Pretty much everyone in New South Wales likes Holy Balm, and if someone doesn’t, you know to worry about them. Sorry if that sounds a tad fascist, but this is factual journalism. With the release of their debut LP It’s You, the rest of the country is learning that it’s a bit weird not to like Holy Balm, and by extension parts of the Rest Of The World. As a result some music website across the pond premiered this new Holy Balm clip, and for once we’re going to “harvest content” from abroad because you probably want to watch this. If you don’t, maybe go read about Foo Fighters. If that’s too much for you, here’s a fascinating history of the Pokémon video game franchise from Wikipedia.
Stacey Wilson is probably best known for her work as Rites Wild, in addition to being a member of Terrible Truths. As Rites Wild, Wilson has released two cassettes and a CD-R comprising slow-paced velvet-hued pop songs, which have culminated in a forthcoming LP on Not Not Fun entitled Ways of Being. She recently released a digital album through Wood & Wire under the name Regional Curse, which is a collection of disquieting, monochrome synth-based pieces.
In addition to these, Wilson also plays as Comfort Zones and has just launched a new label in the form of Heavy Lows, which boasts forthcoming releases from the likes of Beige Abrasion, Legendary Hearts and Major Crimes, among others. In the below interview, conducted over a couple of emails, Wilson discusses Rites Wild and Regional Curse, explaining the factors that separate the two, and touching on the formative experiences that have influenced her languid, calmly repetitious take on pop music.
What is the purpose of separating Rites Wild and Regional Curse? Is it solely a difference in sound that distinguishes them?
To me they are really different projects. Regional Curse predates Rites Wild by a couple of years, although I used to just play under my name. It was the first time I’d recorded and played live solo, which was initially terrifying as I’d only played in bands before that. Regional Curse comes from a much darker place, it feels quite sinister to me. It’s a heavy zone. I emailed my last Regional Curse album to some friends with the tagline “the sounds of poor mental health”. I’m trying to be a bit lighter with Rites Wild, more poppy. Rites Wild has a sense of hope about it, but Regional Curse is completely doomed.
Why did you call the project Regional Curse?
I grew up in a small town in country South Australia. Most of my family live there, and have done for five generations. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s also insular, racist and bigoted. The people are happy, though, because the world within a world that they have created is perfect for them. It’s not challenging, everyone falls in line, you know [what] your place is and what “normal” is. The curse is that you’re happy so long as you don’t question anything or anyone. Once you do, you’re done. It’s broken. There’s no turning back.
The Christian high school I attended was soul-crushing. The daily ritual of authority figures condemning you to a fiery hell for your “abnormalities”. Homosexuals and paedophiles are one and the same, that kind of thing. I couldn’t wait to get out. I escaped by doing student exchange in Germany for a semester. After I got back shit really hit the fan and I ended up leaving that school and moved to Adelaide when I was 16.
Was there a particular instance where you did question or challenge the norm in your hometown?
Not one particular instance, more just a culmination of experiences. It’s hard to explain without going into detail, which might be a complete over-share. Just general run-of-the-mill disillusionment, I suppose.
What kind of sounds influenced you then?
By way of my brother’s grunge phase the first decent music I got into was Riot Grrrl, which pretty much saved my life, as dramatic as that may sound. I felt blown away to find music that made me feel like things were going to be okay. I made a mixtape with Bikini Kill on one side and Heavens to Betsy on the other and I pretty much wore it out on the school bus.
Are there any goals with Regional Curse, in terms of moods you want to create?
It’s not overly thought out, but it’s dark, and meditative in a way. Now that I’ve been doing Regional Curse for a while I don’t really have to go into recording with any themes or concepts, it just works itself out. That being said, the meditative qualities of repetition were something I set out to explore on Natural Living.
What kind of visual associations do you have with Regional Curse, if any? Have any non-audio influences played a part?
Film is a big influence when it comes to Regional Curse. I’m currently working on a new project with a different approach than usual – I’m in the process of making a short film which once completed will have music composed for it. I’d like to release that project as both a film and a stand alone album. It’ll be interesting to see how the music holds up without the imagery that informed and shaped it. In the past I’ve made videos to go along with my music but they all look pretty shit, mostly due to cheap equipment and my lack of expertise in film making.
Were there any formative experiences or events that you think may have shaped your approach to making music?
Although my parents aren’t musically inclined they were into my brother and I learning an instrument. I started playing piano when I was quite young. I hated taking lessons and learning theory but would spend most of my spare time making up stupid songs and irritating my family. In year six I taught myself to play guitar, which was a total revelation for me. I’ve never been very good socially so have always had a lot of time to myself, and because of this, music and art have always been all-consuming for me. Potentially it’s dangerous to live in your own head too much, but I’m not terribly worried.
