Los Angeles is known as the birthplace of many generation-shaping bands, from The Doors to Kendrick Lamar. In 2006, HEALTH played their first show at a well known DIY venue in L.A. called The Smell. Since their formation, HEALTH has continued to question the boundaries of contemporary music with their brand of noise rock. Their first, self-titled album was released to acclaim from their growing fan base and from Pitchfork. Following this, HEALTH gained further popularity through a collaborative remix album titled HEALTH/DISCO with other bands such as Crystal Castles, Nosaj Thing, and Pictureplane. Thanks to the success of this release, HEALTH was invited by Trent Reznor to tour with Nine Inch Nails. After the tour, in 2009, HEALTH released their second full length album Get Color. In review for the album, both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times suggested that HEALTH was taking part in the reinvention of modern music. After the release of their second remix album, ::DISCO2, HEALTH was sought out by Rockstar Games to compose an original score for the video game Max Payne 3. Their project was unanimously acclaimed in video gaming communities and was nominated for Best Score and Song in that year’s Spike Video Game Awards. Most recently, HEALTH released DEATH MAGIC in August 2015 and is currently on tour. We spoke to bassist John Famiglietti about the new album, video games, and the perpetually evolving music scene.
DEATH MAGIC, which was released in August, is your first album in nearly six years since the release of 2009’s Get Color. Why was there a six year gap between this album and your last one?
There was a six-year gap, but it wasn’t for a great reason. It wasn’t supposed to take that long, obviously. There was a videogame score right in the middle and there was touring. Then we were really struggling with getting the kind of production sound we wanted, as we wanted to make a new sort of electronic version of our band. That turned out being harder than we’d planned. And you know, things sort of fell apart at times. We felt a little lost for a while. But we finally figured it out.
Were you working on the new album during that whole six years?
No. The videogame soundtrack took a whole year. Then we were touring for about two years. And then there is about two years of unaccounted time where we were just contemplating the new record, which is totally our fault. Six years isn’t a death sentence or anything, and we feel lucky that the album happened and is finished. With bands that I like, their best period is usually the first few albums in a row at the beginning that then they usually go to shit later. Most of my favourite bands only released one or two records. So during that two year gap we were wondering if we were done. Turns out we aren’t though.
Fair enough. What got you guys involved in creating a videogame soundtrack for Max Payne 3? Did Rockstar Games just ask your for it, or did you have to seek them out?
They just called us up. I think they knew that our music would fit the game. It’s still pretty crazy though that they chose us. We were really great friends with the music supervisor, who has a really cool taste in music, but it still felt crazy. I’m really into videogames. I play a lot of Rockstar games. Every time I play them I would always be like “god this music is so hip and so tasteful” so it was pretty cool that they ended up choosing us.
Max Payne 3 was the third version of the videogame. Had any of the band members played the previous version of the game?
I knew about the first one. It was a big deal when it came out, but I didn’t have a Playstation or whatever, so I never played it. But once we got this soundtrack job I bought a bunch of old systems and just played those a lot.
Another question about Max Payne 3 that I have involves how graphic the game is. Did it make HEALTH uncomfortable to create a soundtrack for such a violent game?
It’s insanely violent. The camera slows down when a head explodes. I really like violent video games and movies, though. We felt like our music was appropriate. One thing we did do for the soundtrack – because it’s crazy how violent this game can be – is that we took the situation of what was happening at face value. In this game you are literally a super human capable of shooting hundreds and hundreds of people and not die yourself. Due to this, on certain music cues we would put in tones that felt contemplative because if you really were a kind of person who could kill thousands of people and survive, you would feel really weird and your character would have to be incredibly damaged. We wanted our music to provide a third eye ball kind of thing for the game. And we like movies where music plays that sort of role too.
Was it different orchestrating a videogame soundtrack as opposed to an album? Did you have to change your music a lot?
