The Complicated Appeal of Salem, a Band that Makes Feeling Awful Sound Great
Photo by Annie Eversz

The Complicated Appeal of Salem, a Band that Makes Feeling Awful Sound Great

A decade ago, the witch house pioneers invited us to luxuriate in the highs and lows of an existence that wasn't our own. Now, a new album re-opens the mystery.
November 5, 2020, 7:22pm

In the mid-2010s, years before she hit the big screen as Howard Ratner's sexy showroom saleswoman and mistress in Uncut Gems, the artist Julia Fox absconded to a fishing town in the Louisiana Bayou and made a photo book called PTSD. The series of events that brought her to the post-Katrina Deep South are unclear, though the downtown New York it-girl and former dominatrix said something about her car breaking down in Tennessee during a road trip. Her reasons for staying on for six months, at least according to the narrative logic of the project, are more explicit: Fox had fallen madly in (unrequited) love with a "gay prostitute" named "John," and couldn't tear herself away. 

Leafing through the book, which juxtaposes images of brightly lit bathroom sex and mid-injection hypodermic needles with snapshots of everyday life from her adopted home (festive all-Black marching bands, fluorescent strip-club interiors, the odd storm-shredded structure that probably used to be a home), fans of weird music in the early 10s will recognize the craggy-but-pretty, tattooed visage of one John Alexander Holland, member of the electronic group Salem. At one point, they pose in front of a dilapidated screened porch, locked in a passionate embrace; at another, he's seated on the edge of a bathtub, tenderly holding her hair as she kneels before a toilet. 

Up until a few weeks ago, when Salem announced it was returning from a nebulous, protracted hiatus with their first album in nine years, PTSD felt like a rare window into the world of a band that, somewhere around 2012, had largely disappeared off the face of the earth—even if fans had been indexing online clues to their activities and whereabouts on Reddit all along. Like a troubled friend rolling back into town, the book's air of sweet, moribund romance felt familiar: In one spread, we see Holland, sitting at the wheel of a car, eyes rolled back into his head as he zooms past a sad-looking home with multiple ice machines in the front yard. On the opposite page, a hand-scrawled love note: "I’ll be high and my eyes will close and we’ll drive into a house or river," it reads. "But I’ll be so happy because I’m dying with you.”

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Courtesy of the artist

The veracity of this tragic love story was unclear: Though the group recently opened up about their time in the area (Jack Donoghue moved down there first, around 2016, hoping to find work on an oil rig), and John used to share stories about sleeping with men for money as a teen, the line between fact and fiction has always been hazy with the Salem crew. Still, the project felt like the perfect distillation of the group's gloomy but sentimental allure. "I wanted to be scared," she told the art and fashion publication Autre, explaining her decision to leave New York. "I forgot what that felt like. I hadn’t been lost in so long." 

When the band rose to MP3-blog prominence in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, the Midwestern three-piece of Holland, Donoghue, and Heather Marlatt had a knack for putting unemployed college graduates like myself in touch with how lost we already felt. I'm still haunted by the memory of a January 2010 performance at Brooklyn's Glasslands Gallery, when journeying down to a darkened warehouse on the Williamsburg waterfront still carried with it the thrill of something dangerous. (Now, the building is occupied by VICE). The band appeared on stage, openly smoking cigarettes as though they'd forgotten to extinguish them before emerging from the greenroom; the music they played felt less like a collection of songs than one continuous, deafening squall, punctuated by the odd sluggish trap bassline, slurred rap, and projected image of a burning cop car. When I got home that night, I remember laying in bed, worrying about how I was going to pay rent that month and listening to the Water EP on repeat: I couldn't stop thinking that this was music that sounded like what drugs must feel like. The disturbing part was that it felt good. 

The crude, almost accidental quality of Salem's music—the way in which it seemed to stumble upon its own moments of brilliance—didn't always play well with critics. Ben Ratliff, a former professor of mine, made a point of noting that Holland sounded "freshly awoken" during the band's interview with The New York Times—and that Donoghue had slept through the call entirely. Former FADER editor-in-chief Matthew Schnipper, describing the band's notorious trainwreck of a set at The FADER FORT in Austin, posited that the band's distinctive charisma simply didn't hold up in the light of day: “Salem’s ingenuity comes in the invention of its own creation myth," he wrote. "Played clean, there is no mystery.” 

