WIFE Explores Humanity Through Machinery

James Kelly
James Kelly is WIFE. Photos by Camillie-Blake.

WIFE is the solo moniker of James Kelly, an Irish-born musician currently residing in Berlin who is better known to metalheads as the guitarist of Altar of Plagues. His full-length debut under that name, 2014’s What’s Between, found Kelly moving away from his former work as much as possible, moving himself into territory akin to How to Dress Well. Between was meant to strip metal’s chest-thumping armor in the grand name of vulnerability. Through his dissatisfaction with that record, as well as the overwhelming electronic presence in Berlin, metal has come back to him in a major way even as he continues to make electronic music. Kelly says that he’s recently been getting back into Sepultura, Morbid Angel, Autopsy’s Mental Funeral, and even nü metal—especially Slipknot’s self-titled album.

“It’s so insanely barbaric—if we put it in the context of the more underground stuff we know, it’s not as insane, but talking about something that was [on] commercial radio stations, that was a really major new height for what people have the capacity to listen to,” Kelly says about the Iowa group’s breakthrough.

Standard Nature, his new EP on Profound Lore (who also released two Altar of Plagues records), eschews straightforwardness for heavier beats, chopped up vocals, and melodies that make rough entrances and even rougher exits. On the surface, that jaggedness is reminiscent of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete, a record born from Daniel Lopatin’s experience touring with Nine Inch Nails. With Kelly’s background, the zig-zag patterns could have also easily come from Trey Azagthoth’s fluid, almost anti-linear soloing, or how Slipknot would distill bite-sized elements of death and black metal for a mainstream audience. It’s shorter but more fulfilling than Between, and it’s a compelling intersection of metal and electronic influences, which have more similarities than one thinks.

We discussed the underlying heavy influences of Standard, as well as Kelly’s issues with Between, and how the solitude of solo electronic music compares to that of one-man black metal.

Standard Nature does feel like a harder record, mainly with the beats. Was there anything else that contributed to it feeling heavier?

Kelly: I just feel like it’s more focused from my point of view. I think I’ve hit a point where I understand what I want WIFE to do. To me, this EP is a continuation of the first EP I did, Stoic, it’s an electronic record but it’s definitely got a heaviness to it, and it’s dark and experimental, whereas the album was me taking a stab at doing something that was more singer-songwriter leaning, more accessible. To be honest, the experience of creating that record was really difficult, and not in the romantic difficult way, but the [kind of] difficult that won’t age the record well in my mind. Having gone through those growing pains, I feel like I’ve reached a level where I have a better understanding and I was more confident in just saying “Fuck it” and putting in stuff that was aggressive without affecting its accessibility. With the album I was more conscious about striving for something more accessible; in doing so you’re more careful about what kind of elements and what kind of aggressiveness you incorporate.

James Kelly

How else was making What’s Between difficult?

Kelly: Personally, I feel like I began making it not knowing exactly what WIFE was going to be yet, so in that regard it was flawed from the start. Then I was signed to Tri Angle. It was a whole new ballgame for me. The first WIFE EP was an accident; it was made before WIFE was on anybody’s radar, I put it out on a super low key label, and then some people picked up on it and it got way more attention than I ever anticipated, but that wasn’t factoring into my writing because I had no idea that would happen. [When] I signed to Tri Angle and I’d seen the level of acts they work with and the career heights some of these people reach and what can happen after releasing with Tri Angle subconsciously, that definitely affected me. On the one hand, I wanted the opportunity to connect with a bigger audience, an audience into more accessible type of stuff, but at the same time, I didn’t want to compromise or get rid of the things I liked that I developed with the EP.

In the end, it was so drawn out. Something I’ve worked on improving is the speed I work and write, whether on a laptop or a fucking guitar or whatever. That album, one of the things it taught me—you can spend 100 years tweaking a track when it’s a digital because there’s no timeline to it, there’s no defined ending. Then as things developed, the label and I had some disagreements [with] how we wanted it to come out. It was a shame that  what I ended up with was a record I truly knew in my heart I was not happy with. It felt very difficult to tour behind that for a year and talk about it in interviews and try to put on a brave face and say I felt good about it. And I’d rather be honest about that now than bullshit people and say I fucking love it. I’m putting it behind me, and this EP is definitely me moving forward.

I am fascinated by how metal and electronic music are pretty similar—they have similar sonic goals, trying to use machinery to become more human, if that make sense.

Kelly: Fear Factory is such a big influence as well, I really love that band, or at least the first three records. It’s really cool when the geeky, fantasy nature of metalheads manifests itself in actual music and it’s really cool shit like Fear Factory or Godflesh—that futurism that’s sometimes inherent in metal and only represented by its geekiness, I love it when that becomes manifested in the music. So much electronic music does that too—so much of it was birthed in Detroit and Berlin, which were places that were beginning to industrialize and the kids were almost soundtracking this world that was growing around them.

Are the similarities between the solitude of making electronic music and the experience of one-man black metal?

