Noisey - "High Functioning Flesh"
Interview with L.A.-based synth group High-Functioning Flesh and their emergence out of the greater local dark music scene
“I wasn’t sure how it was really going to go,” thought Gregory Vand, one half of the duo High-Functioning Flesh, before playing a show at the Downtown Los Angeles punk venue East 7th Street in December. Vand, alongside Susan Subtract, had been playing as High-Functioning Flesh since April of that year, but now were performing to a hardcore punk audience possibly unfamiliar or even dismissive of their synthesized aggression that featured no guitars, bass nor drum kits. Once they began to play, however, the tension vanished. Vand recalls the crowd that evening, remembering how “people who came to see us were dancing and leather jacket punks were also dancing. It felt really cool to be able to step into that kind of space and that be OK. More than OK, for it to be accepted and enjoyed.”
High-Functioning Flesh, or HFF, record music that may be generally referred to as either synth-punk, EBM or industrial, referencing the spectrum of music that extends from Throbbing Gristle through Skinny Puppy. As former members of various bands since childhood, both Susan Subtract and Gregory Vand share a deep background within various punk and experimental scenes. Subtract, based out of Portland for many years, played in acts including Terraform as well as the “maximal synth” project Branes while Vand grew up in Long Beach and was known for his work in Greenscreen Door and Francis Harold and the Holograms.“Yeah, we were both just fucking weirdo punks,” affirms Subtract, “I actually knew Greg from the bands that I’d seen him in.”
By 2012, a mixture of creative inertia and simple curiosity had brought them both to Los Angeles, and it was not long before they were good friends attending shows together. One show in particular with Youth Code in late 2012 catalyzed their idea of forming a band, and by early 2013 they were already producing music. “We played around the first couple of practices and banged out 'Video DNA Gestalt' really fast. For figuring out what we wanted to do period, let alone figure out a song, it was pretty fast.” Only four months after moving to L.A. they were asked to play their first show as High-Functioning Flesh.
John Giovanazzi, owner of the venue Complex and stalwart of the L.A. industrial scene with his ongoing Das Bunker party, remembered their energetic debut, “High-Functioning Flesh played their first show ever here at Complex opening for Frank Alpine and we had just barely opened...Chunks of the drywall from the ceiling had fallen on them because it actually hadn’t dried yet. The sub bass was so crazy that it was rattling it off!”
The forces that drew Subtract and Vand to Los Angeles were personal but also strongly rooted in the city's creative appeal. When Subtract first visited L.A., he thought to himself how Los Angeles “seemed like a really warm, nurturing environment for music. None of these people make music that sounds anything like what I’m doing, but they’re all totally down to support what’s going on.” Vand concurs, remembering his feelings when he moved there,“I think it was that I found myself playing punk music for so long and starting to feel very cornered and kind of bored. So when I moved to L.A. I met a few people who are doing this scene and it just attracted me immediately because at least to me it seemed like something really fresh and really new."
Los Angeles has indeed experienced a long, diverse lineage of what Sarah Toon, a local promoter and music director of the Downtown club The LASH, broadly dubs as the “dark music” scene. Toon comments, “To me it seems like this is kind of the third wave of this scene that’s going on right now and it’s really cool. I think Youth Code kind of kicked it off a little bit because everything kind of died out a little bit for a while.”
The emergence of Youth Code in 2013 had a particularly strong influence on the current generation of punk-informed synth and industrial bands including High-Functioning Flesh. At that time, a number of weekly industrial parties including Bad Reputation and Stalker had ended, leaving the scene feeling dry and underrepresented. Susan Subtract recalls that moment, “I think everyone was looking around and was like, 'What now?' And that was when Youth Code and us and Pure Ground all emerged.”
Similar to the duo of Youth Code, the live format of High-Functioning Flesh consists of Subtract's aggressive verses layered over Vand's cold, exacting rhythmic percussion and harmonies. Yet HFF diverge from the youth crew and hardcore punk energy of Youth Code with a greater emphasis on EBM and industrial influences like Nitzer Ebb, Portion Control and, in particular, Cabaret Voltaire. Subtract comments on the importance of the latter, “It seemed like, because the both of us have been listening to that band for so long, and in so many different contexts, that when we came together and were just jamming together, the first song we wrote resonated so well with the aesthetics of Cabaret Voltaire.” Whether their earlier industrial albums Red Mecca and Micro-Phonies, or later forays into ambient techno with Plasticity, Cabaret Voltaire's oddly abrasive tone yet continual experimentation formed a primary influence for HFF and their musical aesthetic.
Following their first show at Complex in April 2013, numerous other gigs quickly followed suit. One show in San Francisco saw HFF open for the Belgian industrial act Suicide Commando alongside fellow L.A. band Pure Ground. Subtract recalls the crowd that evening, composed mostly of diehard industrial fans in their 30s and 40s, “We had an amazing response. It was really cool. People would approach us and say they hadn’t listened to the type of electronic music we're doing since they were kids.”