Perhaps owing to music criticism's obsession with increasingly minute distinctions of genre in the late aughts, much of the conversation about the band seemed center around their role as the ambivalent pioneers of a semi-fabricated genre called "witch house"—a sound combining the pitched-down samples and skittering drum machine beats of chopped-and-screwed hip-hop, the wall-of-sound atmospherics of shoegaze (but synthy), and a vague, quasi-ironic fascination with Christian iconography and Halloween-store occultism. Revisiting old Salem press from the vantage of 2020, there is something almost quaint about journalists' endless litigation of the term, even if the band seemed reluctant to engage in any meaningful discussion of genre—or anything else, for that matter.

Though it's possible to draw a direct line between witch house and emo-trap artists like Lil Peep and Yung Lean, that genre-agnosticism was probably Salem's most enduring contribution to music. During the band's short time in the spotlight, they'd made as much of a splash with the operatic transports of zombie Christmas cover "King Night" as they had with their creepy but heady remixes of artists like Gucci Mane and Britney Spears. By pulling willy-nilly from the glut of musical and visual information the internet put at our disposal, and weaving these influences into something hyper-personal and strange, they helped set the stage for a decade where cutting across distinctions between high and low, classical and pop, hip-hop and electronic and rock music, would become par-for-the-course world-building. (Not for nothing was Donoghue credited with "additional production" on Kanye West's Yeezus.)

Other aspects of Salem's remix-like approach to culture haven't aged particularly well. Even a decade ago, the spectacle of a group of white hipsters drawing on the sounds and imagined lyrical preoccupations of a Black art form was enough to spark accusations of cultural appropriation, and even minstelry. "The slowed down vocals do not only have the effect of bringing the vocalist’s voice down to stoned crawl[;] they make the white performer sound black," wrote critic Brandon Soderberg, referring to Donoghue's screw-tape-indebted rapping style. "This, coupled with lyrics that are, content-wise, what my grandmother thinks rap’s about (murder, rape, misogyny, repeat) […] makes Salem’s music pretty egregious."  

The images of rural and suburban sprawl that populated their early videos (a truck driving down a highway late at night; a deer bleeding out on the side of the road; a white dude with a shaved head brandishing a giant gun) evoked a similar brand of cultural tourism—even if they were partially explained by Holland and Marlatt's roots in northern Michigan, where they met as high-school students at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy. Looking at the tattered, cheap teddy bear on the cover of their 2009 OhK seven-inch, it's hard not to think of Harmony Korine's Gummo, and how its clear affection for working-class America always seemed tinged with a mocking disdain. 

The same could be said, of course, of a lot of the photography that appeared in an earlier iteration of this publication: What was the hipster culture of the aughts if not one long exercise in vicarious authenticity? In an essay for What Was The Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, N+1 co-founder Mark Greif traces the evolution of the white hipster from the jazz-loving beatniks of the 1950s to the trucker-hat and handle-bar mustache-sporting urban gentrifiers of the 00s. "As the 'White Negro' had once fetishized blackness," he writes, referring to a controversial 1957 Norman Mailer essay by the same name, "the 'white hipster' fetishized the violence, instinctiveness, and rebelliousness of lower-middle-class suburban or country whites." While Salem's art flits with the cultural trappings of both, it feels only fitting that the band's creation story, at least according to Holland, begins with Donoghue stumbling into a Chicago American Apparel where John was working as an art-school student: When you buy an EP called Yes I Smoke Crack, you're buying into a kind of rubber-necking voyeurism, an invitation to luxuriate in the imagined highs and lows of an existence that is (probably) not your own. 

