Los Angeles based electro-noise rockers HEALTH splashed onto the scene in 2007 with the release of their self-titled reverberating debut, touring feverishly to pump up the love and unite chaos-crazy audiences with their synth-heavy roaring rhythms. Our writer caught up with bassist John Famiglietti, as they chatted about the intentional ambiguity of their lyrics, six-nippled renegade angels, and porn-loving puppeteers.
SoundsXP: I saw your show at Pitchfork. It was awesome. How did you feel to be playing at Pitchfork? Were you more nervous because it’s a well known festival?
John: Oh, no. In the previous month we played Primavera and that’s a much bigger festival, so we felt really comfortable, actually. The biggest issue was that it was f---ing hot.
SoundsXP: It was incredibly hot. Did you guys go out to see any shows or you just played and stayed backstage?
John: We were walking around the whole time, actually. We went to shows and we came a day early to see everyone.
SoundsXP: One thing I read about your lyrics is that you purposely keep them vague for the listener. Is that true?
John: Yeah, I guess the thing was basically taken out of context, but it was like: ‘Why don’t you print your lyrics?’ And we didn’t want to print them or make a big deal of them like that. It wasn’t set up in a way that you identify with the guy singing and it’s like this character singing about this certain thing. It’s kind of hard to explain but, it’s made in a way that you relate to it in a different way. I guess it’s what we mean by that.
SoundsXP: For example as an experience and less as an intellectual, you can ‘follow the words’ kind of thing?
John: Yeah, I guess, especially with music that’s aggressive or reverberates. We didn’t wanna make a huge thing like: ‘Here are the lyrics and this is what the song is about.’ We didn’t want that at all. I think on the next album we’re probably going to print the lyrics [though] because too many people think there are no lyrics and we’re not singing anything.
SoundsXP: What is the writing process like? Do you write they lyrics first or the music first?
John: I actually don’t write any lyrics. All the lyrics are written by Jake, the singer. All the music is written first. Usually it’s a really intensive process. We start with a diagram of words and arrows and sort of conceptualize the ideas that we have to go through together and make it make sense. It’s a pain in the ass.
SoundsXP: So it’s a very well thought out process, it’s not just you sit down and you see what’s going to come out?
John: It’s a really intensive process, like ‘this is the idea, this is what we’re trying to do’ and then we try and actually make it happen. As a band we go through and interpret the writing and usually it doesn’t work. We have to figure out sounds or ways to do it differently without [doing] something cliché or normal at all, which is usually the toughest thing, because you can’t just play a guitar riff or something - you have to find a bunch of sounds, put them together and make it work that way and still have it work emotionally.
SoundsXP: Once you’re finished recording and you release the album are you always happy with what you’ve created or sometimes do you wish you could’ve changed something?
John: Of course you’re just like: ‘I wish this was more brutal,’ or there’s times when we play it live, and because of where we recorded it, the sound of certain elements doesn’t come across the same. It’s not as intense. With this new album we’re going to be using an engineer.
SoundsXP: When you guys first formed the band did you ever doubt yourselves?
John: We doubted ourselves the whole time. Actually every time we write a song it’s always a tug of war whether the song is going work. There’s tons of despair and endless doubt. We never really believed [in ourselves] until we were playing live, and every time we were getting really genuine comments. People really liked our music, they were really impressed. We just couldn’t believe it until like two years after. (chuckles)
SoundsXP: What kept you going, because many artists doubt themselves, so what kept you guys going?
John: Just the desire to really want to do it. We’re still very skeptical. We’re trying to make it better and more gratifying and all these things that we feel makes great music, so it’s tough.
SoundsXP: Do you guys ever have creative differences where you’re like: ‘Ok, there’s no way that I’m doing this’?
John: In the beginning yes, because we didn’t even know what our sound was, we weren’t even sure what we were doing, and we didn’t trust each other and each other’s tastes. Now, we pretty much all have the same taste, and there’s really not much creative difference at all. It’s usually pretty clear, now that we know what our sound is, when something is wrong or is not working or poor choice. There aren’t many differences anymore.
SoundsXP: Are you at the point where you’re like: ‘This is our sound and we’re going to stick with this sound and create new melodies’, or are you going to experiment with new sounds?
