabric of heavy music
Sam Law
Garrett Nicholson

Eric Whitney isn’t often an artist with the spare seconds to step back and take stock. Over the last half-decade, the prolific “trap-metal” trailblazer has pulled himself by his bootstraps from subterranean obscurity to genre-straddling ubiquity off the back of an improbable body of work that comprises eight ‘studio’ albums, 10 EPs, and countless features and collaborations under four different personas, all while relentlessly touring the world and capturing the imaginations of a new breed of heavy music fans. Oh, and he fills any spare time broadening an impressive knowledge on the ancient arts of mysticism, hermeticism and the occult.

“If you’re skipping from interview to interview,” he flashes a knowing grin, “that stuff can get kinda muddy. I have a lot of different passions, and I tend to dive into them super-deep.”

On a sweltering afternoon in Prague, he finds a rare moment to reflect.

Eric is very much in Ghostemane mode today, reclining in the shade of a deserted hotel lobby bar. The vodka orange on our table, presented by an overly-attentive concierge, contrasts sharply with the monochrome figure sitting across it. He regards K! with pointed interest, noting that this is one of his first (and only) “real” interviews. With black hair on pale skin, piercing blue eyes and a webbed sweater the colour of midnight pulled over his wiry, tattooed frame, he could seem downright vampiric.

That is, if he weren’t so full of life.

“I sometimes need to pinch myself and come back to reality,” he says, with an accent far softer than the croaky Southern drawl we know from on record. The Krkonoše mountain range sits in the distance; Eric reveals he rarely travelled before his life in music, and hadn’t witnessed such a geographical sight until he was 25. Being here, then, is not being taken for granted. “When I began the Ghostemane project, I just wanted to be able to pay my bills and travel. Now that’s escalated exponentially to the point where I need to be here. It feels like my career coming full-circle.”

Nor, however, is today being treated like a holiday. That “need” is driven by looming LP ANTI-ICON. Teased by a bizarre clip of an orgy in a morgue on February 18 and confirmed by another of Eric burning a hearse in the desert on 23 July, the record is finally scheduled for October 21. Its themes – to which we will come – are deep and tangled, but its aesthetic is immediate and grotesque. Aside from the aforementioned clips, one widely-seen photo of Ghoste sees him looking like a corpse, adorned with pointed chrome grills, black lipstick and one milky contact lens.

Under normal circumstances, expanding that nightmarish vision would’ve entailed hooking up with Hollywood contacts only a short cab ride from Eric’s Los Angeles home. With the American film industry still mothballed thanks to COVID-19, however, a plan was hatched to undertake the 6,000-mile jaunt to the Czech Republic, where a no-nonsense anti-viral response has allowed them to return to some degree of normalcy.

The necessary production specialists, make-up artists, dancers and effects experts are on stand-by, he enthuses, to enact the “elevated” music video plans worked out for upcoming singles Hydrochloride and Lazaretto.

This potent evolution of aesthetic, Eric explains, is a reflection of his increasingly fucked-up sound, but even more so a rebellion against the scene that spawned him. The SoundCloud rap set, like so many others, has become streetwear-obsessed, with coveted brands like Supreme a sign of real credibility. “To me, it was always so oxymoronic and hypocritical,” he rails. “You come from this culture that’s supposed to say, ‘Fuck the establishment’ – idealistically, it’s the new punk – but then you’re sporting these brands that become things kids are made fun of for when they don’t have them. I’m not going to have a logo on me. I’m going high fashion. I don’t want to look like anybody else.”

So, is that what it means to be an ANTI-ICON?

“I feel like ‘icon’ is one of those terms that just gets thrown around in the internet age,” he replies. “There are no prerequisites anymore. To me, an icon is someone like Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson or RuPaul. They’re people you’ll recognise from 10 miles away. You know what they look like. You know their voice. You could make an action figure out of them. Nowadays, it feels like the label is thrown on every random YouTuber, TikToker and internet personality.

“If that’s an icon, it’s not what I want to be.”

This Ghoste story begins, properly, in Lake Worth, Florida: a small town in the Sunshine State’s suburban sprawl, about eight miles south of Palm Beach and 65 north of Miami. Eric’s memories of the place are still darkened by the long shadow of his father.

