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Salem: Strung Out

A gothic electro trio creates the soundtrackfor America’s most strung-out.

It would be easy to dismiss Salem as disaffected youth, but the fact is they’re profoundly affected… by drugs. “There is this song called ‘Haffa’ that I made when I was really, really high on OxyContin,” says 20-year-old Jack Donoghue, the main beat-maker of the triad. “I don’t think I would have been able to make it sound like that if I wasn’t.”

By naming their first EP Yes, I Smoke Crack, Salem knows they’ve tempted journalists seeking a quick fix, but they’re happy to stand by Pandora’s box as the demons pour out. Donoghue tells me straight-up that the last band fight was about member John Holland smoking crack in the bedroom (he’s supposed to hit the pipe and blow out the bathroom window), and all agree that the only drug they don’t really like is weed.

This would seem profoundly overblown, even boring, if Salem’s music didn’t sound so spun-out, so resolutely creepy, so much like the party after it’s dragged on way too far into the daylight of the next day. “Tent” is a sizzurp-blurred chopped ‘n’ screwed synth track driven by slurred sex lyrics from a thug on the down low. The off-kilter drum machines of “Brustreet” and “Whenusleep” are made even more haunting by Heather Marlatt’s sweet and sleepy-eyed vocals; their sad chords, mostly unintelligible vocals, and space effects (echo, flange, delay) have sent fans reaching towards Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine references, though these are mere road signs along this quick, distorted trip to the hinterlands of the mind.

Salem is young (average age: 22.666) and their songs are short (average length: three minutes), so to talk about them in the language of bands they didn’t even grow up with seems ridiculous. What they did grow up with is more interesting anyway. John and Heather were raised in the woods and met at Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts, an exclusive fine arts high school located on ancient Indian lands and “right next to this trailer park that’s basically one big meth lab,” according to Heather. Later, Jack met John on the streets of Chicago and all three decided to make music as Salem. Their shared aesthetic is thus a summation of bizarre influences from the backwoods and the city: the forest, night, and horses; Southern rap, street drugs, and arson.

Many call Salem elusive, but a quick roll around the internet reveals the band’s interest in witchcraft, skinheads, blurry video stills, gay sex, and mostly everything else your mother warned you against, except pets (Jack’s got a snake, Sasha, and John has a rabbit named Joanie). Some of these interests get wrapped up into a very disturbing video Jack directed for “Dirt,” starring an aspiring actress and a naked, gyrating call girl he found on Craigslist.

So far, the band only has two EPs out—the aforementioned Crack (Acephale) and the Water EP (for British tastemakers Merok)—but a glut of newer MP3s (under various aliases) litter the internet. “We’re working on music always,” says Donoghue. “We have so many songs that no one will probably ever hear. None of us has jobs so it’s not really hard to fit in time to make music.” The three are vague about a full-length, perhaps because they haven’t yet figured out how to play live, or if they even want to. “We’re still negotiatin’,” says Donoghue, in the ghetto drawl he breaks into sometimes. “Our people are talkin’ to their people.”

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