Something wicked this way comes: Inside California’s rising darkwave scene

There's something dark brewing in California, but why? We investigate the new wave of goth and darkwave enveloping the Golden State...

Something wicked this way comes: Inside California’s rising darkwave scene
Paul Travers
Foie Gras photo:
Blake Armstrong
Gvllow photo:
Lola Miche

From an outsider’s view, California can be all sunshine and smoothies. If you’re from the UK you might remember an appallingly wholesome Visit California ad campaign featuring the likes of Rob Lowe, Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-LA resident David Beckham looking tanned and healthy as they paddle-boarded and 'did brunch'. There’s always been a murky underbelly to the Golden State, however, which has frequently manifested itself in the region's underground music scene. From the psychedelia of The Doors through the self-styled death rock of Christian Death, the horror-tinged punk of T.S.O.L. and AFI, and even the abyssal aggression of Slayer, there’s been a tangible sense of darkness running beneath the surface.

Southern California’s longest running goth night, Release The Bats, might have folded its wings permanently in 2018, but there’s a new breed of artists emerging from the shadows. They include the arch, theatrical duo Drab Majesty, the unashamedly retro-goth of The Victoriana and the purveyor of pitch-black synthpop Tamaryn – originally from New Zealand but relocated to Los Angeles. Gvllow brings hip-hop into the mix and Foie Gras has evolved from drone soundscapes into a more fleet-footed darkwave style.

The musical styles vary widely, but there’s a connecting thread weaving through the various philosophies and aesthetics. A sense of finding the beauty hidden – and sometimes inherent – in darkness. It’s certainly not restricted to California or even the wider USA. The likes of She Past Away from Turkey, Portugal’s Iamtheshadow and the London-based Black Angel are all keeping the fires burning, but California certainly seems to be the epicentre of a fascinating, burgeoning scene.

So why now and, particularly, why here?

“I think the sun shines on everybody and not everybody is nourished by it,” muses Iphigenia Douleur – the musician, artist and graphic designer more commonly known by her stage name Foie Gras. “I think that trying to take a realistic look at your surroundings and seeing what doesn’t work can also make you a dark person. It can’t be sunshine, smoothies, hikes and tacos all the time, as it is in LA. I think that during sad times, or if you’re making a kind of music bringing out these intense feelings, you really learn who people are. It's not a mating call, but it's a way to attract people who are like-minded, by getting on your pedestal and bringing your music to the world.”

The lure of the more gloomy side can occur at different times and for different reasons. You might not think so from watching the blood-soaked video for Red Moon, but Foie Gras can also be ridiculously chirpy. Is there an expectation that you should be a certain way – that serious music should only be made by serious people?

“Totally, which I'm not. I've never been serious; I feel like a golden retriever all the time! But I am a realistic person too, and I see the travesty of the world, and have a very philosophical mind about it. I think it's kind of impossible to be realistic and not see the darkness of the world. I think I'm just cheery because I accept it. Not being submissive to it, but understanding what I can control in my life and what I can’t.”

For Gvllow – another fascinating solo artist bringing together elements of goth, darkwave, punk and rap – the move towards darker musical and lyrical waters was a direct response to tragedy.

“As far as the lyrics go, they really do come from a dark place, from past experiences,” he nods. “A very close friend of mine named Zak passed away from suicide about four years ago, and a lot of the lyrics really do come from me trying to deal with that trauma. I grew up in the punk rock scene in Southern California and I drummed in a lot of shitty punk bands. He played bass and guitar, so we were like peas in a pod in whatever band I was in. When he passed away his parents gave me a lot of his belongings, which included his microphones and lyric books. A lot of the songs that I write, especially the more gothic songs, I like to use a lot of his lyrics.”

Indeed, the rapper, singer and multi-instrumentalist – who has also collaborated with Travis Barker and toured as a DJ with trap-metal horrorcore duo City Morgue – recently recorded a track called Centipede with Jack Grisham from goth-punk legends T.S.O.L., working a sample of his late friend’s vocals into the intro.

“It was a dream come true, T.S.O.L. were and still are one of my favourite punk bands of all time,” Gvllow smiles. “Jack's a nice guy and I went to his place and we recorded his vocals in his living room. [Zak] was a big T.S.O.L. fan too and we used some of his lyrics in that song. I thought, ‘If only he could be here to see…’”

The idea of music as catharsis has become a bit of a cliché, but for many it can be an absolute lifeline in the worst of times.

“I know everyone says that, but it really is one of those things that helps get me through it and through every day,” Gvllow says. “It helps me therapeutically, it stops me from becoming insanely depressed about it. It gives me an outlet. My music is very dark and very serious but anyone who knows me in real life knows that I'm very far from serious. I joke around all the time but when it comes to writing, that's where I let out all that dark, depressing energy in a healthy way.”

LA duo Drab Majesty are seen by many as a lynchpin of this still coalescing Californian darkwave and gothic scene. There’s a grand theatrical sweep to their visuals and a subtle shimmering darkness to the music, but whatever mantle they’ve been given, it’s not one that frontman and founder Andrew Clinco entirely embraces. Andrew and bandmate Alex Nicolau, it should be pointed out, perform under their altar-egos Deb Demure and Mona D, but these are very much characters that they channel.

