As the days and weeks merge together in what feels like a seemingly eternal self-isolation – caused by a pandemic that has literally put the entire world on an indefinite time-out – I decided to reach out to HEALTH’s bassist, John Famiglietti, for an interview. For those who aren’t well versed in HEALTH’s inimitable sound, the L.A. trio have been cutting out a big name for themselves in recent years. Starting out as a modest, underground noise-rock band with a DIY work ethic in the mid-noughties, they have slowly embraced a mature progression in a way few bands manage to accomplish. HEALTH’s habits transcend making an album every couple of years and touring it: they’ve been using idiosyncratic methods in just about every corner of their work, thus deconstructing a lot of music’s clichés in the process. Without even talking about the body of their work, which constantly changes up their sound with every album, HEALTH oozes creativity that feels both effortlessly organic and fresh. From making soundtracks for big-name video game licences like Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne, to having a phone number that you can actually call or text, where you can have a chat with John himself. There isn’t a stone that goes unturned with these guys, and in this interview, you should get a better understanding of why they’re one of rock’s most important contemporary bands doing the rounds today.
Let’s talk about your most recent releases – the 2020 remasters of Dimensions In Noise EP and fan-favourite track, “Goth Star”. Of all the things you could have gone back to, what made you want to revisit these two things in particular?
John: Recently, we regained ownership of our old masters and I was looking at getting some of the rare stuff up onto Spotify. However, hanging out with a bunch of guys from the rock and metal world, I noticed all of these guys make their living from Bandcamp – there’s a really loyal culture there – and we’ve never had dick to do with that platform, so I thought considering the scarcity of these two things, it’d be a good incentive to put them up on there. We made “Goth Star” in 2011 and it was only ever released as an MP3 – that was the only way to get it – so we dug up the old files for the track, as well as the EP, and remastered it for 2020. But it’s also worth mentioning that the versions of HEALTH and Get Color on Spotify are remasters as well, it’s just that we didn’t tell anybody when we put them on there.
I recently reviewed Dimensions In Noise EP where I surmised it was built around rough demo ideas which would eventually turn up on the Max Payne 3 Soundtrack. Is that assessment fairly accurate?
John: Sort of. Dimensions In Noise was all one live noise jam, recorded during the Get Color sessions so that there would be some kind of exclusive, free, release for Rough Trade in London. We linked all of our equipment into one chain and I played bass or triggered noise while Jupiter Keyes (an ex-bandmate who left the band in 2015) manipulated the pedals. Where the Max Payne 3 connection comes in is we ended up sampling parts of Dimensions In Noise to make other music for the game, and the reason we did that was because we loved a lot of the stuff we did during that live jam and found it completely impossible to recreate again.
While we’re on the topic of Max Payne 3; looking back on it now, did the Max Payne 3 Soundtrack have lasting effects on the band?
John: Yes… it definitely changed the band. It wasn’t immediately felt at the time, but now that I think about it, of course there has always been the Killer Elite of HEALTH superfans that have been with us since the beginning, but I feel that the majority of our most passionate fans comes from the people who found us playing Max Payne 3, or from some connection to it.
Was it more difficult writing a score as opposed to writing a conventional record, and what did you gain from the overall experience?
John: I think it’s a lot easier writing for a soundtrack than your typical record for a band, but it was hard in the sense that we had to write one hundred times more material for Max Payne than for anything we’d done before it, period. But with a video game, or a film or whatever, you’re serving something, so if you look at the footage and play the music, you’ll know if it works within a matter of seconds. With your own music, it could be terrible or it could be good and there’s no real way of knowing. If you think it’s good it could be sh*t – and you’re always scared it is, too, and you sit there thinking “Is this stupid? Is it bad?” and the truth is you just don’t know. So, in terms of writing for something like Max Payne, I feel it’s very freeing in comparison: “Does it work? No. Does it work? Yes.” And if they [Rockstar] don’t like something then we just try it a different way; it’s a huge load off the mind, I’d say.
You obviously enjoy making scores/soundtracks for stuff – you’ve done scores on more than one occasion for Rockstar Games, as well as contributing to movie soundtracks like Atomic Blonde – do you intend to make more?
John: Yeah, we’ve never really done a legitimate “score” for a movie… well, actually, technically we have. We worked on a score for a movie last year but the movie fell into development hell. The director is really awesome – he loves our music – and he hired us to do the score for it, but by the time we came on board there were a number of internal problems which resulted in the director being locked out of the editing room. But we were still hired. Things got pretty complicated and they wanted us to do it in a different style to how the director originally wanted, so we ended up making this, like, synth-wave score – very out of character for us – which eventually didn’t get used.
Do you think you’ll ever release the music as a standalone HEALTH project?
John: No. I feel like we kind of dodged a bullet, because it was our first movie and it would not have been our style. Obviously there was some stuff in there that I liked, and we can just reuse that stuff for something else, but it was not our idea to make a synth-wave score – I mean, you shouldn’t even hire us for that kind of thing, because we aren’t going to be that good at it (laughs). But we aren’t going to turn down a gig, and that’s what the producer wanted. So yeah, we’re not going to release it.
