Here is Traverse City, a quaint city located at the head of Grand Traverse Bay, just off Lake Michigan. It’s littered with strip malls, fast food restaurants and jankey shacks selling hotdogs–woodsmen, neighborly smiles and big hair all play major roles in the atmosphere. It’s also home to two-thirds of screwgaze trio Salem. Since forming three years ago, Salem’s new breed of syrupy, sideways hip-hop has given wake to myriad copycat bands and cyber disciples, all of whom are wet with anticipation for their forthcoming debut album, King Knight. Like the faith-wasted await the rapture, only indie.
John and Heather recline lazily in the dining room of their home—a modest ranch on a street full of modest ranches. The house’s interior is straight up Brady Brunch: deep shag, wooden paneling, display cases full of gaudy crystal and nick-knacks—most of which are leftovers of the previous occupant. The kitchen surfaces and refrigerator are stocked with diet bread, fat free cheeses and a host of weird health drinks that claim to burn more calories than they provide. “We got fat so we’re on a diet,” says Heather, a cigarette protruding from her puffy lips. “I’m actually going to a work-out class with my mom later.”
“Other than Heather I don’t have many friends here,” says John, his voice so soft it’s almost a whisper. “Sometimes I’ll sleep with guys and then I’ll hang out with them for a while, but that’s it really. There’s this one older guy who I’ve sort of been seeing recently. He’s married, although his wife is pretty into it.”
“It doesn’t matter that we don’t have that many people around us,” says Heather defiantly, “because we have each other. I would much rather just hang out with John anyway. He’s like family.”
Heather and John’s relationship is intimidatingly close—occupying a space between siblings and lovers. Michigan natives, they met ten years ago at Interlochen Arts Academy, a renowned alternative arts boarding school outside Traverse City, where John’s parents both work as music teachers. “I was a senior and John was a freshman,” recalls Heather. “He just waltzed up to me on the first day of class and asked me to be his friend. I liked him because he looked like he’d never taken a shower.” She laughs. “Not much has changed.”
Around noon the house’s inherent serenity is destroyed by the sound of tires shrieking into the driveway. A car horn blasts obnoxiously. “I guess Jack’s here,” says Heather, rolling her eyes. Seconds later Salem’s final member—Jack Donoghue, here for the weekend from his home in Chicago—bounds into the room. He’s striking, like the alternateen dream out of a Gregg Araki film: beautifully fucked-up. “Get up, we’re going out,” he demands. He’s naked except for a pair of tiny, nylon swim shorts. “I need to buy a funnel and a hose. I wanna make a beer bong.” The others submit somewhat reluctantly, and the trio pile into Heather’s beat-up white Subaru station wagon.
As we drive the hot, thick Michigan air pours through the car’s open windows. It’s difficult to breathe. Mariah Carey’s “Breakdown” erupts from the car’s blown-out speakers. “You don’t understand how much I love Mariah,” John beams. “She’s just, like, my hero.” After a brief stop at the local Walmart to gather the aforementioned necessities, the group heads to the city’s main attraction: the beach. Upon arrival Heather immediately strips, dives in and begins chain smoking from the water. Jack produces a tab of acid from his shorts pocket and, despite overt grimaces from his friends, happily pops it onto his tongue. He turns to me and offers a teasing grin. “So… like, how big’s your boyfriend’s dick?”
“Bigger than yours.”
“I hope you like being wet,” he spits back as he shoves me off the dock with all my clothes on. As my body sinks and my head is engulfed, from under the water I can hear Heather scream—a warped, illusive yelp that washes over me like something conjured up from a dream. It sounds curiously familiar, not far off from a Salem song. I surface to discover Jack smiling wide, like, no big deal.
One gets the impression Jack is the sort of person who will constantly test the limits of what he can get away with. He radiates charisma, albeit slightly drunk with power. According to Heather, when Jack and John met, the first words out of Jack’s mouth were, “From now on, you can’t have any friends besides me. You have to just disconnect from everyone you know and if you want to talk to anyone, I have to approve it first.” Though on the surface is may appear that Jack makes the rules, the trio clearly share a complex power dynamic.
“John is so open,” says Heather. “He’s nice to everyone, even if they’ve fucked him over. It’s great that he’s so generous and loving, but it means people sometimes take advantage of him.”
“John is one of the most amazing people that I’ve ever met,” adds Jack. “It’s his vulnerability that allows him to see and feel things that most people fail to.”
“I’m really protective over him,” Heather continues. “I’m constantly telling him he can’t let people walk all over him. I’m the opposite. If someone fucks me over, I’ll be like, ‘Fuck you, I’ll fucking cut your face!’”
John paws his face sheepishly. “Guys, can we, like, change the subject or whatever?”
