I Want to Hear You Scream: Uniform’s Michael Berdan on “The Serpent and the Rainbow”
Berdan talks the cult Wes Craven film, cultural isolation, and his band’s latest collaboration with The Body.
Uniform appeared on the scene back in 2015 with their debut single “Indifference,” wherein vocalist Michael Berdan snarls over a body-rattling industrial drum machine and guitarist Ben Greenberg’s squealing, reverb-heavy riffs. Along with black-and-white footage of the duo performing the track, the music video for the single juxtaposes the terms “GOD,” “MOTHER,” “ENEMY,” and other Eisenhower-era ideals of a perfect world (hey, that was the title of their album) with corresponding images from the period, convoluting them over the course of the clip’s six minutes—ultimately pairing “COUNTRY” with Mickey Mouse ears and the electric chair and “ME” with a semiautomatic weapon.
The images are incredibly powerful as they relate to the decay of our country, yet the video’s formula is pretty simple. It should also feel familiar—it’s the same basic structure most of the best horror stories are built upon, beginning with familiar surroundings that get warped (oftentimes along with the protagonist) into something totally alien, if not completely horrific. All of the recognizable elements of the original story are there—protagonist, setting, conflict—just without any sense of the order posited when the plot is introduced.
It comes as no surprise that horror film and literature are among Berdan’s greatest songwriting influences, placing the band—now a trio, with Liturgy’s Greg Fox on live drums—discernibly within the literary genre. With their second collaboration alongside Providence doom-metal shriekers The Body imminent, Berdan took a minute to talk specifically about how Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, as well as the horror genre in general, found its way into the mix on their new collaborative LP Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back.
“I’m kind of the only person in the Uniform camp who’s interested in horror at all, so I think maybe some of that tonally will come out in the stuff that I write,” Berdan shares, his voice having much more in common with the kindness of his lyrics than the harshness of his vocals. “[The Body] definitely watch horror movies, but I’m the only idiot who’s like, ‘Let’s throw in this fucking Jack Ketchum reference here.’ Nobody else really gets it or cares. I think that’s fine.”
What specifically about The Serpent and the Rainbow inspired the track “Not Good Enough”?
What I like doing with a lot of our songs is taking something from a horror movie or book and kind of subverting the idea. In Serpent and the Rainbow, Bill Pullman is being asked to scream, and when he does he’s told “not good enough, more pain,” which is kind of the classic line from that movie. Instead of some kind of edgelord shock—like let’s put you through physical pain—I wanted it to be about just never feeling like you’re accomplished enough. You’re not a worthy human being, you’re not worthy of love or kindness. It’s all internal dialogue, and it does kind of come as a scream. That kind of self-imposed loneliness and alienation is often as hard as some kinds of torture for some people.
The movie deals with a scientist becoming overwhelmed by unexplainable forces. I tried to draw a parallel between that and your music and the best I could come up with is that people might approach noise music not really knowing how to process it, because it seems impossible to understand as rational. Do you see any parallels here?
I do, I see it with any kind of extreme music—or extreme art in general. I see it culturally when people become so isolated within their own way of thinking. I’m kind of thinking conservative white middle America—there’s always this “other,” and for wealthy people that “other” is often the romanticism for what they view to be the lower class, rich tourists acting like they’re slumming it. If they were to be at a show or an art gallery they’d be completely taken aback. Same thing with a white person who loses their way driving through what they consider to be a quote-unquote bad neighborhood, and they lock their doors out of fear. That’s kind of where I come from with all this—there’s either a romanticism or a fear, but no matter what there’s this othering, and it’s just the way that people tend to draw these fine lines around what they consider moral and normal, and anything outside of that is an affront and should either be ignored or combatted or fetishized.
In my experience, it seems a lot of it is ridicule. If I’m listening to something that sounds odd to someone they’re like, “What are you listening to? This isn’t music.” Do you think this mostly comes out of fear of not understanding it?
“People tend to draw these fine lines around what they consider moral and normal, and anything outside of that is an affront and should either be ignored or combatted or fetishized.”
Definitely. But at the same time perhaps not everyone should be into extreme music. This kind of hyperkinetic, heavy, abrasive stuff is often born out of intense pain and confusion and fear, and if you can’t hear that and relate to it—if that’s not the sound that’s going on in your head, or the feeling that’s going on in your heart—then good for you. I never really take it personally when someone rolls their eyes at a lot of the things that I’m into. It’s something that gave me comfort in times of pain when I was a child, it’s something I grew into, and now it’s a big part of my life. I’m far from a miserable person, but this is something that speaks to me. I’ll never think it’s weird that my mom doesn’t like my band, or relates it to Billy Joel—that’s fine.
Going back to horror movies, something I’ve recently picked up on is how the monster or witch or whatever the force of evil is is always laughing at the protagonist. I think that’s really funny because basically what we find scary in horror movies is someone laughing at us and sort of feeling embarrassed without knowing why.
In a lot of these movies when you’re dealing with a villain, you’re dealing with someone who has sadistic intentions—they’re out to hurt you. They’re laughing at you because you’re insignificant, and in cinema that can be taken really literally. In real life, not so much, but it does often feel like these crazy power dynamics still exist, and there are people in the world who seem to hold all the cards. The people who tend to have power do everything they can to consolidate and hold onto that power, and the way that they do that is by pushing down everyone else, and with that there’s kind of this “Ha ha, fuck you, I am out to get you.” It’s one of many disgusting features of fucking late capitalism, and I very much see that kind of power dynamic as a parallel within horror cinema and everyday life.