In terms of the band’s style, you always seem to retain the integral ingredients needed to make up HEALTH’s sound. Yet, if you look at the body of your work, it shows a pretty eclectic range of styles and ideas which are based within each album. Are these change-ups a pursuit in finding a never-ending itch, or is it that you guys just love pushing boundaries?
John: In your head there’s always this perfect thing or idea, which you’ll probably never get. So, there’s always a bit of that in trying to make something good, mixed with lofty, in-your-head aspirations that are always kind of big. To be honest, there’s never really been a moment where we’ve cracked the code. If there was one thing that the band did which eclipsed everything else, something that defined us, I think there’d be a different relationship to it where we’d be like “Okay, well, f*ck that’s what everybody loves about the sound, so let’s just do more of that.” But it’s never been like that, and anyone who’s been a fan of the band has been down to come along for the ride. I mean, obviously we have similar touchstones and gimmicks for everything that we do, but there’s always new things being added to it as well.
I also think it relates to the time as well. That’s what is so strange about the time we live in now: it’s the era where musical trends are broken. It’s not like A to B, or 1960 to 1970; with the internet, music just kinda feels like it’s there. Which is cool in its own way, but HEALTH records are always related to the time that they’re made in and are meant to be current sounding. So if I had each [HEALTH] record and sat down, you could be like “Oh, what’s that?” and I’d say “You know, in two-thousand-and-whatever, I was listening to this and that and I thought this was really cool, so we were trying to do this thing” – which then quickly becomes its own thing. So there’s a ton of musical influences and responses to whatever is happening musically at the time, or what we are listening to at the time.
In comparison, your eponymous debut looks structureless next to Death Magic and Vol.4 :: Slaves of Fear, what made you rein in your songwriting for recent works?
John: We noticed that even with the most experimental or avant-garde music fans, everybody responded much better to the traditionally structured stuff. And that was always kind of mind-blowing to us because we came from this weird, avant-garde, noise-rock background in L.A. – where bands wouldn’t even play a note, they’d just blast out distortion and feedback – but at shows, in between bands, they would play radio hip-hop or old euro-pop that was meant to be played as a bit of a joke, but they were actually gushing over it. So, it got me thinking that maybe they didn’t give a f*ck about the rules as much as they thought they did. What confirmed it for us was when we did “USA Boys” and stuff like that – which for our background was considered “trad”, because it had a verse-chorus structure to it – because we’d get all these avant-garde-fan-types coming up to us and saying how much better our new stuff was. We did rein it in more [the trad structure] on Vol.4 :: Slaves of Fear, where I felt like the stuff on Death Magic was probably being too conservative; we tried to go back to our roots in a sense, and keep the writing concise and to the point.
You’re very much into the production side of music as well as creating it. With Death Magic, in terms of overall sound, the record sounds next-level when compared to previous entries. However, with Vol.4 it really sounds like your vision has become an uncompromising reality, do you agree?
John: Yeah, totally. With Death Magic we had to figure out a way to do it electronic, so we could have this huge sound. It sounds clean, powerful and amazing in the speakers, but overall, we were trying to find our own language within it. Death Magic has next to no distortion, bar a bit in the drums, so it was missing certain elements from our past to the point where it feels like Death Magic got it, but it didn’t get it, you know? The intention with Vol.4 :: Slaves of Fear was to take the big sound from the former and add the atonal overtones and really dirty sounds that were missing, in a way that brings the band’s sound to a place we think it’s supposed to be.
How did you go about recording Vol.4? Was it a different process to how you’d typically recorded albums in the past?
John: It was the same process, but it was handled with more experience behind it all. Stuff that was completely absent in Death Magic was put into Vol.4: distortion, mid-range stuff, and a better use of sound design. But the process largely stemmed from things we had learned after Death Magic and over the course of time; you can hear some of it on Disco3, and then all of it on Vol.4 :: Slaves of Fear, which came from new samples and tricks we’d attained over the course of the last few years. I’m so pleased with the results, it’s to the point now where I feel like it is the HEALTH production sound going forward.
I’m a big industrial metal fan, so when I heard Vol.4 for the first time, my biggest delight came from hearing all of these old industrial tropes from the ‘80s and ‘90s being integrated into your sound. What made you implement this style for the album?
John: A lot of stuff was intentional and some of it was incidental, because it’s just something that happens when you use gridded sounds like that, or stuff that we were going for that leaned into a metal-styled context. When you grid and computerise something like that – even when you did it analogue in the old days – there’s a lot of stuff that just happens incidentally. So, we get a lot of people thinking there’s references to certain things – which, they’re right to some extent – but it’s mainly an inescapable process that happens when you set up stuff the way we did, or when you’re sampling a guitar and you have it on grid; there’s these homogenised tropes that occur during the process. That’s not to say we didn’t have the sound in mind when we were going into it. Before we go into a record, we always kind of have a general idea. I didn’t feel like there was enough heavy dog songs (Dog: HEALTH terminology for a really heavy sound) on Death Magic, so we took the digital-heaviness from that and added metal-sounding guitars to make a more uniformly dark style fans would hopefully appreciate.