A phlebotomist who relocated from New York just before Eric was born, Whitney Snr. was injured in a car crash when his son was four years old and thereafter bound to his couch and cane for much of Eric’s youth. Frustrated, perhaps, by his own predicament (and a resultant opioid dependency), he became a controlling force in Eric’s life. The singer’s memories are understandably complicated, but he recalls this “tyrannical, helicopter parent” presence: a “big scary guy with massive hands, jabbing his fingers into my chest and telling me what to do” with incredible vividity.

Growing up in the town’s lower middle-class, Eric’s youth was unremarkable almost by design. Alternative interests were discouraged. The machismo of American football was forced down his throat. Any effort to dress up or act out was swiftly suppressed.

“I was very introverted,” Eric recalls, “very secluded and really didn’t have any friends. I was that kid in school who didn’t have the cool brands. By the time I reached my teenage years, there was this overwhelming urge to be anything that I’m not; to do anything but this; to go anywhere but here; to be around anyone but him.”

“It’s a lot more personal… I’m trying to come to terms with the type of person I am”

Listen to Ghostemane describe the lyrical themes of ANTI-ICON

His father’s passing, when Eric was 17 years old, triggered an emotional landslide. “It was like shaking up a bottle of soda and opening the cap,” he shares. “I lost my mind.”

Life, however, has a way of dragging you back inside the box. Although earning a hefty annual salary at a business-to-business sales job he’d stumbled into after high school, the claustrophobic office cubicle did not represent the life of which he’d dreamed.

Hardcore punk was his first escape. Playing guitar in HXC outfit Nemesis and drums for sludge-metal collective Seven Serpents forged multi-instrumental skills and friendships that are still integral to his career today. He smiles. “It felt like a home to me.”

Interests in spirituality and Buddhism opened his mind, but it was the discovery of early 20th century Hermetic text The Kybalion (Eric half-subconsciously flicks back his hair to reveal the tattoo of its title across his forehead) that nudged him down a horizon-pushing rabbit hole.

“Although they’re religions, they’re really science-based,” Eric explains. “To me, astrophysics is the ultimate spirituality. If nothing else, it proves that we aren’t at the centre of the universe and there definitely is this bigger thing out there. It was my way of escaping into another realm.”

Getting best friend at the time – and Nemesis frontman – Sam Ogonuwe a job at his company could’ve been disastrous for Eric’s fledgling sales career. In the end, the pair’s endless “dicking around” kick-started another in rap.

Aside from a copy of Dr. Dre’s 1992 masterpiece The Chronic gifted by his father, Eric’s hip-hop exposure had to this point been non-existent. Sam’s collection of “golden age” records were revelatory. The loose-tongued creativity of acts like De La Soul, Hieroglyphics and Outkast captivated him. It was the discovery of the darker rhymes from Memphis overlords Three 6 Mafia and Miami’s Raider Klan (RVIDXR CLVN), however, with which he truly connected.

“I became obsessed,” Eric remembers. “Something I had to come to terms with is that darkness and heaviness I identify with isn’t necessarily synonymous with loudness. It’s a mood.”

Although metal and hardcore offered the energy and catharsis he craved, it was rap that offered unlimited, monomaniacal creative potential. “In a band,” he reasons, “you’re clashing with other people, trying to get your ideas across. In rap, everything is my idea. What I do is what I want to do. What I produce is what I produce. I had full and total control.”

The short-lived iLL BiZ persona (one which Eric recalls with the faintest cringe) offered a way in. The 2014 birth of Ghostemane and 2015 relocation seeking the more receptive Californian scene were the real turning points, however.

So what exactly gave him the push?

“Psychedelics were a huge part of it,” Eric replies with playful honesty. The track Ghostemane (a brooding, cosmic affair, far less rigidly defined than what had come before) saw chemical experimentation manifest musically. “It smacked me in the face: the realisation that this is what I really am. I could go down that road and just let loose.”

Unlike so many lost souls in the City Of Angels, Eric hit the ground running.

Caught up in the content-driven SoundCloud craze, his first years were punctuated by a slew of rapid-fire record releases and carefree collaborations. Industrial darkness and metallic edge were evident from the start, but it was only with 2017’s Hexada and 2018’s N / O / I / S / E that Ghoste really distanced himself from the pack, sounding at times, like a twist-lipped demon from the deep rap underground and, at others, uncannily like Nine Inch Nails.