As a teenager in Michigan, John got heavily into drugs, working as a prostitute to fund his addictions. This continued when he moved to Chicago to study drawing and installation at the Art Institute of Chicago. He’s now completely sober, and seems a bit frustrated at Salem being lazily classified a “junkie band.” (Noteworthy: Their debut EP was entitled Yes, I Smoke Crack.) “Yes, we’ve done drugs,” he says wearily, “but what people don’t get is that it has nothing to do with our band or us as musicians. Everybody has to overcome things in life, and I’ve done that. We’re all better at some points and worse at others.”
“People are constantly offering us drugs and trying to get wasted with us,” says Heather, “like as if that’s all we do. Everyone assumes we’re these really fucked up, morose people, I guess because of what’s been written about us. They don’t get that we’re just normal and joke around like everyone else.”
“Screwed started in the south with guys robotripping, you know, drinking sizurp,” says John. “Rappers would mix Sprite with a whole bottle of codeine cough syrup, cause, like, slowed down music sounds really good when you’re all high and stuff. I’ve titled some of the remixes and mixtapes I’ve done with the name drag, so I guess people who aren’t into rap and weren’t familiar with the term could think we made it up, but we didn’t.”
“No art is completely original,” adds John. “People constantly take from and are inspired by each other. That’s how art and music progress and evolve. We’re definitely not threatened, I think it’s a positive thing.”
Salem’s self-produced debut album, King Night, is out on IAMSOUND this month. The album is epic—a vast underworld of soupy, hypnotic euphoria, with Heather’s voice flying over and under the record like a dove through a futuristic war zone. This is not just drug music; it’s a glimpse into a parallel universe. It’s warped and incestuous—the product of three minds synthesized.
When questioned on the record, the group talk less about the album itself and more about the logic behind their creativity, suggesting that the record is more a byproduct of a process focused entirely on art than it is the band’s definitive interest. “Our attitude has always been that we make music for ourselves and for each other,” says Jack, “and if someone wanted to work with us and help us share it, then that would be great. But we were never thirsting to release a cohesive record. The album is very much a first step—a showcase of where we came from and what we’re moving toward.”
However, as meaty and visceral as their music is on record, it doesn’t always translate live. They’ve received some lukewarm reviews, one in particular by the New York Times this January claiming a performance by the band in NYC was “hollow at the core.” They were also notoriously booed offstage during this year’s SXSW appearance, after which Fader was credited with saying, “Honestly, they were not good.” It should probably be noted, however, that at SXSW Salem performed in the mid-afternoon in the beer garden of the Levis/Fader Fort to a bunch of drunken PR people. It seems fair to argue that perhaps journalists should be more forgiving of the fact that not all art is conducive to every environment—that maybe specific conditions are necessary to accurately imitate the intimate headspace of Salem’s music. After all, isn’t that why churches are dimly lit—to increase the transcendent experience? When your goal is to create music that exists beyond the realm of reality, it seems a difficult task to give it physical form in the harsh light of day.
“People have gotten physically angry at our shows before,” recalls Heather. “They pay money to dance and have fun, but we’re never going to put on the stereotypical high-energy gig, or have a charismatic lead singer. But to be honest I sort of like when people don’t know how to interpret or deal with our music. I would much rather someone be like ‘What the fuck?’ than just like us because it’s “cool.””
“Heather and I don’t really like to be around a huge amount of people,” says John, “so I guess that can affect the way we perform. If we played a gig and everything was aesthetically perfect, it would be great. Our gigs aren’t always about having fun, but more about creating an experience. I want our shows to be sad and beautiful simultaneously”
“But even using the word ‘beautiful’ is limiting,” adds Jack. “I think it’s more about something being moving, or important. Things that are extremely horrible or ugly can still affect you in a powerful way.”
It’s later in the evening and the band are seated in a bar in the center of town. Women in too-tight skirts wobble back and forth across the room on unsteady, bedazzled heels as men undress them with their eyes. The women seem to like it. Jack is seated at a neighboring table, hitting on a heavily made-up, middle aged woman. She bats her eyelashes at him desperately. It’s hard to tell whether his flirtation is genuine or for comedic value. When the two mysteriously disappear, Heather immediately picks up her mobile. “Jack, please don’t fuck that bar slut. Seriously, we kind of know her. She’s like forty and is probably full of STDs,” she pleads. Twenty minutes later Jack returns, shirt open, face and chest damp with sweat.
Heather: “You’re disgusting.”
Though it might be instantly thrilling to envision Salem as a cult of satanic, junked-out monsters, this isn’t actually the case. Real-life Salem hang out in iHop parking lots, count calories, and have quasi-deep convos about pop stars. And whether Salem are gods in some dark, future religion of cool, or whether they’re merely a symptom of the times, it’s sort of irrelevant. Because there’s something about these three Michigan kids that’s endlessly intriguing–something that draws you in, makes you want to look and listen. They might be making music in the middle of nowhere, but it comes from somewhere beyond what most can know or even imagine.