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Channel Your Inner Serial Killer with Breathing Problem’s 'The Keyhole'

We spoke to the Austin noise project about physicality, intensity, and their new album.

Breathing Problem has been a project of Rusty Kelley’s for the past eight years, alternately existing as a zine, record label, band, or as all three. Much like Kelley’s other project, Total Abuse, Breathing Problem isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of the genre they call home, which makes for some truly strange, yet visionary output. While Total Abuse prefer to bludgeon their fans with harsh riffs and a wall of noise, Breathing Problem is content to creep you out slowly, captivating the listener with the ambient waves of noise created by Kelley and his girlfriend andbandmate Emelia McKay. I caught up with both members of Breathing Problem to find out more about the history of the project, their latest album The Keyhole, and their intense and sometimes violent live show.

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How long has Breathing Problem been a project of yours? I understand it to be a label, a zine at times, and most consistently a noise project. What all does Breathing Problem encompass for you?
Rusty: Breathing Problem became a thing when I put out the cassette version of the Sex Pig EP by my band Total Abuse in 2007. The label was called Breathing Problem Productions. From there, I created a fanzine called Breathing Problem that focused on black and white Xerox manipulation. After that, I started creating raw and crude harsh noise and industrial tracks and I decided to call that Breathing Problem, and all the initial releases were put out by Breathing Problem Productions. I like uniformity, I like a single banner. In 2011, Mason Tucker joined Breathing Problem to create the Reactive Attachment Disorder full length. At various times I utilized non-permanent members in both the live and recorded setting, but it wasn't until 2012 that Emelia McKay became a permanent member of Breathing Problem. Her obsession, dedication and personal artistic language has influenced the project greatly. This new era of Breathing Problem is something I never knew it could be. Emelia made it whole.
Emelia: Breathing Problem is a means to express what I was only able to get across to Rusty in the most private of settings. It has also been a painful process of trial and error and experimentation with new types of performance and how far I can take myself psychically, mentally and spiritually within the live and recorded setting. Breathing Problem has allowed these fantasies and obsessions of mine to become something tangible and heard and seen.

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Your latest album The Keyhole deals with crime cases involving Mr. Cruel from Australia and the Original Night Stalker. There's also the track that features the confession from Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams. How did they influence the making of The Keyhole?
Rusty: Those cases were all very personal to me. I would also like to add the unsolved death of Bill Comeans to that list. It is hard to put into words the constant thoughts and feelings that kept coming back to those cases. The album came about while meditating on ligature marks, masked men seen through windows at night, a man taking a woman hostage in her own home, strangled victims, children washed and cleaned by their abductor to hide psychical evidence, killers that are never caught, and the inability to understand not only the mysteries related to those cases, but those of the universe itself. I will probably never know who Mr. Cruel is or who killed Bill Comeans and I will also probably never fully accept or be completely ok with the fact that I will die relatively soon at some point in time.
Emelia: The very core of true crime is tied to nature and the mysteries of the universe. The inner workings of time itself are affected by the killer and the victim and the strange rituals that occur between them. It’s not necessarily about the case itself, but the lack of answers and always being trapped in the dark. The album focuses on the unknown. The only thing that is certain is death.

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How long did it to take to create The Keyhole and when did you decide it was finished? Also, where and when was it recorded?
Rusty: From the conception to it being pressed onto cassette was about six months. The title of The Keyhole came to us in the spring and we started recording the actual songs in the early summer. We recorded all the tracks ourselves at our home, the Temple Of The Red Flesh. One track, "The Keyhole," was recorded by our comrade Anthony Davis of Austin band Burnt Skull. The album itself came out on November 1st, 2014.

Breathing Problem's live shows are known to be extremely intense, and Emelia suffered a concussion during one of your latest performances. Is violence an integral part of your live show?
Emelia: Physicality is an integral part of the live show. We use various performance modes as well as different types of microphones to pick up on the relationship Rusty and I share in private. In some performances Rusty might hold me, scratch me, slap me, submerge me in water, pull me, push me, and the audience is meant to visually pick up on those cues. During other gigs, Rusty and I give each other mouth to mouth and use a hydro contact mic to pick up on the sounds of our breath, spit, tongues, moans, water drips and other subtle sounds. The audience is meant to hear the way the microphone and various pedals pick up and manipulate the action. One thing is always clear, our live show is an extension of the intellectual and sexual relationship Rusty and I share in private along with all our obsessions and secrets. Anything can happen as long as we allow it.

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What's the harsh noise scene like in Austin, TX right now and what bands or projects do you normally play with? I know your other band Total Abuse isn't afraid to alienate themselves from the hardcore punk scene in Austin. Does Breathing Problem follow that same agenda?
Rusty: Austin has Jonathan Cash AKA Breakdancing Ronald Reagan; he is a true patron saint. He is completely dedicated to booking gigs and creating noise. He believes in total freedom, and he won't hesitate to praise your work and make fun of you in the same comment. We are proud to call him a close friend and comrade. He has played in Breathing Problem more than a few times and will again in the future. Breathing Problem was partially created to further alienate the supposed punks that already hated Total Abuse. I wanted to personally get away from all of that. It was all so boring. The noise gigs in Austin are filled with friends and those actually interested in experimental sound. The audience will be critical of your work but are also there to have a good time and not take everything too seriously. The noise scene is the direct opposite of the boring old punk scene in my opinion. At a noise gig in Austin there’s true variety and non-judgment. Even if you suck, you have a place to perform. Everyone gets five to ten minutes at some point.

Tell us more about your split with Swallowing Bile. That artist also appears on The Keyhole track "Mr. Cruel." Who is Swallowing Bile and what made you want to collaborate with them?
Rusty: The split is called Highly Personal and is a prelude to a new album in the works to be titled Bed of Sex, Pit of Tar. The Breathing Problem songs are being produced by our close friend M.Crites-Krumm. Swallowing Bile is an incredible project, and we are proud to say he is a friend as well. He toured with us back in November and we got along, to say the least. In the world of industrial/noise, Swallowing Bile is one of the few contemporary artists who still has a personal language and network of obsessions that he lets through. Not enough artists channel those things in their work. You see more and more projects mimicking the usual black and white bondage stuff, but nothing coming from deep inside themselves.

The split cassette will be two songs by each artist and one collaboration track. That will be self-released by Breathing Problem and Swallowing Bile, and we are happy to announce that Bed of Sex, Pit of Tar will be released on vinyl as an LP on the incredible Torn Light Records.

Chris Shaw has a sweet band of his own, and is on Twitter.