John: We’re still experimenting. Basically every song we write, there’s a new concept where we try to do something new or explore something or refine something that we’re doing and nothing’s changed that perspective. We know our stuff and it’s just so much more comfortable. We’re definitely going farther with everything and definitely we’re going out there with a lot of new stuff. We don’t plan to depart, because we have a sound that’s our sound. A lot of bands, whatever their sound or genre, they completely change each album. We want things to keep going, developing, and getting better.
SoundsXP: Do you have any plans for going back to the studio or you’re busy with touring right now?
John: We’re trying to stop all touring and basically write and record an album as soon as we can. We possibly have some more touring on the horizon, but that’s still in the air, to be discussed right now. We’re still gonna try and do that [record an album] as soon as possible it just might be delayed another month or two.
SoundsXP: Do you notice a difference between the audiences that you play from coast to coast?
John: Yeah, there is. It’s hard to define because there are characteristics of cities, of venues, of festivals that vary in influence, but Montreal has a culture for music and we’ve toured almost all of Canada, and Montreal has been very noticeably different. We’ve been to Winnipeg, Vancouver, wherever.
SoundsXP: I guess it’s hard to make the correlation, but there’s definitely a difference. I’ve read about how The Smell is your favorite venue. Why is it your favorite venue?
John: It’s a favorite venue in terms of LA. The Smell has a very unique character that’s very different from a lot of venues. It’s definitely not what would traditionally be considered a great show environment in a lot of ways, but it sounds great. The sound is usually off putting to most people because it’s so clangy and reverberant. It’s technically a bad sound, but it’s the sound that we really like and it makes us sound very ominous, especially for DIY shows. A real small DIY band will come and play there and because of the way The Smell’s set up it’s like added aura legitimizing their sound with no sound system.
SoundsXP: Ok, and is your goal to sound polished or you don’t mind if it’s a little lo-fi sounding?
John: Well, only within reason. Basically, lo-fi, if it sounds raw and has character, but we’re definitely very into high fidelity and power. We want really big stereo panning, everything [to be] clear. We don’t care about if it sounds a little dirty, but it’s about it sounding good. We don’t want to intentionally have it sound crappy. We want it to be full, be able to drive subwoofers, we care about things sounding good. But ‘good’ is very subjective and it’s also about having character. If you’re in a room, you can feel all the emotions from these overtones.
SoundsXP: There’s a huge difference when I listen to Crimewave the way it was originally recorded and the remix.
John: Yeah, it’s totally different. I mean the other one’s completely electronic, it just has the vocal track over it.
SoundsXP: Do you ever listen to your own record at home?
John: Not for fun, because when you’re recording the f---ing thing you hear it a hundred times a day, and you’re sick of it. And when you play it everyday for six months, you don’t wanna hear it. The only time we listen to it would be for sort of scrutiny. Actually, I was in Amsterdam and I did a lot of mushrooms and I listened to the record and that was really fun. (laughs) That was actually pretty awesome, and made it a very novel concept, or experience.
SoundsXP: Do you find that when you’re high that kind of brings open a new creativity channel for you?
John: That’s not the plan. Those things are better when you’re probably going to do it sober. It’s been common to get sort of broad conceptual ideas or flashes of inspiration when you’re high, and you write that down immediately before you’re gonna forget it two seconds later, and when you’re sober, you come back to it, and you make something of it. That’s helpful sometimes, but it’s rare and that’s definitely not a main source of inspiration. It does happen in certain moments. It’s usually pretty random. It’ll just be like, you happen to be high, you happen to get this really good idea.
SoundsXP: A lot of people must think they’re clever when they make jokes about: ‘I wanna be HEALTH-y’ or other HEALTH related jokes. Are you sick of that?
John: I don’t get sick of it, I’m just like: ‘Come on, it’s so cheesy.’ That’s the thing, intentionally, all of our artwork, all of our aesthetics are not about health as this medical thing. The artwork is very intentional – nothing medical, nothing related to ailments or food or sh-t like that. If you think about it, the name HEALTH could be this cold, technological or futuristic kind of band name, like an everyday kind of word in the context of music. It’s not about ‘eat a lot of fiber today’ or nothing. That’s what you get for having a silly ass band name. I got no beef with anybody, it’s just sort of like: ‘Oh come on man, that’s cheesy.’