After its unprecedented two-year gestation, ANTI-ICON marks another profound metamorphosis, with Ghoste drilling down into his psyche while driving towards new creative horizons.

A more complex stylistic blueprint is part of that delay. So, too, is an increased faith in the fanbase (“I used to have to keep up with the Joneses,” Eric admits, “now they’re conditioned to understand it’s worth the wait…”). Mostly, though, it’s a reflection of Eric’s white-knuckle coming to terms with holding onto himself in the jet-set whirlwind. “People think it’s this extravagant thing,” he fixes our eye, “and it is. I’m grateful. But it takes everything I have. It’s something I struggle with to maintain my sanity and not forget who I am.

“I’ve been through so much,” he breathes a loaded sigh. “It’s been the most transformative time in my life.”

“I took all that shit that was in me and projected it outward”

Hear Ghostemane discuss how his darkest work is a result of finding some light

For those paying attention to the breadcrumbs dropped in the interim, the clues were there.

“Anti-music” noise-project GASM writhed with tortuous unease. The thumping electro of SWEARR pulsated with unbound euphoria. The raw black metal of Baader-Meinhof (a frosty part of Eric’s persona kept on a pedestal, away from his other creations) came across cuttingly. Ghostmane-branded 2019 hardcore EP Fear Network was a distillation of struggle, while its dark acoustic counterpart Opium captures the absolute emptiness of an artist’s lowest point.

ANTI-ICON is broader and deeper: a “moving target” far harder to pin down.

Just beneath the surface, Eric’s everyday fascinations fizzle. Near-future dystopian imagery (the obsession with which, Eric informs us, is psychiatrically symptomatic of overbearing parenting) feels discomfortingly 2020. Recurrent wordplay sees the titular Anti-Icon interchanged with that other AI: Artificial Intelligence. A fine line is walked, between open-mindedness and paranoia.

Dig a little deeper, though, and A-I sounds almost like a break-up album. Doubt turns into anger which bleeds through into despair. Tracks like schizo-rap showcase Sacrilege and the loopy Fed Up repeatedly lament ‘fake love’. The powerful Hydrochloride smashes its ‘I DON’T LOVE YOU ANYMORE!’ mantra against a hydraulic industrial backdrop. Eric himself admits it’s “more personal… a lot more literal” than past disaster chronicles. “It’s a break-up letter from me to opiates.”

Addiction blindsided Eric – hard.

“It was something I thought couldn’t hit me,” he admits. “It was something for those guys, those people who have addictive personalities. But I found out that anyone who’s going through any kind of difficult time can be vulnerable. It started off as if it was the answer to everything. Eventually, I didn’t even feel high anymore. It was just something I needed to do to not feel sick.”

Several attempts to break the habit failed. Hitting the bottom came with a flash of clarity, though. Recognising the same behaviours in himself that had claimed his father (‘I got your disease!’ gasps late-album highlight Calamity), he felt a jolt of disgust and real alarm. Eric frowns at the memory.

Despite his enduring NIN fandom, A-I is not a chronicle of that downward spiral, but of the route crawled back. Even the most morbid imagery is representative of ending the old self and birthing the new. The burning hearse symbolises the ashes of the N / O / I / S / E-era. The morgue-orgy is, er, more perversely abstract…

“In hermeticism,” Eric explains, “the ultimate outcome of the ultimate equation is breaking [base material] down and being able to reform it. The phoenix rises from the ashes. For me, it was about breaking my old self down, killing it, rising from the ruins, and becoming this new person: this healthier mind.”

Toxic substances tend to be accompanied by poisonous people. New forces for good became catalysts for the reaction. He credits his DJ Parv0, who went through similar struggles years before, as a guiding force. Producer and engineer Arthur Rizk was the one who turned up at his home to finish the record and drag him out of a slump. Perhaps most pivotal of all has been fellow musician – and K! magazine cover star – Poppy.

Eric cracks a bashful smile when we mention her name. The couple reportedly first met on the Lock Up stage at last year’s Reading & Leeds festivals and announced their engagement on July 10. Sporting jet-black hair to match her beau’s, she’s here directing this trip’s videos, too.

