In 2017, Jae Matthews of dystopian pop duo Boy Harsher saw his world fall apart twice in the space of several months.
The great upheaval began with the sudden death of her stepfather. This was followed by the news that her mother, with whom she had had a sometimes difficult relationship, had been diagnosed with dementia. Somehow, in the midst of these traumas, she and her artistic and romantic partner, Augustus Muller, found the strength to carry on.
“It was a time when we had to pause everything and deal with this grief. And reevaluate what was going on with my mother. Having a parent with dementia is such a difficult and unfamiliar reality,” says Matthews. “ I think it’s going to become more common. People are living a lot longer. Baby boomers are the first generation to come to terms with being older and having a weakening brain.
Matthews poured his angst into Boy Harsher’s 2019 LP Careful – a miniature masterpiece reminiscent of 1980s synth-pop, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and the Blade Runner soundtrack. But now, after two years of confinement, a shocking medical prognosis (see below) and what looks like decades of isolation, she and Muller are ready to try something different.
And “different” really is the word for their third full album. The Runner is a tour de force of post-apocalyptic electronics, which, on numbers such as Give Me A Reason and Tower, combines Matthews’ Kate Bush-Goes-Cyberpunk vocals with addictive, cold melodies. However, it’s also something else altogether in that it’s the score for their debut film – a low-budget splatterfest (also called The Runner) to be streamed exclusively on horror website Shudder.
We have a certain sense of cinema because we both went to film school
“When all the songs were done, it felt like a soundtrack,” says Matthews. “Each song was so varied. Once we had the idea to present it as an OST, we decided that we actually wanted to do the movie that we fantasize about in the songs.
Boy Harsher’s music suggests, at top speed, a sci-fi nightmare seeping through your headphones. Yet in some ways Matthews and Muller are rather traditional. As a synth duo, they are the standard-bearers of a genre that stretches all the way back to Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. And which, in the United States, has metamorphosed into the somewhat similar category of electro pop his ‘n’ hers, embodied by outfits such as Ms Mr, Yacht, Sofi Tucker, Matt and Kim, Poliça and d ‘others.
These bands, while critically adored, rarely broke through to any degree. With Boy Harsher, however, there’s a sense that big time — or, at least, mean time — can hit. Their big introduction to global audiences was supposed to have taken place in 2020, when they were scheduled to tour Europe. This run included a Dublin Button Factory date which almost certainly would have been sold had Covid not intervened.
They have also been advertised by tastemaker reviews such as Pitchfork and Stereogum. “It’s easy to imagine these tracks playing well in goth clubs around the world,” Careful’s Pitchfork said. “But it’s chiseled and streamlined in a way that suggests it could also slip through the cracks of a techno set.” “Dark, heart-pounding synth music,” was Stereogum’s take of approval.
That The Runner represents a new chapter is made clear by the accompanying movie trailer. It stars their musician friend Kris Esfandiari as the nameless protagonist fleeing a faceless evil. And it effectively evokes the ghosts of The Blair Witch Project, Twin Peaks and Evil Dead.
The plot is secret but the directors promise it will “explore lust, compulsion and the horrific tendencies of seduction”. The trailer opens with a woman driving through the dark, deep woods of western Massachusetts (Matthew and Muller shot it in the Berkshires region near Vermont).
Then we see her standing in the middle of the trees, her mouth streaked with blood. “I’ll be fine,” whispers a voice. Things are clearly not going to work out.
“We have a certain sense of cinema because we both went to film school,” says Matthews. “I worked on films for a while. This one was low budget. I wouldn’t say we were flying by the seat of our pants. We were perhaps not fully prepared for the intensity of the project.
If it hadn’t been for Covid and the lockdown, The Runner probably never would have happened. Boy Harsher filmed until March 2020. And when the world as we knew it came to a standstill, they, like all of us, suddenly had some free time. Obviously, the past 24 months have not been easy. Yet, living in the deep New England countryside, they feel they have been relatively lucky. Many, many people have been through much worse.
