The Cover Story

HEALTH: “The people who like us for the funny stuff and the people who like us for the music are not mutually exclusive. They’re the same people”

HEALTH make music that could soundtrack the end of the world. On their killer new album Rat Wars, the LA noise-rock collective are going further into the digital murk, while also looking to blow up. We headed into their unique universe to meet the men behind the madness, find where all this comes from, and discover the truth behind the online mucking about...

HEALTH:  “The people who like us for the funny stuff and the people who like us for the music are not mutually exclusive. They’re the same people”
Words:
Mischa Pearlman
Photography:
Jesse Lirola

“Why is he asking me to fart on him?” That’s the not unreasonable query Jake Duzsik is asking the handful of friends standing nearby. It’s not his question, however, but one his partner (and the mother of his son) has just texted him. It’s the kind of hilarious anecdote parents so often share about their kids, but there’s a tongue-in-cheek accusation aimed toward the HEALTH vocalist/guitarist in there, too. He can’t help but chuckle, but also protests his innocence to those around him a little too much.

“I swear he didn’t get it from me,” he says, which is presumably what he texts his partner, too. She’s at home with their child, while Jake is at a barbecue his bandmate John Famiglietti is throwing at his house in Echo Park, Los Angeles. The third piece of the HEALTH puzzle – drummer Ben Jared Miller, aka BJ, aka Beej – is here, too. It’s November, but feels like late summer. The air is warm, the early evening sky light, and small clusters of people chat away as the host places some huge slabs of steak on the grill. The barbecue, much to Jake’s bafflement, is located under a gazebo, which at one point it starts filling with so much smoke that he has to move further out into the garden.

“I don’t understand why you’ve put the barbecue there,” he says to John more than once, but John is too busy grilling to answer. A Bluetooth speaker in the garden is playing mainly alternative bands, including numerous songs by Smashing Pumpkins and The Smiths. It’s determined by Jake that even though Morrissey is something of a, er, problematic figure these days, it’s okay to listen to old stuff by The Smiths, but that going to see him live or buying his new music isn’t. At one point, Jake asks John if he’s heard the ‘new’ Beatles song, Now And Then, released about a week earlier. Despite being a massive fan, he hasn’t, so Jake plays it over the speaker. The verdict?

“It’s great,” says John. “Of course it is. It’s The Beatles.”

Later, various conversations turn to water filtration systems, the Mr. Horse character from Ren & Stimpy, Warhammer (John has an impressive collection of miniatures inside his house), ailing parents, tri-tip steak, about how in the old days when HEALTH first started, the band would stay up after they’d played gigs and keep drinking until 9am. That was back in the mid-2000s, though – these days, only John still drinks alcohol.

Beyond the guests, there are a couple of dogs and cats in the garden, a smokeless fire pit, a couple of tables and chairs and an increasing number of empty beer cans, bottles and paper plates as the evening wears on. It all feels very… normal.

It’s markedly different from how the LA band come across online – where their presence is ultra nerdy and absurd – and the incredibly dark world of their songs, where there’s certainly no farting. It’s way too bleak for flatulence. On 2022’s collaborative sixth full-length, DISCO4 :: PART II, especially – but also on its 2020 collaborative predecessor, DISCO4 :: PART I and 2019’s VOL 4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR – HEALTH created a brutal, unforgiving, retro-futuristic world that simultaneously reflected the present and predicted the future. New album Rat Wars is more personal – looking inward, rather than out at the world – but it’s no less harrowing. You certainly couldn’t imagine the three people that made it hanging out in the sun at a barbecue, letting loose and having fun. In fact, this particular house has been a staple of HEALTH’s (real life) existence since 2012; John bought it after the band made the soundtrack for the Rockstar Games shooter Max Payne 3. Located in Echo Park, it’s very much a part of the band’s history, as is that whole area.


“Beej and I used to live together just down the way, and I fell in love with the neighbourhood,” says John.
“If The Grateful Dead had the Haight,” adds BJ, “HEALTH have Echo Park.”


“Jake and I lived together before I lived in the place that me and Beej used to live together, in the same neighbourhood but on the other side of Sunset,” continues John. “I’ve literally been in Echo Park forever, ever since HEALTH started. I met Jake and we lived together with another guy in a different house.”
“That’s the only thing we’re analogous to the Dead for,” deadpans Beej. “Or Phish.”

Eventually, the barbecue winds down and the band pile into Jake’s car and head down to a venue called Zebulon with a few friends. John goes straight to the bar.

“If you really want to know what being in HEALTH is like,” begins Jake, “I usually go to bed early every night because I have a kid now and parenting duties. John’s the one who stays up all night.”