SoundsXP: Even at Pitchfork, I heard the guy who announced you guys made a HEALTH-related joke.
John: Oh, Echo is awesome! That guy is the go to announcer for Chicago, apparently. That guy was pretty cool.
SoundsXP: I read that your favorite show is the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
John: You know, it’s not anymore. It’s been totally replaced by Xavier, Renegade Angel, which I think is way better.
SoundsXP: The funny thing is, I went to the Hollywood Bowl when I was in LA this summer and I saw - you know the guy who sings with the puppet?
John: Oh yeah. He rents gay porn to some cinephile where my buddy works at this store in West LA. He comes in there very often and rents gay porn.
SoundsXP: My friend and I were walking by this guy with the puppet and he was just sitting there singing outside the Hollywood Bowl. We looked him up and apparently he does that a lot. I think his name is David Liebe Hart. I haven’t watched the show a lot, is it a spoof?
John: No, it’s just a funny-ass show and what I find really cool about this show is it’s not skit writing or comedy writing at all. They just throw in a bunch of crap and make it work as a comedy. It’s just really weird how they do it. They get these cameos and interesting people on the show. Sometimes episodes suck, they don’t always hit it, but when it’s good, it’s really good.
SoundsXP: Do you still have time to watch shows when you’re touring? Do you guys ever have downtime to sit around and do your own thing, watch youtube or whatever?
John: The thing is that there’s endless downtime in the van. With my laptop, I’ve been in the habit of getting a movie on there or TV shows and even Wikipedia to find out stuff and get into the culture, because I haven’t watched TV for years, or any of that stuff on YouTube when I was younger, so they’re just kind of fun now. There’s this show Xavier, Renegade Angel, it’s so awesome! It’s CG animated, like the video game Sims, so it’s really bizarre. It’s this guy with backward legs and a snake arm, six nipples, a beak face, and blond hair, and he’s this sort of native American-ish spirit wanderer who’s totally f---ing stupid. He travels from city to city and gets in these adventures. It’s a brilliant show, but it’s probably going to cancel. No one gets it and it gets hate mail. It’s too weird for some people, which is funny, but it’s awesome. I try and show it to everybody, and they don’t get it.
SoundsXP: When you’re not touring, is it strange to go back to normal life?
John: Yeah, it is. We’ve been touring ever since the band started. Now, because we basically toured the entire year up until this point, we have time off, and it’s actually really weird. It’s definitely done something to our brains. We’re really restless. You feel almost stressed because you’re not doing anything. You feel like you wanna get on the road again.
SoundsXP: Do you think that lasts for a while? Do you think after five years of touring you’d feel the same way?
John: I don’t know. Probably not. In terms of touring we’re very used to it. It used to seem very strange and we’d be like: ‘Oh my god, I’m in this city and it’s just weird.’ Now it’s totally not special. We were just in Europe, and you’re like: ‘Ah, whatever, I’m in Germany.’ We didn’t think about it, just getting in the van and getting out. It was actually cooler that it wasn’t a big deal and it’s totally changed our perception of time. Getting in a car and sitting for ten hours when you’re not touring would seem like f---ing torture and we’re doing that everyday and no one cares. We don’t think about it. I’m definitely a lot more patient now.
SoundsXP: When you go back home, are you still friends with your old friends or does that completely change when you’re always on the road?
John: No. Actually the funny thing is when we leave and come back I don’t perceive that it’s been months, so I feel like it’s been like last week and quite literally nothing has changed. All the shows are the same, the scene’s the same, everybody’s the same, it’s great. That’s what LA is like, it just doesn’t change. Same sh-t everyday. (laughs)
SoundsXP: Do you have a favorite place outside of LA of all the places you visited? If you had to pick a place where you had to live for the next three years, what place would you pick?
John: I love New York, I would live in New York. Montreal’s awesome, but it’s too f--king cold. I never realized it, but on this last tour, we toured Canada, and I was like: ‘F-- this sh*t, this is f--king freezing. Totally not used to that, but I’m sure you’d get used to it.
SoundsXP: Oh my god, no you don’t!
John: I love Barcelona… [There are] a lot of great cities, a lot of better places to live than LA. LA is not really the city to choose most people would think, but I like it.