What is coming up for Rites Wild?
I’ve been working on a lot of new stuff. I’m not sure what to make of some of the songs just yet. My general rule is just to do what feels right, but some of the new stuff weirds me out, it’s more dancey. I don’t really listen to dance music but it’s fun to make. Time will tell if people actually get to hear some of the more dubious tracks. As a complete contrast to that, I’ve also been working on some longer, more minimal tracks for an upcoming release.
I’m doing two little tours soon; four dates at the end of September including Adelaide, which will be the first time I’ve been back since I moved away. Which is a strange feeling [Wilson is now based in Melbourne]. In mid October I’m doing three shows with Xiu Xiu. In between those tours I’ll be playing the launch of my new label [Heavy Lows] with a bunch of great bands in Melbourne.
Are there any musicians in Melbourne or the rest of the country you feel you have an affinity with?
For sure, but I’m not sure if the feeling is mutual. I would never assume as much. Artists like Angel Eyes, Circular Keys, Andrew Sinclair and Major Crimes all connect with me deeply. I feel excited and inspired by the music they make.
What’s it like playing in a band, Terrible Truths, compared with having full control with your own projects?
It’s easier in most ways. Terrible Truths is always enjoyable; we’re just friends playing music together, it’s bliss. Logistically it’s tougher because Joe [Alexander] lives in Brisbane. It would be fun to jam every week and hang out. But we do get to see Joe a lot, so I can’t really complain. We recorded an album last weekend and it wasn’t stressful at all. We did it live over two days and now it’s done, ta da. Rites Wild recording just seems to go on and on. I record at home and am self-taught so it takes much longer than it should, probably. I get really finicky and perfectionist about Rites Wild. Sometimes I wish there was another person involved just so they could say “Good enough! Finished! Move on!”.
Finally, how did the forthcoming Not Not Fun release come about? I notice with two exceptions these tracks were on previous releases. Does this mark the “end of an era” for Rites Wild? What’s next?
Last year I was in LA and played a show at a gallery, which ended up getting shut down early because the neighbour went spare at the gallery owner about the noise. But anyway, the next day I got an email from Amanda from Not Not Fun, which she’d sent the night prior, asking where the show was, and saying that they dug the EP and wanted to put out a release for Rites Wild, completely out of the blue. The Not Not Fun release has been in the works for an age, but it’s finally about to come out. The first LP is a collection of songs from tapes I put out myself and a couple of unreleased songs. I’ve made two more albums since then… I’m hoping the second one will be out relatively soon.
Forthcoming Rites Wild shows:
September 24 (As Comfort Zones) Northcote Social Club, Melbourne
September 27 First Draft Gallery, Sydney
September 28 Sound Summit, Newcastle ^
September 29 Format Festival, Adelaide ^
September 30 Metro, Adelaide
October 4 Bar Open, Melbourne (Heavy Lows Label Launch)
October 7 Gasometer, Melbourne ^
October 17 Good God, Sydney *
October 18 Powerhouse, Brisbane *
October 19 Gasometer, Melbourne *
^ w/ High Wolf (France)
* w/ Xiu Xiu (USA)
When I got Andrew Cowie on the phone to discuss his Angel Eyes project, my first question was whether he’d ever seen the 1980s television series Highway to Heaven. The show’s opening credits filled me with a weird dread as a kid – something I can’t describe even now. They depict a pilot’s view through white clouds, followed by a long shot of a man approaching the camera on a hazy flat highway. The suggestion, I guess, is that the man flew down to earth. I don’t know – I never actually watched the program.
When I first listened to Angel Eyes’ first cassette, 2009’s Dire Dish, it immediately reminded me of those opening credits. I can’t rationalise the connection, but there’s definitely something searching and monumental and frighteningly beautiful about that cassette. Sonically, Angel Eyes is both airborne and barren: alarmingly spacious and eternal. That album conjures images of worlds, kingdoms and landscapes with totally foreign colour schemes and an abundance of space. The dread I mention isn’t one of imminent danger but instead a kind of Lovecraftian lack of comprehension – of having a tiny hint at something bigger than you, something you will never know. It’s one of my favourite records – four pop songs stretched to their very limit and layered with glistening synthesizer.
Unfortunately for me, Cowie has never seen the opening credits to Highway to Heaven. Later this year, he’s releasing his third album Final Fare – his first on vinyl – through Bedroom Suck, which follows Dire Dish and Vice to Vice, both cassette only albums released on Not Not Fun and Moon Glyph respectively.
The word dreamy is used to describe music a lot, but it seems especially appropriate for Angel Eyes. What draws you to this sound?
