Each of HEALTH’s four albums sound like something you’d accidentally stumble across on the deep web at any point between The Net’s cyberterrorism anxieties of 1995 and the lush dilapidation of the Blade Runner universe in the year 2049. As the LA experimental rock group has gracefully aged from the mathy harsh noise of their 2007 self-titled debut to their current adherence to pop structures and discernible vocals, they’ve always sounded like a surreal conversation between Hans Zimmer and Silversun Pickups at a Prurient set. To add to the enigma, HEALTH’s live shows are almost entirely devoid of stage banter—just three energetic silhouettes testing the quality of our earplugs.
“We were lucky to come out of a very fertile noise scene centered in Downtown/Eastside Los Angeles,” explains the trio’s vocalist Jake Duzsik, who, over the phone, sounds nothing like the silent, fog-shrouded apparition I’d seen lead the band’s recent set at—where else?—Hollywood Forever Cemetery. He’s the kind of person who effortlessly uses words you’ve only ever encountered in writing as he sets up the series of events which led to the group’s forthcoming LP, VOL. 4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR, which could only have come out of an open-minded DIY scene. “Even though there were some stylistic throughlines, it was a very open environment. We didn’t feel pressured to sound like the other bands that were playing the same shows in order to fit in. As such, we just experimented until we found our own identity.”
Among the “other bands” Duzsik refers to are No Age, Abe Vigoda, and Mika Miko—three very distinct takes on punk who permeated LA’s long-standing bastion of all-ages DIY, The Smell, during the same late-aughts period as HEALTH. “Even though there were more ‘punk’ bands, noise was a huge part of the scene,” Duzsik assures me, letting on that it was hard to feel out of place in such a chaotic moment in LA–based music. Though it’s hard to imagine now, Los Angeles was hardly a hub for musicians looking to make it in indie circles a decade ago, leaving the scene open for groups like HEALTH to make a name for themselves touring warehouse spaces up and down the coast. “We kind of did a get-in-the-van, This Band Could Be Your Life approach to it. The intimidating part was wanting to make sure you were good live and had something valid or novel to offer.”
Unlike their peers, HEALTH boasted a unique aesthetic loosely associated with the short-lived witch house moment (did you catch the name of their latest album, which, again, is stylized as “VOL. 4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR”?), which soon boosted them to notoriety and resulted in opening spots for Nine Inch Nails and Interpol. For HEALTH, their audience’s reception was significantly less important than the fact that they “got to go fuckin’ crazy” in front of such wide audiences across the U.S. and Europe (Duzsik recalls one NIN fan flipping him the bird, non-stop, through an entire set, while the band allowed for too few moments of tranquility to ever really get a sense of the crowds’ general response). Perhaps it’s this approach that’s led them to their present status as underground icons whose organic growth has undergone little sacrifice in their development toward something in the arena of pop music.
Since growing into their natural role as a headlining band, Duzsik—with longtime bandmates John Famiglietti on bass and B.J. Miller on drums—have found themselves soundtracking video games and tearing apart late night TV sets. Though their aesthetic has remained impressively consistent, SLAVES is quite far removed from the tribal drums and start-stop atonal guitar of HEALTH. “We always wanted to make a change with every record, like a sequence,” he notes, describing his band’s latest collection of songs as “darker, heavier, dirtier.” “Like, ‘Okay, you liked the last one. This one’s gonna be different, but you’re gonna like this one too. Hopefully.’ I think that’s something we’ve done fairly successfully. It’s not like we have a massive fanbase, but we’ve been able to keep going.”
Oddly enough, the only band that can say the same for their trajectory over the course of their ten-plus years of existence is No Age, who’ve spent the past decade tidying up their noisy garage rock to suit their developing interests in sound design. Last year’s Snares Like a Haircut felt like a distant sequel to 2008’s breakthrough Nouns with a meticulous attention paid to the ambient sounds laying the groundwork for their skate-punk anthems. Likewise, the relationship HEALTH established with producer Lars Stalfors on 2015’s DEATH MAGIC after a stressful six-year absence carried over to a relatively painless recording process for SLAVES. “It was simply a matter of booking time [with Stalfors]”, Duzsik claims.
“We didn’t feel pressured to sound like the other bands that were playing the same shows in order to fit in. As such, we just experimented until we found our own identity.”
“We’ve always tried to make large changes in the sound and style between each record without losing a sense of our aesthetic,” he reiterates, drawing attention to the tweaks made to their sound between both of their Stalfors-produced records. Early singles “STRANGE DAYS (1999)” and “SLAVES OF FEAR” have backed up Duzsik’s “darker, heavier, dirtier” assertions, though no superlatives can quite situate the trap beats of “NC-17” and the Alberta–inspired “RAT WARS” within the HEALTH discography (with witch house as a reference point, the beat seems analogous with the record title’s dual colons).
Yet in spite of SLAVES OF FEAR’s impressive left turns, perhaps the band’s biggest flex lately has been the onslaught of one-off singles leading up to the record, each boasting guest spots from fellow industrialists NOLIFE, Youth Code, and Perturbator—not to mention the shockingly cohesive “MASS GRAVE” in collaboration with Purity Ring’s Corin Roddick and blossoming singer-songwriter Soccer Mommy. “I think the tracks sound like a bit of each band,” claims the humble Duzsik, “which is a very welcome break from always working within the stylistic predilections of HEALTH.” In reality, of course, it’s his band’s immersive, impeccable aesthetic that took possession of each artist and permitted them to create something shocking, captivating, and assuredly branded by HEALTH. FL