“She’s amazing,” Eric begins. “As a visual artist, she’s just unmatched. That’s the one area of my career which I was never really able to fully realise myself. It’s a weird feeling putting a piece of myself into her hands like this, and waiting to see how it unfolds. But I’m excited.

“She’s an awesome partner. It’s the opposite of a toxic relationship.”

Like Poppy, Eric stands at the very cutting-edge: a new breed of performer with the future of heavy music in his hands. As our conversation winds to a close outside the city’s massive Invalidovna building – a centuries-old war dormitory converted, today, into a bustling video set – he ponders that power, potential and deep responsibility.

“Defining rock music these days is kinda like tip-toeing,” he reckons. “I tend to say ‘guitar music’ more often. Is there a lack of danger in modern rock, compared to rap? Sometimes. But the feeling of inauthenticity is more about the lack of intent.

“I think that modern rock – and pop, any kind of mainstream music – is holding back massively. There isn’t one truly sad, or angry song on the radio anymore. I think there should be more intent to actually connect with people: the broken, the lost, the sad, the angry, the psychotic. For me, that’s the biggest difference from the old days.”

Despite that old ethos, ANTI-ICON is very much the sound of here and now. Rap remains a major part of the Ghostemane formula – the alternation between high-pitched yelps, nasal drawl and throaty gurgles suggesting multiple demons trapped in one body – but ANTI-ICON is not simply a rap album. There is something distinctly nu-metal about the combination of quick rhymes and down-tuned guitars on Lazaretto. The dynamic blend of hardcore, oppressive electronics and apparitional ambience on Sacrilege shares much with Underneath-era Code Orange. The thrusting beat of ASMR (Anti-Social Masochistic Rage) evokes the same squalid sex as peak Marilyn Manson. As a consequence, when Ghoste does throw himself into the old-school southern “phonk” sound on Hellrap (the album’s last rhymed verses, four tracks from the end), it lands with no tongue-knotted fatigue, and real conviction.

For Eric, these more shapeshifting sonics – much like the increasingly ghoulish aesthetic – are emblematic, not of a descent into darkness, but of a growing confidence in himself: a mastery of turning festering feelings into something positive. Daringly, even ANTI-ICON’s most desolate moment Melancholic concludes on a hopeful note: ‘I deserve to be happy, don’t you think?’

A flash of contentment. “It feels so much better now, like I’ve taken all that shit that was in me and I’m projecting it outwards. I feel like now I can wear it on me without having to keep it inside.”

Eric loathes any kind of evangelism – declaring to hate “LaVeyan Satanism just as much as Christianity” – but it’s a path which he prays peers will follow down. “I hope [any success I have] might entice other artists to maybe push the envelope rather than worrying about what’s going to pop the hardest on TikTok or whatever,” he says. “If they’re from a subculture or from heavy music, maybe they should put [those heavy feelings] first and see where it goes.”

Picking out the artists he considers true peers – Ho99o9, Author & Punisher, Full Of Hell, Youth Code, 3TEETH – there’s clear admiration for performers willing to brave ridicule by stepping out of the box. Boston hardcore trailblazers Vein (now known as Vein.FM) get a special mention: “They’re experiencing what it’s like to start experimenting and seeing how people in their scene turn their backs on them. I know what that’s like, too. The fact they keep doing it and going harder on it is amazing to me.”

Ultimately, though, his number one priority will always be his fans.

Don't give a damn about a critic, they don't really get it,’ declares seething lead single AI. ‘They don't make a difference, they don't buy the tickets, ah / Only really give a damn about the kids / Live and die for the kids…’

Whether that’s the 15-year old coveting a $300 Supreme hoody who comes to realise self-made attire is “high-art, priceless”, the suffocated suburbanite building courage to skip town, or anyone else needing dragged out of the same cycles of depression, addiction and self-destruction from which Eric himself has emerged, the alchemical lesson is ultimately the same.

“As dark and depressing and nihilistic as this music sounds, it’s actually super-hopeful. Nothing is the death of you. You’re this ever-morphing, ever-changing, ever-expanding thing. Life might feel like it’s crushing you, but all it’s doing is creating the new ingredients for you to recreate yourself as something better. When a supernova explodes, it creates new stars. Energy is eternal. You’ve gotta say, ‘Gimme what you you got!’, take it, make art out of it, and be better for it.

“Then move on to the next thing.”

ANTI-ICON is released on October 21.

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