While they weren't the first to tap into it, Salem always seemed to push that dynamic much farther than their hipster-era peers: Over a decade into the band's start-stop career, it's still impossible to tell whether they're curating a fictional world for our consumption, or living it for real. PTSD's images of tattered American flags and dreary-looking bedrooms, for example, will seem eerily familiar to people who have been keeping up with Donoghue and Holland's Instagram presence over the years, where the band seems to have incubated an entire genre of weird Instagram unto itself.

There are about as many crosses and spooky nocturnal landscapes as you would expect, but also scores upon scores of images that raise as many questions as Donoghue's famous red-carpet appearance with Courtney Love: cryptic hospital selfies; images of Donoghue appearing to perform work as a construction worker, but also as a farmer, but also dining at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago with Hollywood heiress and actress Lauren Alice Avery; a picture of a gun perched next to a computer mid-editing session, or of a gun resting casually on a bed, or a man holding a gun as he appears to receive oral sex; an out-of context text: "You were never my friend, and your apology was lame. You are truly an ugly person inside and out. Goodbye!"; a bathroom self-portrait with a bloodied tissue up a nose. "Look who got what they deserved ;)" reads the caption. Asked whether they see their Instagram presence as part of the greater Salem art project, or more as a vehicle for documenting their lived experience, the band was tight-lipped: "The IG accounts are not affiliated with SALEM," Donoghue told VICE over email.  

But still—what have Salem actually been up to all these years? In an interview with The New York Times conducted a week before the album's release, Holland explained that he was about to begin a 30-day prison sentence in Michigan, though he didn't go into any details. As the journalist Meaghan Garvey notes, it seemed like yet another instance of the "mythically bad timing" that haunted the pair as they worked on the album in fits and starts, across many years and multiple locations, before linking up with Los Angeles producer Shlohmo, who helped them finesse the unfinished files into a finished work. Though there's a ring of underdog triumph to the story—"Literally, it's all a war with ourselves over here," Donoghue says of the band's experiences juggling art with the vicissitudes of life—the scant information at our fingertips, be it by coincidence or design, invites all sorts of fantastical and worrisome conclusions. 

Long-time fans of Salem, for one thing, will be surprised to learn that the trio is now billing itself as a duo. On April 1 of this year, founding member Heather Marlatt posted a black-and-white graphic—"Ain't My First Coup attempt"—to her Instagram account. "Now, during a worldwide pandemic, John and Jack are attempting to force me out," she wrote. "I am not expendable. I am valuable. I will not go quietly. Sending love and light." Marlatt did not respond to a request for comment. Salem came back to us with a short note: "We prefer to respect the privacy of everyone involved and not get into specifics. Our years of silence are testament to the fact that the only way for us to release music was by moving forward. The process of creating this material informed change."

As hard as it is to be excited about a new Salem album without feeling at least a little conflicted about it, they probably couldn't have chosen a better time to re-emerge from the ether. Few electronic artists do a better job at deploying electronic textures to plumb the finer shades of hopelessness and despair, and musically speaking, Fires in Heaven is their biggest and most uncomplicatedly beautiful album yet. From the cinematic Prokofiev sample on "Capulets," to the delicate bleating of John's vocals on "Wings," there's a clarity and specificity to the production that only makes the oceanic swells of synth and bass feel more resonant when they hit; and far from dispelling the delirium, it reminds you that the band's open-eyed way with melody was probably the thing holding the spell together all along. 

In the videos they've released for the album so far, the band even appears to try its hand at a bit of political commentary: "Starfall," their first, sees them running for their lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as they chase tornadoes with a professional storm-tracker. "Red River," their second, splices together images of commuters and unsuspecting youths as they go about their daily business, ostensibly unaware that they're being monitored by facial-recognition technology. The implicit critique of global warming and the dangers of big tech aren’t necessarily enough to suggest that they're done with the dirt-bag lifestyle and have undergone some kind of redemptory awakening, but the clips feel like a reminder of why even against our better judgment, we keep coming back for more: They throw incredibly charged images our way, refuse to explain anything, and then use sound to transmute the feelings that come up into something big, ponderous, and holy. They lure us into a world without rules or moral distinctions, aside perhaps from the importance of love and the inevitability of pain. It isn't a religion, but in a twisted way, it feels kind of like church.