Kelly: One of the very different things for me, when I had my guitar over my shoulder and I was at home in my bedroom writing Altar of Plagues stuff, there’s a real physicality to the riffing of it, and your whole body is getting into it. It’s immediately gratifying when you’re creating that music, whereas when you’re working computer and a keyboard, it separates that visceral feeling and it’s more like cooking a fucking cake or something, far more effort has to go in before that final payoff. I don’t feel like I get that visceral emotional response creating music through a computer medium, whereas a guitar is far more physical and immediate.

There’s something inherently anti-social about wanting to make music alone. I’m a very social person, but for whatever reason all the music things I’ve been involved with, at their core, are me on my own. Even Altar of Plagues, I wrote everything alone. When we toured, we were a group, but it was me alone, so I’m not sure why I’ve always gravitated towards doing that. There’s definitely the same thing with other one-man and one-woman things, there’s something inherently anti-social for sure.

You seclude yourself to make music that will hopefully resonate with other people. That contradiction has always been fascinating to me.

Kelly: When Xasthur and Leviathan were completely anonymous, there was something so inviting about “This person is the most reclusive person on earth, but we’re privileged to have them share this with us.” That effect wears off eventually and there’s still something in them—you’re sharing your music with people. As anti-social as you are, there’s something in you that’s seeking gratification or you want to be acknowledged by your peers. You can at least admit you want to share it for whatever reason.

In interviews about Between, you talked about wanting to express vulnerability, but was there an aspect of WIFE that you wanted it to be mysterious in that classic black metal way?

Kelly: I’d say that’s kind of inherent in what I do, I’m quite averse to Twitter and social media. I just hate it when acts give away too much, like I just know from my experience as a fan of music, there’s nothing worse than you’re fucking reading about someone you have great respect for and they’re telling you about making eggs or seeing a cute kitten on the subway. I like to hold back in that regard, but I wouldn’t say it’s mysterious. It’s just saying as much that needs to be said rather than making yourself completely open, giving everything away. Maybe if I had grown up listening to music that encouraged more flamboyancy and more boisterousness, I would be that way, but my favorite bands were Darkthrone and Emperor, and they made themselves pretty scarce, and that resonated with me more than anything else.

What are the themes behind Standard Nature?

Kelly: I’ve described it as being inspired by time I spent when I was living in a Costa Rican rainforest working as an environmental researcher just after University, because I studied Environmental Science, but the way in which that affected the record—it’s not like the record has environmental themes, it’s moreso sonically influenced it. I’ve got lots of layers of field recordings of chainsaws and thing like that in there. The visual image I was trying to create with the instrumentation is when I witnessed huge ancient trees being cut down with enormous chainsaws held in the arms of men, capturing this moment when something beautiful and organic intersects with machinery and… that will have a fatal effect.

I love the use of voice in this record, all of the beautiful tones and how they get chopped up in this non-linear fashion, it makes sense in the context of these trees getting destroyed.

Kelly: I feel like redefined my relationship with my voice for this record because one of the things I was encouraged to do with the WIFE album—when you sing, people are always “Put your voice upfront, make it all about your voice.” I was never that kind of singer, I’ve always referred to myself as a vocalist, I don’t consider myself in the category of a singer. I like the word vocalist because I like to apply it to people like David Byrne, who aren’t amazing singers, they’re just incredible vocalists who use their voice to amazing effects. After I got that WIFE album out of my system, it was coming back to experimenting with my voice, using it in different ways, and again, I had resigned the idea that I was not going to be making a record for wide consumption. And when you lose that expectation that you might have a song on the radio, you say fuck it, I’m gonna chop my voice up or I’m gonna bury it under all the instruments instead putting up high in the mix.

James Kelly

Was it your intention to make less straightforward compositions for this record?

Kelly: Yeah, I probably embraced that a little more. I’ve always been into slightly skewed structuring. You can hear that in the last Altar of Plagues record especially. We messed with time signatures and things a lot more. I brought that in with this new WIFE record—when you’re writing music that’s perfectly quantized and on the grid, to me it becomes too functional, and it loses its humanity, and it loses the element of surprise. During the last Altar of Plagues tour, we played with Converge. It was the first time I’d ever seen them. Just seeing them play and hearing those song structures reminded me of how much I love music that fucks with you a bit and surprises you—you think you’re following the riff where it’s going, and then it [takes a] sharp turn where you weren’t expecting. I definitely don’t want to do anything that’s awkward for awkward’s sake, it’s just the way those songs developed naturally.

Was that a way to shrink the gap between the modes of composition between guitar and computer you talked about earlier?

Kelly: A little bit. I just wanted to take away that predictable structure that you can often end up with when you’re working with things on a grid and boxes on a computer. I try to get the core ideas of the songs down really quickly and try to defy the way the software tries to operate—the software almost dictates the way it wants you to write songs because it has everything laid out in these neat, linear, quantized grids, so there’s a bit of trying to defy that also. I ended up writing a lot of that music completely off the grid. I couldn’t recreate some of it if I tried, which I like because it means I captured something a little more ephemeral and was happening in the moment.

Andy O’Connor

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