He’s not lying. After a little while, he heads home, followed a little later by Beej. John departs to a bar near his house. Although he’s never rude, he’s constantly plugged in, communicating with fans. In fact, the number HEALTH often post on their social media forwards to his phone, and he’s usually talking to fans of the band. Some have even stayed at his house. So how many texts does he get on a daily basis?

“All fucking day,” he answers. “I’m giving terrible advice to kids. I have to tell kids that I’m not qualified for this advice. If we get to the point where I can’t take these texts, then we have a good problem, but for now, you can text me all fucking day.”

Even in the early hours, back at his house and in its basement studio, John's interacting with people online while sharing beers he bought at a bodega. It’s 4am when he calls it a night.

“All day I’m giving terrible advice to kids”

John on the direct contact he has with HEALTH’s fans

The next morning, Jake is sitting on a bench by Echo Park Lake. It’s not as warm as the previous day, but the sun is nevertheless beating down from a cloudless sky. He’s just taken his three-and-a-half-year-old son to school and has the day free until about 4pm, when he has to go to a parent-teacher meeting. To some extent – much like the barbecue the evening before – this parental life is diametrically opposed to the doom-laden, harbingers of the apocalypse that HEALTH portray in their songs. But talk to Jake long enough and it becomes abundantly clear that these things are not necessarily incompatible. And while it’s certainly John and BJ who possess the most levity of the trio, the frontman isn’t anywhere near as gloomy in person as you might expect him to be. Or at least not in the same way.

“I deliberately wanted it to not be, like, ‘Oh, there’s this guy singing to me about his life and this is what he thinks and feels,’” he says. “We wanted it to all feel part of this depersonalised, post-Skynet dystopian landscape.”

By comparison, the IRL Jake is approachable and kind, interesting and philosophical, intelligent and humorous. But that doesn’t mean the darkness isn’t there.

“It’s just the shades of grey of our personality types,” says Jake. “John is the one who’s posting all those memes on our Instagram, but prior to that, when Twitter first started we had this extremely comedic [feed]. Most of it was tongue-in-cheek, cynical, dark humour, which – honestly – is just too scary to do on Twitter anymore. So we discontinued that voice a bit and moved it, because being humorous and capricious and fun is something that's tolerated on Instagram. But there is this sort of duality of HEALTH. There’s that scene in Full Metal Jacket where Matthew Modine gets accosted by a superior officer who’s like, ‘What’s that say on your helmet, soldier?’ And it’s like, ‘Born To Kill.’ And the officer says, ‘What’s that symbol?’ And he’s like, ‘It’s a peace sign, sir.’ And he’s like, ‘What the hell is that supposed to mean? Which side are you on?’ and the soldier says, ‘I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.’”


He chuckles for a second at this rendering of the scene from Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1987 Vietnam movie, before continuing his point.

“I think that the people who like us for the funny stuff and the people who like us for the dead serious music – the lyrical content and the way the band is presented aesthetically – are not mutually exclusive. They actually are the same people. And I think that that’s very representative of our personalities as a band. John was talking to some YouTuber recently who’s a fan, and apparently she said something along the lines of like, ‘Your band’s lyrics and music are so dark and sad, but you’re a really fun guy, John.’ And John was like, ‘I don’t write the lyrics – and Jake isn’t fun.’”

He laughs. Some nearby geese begin honking, though that’s probably just coincidence.

What is clear is that the dark emotions on Rat Wars come from a very real place. But just as DISCO4 :: Part II transformed the real world that inspired its songs into that cyberpunk dystopia, Rat Wars’ intensely bleak tracks were inspired by real emotions and events in Jake’s life. He’s only willing to talk about them off-record, but he’s well aware that anybody who listens carefully to the lyrics could probably infer what they’re about. It wasn’t altogether possible to hide the truth; much of it is the result of situations arising from the pandemic. Jake is insistent that Rat Wars isn’t a pandemic record, but concedes that it was largely inspired by things that happened to him during, and as a result of, that time.

“If you talk to John,” says Jake, “he’ll say he loved the pandemic. He was just at home online, fucking around drinking beers and he hung out with people. And I went through the worst time of my life, just from a mental health perspective. Like, battling addiction or going through the death of my mother were not as hard on me as struggling to try and keep a relationship that’s extremely important to me alive, and learning how to be a father. Because of my tendencies towards self-destructiveness, depression and existential anguish, I don’t do well being socially cut-off.

“Even though I have introverted tendencies, the ways I am able to mitigate that is to be with friends and to try to be funny, and dilute that ever-constant component of myself. That being taken away from me, and being trapped, was actually probably the most damaging thing for me. I had a huge resurgence in long-dormant anxiety that had been much alleviated when I stopped abusing drugs and alcohol, which was reignited to an extent that was worse.”