“You’re talking to Andrew right now,” the singer tells Kerrang! today, “but having those alter-egos to shift into for the stage performance is crucial, because the whole aesthetic was founded on trying to present something that would take the audience or viewer out of their normal space, and the normal set of feelings you’re meant to feel when you go to see a show.”

These personae, incidentally, are not intended as any sort of statement on gender but rather completely depersonalised. “We ascribe to be completely non-human and we are serious about that. We don't want to be relatable, we could be inanimate objects. We want to take the human aspect out of it,” Andrew explains.

When it comes to questions of whether the project is part of any new goth or darkwave scene, however, he’s not so sure.

“There are a lot of fans of ours that would consider themselves adherents of the goth scene but it's not something we identify with too strongly,” he says. “[2019 album] Modern Mirror was a bit more on the positive side. [2017’s] The Demonstration was definitely written out of a lot of confusion and loss and anger, but I don't think I'm necessarily moved toward writing about dark themes. I have some new tunes in the works that are more about strange and obscure and unsettling things, or some that are pure absurdity.”

Of course, it may be a case of differing perspectives when it comes to what constitutes ‘dark’ subject matter. Andrew has a fascination with UFO cults and The Demonstration in particular focused on Heaven’s Gate – a group whose beliefs culminated in a ritual mass suicide, as the adherents attempted to reach an extraterrestrial spacecraft following the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet.

“See, to me, that's not dark, that's just interesting,” counters Andrew.

Do you see any parallels between a genuine cult and musical fandom?

“That's a great question. It is treacherous terrain to navigate, because I can see in so many ways how much blind faith people have put into this project, only knowing the information that we disseminate and this very carefully constructed world that we have presented. I'm sometimes at a loss for words at this congregation that has accumulated over the last seven years. It's remarkable, but I wouldn't say we are a cult. We have a cult following but by no means are there any requirements to be an acolyte. There's no pressure to stay.”

Warming to a favoured subject, he continues: “And if a cult is helpful for someone and they're finding purpose and meaning in life that they didn't have before, then what's wrong with that? While the outside world was so baffled that the people in Heaven’s Gate could completely leave their families behind and lead this crazy monastic life of no sex, no pleasures and complete loss of identity, the people that were in it said in many ways they were the happiest they've ever been. Even the ones that didn't die, the ones that got out, they say, 'I loved my life so much, it had so much structure and I saw the world completely differently'. So there's some merits to that, I have to say.”

The singer has himself been heavily involved with the Builders Of The Adytum (what some might term a magical or occult society), and Andrew describes as a Western esoteric school and temple based around the mystical Qabalah. “It's kind of a distillation of many different esoteric traditions that [founder Paul Foster Case] synthesised into this sound and colour,” he adds. “There's a very interesting musical component to it because he was a musician.”

Asked how his membership affected his art, Andrew replies: “What I was able to derive from that was an entirely new way to view the infinite creative field, not taking full responsibility for the work one makes and allowing the universe to flow through you, allowing yourself to organise frequencies and be a receiving device for something that's created in you. The first couple of years of the courses were geared towards preparing your body to be this vessel for reception of a greater, higher creative source and knowing that there is an infinite amount of power you can draw from.”

They might have very different philosophies and sounds, but another aspect linking the bands in this loose scene is a keen grasp of aesthetics. Foie Gras says that she essentially started the artwork for her project before the music, as she was interested in designing album covers and fascinated by the marketing and packaging aspects.

“Sometimes I think the aesthetic is even more important than the music,” she laughs. “I felt like if you make good music you should have good art to back it up, and I provide that service for other people too. So I started Foie Gras to be a graphic designer for other musicians, then became the musician I was graphic designing for!”

Her videos so far have been directed by Angel Ceballos, the head of her label Yellow Year Records. “Angel and I very quickly realised we both really love blood. The character in Red Moon, I saw her as a wolf-woman. She was this woman in a beautiful dress because wolves are beautiful but they're also ravenous and brutal. But yeah, blood is just cool.”

Gvllow also has something of a horror fixation, with a sleeve of horror character tattoos and a growing library of disturbing music videos. “I've been a horror fan since about seven years old. My dad introduced me to my first horror movie, which was the original Halloween, and from that moment on I was obsessed,” he reveals. On the recording front he adds that “horror soundtrack king” Joseph Bishara (Insidious, The Conjuring) made “a lot of the creepy, ambient sound effects that are within the transitions, intros and outros”.

So is all this death and darkness an entirely healthy thing to immerse yourself in?

“I couldn’t tell you what makes other people gravitate towards the darker side but for me it gives a sense of closure, like death isn't as devastating,” he says. “I feel the gothic genre romanticises death and it’s one of those things that helps me get through. I find if I don't make death such a terrible, scary thing then it's easier for me to cope.”

“All my friends in bands are sick of the way society is operating,” adds Foie Gras. “There are people who understand the trauma and seek to overcome it. And music is a way to explore these really dark topics so that we can all merge and brood together. People are in their rooms, they’re really pissed at everything that's going on. We're surrounded by disease and denial and I think people are really angry about it, and are just getting their feelings out in a way that’s positive. And what better way to do that than with darkwave?”

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