HEALTH on finding new frontiers through collaboration

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HEALTH interview

The release of a remix album isn’t often a pivotal moment in the career of a band, but for HEALTH, doing so helped bring about an ongoing evolution into what feels like a very different band than when they started. The Los Angeles group began their career playing more abstract noise rock, wringing harsh and alien sounds through an ostensibly conventional guitar, bass and drums lineup. But as producers such as Pictureplane, CFCF and Nosaj Thing began to filter the band’s dense cacophony through drum machines, sequencers and samplers, HEALTH found themselves increasingly drawn to electronics on 2009’s Get Color and 2015’s Death Magic, undergoing a metamorphosis into the industrial rock group they are today, while maintaining their commitment to releasing a new set of remixes between each full-length album.

In 2020, however, they underwent another change. The DISCO series, previously a remix collection, had morphed into a series of collaborations. The first installment of DISCO 4, released that year—following studio album VOL. 4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR, found HEALTH in the company of a diverse but complementary set of artists: Soccer Mommy, JPEGMAFIA, Full of Hell and Xiu Xiu to name a few. Two years later, they’ve expanded that concept into an entirely new volume with DISCO 4: Part 2, which finds the band sharing studio and hard drive space with the likes of Virginia metal titans Lamb of God, pop-metal diva Poppy, Canadian rapper Backxwash and industrial legends Nine Inch Nails. And as that new set of collaborative tracks arrives later this week via Loma Vista, vocalist Jake Duzsik acknowledges that this path they’ve been on for the last few years will almost inevitably have an impact on the fifth HEALTH album, which they’re working on right now, just as each DISCO record has in some way helped to direct the band toward their next project.

“The DISCO records and that sort of era of music had an influence on the things we did afterwards,” he says. “Specifically the change between the second record to our third LP… it became a lot more electronic, and that was probably by virtue of being exposed to that kind of music. What’s inspiring you, what’s getting you interested, there’s no way that’s not going to affect you. when you ask someone to do a remix, you’re sending them stems of your music, like here’s the drums, vocals, here’s the guitars, synthesizers, all the other sundry elements, and remake a song through a new lens using your sounds. That definitely had an effect on us. We also did a video game score that required us to write more music by orders of magnitude than we’d ever written in our careers in a compressed amount of time, and that made us grow up, as well, as writers. And there’s a lot of things that nudged us in a direction. They’re not necessarily sea change shifts, it’s not like The Fall or Sparks or something like that, where it’s like, here’s a folk record, and now we’re doing Italo-disco. But there is significant change from record to record.”

We spoke to Duzsik about finding symmetry in the group’s work, collaborations during a pandemic, and the influence that collaborators have had on their own music.

Treble: When you launched the DISCO series back in 2008, it began as a remix record. But with the first installment of DISCO 4, that changed to a series of collaborations. What prompted this shift?

Jake Duzsik: I think for us, with our discography and everything we do, including the album artwork, we’re interested in a symmetry in the whole body of work. As a band we’re always drawn to the idea that, if you took our name off the album artwork, you still knew what band it was. And on all our records, there’s a design and layout consistency with everything. I guess the really highfalutin idea would have been that if, one day, all the album artwork could be in the same art installation if it were in a gallery. So that sort of idea, after we did the first remix companion to our first record, which was a pretty leftfield thing to do for a noise/no wave record with very little melody. We decided there has to be a counterbalance remix element to each LP. Things in music change, they’re cyclical and things come and go and ebb and flow, and by the time we started it, remix culture in the underground was incredibly fertile and exciting. We always want to be proud of any remix collection we put together as a standalone piece of musical art that has its own merit. Not to be jaded or sarcastic, but a lot of the time a remix album is just a way to prolong the album cycle. That’s obviously not where we’re coming from.