No, we didn’t have to change our music a lot. What’s really cool about Rockstar Games is that they let us be ourselves, which is not what you’d expect. For instance, when you do a movie or something, it would be rare for them to be like, “okay, do what you do”. There have been big movies scored by cool musicians like Daft Punk or M83 or whatever. And then you’re really excited to hear it, but then they don’t really sound like themselves. I’m sure their music would have sounded like them to begin with, but then the studio would keep making suggestions until it sounded just like a regular movie score. What’s different with Rockstar is that they were down for whatever we wanted to do. However, everything was subject to review and had to work. There were tons and tons of revisions, and tons of notes. But we were really on the same team, so in the end it really sounds like our band.
So jumping back to DEATH MAGIC, what inspired the lyrics in your songs? Some of your lyrics can be quite sad and moody, yet relatable.
The lyrics are very existential and are on our minds the whole time. A lot of stuff with DEATH MAGIC is like moments when you’re at a party and having a good time but you can feel weird despair in the back of your head. They’re relatable and real. In our previous records, you couldn’t really hear the lyrics very much, but in this album you could really hear the lyrics and more attention was given to that.
Why did you decide to make the lyrics more audible in DEATH MAGIC?
People always asked what we were saying in our previous albums. With DEATH MAGIC, we wanted to have different production with the vocals very clear and upfront, not unlike radio music or hip hop or club music.
That’s interesting, because I feel like Crystal Castles made a similar transition from vocal distortion to vocal clarity with “Not In Love”, which became one of their most well-known and well-liked songs.
Well the reason to have lyrics is so that people can sing along; it’s not a bad thing. On this tour there has been a lot of singing along, maybe because of the more audible lyrics.
That’s very possible. How do you feel like the music scene has changed since your last release? Is it at all the same as it was before?
No, it’s totally different. Tons of changes. People party more. Seems like casual, more alternative people party way harder than they used to. People are very casual about hard drugs, which can make things more fun, I guess. People are quite different about their music tastes. – that’s always happening with each decade. When we first started MySpace was a thing and now we’re in a streaming era and everything is more technologically advanced. Because of all of this people’s relationships with music are changing.
How do you feel about the fact that people stream albums more than they buy albums? Does it make it harder to make sales?
We hardly receive a dime from record sales. When we debuted, record sales were already a charity at that point anyways. You could sell for a really big record company, or have a record that hits a certain population, but we would still hardly get a dime from record sales. So to us it’s still the same. We still get most of our money from selling T-shirts, touring, and licensing. The cool thing about streaming is that everyone has your record. I remember when people would be like, “oh no, your album is going to leak.”. No one even cares if they leak anymore. Obviously it’s not the same. The more precious the album is, the cooler the album is. But we’re not going to go back to the 60’s or something, you know? Back then you would buy the record and put it on and just like sit in front of it. And that that’s amazing. People used to line up in front of the record store and wait for it to open just to buy a CD. That’s incredible.
Now it seems like that happens more with video games.
That’s actually why we liked working with video games. There’s this amazing consumer base where everyone is really literate and obsessed. In reviews, there’s no subjectivity. If a game is good, most people will say it. And you can trust that. Also fans will buy physical copies of the game. So much is possible with this.
What video games would you recommend to your fans? Do you have any favourites?
For new games I would recommend the game Blood Born. It’s pretty awesome. I like to play video games when I’m hungover.
Awesome. So another question about your current tour: what is the most interesting show that you’ve played so far?
The New York shows and all the west coast shows were really strobe- and light-heavy which was awesome. There was also a show in Philadelphia, a late night warehouse rave sort of thing. It was an incredible production with a massive disco ball and crazy lighting and there were free drinks until like 11pm. Everyone was pretty drunk, and it was incredibly rowdy and wild.
Do you prefer shows where people get rowdy because you can feel their energy and excitement?
Yes, absolutely. It’s always better.
Finally, where do you see HEALTH in the future?
There will definitely be one more album. Our band could be finished, but it’s not. We are back on, and there won’t be huge gaps in time between our albums anymore. Our band won’t go on forever, but we will go at least one more time.
Follow HEALTH and Pictureplane on their tour here.
Photo by Olivia Chaber.