EP Review: Swollen Teeth – Swollen Teeth
Mysterious masked metallers Swollen Teeth leave 1,000 bloody mouths in their wake with a jaw-loosening debut...
There is a chill in the air as the goat-headed figure of Krampus looms from the shadows and Eric Whitney’s icy stare sharpens, his skin daubed the colour of dirty snow. Much as the neo-Gothic aesthetic of our cover shoot is on-point for his murky alter-ego Ghostemane, however, we can’t help think the mythic anti-Santa would struggle to pin the real Eric down. Even as darkness falls and the deep freeze sets in, he simply will not stand still.
A lost year for most of us has thrown up untold opportunity for the alt.metal trailblazer. Time off tour meant redoubled focus on the triumphant self-release of the eighth Ghostemane LP ANTI-ICON. A (quarantine safeguarded) summer sojourn in Prague – where Kerrang! last caught up with him – elevated that album’s skintight, black-clad aesthetic. Aggressive inroads were made on the exclusive world of high fashion. Hell, he even found time to get engaged to girlfriend Moriah Rose Pereira – AKA Poppy, to you, us and the world – whose January K! cover, he laughs, is framed and mounted a couple of feet from his own.
Less than two weeks from Christmas tonight, he’s freshly jet-lagged from having completed a couple of cross-continental hops as the couple relocate their lives from the metropolis of Los Angeles to rural northeastern New Hampshire. “You get more bang for your buck in a place like this,” his voice echoing off the old stone walls of his new home. “It’s almost as if you plucked a home out of the Hollywood Hills and plopped it in the middle of 10 acres of New England. It’s got kind of a castle vibe; it’s pretty cool.”
It’s fair reward for a couple who’ve indelibly shaped alternative music in 2020. Where other artists who’ve pressed ahead and dropped music have, to varying extents, found themselves spinning wheels in a world preoccupied with bigger things, Eric particularly has found unprecedented traction. ANTI-ICON was the ultimate soundtrack for a world turned upside-down. Plaudits rained down from both sides of the rap/rock divide. Its genre-blending risks have been vindicated by its placement in countless Best Of 2020 lists. Most crucially, its combination of internalised anguish, pestilential darkness and serrated cutting-edge struck a chord with locked down fans around the globe.
Eric dislikes the materialistic side of holiday season, but as he pumps the brakes as we sit down to talk, he acknowledges the importance of sharing those achievements’ glow with loved ones – and the broader Ghostemane family – at this darkest time of year. “When I was a kid,” he reflects, “I would hear people say, ‘It’s not about the presents!’ and I’d be like, ‘Bullshit, it’s all about the presents!’ But, as I get older, I understand what they meant...”
You grew up in south Florida, then spent five years in southern California. How are you handling the northeastern cold?
“I’m from a tropical climate, but I do love the winter. I only saw snow for the first time when I was about 20, visiting my mom after she had moved back up to New York [following the death of my dad]. It’s still a novelty for me, and, every time, I feel an almost boyish excitement. We got pounded with snow the day we moved our stuff into the new place. It was a true New England welcome.”
That cosy, contented scene feels a long way from the scene you described at the other end of the year: locked in your Los Angeles home, still recovering from your opioid addiction, with only the instrumental bones of ANTI-ICON ready to go…
“That was rough, but I was at the beginning of some transformative stuff. Finding the companionship of being in a new relationship was a big part of it. Being able to record this album, finally, too. All the stuff kinda came together at one time and it felt like everything was where it needed to be. I didn’t physically feel great. Mentally, I wasn’t at my best. But I did quickly acknowledge that I was going in the right direction. The arrival of the new year wasn’t really at the forefront of my mind, but it was a good time to look at all of these things that I could build on if I didn’t squander them. Some people use other people and outside things as the motivation to better themselves. I was trying to use what I already had as a jump-start to take on the year strong.”
Was there a specific point where you realised your rough phase was in the rearview?
“Not to get too woke, but one of the things that [Hermetic philosophical text] the Kybalion taught me was that life’s gonna go both ways all the time. It’s that swing of the pendulum. Just because I’ve had a good year this year doesn’t mean that next year, or some other year, isn’t going to suck. Choosing to acknowledge that the good and the bad are the same thing, it’s really just how you look at it… When shit’s bad, I have something to fight against to get to the top of the mountain. When life’s good, it’s about getting better at enjoying it and not worrying [how long it’ll last].”
At the same time, this has been a transformative year for you. What were the most profound changes?
“I formed a better relationship with myself, for sure. I finally got over my self-consciousness. I started really making art and putting it out there. In terms of mental health, before this year I had real trouble taking time off from social media. I’d be [obsessed with] posting enough, making sure the engagement was right, all that shit that people get sucked into. It was controlling my mood and my morale. Now, I go two or three days without even looking at Instagram. It wasn’t really a conscious effort, but once the album dropped, I just stopped caring about that stuff. It feels great.”
A benefit of lockdown has been the opportunity for self-reflection. Has that factored in?