The last time we did it, remix culture had really changed and we’ve become a more established band, so it didn’t feel as exciting or maybe necessary as a thing. The reason I brought up the idea of symmetry is that we wouldn’t just want to jettison the idea either. We’ll always want there to be this protocol of, oh there’s a HEALTH LP and then there’s a DISCO album. So we thought, well, if we don’t just want to do a remix album and we don’t want to struggle to find people who are interested in doing remixes. There was this blog-house remix culture and there’d be so many interesting remixes and that just doesn’t exist right now. One interesting thing about remixes is that it’s the aesthetic palette of your band being interpreted through someone else’s musical palette. So you get something that’s the best of both worlds. So how do we get that without returning to the remix trough? That’s kind of how the collaboration album idea came about. You’re gonna get HEALTH sounds or my vocals, but you’re also gonna get the way the other artist you’re working with thinks about melody or song structure, makes drum sounds, makes synth sounds. In that way it’s not dissimilar to remixes, it’s just that they’re original compositions. And it’s a way for us to stay interested and motivated as well.

Treble: The first real collaborative single you released was “Hard to Be God” with NOLIFE back in 2017. At that time, had you envisioned this as being a bigger or wider-reaching series?

JD: At that time, that moment, that was just an experiment for us. We just thought, what would it be like to make a song with another kid, and just, something low stakes. NOLIFE is cut from the same cloth as us as far as coming from a very esoteric underground noise scene, and we figured we’d kind of be able to speak  the same language together, and we kind of just fucked around and experimented and made a song that was really cool. Very low stakes, no long strategic game plan behind it, but it did give us the experience of not being as precious or dealing with your social anxiety of “I’m gonna go write music with someone else and I don’t know how they write music or how they are in a creative collaboration.” To answer your question, it wasn’t like, “This is what we’re doing for the next DISCO installation” because we were just trying to write a record at the time. But the experience of having done that…it definitely stuck in our minds, and the discussion, once we got the record out, turned back to that. “Are we doing another DISCO?” We just started discussing it internally. Maybe it doesn’t seem like the most compelling thing to try to amass a bunch more remixes. So we thought, why don’t we just start doing collaborations, we had a good time with that one. Here’s the thing: As with anything, you don’t know how long it’s going to take or if it’s worthwhile. It’s even more of a wildcard situation trying to write songs with other artists. So we hoped or had an inclination it could turn into an album-length project, but we had no idea if it’d be, like, we tried four more collaborations and they sucked, or it just didn’t work out. We just didn’t know, so we luckily found it to be a very gratifying and fluid process. With a lot of things in music, as in life, it’s just about being fucking lucky.

We look at something like in hip-hop, even though it’s the more dominant popular form of music right now, for a long time it was more open, and there are a lot of things that were more flexible than even most underground music is. In terms of song structure, does a song need a hook or a chorus that repeats, or is it only a chorus. The same is true of artists collaborating with each other and having features. It’s less traditional, there’s no AOR kind of thing. There isn’t the preciousness of “I’m an artiste and I must express myself solely off this record, someone else will taint it.” There’s none of this kind of bullshit, so we were looking at that and thinking it’d just be cool to write a bunch of tracks with other people. There’s also zeitgeist things where, luckily, other artists were if not at least directly considering it, when we reached out, the knee-jerk reaction wasn’t “I don’t want to do that.” It was entering the consciousness of the music world that it could be cool to get outside of your own creative headspace. When you write music with your band, there’s no way to get outside of your own creative proclivities. The way you write a melody or way you sing a line, you kind of get stuck and it’s hard not to repeat yourself. But if you write a track with someone you don’t know, you’re going to do something you didn’t expect to do. If this was eight years ago, it’d be terrifying. You’d be struggling to find people who were down to do it, and you’d be struggling with the public’s reaction to it. I think we’ve been really pleasantly surprised that people are so open minded to check out a song that’s HEALTH x GHOSTEMANE or Nine Inch Nails, instead of “who the fuck are these guys and why are they doing a song with Nine Inch Nails?” We didn’t can a bunch of collaboration attempts because they sucked, it’s just that every time we tried it, something worked and we made a song.

Treble: Did the pandemic have a significant effect on the process?

JD: Absolutely. Pre-pandemic, some of the stuff was done in person. If we were lucky enough to have a chance to work with a person if they were visiting LA or if they were based in LA, because a lot of artists are based in LA, that was vastly preferable. And the second installment of them, I’d say 90 percent were fully remote. There are collaborative tracks on this record where I’d never even spoke to the person on the phone. Like Poppy? Totally great rapport, great communication—all on email. And with Trent and Atticus for Nine Inch Nails, just lots of phone calls. Pretty much the throughline with a few exceptions, like Ho99o9 is in the same city as us, most of them were full on remote writing. 

