The End of Plagues and Going Pop: An Interview with WIFE's James Kelly

AND, stream a new track from WIFE's LP, out June 10th!

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May 28 2014, 4:35pm

At the apex of their career in October 2013, epic black metal band Altar of Plagues called it quits with their last live show supporting possibly their greatest achievement, the Teethed Glory & Injury LP. Soon thereafter came the news, AOP mastermind James Kelly would pursue an entirely different direction with a new project, WIFE. Anticipation was high, and curiousity had been piqued; the new project was a complete directional shift from the loved black metal band and into uncharted waters.

Less than a year later, the debut LP What’s Between is finally here, due on June 10th via Tri Angle Records. Check out the new WIFE track "Tongue," available for the first time here, and recent track "The Heart Is A Far Light" below. Dig in, while you delve into the mind of James Kelly in an interview with the WIFE/ex-Altar of Plagues frontman.

ICYMI, Noisey presented the inaugural WIFE show in the US at Saint Vitus earlier this year.

NOISEY: Let's talk about your mindset during Altar of Plagues when you decided to do WIFE, a very different direction and genre of music.
James Kelly: I have always listened to many different types of music. And in a way I never intended for Altar of Plagues to go on as long as it did. It was kind of a happy accident. I never thought we'd get a record deal, or have the ability to tour but after years of doing it I sort of took stock and thought "is this something I really want to be doing or do I need to draw a line in the sand and pursue other things." I thought that I needed to give this other stuff in me, that I've wanted to make for a very long time, a shot. Thats all it really was. Doing what I felt like I really needed to do.

So to be clear, there was always a divide for you? I mean you never made primitive WIFE material with the intention of incorporation into AOP.
Nah, totally separate. Even with Altar of Plagues I sort of knew the parameters that I wanted it to be within. So I suppose around the last, and even around the second, AOP record… thats kind of when I started bringing in some of the things I had been learning from noodling around as part of WIFE. But even then, I knew my own boundaries for the band.

While not readily apparent, there are definite similarities between WIFE and AOP. AOP did not succumb to sort of the simple, nihilist outlook that accompanies much black metal, striking me as somewhat uplifting as times. There is definitely still a melancholy that exists in the newer WIFE material though it also strikes me in the same way.
I think thats definitely true. It's possible that it comes from influences like Arvo Part or even early Emperor. Dark yet almost uplifting.

Being that black metal is somewhat negative by nature and WIFE material is definitely rather hopeful, do you feel like WIFE is somewhat reactionary to AOP? Almost the idea that you are "done with" that attitude?
Well there's a few different things… Firstly, I have always been very conscious of the fact that Altar of Plagues was a very physical live band. When I would see someone like Neurosis or something that, as powerful as they still might be, they seem to have lost a lot of energy as opposed to years ago. I personally believe that you are giving the material a bit of a disservice by giving it a sort of aged performance. Altar of Plagues was something that I felt like had a timeline, and I wouldn't perform it when I physically wasn't able to.

Secondly, I really wanted to change and do something completely different…. not in the same sense of "Hey, I did a black metal band, now I have a death metal/grind band." I wanted to try something completely new. I don't know… maybe the most punk thing you can do these days is write a happy song instead of writing a dark one. I just love writing catchy pop songs. I think I spent enough of my teens being dark and brooding.

The interesting thing is that in a lot of ways it seems to me that WIFE comes from an extreme scene connected to black metal, Noise. How much has your experience with Noise and going to Noise shows influenced WIFE?
Definitely, in some sense. Guys like Dominick Fernow are an inspiration… Bermuda Drain perfectly straddles that line between pop and noise.

As far as other influences, WIFE initially started as my attempt at essentially club music. I was really into the early dub step and early Prodigy records, techno… stuff like that. Hard music you could dance to… really visceral stuff. As I got into it, I started to feel that making clinical beats was sort of void of any feeling, and I felt the need to pump my music full of sentiment. Which is when I started leaning into what has affected me most… pop music.

I think big inspirations for me are Kate Bush, Fleetwood Mac.. I really like Bat for Lashes, I think she's incredible. As far as male singers…Scott Walker, stuff like that.

It's funny, as I have become more and more aware of my own singing, I have become more aware of other vocalists, and I definitely am more influenced by vocalists than singers really. Trent Reznor is a massive influence, but he is definitely more of a vocalist than a singer; his voice can be, at times, almost unpleasant to listen to. That said, I can't imagine anyone else doing what he does. Morrissey falls into that category, Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis… It's their message and they deliver it perfectly.

There is an honesty to their vocals that trumps the traditional aspects of a "good singer."
In an age of autotune, I feel like everyone is afraid to show the flaws of what they do, which I think is a major loss. Literally pitch perfect over emotionally pitch perfect, if you will.

So when you decided to end Altar of Plagues and go forward with WIFE, how far along were you with the project? Did you have an album's worth of material?
I didn't have an album's worth, more like sketches and demos. And I think with any band the early stuff is really raw and maybe not entirely indicative of what it would develop into. I think that the first WIFE EP is like that. When a band does it's first release, there is a freedom of not knowing exactly what its supposed to be.

Now the LP is done and due on June 9th. What do you think your ultimate goals are with WIFE now? Touring?
My goals were that I just wanted to make a record with really honest songwriting. And I'd love to get back on the road in the US at some point.

So the current live configuration is you with controllers triggering electronics, and a visual element. Do you ever see that expanding into other parts?
Yes, definitely. I think what I see for myself is the need to nail it, and then incorporate in other elements and building from there. In Altar of Plagues it took hundreds of shows and understanding of the players involved in order to get the sense of familiarity of what to expect from each other person live. I need to make sure I have my own show down before I incorporate anyone else. But it definitely has the capacity to become a live thing… there is a ton of live instrumentation on the record.

WIFE


So based on that instrumentation, was the songwriting built with that eventual goal in mind?
Its more of a case of what I know and what I am used to. I would record things on piano of record big batches of ideas and then just sample and build tracks from there.

Much of what appears on the record are sort of short snippets or stories of my life. For instance, part of the record features a cello, which I ended up sampling a shit load of and came from me posing as a student to borrow for one night. Another part of the record comes from me recording a busker in Bejing on my iPhone. The guitar part from "Bodies"… that was recorded on laptop microphone. Inspiration comes from many different places.

So not only are the music and lyrics personal, but its like the album is literally a collage of your life experience.
Exactly. Layers and layers and layers of experiences of many different kinds.

One thing that I am very aware of is the sort of prevailing attitude of people who haven't been involved in metal towards those that have. Its almost like those who have been involved in metal, but have maybe transformed those experiences into another avenue, are treated as "the metal guy." It's almost like a porno attitude or something… "that guy used to do metal."

Its funny because I am starting to experience this. I was conscious when WIFE started that I didn't know whether I wanted to reveal what projects I worked in previously for fear of being pigeonholed. I figured everyone is going to find out eventually, so why try and delay that. But I was worried that it would give people a preconception of what WIFE was… that people would think that I am "trying out" pop music as a metal guy. It is definitely not that.

It's funny… I think that people on the mainstream/pop end of things seem to be the most susceptible to this… and its like metal guys seem to be OK with it.