“Physically, yes. Having a million meetings, you’re normally driving around all over the place, but now all it takes is a phone call. You save a ton of time commuting. You physically get to spend more time where you live, doing what you want to be doing. For me, that’s been spending time in the studio. It’s definitely been a silver lining.”
Did that influence your decision to escape the music industry rat-race of LA?
“One hundred million per cent. We had been talking about it for a while. But we always looked at it as this distant idea where it was something we would do one day. Once we hit June and July, neither of us have really seen our friends or anyone from our teams in months. We also don’t really go out. We’re not part of that keeping-up-with-the Joneses set. We don’t technically need to be here. So why not look elsewhere?”
You were on tour in Europe when the COVID crisis properly hit. Do you remember the point you realised how severe its implications could be?
“I think it’s part of growing up in America, but you kinda develop this attitude where nothing can really affect your daily life and how you do things. Even if there’s something bad happening in the world – political problems, the weather, war – the subconscious American mindset is, ‘That’s terrible, but it’ll never affect us because this is America.’ Even when I was in Europe in the spring, I was subconsciously thinking, ‘Woah, this is really hurting stuff over here, but it’ll probably never affect America.’ I met up with some friends when I got home who told me they had been stocking up on essentials. I remember texting Moriah to say that maybe we should grab some stuff off Amazon, just to be safe. She texted back like 10 minutes later to say that everything was sold out. That’s when it started to be real…”
What were the specific challenges of COVID for you?
“It was a fight against idle hands and an idle mind. In the past, I’ve always kept an [artificial] pressure on myself continuously to keep working. That was the drill. This time, it was real. The pandemic meant it was socially acceptable to take a break from working. There was the [excuse] to compromise and do things in a more conventional way – because you don’t have the means for anything else. I made a vow to myself that I was going to avoid that as much as I could. I didn’t want to allow myself to be convinced that it was okay to deviate from the plan. 2020 was the ultimate test of my work ethic. I had to outrun stagnancy.”
The first fruit of that labour arrived in May: the self-titled EP from your black metal project Baader-Meinhof. Were you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the metal community?
“I was ecstatic, mainly because I had no idea that it would be like that. I never intended Baader-Meinhof to be much more than a side-project or an [artistic] expression. Although some of the headlines and the [rapper does black metal framing] were annoying, it was great.”
Last time we spoke, you emphasised that black metal was part of your musical identity you want to keep on a pedestal, separate from Ghostemane. Why does it merit that special treatment?
“There’s only part of it that I can explain. Part of it is something that I just feel. What I can articulate is that ever since I got into black metal as a fan, I’ve known it’s something special. It’s just something that comes out of you: pure, raw expression. I didn’t come up in black metal. It wasn’t my first or primary project. It’s not my number one scene or something I tour with. And it is a very active scene today – very inward and tight-knit. The best way to describe [my involvement as an outsider] is that it’s the difference between a poacher who kills animals to put them on his wall, and a conservationist who goes out to the same spots but to marvel and take photos and take part in that way. I don’t want to bastardise it.”
Can we expect more from that project in future?
“I’m going to do my best to keep it under wraps and have it not feel too much like work or anything, so that it’s what I love and what I love to listen to and I’m just putting it out there for people. But it is something I’m going to put a lot of work into going forward. I’m actually in the process of getting a record label partnership in place just for that.”
Conversely, you saw a major label deal for Ghostemane fall through, before you pushed ahead with a self-release. Did that embolden your self-confidence?
“The defeated feeling came first. The whole experience was like a tug of war. In the beginning it felt like [a major label release] was a cool route to take with the new record. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But over time it took so damn long to get it where it was – over a year – that over that time I began to get excited about it. It became something I wanted. Then, when it didn’t happen, it kinda crushed me. Thankfully, with the help of my team, Blood Company, I got to realising it wasn’t really what I wanted. All that mattered was that there are tons of kids who were stoked to hear it, and they’re gonna hear it, no matter what. If I had gone down that road, I would probably have had some sort of identity crisis. It was like a toxic love-interest where the manipulation [and investment of time] makes it feel like you need it. Then the spell is broken. I now know, definitively, how I’m going to proceed with the Ghostemane project from here on out. I know what this is and I know what it isn’t.”
In August, you travelled with Poppy to Prague to film live-action videos for Hydrochloride and Lazaretto. Was that reflective of the same assertion of control?
“It was a mixture of things. Partly, I realised that the stop-motion/animation thing we had been doing with Trash Gang and Studio Linguini was becoming the norm. I think the rebellious teenage part of my head needed to see what else we could do. We needed to go against the grain. In LA, no-one was willing to take the risk, and if they were, the cost of insurance was ridiculous. Luckily, through Moriah’s management we were put in touch with Milk & Honey Films over there. I honestly didn’t believe it was going to happen until I stepped foot outside Prague airport. I thought we would get there then turn round and have to go home. In hindsight, it feels like it was meant to be. When your comfort zone begins to feel really comfortable, it’s time to get out of it.”
That mindset was reflected in ANTI-ICON’s evolving sounds, too…
“Absolutely. The desire to escape one’s comfort zone has been part of every record so far, but here that approach was more controlled. Previously it would be me breaking down and busting through the comfort zone with a hatchet: leaving a mess everywhere. This was more about me crafting a door out of the comfort zone and walking through it.”