Treble: Did you have a master list of artists you wanted to reach out to?

JD: You know, not really? You’d think we should have made one. At one point I think we did sketch out a short list, but each time we did a track it’d make us think of something else. And we’d go, “oh it’d be cool to reach out to these people.” Sometimes you get asked in interviews if you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, which is kind of pointless. [Laughs] But we were asking ourselves the pragmatic version of that. Like who’s on our Mt. Olympus, chiseled in rock. You don’t want to say, cynically, who’s the band that would get us the most attention. It was more what band would work best with our sound, and the top of that list was Nine Inch Nails. We didn’t know there would be a second installment. There wouldn’t have been a DISCO 4: Part 2 if the pandemic hadn’t just dragged on and on. We could have started work on a new record, but there were extenuating circumstances. In my family, I have a toddler who can’t be vaccinated and a stepfather with medical problems. So it’s not like I’m a 22 year old guy who can get together with my band and get covid and feel like I just have a hangover and I’m fine. So we couldn’t do another full record because I want to be in the studio with my band, but when it became plausible we thought, do we do another round of this? And you know, the pandemic giveth and taketh away. I can’t say for sure, I don’t know for sure, but I don’t know if the HEALTH x Nine inch nails collaboration happens without covid. We’re on enough of a contact basis, we’ve known Trent for years, I personally reached out to him to float the idea. It’s not like I asked my manager to ask his manager, but I did know everyone was fucking at home. This was pre-vaccine, toilet paper shortage kind of shit, so I knew everyone was home. Because those are some busy dudes, but everyone’s kind of hanging out, so to my surprise and delight, he said yeah, that sounds like a cool idea. That’s one we definitely wanted to happen and I’m still shocked that it did.

Treble: In working with other artists and taking yourself out of your comfort zone a bit, has that changed how you approach your own music?

JD: I mean, I think unavoidably so. For me, that was the most interesting and gratifying thing about it. You’re trading music back and forth, and you want the other person to do something you wouldn’t think to do. But when they do it based on the same material you’re working from, it’s surprising to see someone’s take on the same music. I don’t know if I can internalize and say now I think differently about how I wrote songs, like someone did this on a chorus and holy shit I’ll never see things the same way. But more nebulously and generally it just made me aware of how many different ways you can go from the same starting point. And obviously infinitely. I can’t remember the Quincy Jones quote, where it’s like “We only got 12 notes, baby, and we have to make all these different things with it.” It’s true, there are infinitely different combinations of these notes and drum patterns and time signatures. When you’re doing it with someone else, they do it differently every time than what you’d do. When you’re in your own band and your own head, it can really feel like there’s only one way. Like when you have a problem with a song, like the chorus is great and I love the outro but how the fuck do we get from point A to point B, it can kind of feel like combatively problem solving. That there’s one specific way to arrive at a solution to that problem and you have to solve it like a puzzle. And when you’re in your own band and your own head, it kind of is like there’s only one way, because it’s whatever you’re going to decide. But the reality is fucking infinite recombinable possibilities for how you can finish that song, but you can’t see the forest for the trees, because it’s just you. And when you invite someone else, you see in stark relief that, oh, I would never end a song like that  and it wouldn’t have occurred to me that way, but you can’t deny that there are infinite ways to do it. Doing this many collaborations, even if you think you’re writing well, you don’t think you’re stuck by the limitations of writing by yourself and your bandmates. You bring someone else into the scenario and it immediately augments the equation. It’s kind of funny having had the experience, because being in the same band for a long time, you always hear about or read about someone being like, “we’re gonna shake things up with this record,” and that’ll be the lead on a lot of press for a new album, like so and so band went to this totally different place to create a new musical document. And there’s a lot of struggle to do that.

And doing this, taking it as a song by song basis, you just do it, problem solved. There’s no way you’re going to make something similar if you’re incorporating a totally disparate band in your writing process. That’s been the most enjoyable part of the process.

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