Yeah, there might not be someone out there wanting to physically kill me, but my landlord could one day be like, “You know what? I want my building to be classier, I’m going to hike up the rent to a point where the tenants who live here can’t afford it and leave.” Somebody fucking owns the place that I live in—most people don’t fucking own their houses, so most of us are sitting there at the whim of someone else who will want to acquire more, and they don’t care about you. You can just be stomped on.
Most of the movies that you reference in your music are B-grade horror with surprisingly strong humanitarian allegories, which again connects them to your music. When you watch these movies, do you get ideas for writing the lyrics, or is it more of an aesthetic thing?
I think all art exists in the same world—I just happen to have fallen into the music side of it. When I’m watching horror movies, I’m still watching a group of people trying to convey the thing that I’m feeling. We’re in essence saying the same things, we’re just speaking different languages. That’s not to say that there’s a greater thesis to Lucio Fulci’s later body of work than to pour buckets of blood and viscera around. I like that stuff, and there’s a place for it, but I’ll always come closer to a Dawn of the Dead. To me, Dawn of the Dead is like, here are these shells of humanity who have nothing left but their lizard brain, and their lizard brain is so ingrained to do this thing that it’s been doing that it goes to a fucking shopping mall, essentially. That’s the kind of thing in horror and literature and art that I’m always going to go to. Just provide a vehicle for a relatable topic.
I’m not going to try to spell it out to anyone, but I like to have this conversation in this aesthetic language, and I find that to be tremendously important. When I’m watching horror movies I am getting ideas left and right. I tend to write about my own life experiences, but I’ll be watching and it’ll remind me of the kind of fear that I had walking around my neighborhood when I was ten, the kind of fear I had going to school, or with my parents—and later on with getting too into drugs, or not knowing how I was going to make rent, or thinking about all of the fucking damage that I’ve done to my life and to the lives of others. When I’m watching these movies that are about fear and wreckage, it brings all that shit back.
I also noticed most of the movies you reference in your music deal with characters’ descent into madness or transformation into a monster—I assume that’s something you want to come across?
“I never really take it personally when someone rolls their eyes at a lot of the things that I’m into. It’s something that gave me comfort in times of pain when I was a child, it’s something I grew into, and now it’s a big part of my life.”
Yeah, something I relate to is a crumbling psyche, or a disintegration of a value system because some kind of external pressure has come along and taken you out of your comfort zone—you’re no longer able to view the world in the same way, and you lash out or you collapse. In my case, when things like that have happened it’s often been drug-related, or outside of that I’ve had this terrible anxiety disorder since I was fucking born. More times than not I go through these crazy periods of insomnia where I’ll be lucky if I sleep three hours a night, and it’ll be that way for months at a time. When you’re not sleeping it plays into everything else: your anxiety begins to spike more, your anxiety sets your appetite so you’re not eating, your body’s shutting down, your mind is spiraling out, you can’t take care of yourself and you can’t communicate with others the way that quote-unquote civilized human beings are supposed to.
A lot of these movies are about people who for whatever reason—be it circumstance or drugs or mental illness, whatever—just fall down and don’t quite know how to get back up. A lot of the time they try to seek redemption and they go about trying to find it in these really warped ways because their brain isn’t working as it used to, and it just compounds the problem. That’s shit that I feel like I’m kind of always one hair away from.
I was surprised that the soundtrack to Serpent sounded a bit like Uniform, particularly this collaboration with The Body. Was the music for this movie or any other ’80s horror an influence at all?
Not particularly, but we did consciously make it more synth-oriented. [The Body drummer] Lee Buford came to the studio and had all these pre-prepared beats, and most of that comes from hip-hop samples. There’s obviously still guitars and stuff, but compared to prior releases it’s pretty limited. I think a lot of it kind of comes from us wanting to not repeat ourselves. That’s where the more melodic synth leads come in. We’ve done the brutal sub bass drop a billion times, we’ve done squealing filters and 808 rumbles—but we haven’t done pretty, shimmering FM synths, and so wanted to give that a shot.
On this collaboration it’s harder to tell which things Uniform is bringing to it and which things The Body is bringing, since a lot of it sounds unfamiliar to both of you. Did anything change in the writing and recording process?
Yeah, we spent a lot more time on this. We did the first collab all in one day, and it was right after The Body finished recording their last record. We kind of used leftover stuff from that and just came up with riffs and basslines on the spot and had that be that. It was a pretty fly-by-night operation. This time we took several days at [Providence studio] Machines with Magnets and we actually crafted songs, we really wrote together instead of just, “I’m gonna throw this thing over this other thing that you have.” We operated like a band more on this.
Also we’ve gotten to know each other quite well. At this point we’ve toured together pretty extensively, and we’ve become pretty good friends. Within that communication I feel like the Uniform/Body thing…it doesn’t feel like I’m playing in Uniform. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know for me it feels like I’m working in an entirely different band, and if that’s the case for everybody then that might be why it sounds more cohesive. It’s a lot of fun, and I’m really grateful that I get to do this with these people. FL