Salem has the loveliest contradictions. A murky electronic trio that emerged in 2008 from the wooded depths of rural Traverse City, Michigan, their music is the product of blending brooding, foggy synths with the molasses sludge of slowed-down Texas screw-rap. It’s a sound that quickly earned bandmates Jack Donoghue, 22, John Holland, 24, and Heather Marlatt, 26 (who, at the time of this writing, was nine-months pregnant) a cult following.
Yet Salem’s music alone hardly explains the recent explosion of the threesome as representative of something larger than just a new Midwestern band. They’ve become somewhat hard-to-define style icons as well and occasional wanderers in the downtown New York City art and fashion scenes. Perhaps it was the release last year of their album King Night, which sounds like the work of a forlorn, lethargic Southern rapper calling in from the wrong side of the River Styx. It made the trio a flagship for a nebulous new genre called “witch house.” It also inspired designer Riccardo Tisci to use the band’s ghostly tracks in a runway show for Givenchy, officially certifying the Salem phenomenon. More recently, it has been Donoghue’s presence on fashion sites, party pages, and red carpets that has seemed to forecast a different direction for the once utterly obscure threesome; the young, brooding musician appeared, for example, alongside Courtney Love, holding hands, at last summer’s amfAR Gala.
Scene-making cameos aside, the three members of Salem maintain their outsider status as well as their resident status as die-hard Midwesterners. And as they ready their second album, which will be released sometime next year, they are working hard to keep the group a thing of its own—weird and strange as it is. “I think that a lot of what we do is definitely based off emotion,” explains Holland, on a conference call from Traverse City. “We do things a little intuitively without a really solid statement.”
This abiding belief in their own intuition explains why the band, whose first EP was called Yes I Smoke Crack, and who have released a series of sludgy remixes of acts as varied as Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane and Britney Spears would be interested in moving beyond the typical rock formula. In fact, they’re expanding their idea of what Salem can be in terms of the visual, emotional, and visceral—even if that means making you uncomfortable. They’ve already apprenticed in shock with their notorious live shows, perceived by some as studies in not giving a shit, but defended by others as challenging, interesting, and, indeed, maybe even a form of performance art. At a much-derided performance at SXSW 2010, for instance, they were booed offstage just a few songs in. “Something we were frustrated with when we started was that we didn’t feel like we had any control over always having traditional venues, where people drink and have expectations of what a live show would be,” says Donoghue. So it’s interesting for us to set up environments to take them outside of that comfort zone.” They’re also planning more trips to New York to work on other projects: Salem’s confounding of expectations will include a new foray into the art world in October, when the group will have their first solo show at curator Kathy Grayson’s new gallery on the Bowery, the Hole (no connection to Ms. Love). “We’re always thinking of ideas for installations, for performance-piece type things, to make it less of a traditional show and more of an experience,” says Marlatt. And they’ve recently completed a video for “King Night” directed by photographer Theo Wenner, son of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. In the meantime, they remain faithful to their beloved Midwest and don’t see themselves moving anytime soon. The Hole’s creative director, Fabiola Beracasa, touts the band’s willingness to let their selvage show: “What draws me to the Salem aesthetic and sound is the perfection of imperfection,” she says. In a world of appearance and polish, it’s great to see genuine non-conformist truth.” Beracasa adds, “Just as it is when we don’t pretend.”
Photos: Salem in Traverse City, Michigan, July 2011.