It’s a bit of a cliche to talk about where you grew up, but I grew up on a dairy farm in regional Victoria. It’s grassland desert – the kind of place no one wants to see on the road because they just get bored of it, but I dug it. I think for me a lot of the reverb and delay and the endlessness [is inspired by that]. Wherever you turn there’s a horizon.
I also used to really dig just listening to a fan in the summertime, just a regular fan blowing. That sort of constant tremolo and that phasing effect of the fan when it was on the rotation setting, moving back and forth, I liked that. Throughout the year I used to wait for that time when I could put a fan on at night and it was okay with my parents to do so. That definitely had a part and impacted on what I was listening to a lot. I grew up listening to a bit of grindcore as well, but then I discovered Godflesh who were a bit slower and minimal, and OLD who were a bit more cyclical or repetitive. Now I’m always searching for space, and I guess that’s the haziness that comes from dreams. I think that element plays some part.
What kind of circumstances compel you to write or record the material? What’s the right time?
There’s no right time, I just do it every day. Actually that’s a bit extreme – I do it most days. I just want to do it. I don’t know why, it’s kinda an unhealthy habit sometimes. I could be doing a tax return and I’ll just ignore that and continue to play my music. I just like writing, I don’t know why. I have no idea. I should know, everyone should know why they do things they do. I just need to create a new sonic universe for myself, or something like that.
You say the environment you grew up in plays a large part in the music. Does your current environment in Melbourne play a part also?
I think I’ve become a lot more… I think I was just trudging through the city before, but now I’m paying a lot more attention to the way streets are lit up or the way walls look, and noticing dilapidated or decrepit buildings. I realised that when I walk around I rarely looked up, so now I tend to look up a lot more. The suburban and industrial spaces has impacted a bit, because there is always space wherever you go. I live in North Melbourne, which is pretty close to the centre of the city so it’s pretty tall, but if you look up you can always find that space that I crave, and sometimes I forget about that. But I guess when you look at the ground you can find a lot of space as well.
Moments of silence have an impact. Not of total silence but of quiet, like driving at night. I don’t own a car so I don’t drive much, but being in a taxi late at night, there’s a sense of calm about it. I think maybe that impacts. We all search for things and that search for silence or space or whatever your thing is, that impacts on me. It’s a reflection more so than a direction I guess.
The keyboards, particularly on Dire Dish, have an almost spiritual sound to them, like wavering church organs. Is Angel Eyes meant to be a meditative listening experience?
I don’t think it’s meant to be anything to be honest, other than what I’m into at the time. Anything that happens, the result of listening to it is up to the listener. I think that’s just my aesthetic and what I like impacting on what people hear. Maybe it is though, maybe it’s a way for me to meditate, for me to find my place in the city or wherever. A retreat, maybe.
Your lyrics are often inaudible or indecipherable, is that intentional?
Yeah, I’d say yes. I do take care with them, but I don’t feel confident with them really. I think with what I’m producing at the moment I don’t know whether it’s that relevant, I think it might take away from the sonic space that I’m trying to build. I just think it could get in the way. Like I said I do take care with the lyrics but the voice is more of an instrument. I think taking care of it is more of a private thing for me, I just need to feel like I’ve put the effort in.
I often don’t give lyrics a second thought when I can hear them, but because yours are so obscured it makes me curious. Particularly during ‘Do Away With’ on Dire Dish.
I can’t remember what that song was, but generally it’s just a snapshot of something. For example ‘Dire Dish’ is literally about me serving myself dire dishes: at the end of the day after work, I’m staring down at the quick and easy monstrosity that I’ve created, and you can look to the past and look to the future in one really shitty dish.
That’s an interestingly mundane theme for music that sounds so monumental.
[Laughs] Well you can find anything in any moment, and looking at those mundane moments, they’re as pivotal in most people’s lives as anything else, if you actually assess it.
My impression is that Final Fare is a lot cleaner: there’s less guitar for instance. Why has your sound developed in this direction?
The less guitar thing is more a result of playing live, because I felt kind of restricted. When you’ve got a guitar and you’re trying to play keys it’s a difficult thing to grapple with physically. I found that if I played keyboards I could basically disarm the mic stand and just have a floating mic, so I had much more freedom to move about or give some sort of physicality to the way I perform live. As a result I want recordings to reflect what I do live. I’d like to play more guitar but it’s just me solo, and to be honest I’ve never done much keys in the past and I’ve been getting into it. In terms of chords it’s a lot more interesting medium to use than guitar I find. But also there’s the sonic physicality of a guitar that I like. I’m constantly thinking about going back to guitar, but at this point I’m just using keys. I’m finding new things in it.
I don’t mean this disparagingly, but the songs take on a more new age feel without the guitar. Do you recognise that?