“People would meet us and be sort of taken aback by us being fun, partying and jocular guys”

Hear Jake on the misconception of HEALTH as people

Nevertheless, there’s still an interesting contradiction between who Jake is in real life and the version of him that exists in that post-Skynet hellscape, and a distinct distance between the two. There might be elements of truth to John’s assertion that Jake isn’t fun, but he isn’t all doom and gloom either.

“Even when we first started and we were making very experimental music,” he says, “I think people would meet us and be sort of taken aback by us being fun, partying and jocular guys, because there’s a lot of people that make music like that that are very strange and very hard to talk to and maybe not very friendly.”

Indeed, Jake is neither hard to talk to nor unfriendly, and, honestly, he’s not really that strange. At the same time, he knows that he does still have somewhat of a dour, miserabilist reputation.

“I think the throughline that is consistent is I’m a pretty unhappy person, despite my sense of humour,” he admits. “And I’m seasoned enough to be disabused of any sort of romanticising of that that you might do when you’re young. It’s just a function of my personality. I’m not trying to brood – I’m not a 20-something where I’m like, ‘I’m going to make great dark art and die young.’ I’m just trying to fucking get through this life, and trying to work through those probably largely genetic proclivities, with the least amount of misery as possible.”

Perhaps the best example of HEALTH’s bizarre duality can be found on the merch section of their website. There, you’ll see the usual array of band paraphernalia – vinyl and cassettes, hats and T-shirts, keychains and flags. There’s also a gaming mat. The designs are bold and in your face – some death metal-inspired, some anime-inspired – and often boast semi-ridiculous and rather depraved slogans. 'Sad Music For Horny People' and 'You Will Love Each Other' are two of their most common, while 'CUM METAL' is a brand new one. The band also sell caps with the slogan 'Don’t Kill Yourself' in mirror text. In fact, Jake was wearing one of them when K! spoke to him in 2022. But there’s one item that is probably unique to HEALTH – a branded butt plug that you can actually buy, receive and, presumably, use. If it seems ridiculous, it is. Because, at first, the band never actually had any intention of making or selling them.

“It was an April Fool’s joke that we put up on Instagram,” says Jake. “We marked it as sold out, and then all these people completely earnestly were like, ‘Oh fuck, are you guys going to make more of them?’ And we’re like, ‘I guess we should make butt plugs?!’ And then we did, and they sold like hotcakes. We actually had a hilarious moment when we were doing this smaller market tour. We were in Columbus, Ohio, and our driver was moving all the merch stuff after the show, and he knocked over all these boxes of butt plugs and hundreds of butt plugs spilled all over the stairs. The guys working at the venue were like trying to help us clean them up and I was like, ‘I bet this is a first, isn’t it?!’”

“We respond directly to our fans in a very real way,” explains John. “We did not get in the game to make butt plugs, I’ll tell you that. It only came to be because of our fans, and even then it was still a joke, the same way we did the condom. We’re like, ‘Do Zoomers not even understand what a fucking April Fool’s joke is?’ But they don’t care. They want that fucking condom. We do the butt plug and no-one for a second ever thought it was a joke. They’re like, ‘Where is my fucking butt plug?’ On that tiny run, we left with 500 butt plugs and we couldn’t keep them on the shelves. Motherfuckers want their butt plugs!”

Spend any amount of time with Jake, John and BJ, and it’s clear that while there is a gulf between HEALTH’s music and the people who make it, it’s two sides of the same coin. Which, as confusing as it sounds, actually makes perfect sense. Take Echo Park, where the band cut their teeth and where John still lives, for example. On the surface, it’s diametrically opposed to that dark post-Skynet world of their songs, but driving around with the band and seeing where they lived and walking down the alleyway where The Smell – the venue that was central to their development – is located, and it feels just like the parallel universe in their songs. A real life mirror-world, as it were. What’s most intriguing is that both are as genuine and as valid as each other, and coexist within each other. Much like the band’s seemingly contradictory personality traits.

“We just all kind of have our jokier sides,” says BJ succinctly. Unquestionably the quiet one, he describes himself as “strangely introverted”.

John, for his part, sees no distinction between his real life and the person he is during the many, many hours he spends online.
“For me,” he chuckles, “it’s the same shit. I’m honest to a fault. Fans tell me they’re worried about the shit I say on Discord, but I don’t give a fuck. If you talk to me in person, I’d say the same things.”

“Our online presence,” adds Jake, “can be very funny, but the music is deadly serious. And I want the body of work to always take itself seriously, because the subject matter is serious.”

And so, HEALTH are both everything you’d expect and nothing like it. Their two worlds – the absurd and the bleak, the real and the online – are constantly colliding like a butt plug falling down the stairs. So don’t be surprised if they announce the title of their next record is Why Is He Asking Me To Fart On Him?.

Stranger things have happened.

Rat Wars is released on December 7 via Loma Vista

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