“Our experience with Covid was pretty mundane,” says Muller. “I mean, we were in rural Massachusetts, where Covid wasn’t really an issue. We had all this time and we didn’t have much direction.
There was a major setback. Amid the pandemic, as plans for The Runner took shape, Matthews was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “A lot of what I was doing during lockdown was like processing my feelings about it,” she says.
What’s iconic about David Lynch is that you can do something very simple and mundane that’s inconvenient
What was it like to suffer a private health crisis while the world was going through a very public one? “It was totally weird,” she says. “And wild timing. Luckily we weren’t on tour so I was able to be home, go to the hospital here and stay a bit. The only lingering effects would be that I am now on medication that weakens my immune system. And in the new Covid world, it’s kind of weird to go out there knowing I don’t have a full defense. [In terms of touring], that certainly made it more complex.
Matthews grew up in upstate New York near Utica (population 60,000). She was 16 and had just started attending punk shows in Rochester and Buffalo when her father, a Methodist minister, died. She once had a difficult relationship with her mother, who struggled with alcoholism throughout her life. Music became her way of channeling her negative feelings.
Muller is from Northampton, a liberal Massachusetts mother lode that has one of the highest proportions of LGBT residents in the United States (the couple currently live on the outskirts). They met in Savannah, Georgia, where they were both attending film school.
With a background in filmmaking, Boy Harsher’s journey from the recording studio to the screen isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. In addition, their music has always had a cinematic component. Heat by Michael Mann and Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn were among the influences incorporated into Careful in terms of mood and aesthetics. The Runner, meanwhile, conjures up the lean, wicked post-modern horror of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers – and the American pastoral surrealism of David Lynch, who of course reimagined the United States stockade as a hellish landscape. hidden in plain sight.
“What’s iconic about David Lynch is that you can do something very simple and mundane that’s inconvenient,” says Muller. “It’s something we’re really interested in. If you look at the trailer we just released [for The Runner]. Someone walks into a bar. Being able to put so much curiosity and tension into something so simple is what we are looking for.
After film school, Muller and Matthews embarked on careers in the film industry. Muller has worked as a production assistant on short films. And Matthews was second unit director on a number of independent productions. These included Christine, the 2016 biopic of Christine Chubbuck, a 1970s news anchor who killed herself on air (and who was played by Rebecca Hall).
Music and film have a certain amount in common, they say. But there are also profound differences. Filmmaking, in their experiences, offers fewer opportunities for self-expression.
“I burned out in the space of five years,” Matthews says of his screen career. “You devote your whole life and energy to bringing this unique piece to life – the film.
“It’s exhausting. Especially because it’s an industry built on exploitation. Not just the exploitation of workers. Even the very nature of creating a story with humans on screen is inherently exploitation. Music – I came to it very differently. We started out great, great DIY. Music started out for me as something very exploratory and open.
Boy Harsher began after the couple became romantically involved (for a time Muller had lived in Matthews’ attic). They had actually performed together on an earlier project, Teen Dreamz, which fell apart after a backstage argument and a temporary split. Since their return as Boy Harsher, they have managed to balance the personal and the artistic. Its not always easy. When it works, it’s immensely rewarding.
“It’s hard to find boundaries,” says Muller. “We can certainly be overworked and overwhelmed. But a strength of our music is that we can dive into something so deeply and work on it and put everything we have into it. I think only a couple or a real close relationship can do that.
“We’re really, really successful partners,” says Matthews. “Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult. Especially when there is an endless amount of work and the only thing you can do is yell at yourself. But we are improving. »
A busy year awaits you. The Runner is sure to win new fans. Covid permitting, they are hoping to resume touring as well (and are eager to book an Irish date). They also thought about what they would like to do next. They are not averse to writing for the screen again. With their song Fate recently featured on SyFy Channel killer doll caper Chucky, their appetites are officially whetted.
“If there’s a director reading this Irish Times article. . . says Matthews. “If Julia Ducournau of France who made [art-house body horror hit] Titane is looking for composers, we are here and we are ready.
Boy Harsher’s The Runner premieres January 21 on Nude Club/City Slang. The film of the same name is presented in preview quiver January 16.