Totally. For my work I have to deliver to this Qi place in Melbourne. They have amethyst stones and good luck charms, and they constantly have that music playing in the background. It’s incredibly synthetic and very still. I’m kinda interested in that at the moment, that stillness and synthetic-ness. It’s a very odd mixture, because I always equate technology with noise. But there’s a stillness that can come from it as well. The new age thing, I guess is a bit different, but I guess that harks to what you were saying about the meditative or dreamlike state. I also just like this soft music sometimes, and maybe it’s that playing a role.
Over the last two years new age has become less frowned upon. Elements of it pop up in a lot of modern music.
I actually frown upon it in some ways. When I go into this Qi place and hear the music I think I’d want to kill myself by the end of the day, it’s so saccharine and sweet. But most things are accepted now, it feels like anything can be hip. Is that kinda a hangover of the Vice culture, which has seeped into the norm? I’ve never been into that culture but it’s now okay to like new age panpipes, which is a wonderful thing. That’s okay now, for people to listen to what they want, I think that’s a good thing. I have no idea why, though. It’s just the age of the internet.
Your singing sounds a lot stronger on this record. You usually sing in a monotone, but during ‘A Light Distraction’ you lift out of it. Is that a portent of things to come?
I think so. I think Dire Dish is more melodic in a way, even if it doesn’t come across that way. I think there are some faux-soul bits that come through on the Final Fare stuff, where I break into a falsetto. There are things that I’m afraid of, and one of those is cheesiness. Sometimes deep inside I know that there’s cheesiness that I love, and I try it and I know I have to go with it. I have to break through the cheese factor.
Another thing I noticed is the new record is a lot more urban sounding, particularly with the lack of the guitar and the more modern sounding synths.
It’s way more modern. The Dire Dish stuff and Vice to Vice were all lo-fi. I took it upon myself with Final Fare to clean things up. I don’t know if this is a definite thing but I like the idea of cleaning things up, so I bought myself some recording gear. I recorded it myself and I just wanted to experiment with cleaner sounds because it’s something I haven’t really done before. It’s still not high fidelity, but I wanted to approach it more compositionally. The actual lines that were coming out were more audible. Maybe it’s as simple as that, maybe it’s just more audible and the melody is more present.
Finally, you’re also working on another project, Legendary Hearts. Can you tell me about that?
That’s with Kieran, who plays in Superstar. We discussed getting together and it took over a year before we actually had a rehearsal. It’s basically just him and I, looking for softer sounds. It’s more improvisational, and it’s a real noodling band. We’re releasing something soon on Dungeon Taxi. It’s as simple as two friends getting together and trying to create something we like. No two shows are the same, and we don’t know what is going to happen.
Final Fare will be available through Bedroom Suck later this year. Dire Dish can be downloaded at Boomkat.
There’s no murk anymore. The lights are on, smoking has been banned, and Sydney’s Holy Balm have finally recorded a proper dance record. Here the group’s lo-fi grime has been scrubbed away, leaving sharp-focus textures and 4/4s that never wobble out of step. All evidence is gone of the drone-y jam band that debuted on a split CD-R with Vincent Over The Sink back in 2006.
Holy Balm are a dance group that have rarely (if ever) played in a club, appearing instead mostly on punk line-ups. It’s You is released locally on R.I.P. Society but also on Californian label Not Not Fun, and the association with the latter makes a lot sense: some will write Holy Balm off as amateur dance music for people who don’t like dance music, an accusation sometimes leveled at Not Not Fun’s dance offshoot 100% Silk. But this only holds true if keeping things tidy and in their right place is really important to you.
It’s true that precision is not a concern for Holy Balm. Bass lines fall slightly out of step with the beat sometimes (especially on ‘Holy Balm Theme’) and their panicked improvised lead lines always sound like they’re rushing for a bum note. Holy Balm sounds defective, but only just: the clean right angles and white textures of techno are bent crooked here, the shades all mixed up and the components bolted incorrectly. Brief lead lines pop up in ‘Phone Song’ that sound like cameos from other songs, but their intrusion is a pleasing sensorial jolt, like sonic detritus from another transmission.
Holy Balm never sound bad though, just endearingly wrong. Their sound is halfway between rigidly functional techno and the decrepit no-wave of groups like Excepter, and while the group don’t sound especially invested in either extreme their music could satisfy either inclination. Techno-existential dread is swapped out with party tune whimsy, but it’s a weird and almost exhausted kind of revelry: all frayed at the edges and somehow incomplete.
But for all that, the most welcome development on It’s You is the songs. Emma Ramsey’s vocals are still reverberated but they cling closer to a tune now, offering a breadcrumb trail through the matrix of locked beats and askew leads. You can take It’s You however you like, as either an especially blazed dance record or a weird pop one, but it’s never boring. Now that the murk has lifted, we can finally hear them properly.