From the teaser clips of the morgue orgy and burning hearse to your own evolving look and those later music videos, the visual emphasis has massively increased this year. How integral was that to your plan?
“It was a vision that I’d had in my head for a long time, which we executed with full force. Getting involved with [renowned designer] Rick Owens and [high fashion publications] 1883 and King Kong have helped me [find the confidence to] express myself more visually, in a more abstract way, with no rules. It really feels like I’m turning myself inside out: taking all of the things that I’m thinking and feeling and wearing them on my body.”
Has Poppy’s aesthetic involvement – directing the aforementioned music videos, for instance – been causal or coincidental?
“It was coincidental in the way I experienced it. The way the universe works, though, some people would argue, ‘Of course! No shit that happened!’ When I met her, I didn’t know a ton about her. And vice-versa. First and foremost, I tried to learn her as a person, and only found out about those [talents] when she showed them to me. But her abilities did enhance what I do. I’m not afraid to admit that at all. She’s undoubtedly more articulate in that visual realm than I am.”
You’ve spoken about your love of lone-wolf complete creative control. How did feel handing her the reins on that video shoot?
“It was a very new experience for me. In a past life, any time before this, it was inconceivable that I would let anyone else take control. I don’t even let the people working on my record take control at any point. But with this, it just felt right. I’m able to acknowledge when somebody is able to realise something with more precision than I am.”
In contrast to the many artists who found themselves spinning wheels this year, you have picked up some massive momentum. Why do you think you achieved that?
“It’s a clear combination of a few things. Number one – and I mean this wholeheartedly – is the support of the fanbase. Other people trying to take a similar route don’t have that [to the same degree I do], and they end up having to take a more commercial path, following what the label says. When the label thing didn’t work out for me, I still had this army of people [behind me] where even if I decided to throw the album up on some hidden website, they were still gonna love it. Knowing that, I was able to relax and take a step back and formulate the path with a clear head. Beyond that, there’s having a good team around me who understand the vision. Then there’s me having the faith in myself. It’s all about the intent: the purpose behind what I do. Whether the kids know it or not, they can smell something that’s being done selfishly just as much as they can smell when it’s representative of who that person really is. It all comes back to the fans.”
How frustrating has it been not to be able to have an in-the-flesh connection with those fans this year?
“That’s probably the crappiest thing. I’m fortunate to be one of the few musicians whose model isn’t heavily financially reliant on touring. I actually don’t think I’ve ever made money from a tour before, because I always put that money back into the show. It’s something that I look forward to specifically to bear the fruits of my labour and be able to connect with the kids. I’m used to working hard on a record, releasing it, then immediately going out on tour to see how people like this. I didn’t get to do that this year and it sucks ass. It sucks ass for the fans, too.”
What have you done to try to bridge that divide?
“The merch drop we did for the album was the biggest we’ve ever done – way bigger than it would’ve been if we’d been going out on tour. It was about making everything as accessible and affordable as possible. I just wanted everybody to have as much stuff as possible. I’ve been connecting over social media, too. And we’ve got a livestream coming, which won’t fill the void completely, but will be our best effort to convert the live experience to a two-dimensional screen. That’s coming soon!”
And what should we expect when you get properly back onstage?
“I plan on spending every cent I make on making the tour the best it can be. The bigger the crowds, the bigger the venues, the bigger the shows. It’s just more space for me to do all the crazy shit that I want to do. It’s going to be an incredible experience. We’ve just gotta start by getting there first…”
Where does the Ghostemane persona sit at this year’s end? Is ANTI-ICON a final destination or just the latest evolution?
“It’s not a calculated thing. I don’t see Ghostemane as a ‘persona’ so much as an [ongoing] project, like Baader-Meinhof, SWEARR or GASM. Another thing I’ve been focused on in 2020 is that definition between Eric – me – and Ghostemane – the project. Everyone should strive to grow and experience new things every year. If you do, then you can safely say that you’re not the same person you were four years ago. No matter what happens with me in real life – buying a new home, figuring out my place in life, improving my mental state and feeling happy with things – it doesn’t mean that the Ghostemane project will be that. The new challenge and new excitement is learning how to conjure up all that feeling of the experiences I had and things I went through when things weren’t going so great. If you came from shit, even if things are great right now, you can’t abandon that forever. When I’m writing, I take that time to look back and remember how I felt when shit really sucked; why I started this thing in the first place.”
So, what comes next?
“That depends on what I’m inspired by. It can be unpredictable: music, art, whatever. Maybe it’ll be something contemporary. Perhaps it’ll be something from the last 20, 30, 40 years that I’m just re-discovering. I certainly won’t be basing it on anything anyone says that they want; If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that people don’t really know for sure. That’s what makes the symbiotic trust between me and my supporters so beautiful. The one thing I do know is that it’s only going to get more untamed and unrestrained. So strap in, and be prepared for whatever.”
Ghostemane's ANTI-ICON is out now.
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