HEALTH has a lot of ironic undertones in its themes and messages, and I always feel like there’s some sort of concept brewing underneath each album, but with Vol.4 :: Slaves of Fear there’s a distinctly more oppressive tone to it than normal. Is there a message pertained here – does it comment on current times?
John: The band is officially apolitical, so we’re not purposefully making some kind of political statement. We one hundred percent don’t knock bands that have political messages, but it’s just not for us. Jake writes lyrics which he feels fits the aesthetic of the record.
You and a number of other artists collaborated with a company called Reify in 2015 to make a music totem. It was a Pledge campaign that tried to push the boundaries on how we consume music both digitally and physical, letting you use your phone on the totem to experience a unique, digitally interactive image while you listen to the song. The campaign unfortunately failed, but what drew you guys to the project initially, and why do you think it failed to grab consumers at the time?
John: We love working with new ideas – stuff that’s fresh and cool. Why did it fail? It was a really great idea, and it had great technology, but it was maybe a bit too obscure for people. I’m sure there’s going to be something in the near future with AR [Augmented Reality], which will relate to music. I’m not sure if it’s going to be something that involves listening to music, but you might go to a band’s show and there’s an AR store or something for that band. There could be something like that already, but I definitely think something like that is going to come up at some point.
Your satirical humour and grounded love for your fanbase are two of the great standout qualities of HEALTH. How did you come up with the ingenious idea of the call centre for Disco3’s promotion, and the phone call/text thing you currently do for fans now? And why do you keep so close to your fans?
John: The idea for the phone number came about during a music video we did for Get Color. For the “Die Slow” video we used a fake number and regretted it, because it was a pretty cool idea. Years later, when we were doing the “New Coke” music video, we decided to use a real number that you could call and text, and it turned into this big thing. We were asked if we were going to close the number but everybody loved the idea, so it stuck. We don’t intentionally promote it – we occasionally put it on a t-shirt or whatever – but I like the idea of it because it brings that personal connection to the fans. I used to love going to shows and talking to band members, so it got me thinking that if I got off on that sort of thing, other people probably would. So now, it’s snowballed into this thing where we try and connect with our fans as best we can. As for the call centre thing, that came about because we were owed a favour and they could get us Pauly Shore, which I loved the idea of, so we did a live stream with him to promote Disco3.
How’s Disco4 coming along?
John: Disco4 is coming along, and it’s going to be a collaborative record instead of a remix record. The reason for this is because it’s a different time and no one really cares that much about remixes anymore. People love a collaborative track, and we find it’s really invigorating and fun to do from our end. Before the coronavirus hit us, the idea was to release two discs at two different points in the year, but now I’m not sure how it’s going to work.
Will there be some original material on Disco4, like there was for Disco3?
John: Yes, there will be some original songs on there.
After Death Magic, the band has been extremely active to say the least– with numerous collaborative tracks, Disco3 and Vol.4. Can fans expect the same pace for future projects, or do you plan on taking a break after Disco4?
John: Yes. We always wanted to be able to put stuff out fast, but we were never able to do it in the past. Currently, this is the fastest we’ve been able to produce new music. We had a lot of new stuff planned to come out by now, but coronavirus is derailing everything at the minute, so we’re recalibrating our plans.
Out of all of your albums, which one are you most proud of?
John: I used to think it was the debut, but I listened to it the other day and thought “what the f*ck was I thinking?” so I guess it’s the latest one [Vol.4]. I dunno, it’s been a long journey for us, so it’s hard to say, really.
And finally, last question: what were the pros and cons of being in a band when you first started out, and what are the pros and cons now? What would you tell a band starting out today to help them along?
John: Being in a band is amazing, and it lets you do all these great things, and the lifestyle can’t be beat. I’d probably tell someone to be in a band for, like, five years and then don’t be in a band (laughs). But then, it’s hard to not be in a band once you’ve been in one, because it’s great and it’s really fulfilling. Other art doesn’t work like music does; I could make something brilliant in another field, but I can’t keep repeating the thing I did in front of people and have them scream they like it over and over like I can with music – there’s nothing else like it – so I can’t not recommend it. I guess maybe don’t do it so long (laughs). I think now, there’s a lot of options open to people. There aren’t any scenes you need to crack anymore, and things are not very regional, so you can make it directly on the internet. And also, it’s good to know that if you don’t have a label and you just have people streaming your stuff, you can actually make an okay amount of money. But even then, there are other ways to making ends meet – there aren’t any rules anymore.
You can stream and purchase Dimensions In Noise EP and “Goth Star” on HEALTH’s Bandcamp right now, as well as their latest album Vol.4 :: Slaves of Fear. If you’re looking to support the band directly, you can go to their Patreon page for exclusive content, or their merchstore.