The idea of rehashing older styles and instrumentation from the '80s and '90s is something that forms a common thread with the current crop of L.A.-based synth and industrial bands. Gibby Miller, co-founder of the dark music label Dais, considers how bands like Youth Code and High-Functioning Flesh differ from their glossed-over industrial contemporaries, “I think the unique thing about what’s happening now is people are like, 'Woah, this reminds me of the way it was! Did that go to sleep and wake back up?' There’s something coming back, it sounds so raw and sounds so visceral.”
For Susan Subtract, the influences from the '80s channeled into HFF are not only purely musical, but also consider the fiction and philosophy of that era re-engineered for a contemporary reception. Ideas of body horror, cyberpunk and situationism coalesce within their sound and lyrics, which, as Subtract describes, “actually all kind of goes back onto a situationist take on sensation vs. physicality. That still is probably the major theme in our lyrics, is what is real versus what is sensation?” Elaborating further, “ I think most of our aesthetic in general, not only lyrics, but the textures of the patches that we write, the beats that we have, it’s all about the current predicament. It almost seems like it’s a faux pas or a cheesy thing to say that we sing about the internet. And we don’t directly do that at all, but we’re living in this weird hologram of reality now. It’s a really weird time to be alive.”
In order to achieve such a precise sonic aesthetic, or “gestalt” as Subtract refers to it, HFF spend hours in their studio poring over a core set up of vintage Ensoniq ESQ-1 synths, a sequencer, drum pads and gear racks. Through a process of scrutiny, tweaking and, much of the time, simply pressing the reset button, HFF craft their songs through a meticulous and somewhat painstaking approach. “Sometimes a patch will make or break a song,” says Subtract. “We’ve dropped song ideas because we couldn’t figure out a sound that sounded right.” He continues, “It’s really about finding just that riff of distinction, that one line of music, whatever it might be that just clicks and you know that you want to pursue it and develop it.”
Despite the rigor of their recording process, HFF keep their focus on producing music that seamlessly translates to the live music environment. “We’ve never really had a song where we didn’t have playing it live in mind,” says Subtract. “I think if you listen to a lot of the older bands that we’re influenced by, they have a lot of experimental tracks on there that I can’t even picture being played live for example...But with us, we don’t even necessarily have the audience in mind, it’s just about how much we would enjoy listening to it if we were watching it.”
Subtract and Vand's punk backgrounds inform both the immediacy of their aesthetic as well as their general unconcern for how their sound is digested. Referring to their sound as “electro-punk”, Subtract emphasizes, “I believe the only other band that officially went by that was Portion Control and I think that’s a good overarching idea, like, 'Yes, it’s electronic music, but it’s still very punk.' Without that background...we wouldn’t be doing the music that we’re be doing now. So that’s important.”
This sense of immediacy is heavily apparent in their live show, where Subtract's militant dancing and aggressive vocals are countered by Vand's stoic presence as he keys melodies and strikes their drum pad with precision. The potency of their live performance was partially reason that Gibby Miller of Dais decided to sign them to his roster when he saw them perform at the same East 7th show in December 2013. He remembers the broad appeal of their set, “I saw them at East 7th St Punks and it was fucking punks and death rockers, hardcore kids there just bugging out and going crazy. But more importantly, their songs made my hair stand up. Their songs gave me the chills!”
Since their debut, High-Functioning Flesh have found a broad base of support within the contours of L.A.'s varied punk, goth and industrial music scenes. Another performance in late 2013 saw them play Das Bunker, headlining for the Dutch EBM and industrial band Grendel. Already the signature party for L.A.'s dark music scene, Das Bunker hosts what founder John Giovanazzi refers to as “a great mix of punk kids and rockabillies and goths and cyber kids and techno fans.”
HFF's appeal to such a broad spectrum is characteristic of the willingness of L.A. artists to crossover and experiment with various styles. Vand comments, “That’s what’s really exciting right now...is a lot of people who are into punk and would have only been into punk a few years ago are now really branched out across this whole spectrum. There’s people who are in straightforward hardcore bands that are also doing techno, that are also doing noise and it’s really cool how much it’s kind of opened up like that in the last two or three years. Because before that definitely wasn’t the case.”
Above all, a strong sense of cohesion runs throughout the dark music scene, keeping it supportive and unified despite how difficult it can be to throw fully legal shows and parties in Los Angeles. Sarah Toon of The LASH expands on this idea, “Within the dark music scene, it’s always been so small that people kind of have to support each other. The experimental noise people kind of support the EBM, goth people...You take any given show that’s happening at Complex or that Mount Analog’s doing or John Giovanazzi’s doing and it’s going to be a combination of dark techno, maybe some experimental, maybe some EBM. It’s not going to be just one really particular sound.”
For Subtract and Vand, Los Angeles has offered them a fertile ground to experiment and constantly rework and perfect their sound. Their first self-released cassette, released in the flurry of songwriting leading up to their initial show in April 2013, showcased their raw and aggressive energy. This year's full-length release, A Unity of Miseries,saw them polish up their existing material and release additional songs that hinted at the direction they will pursue on their second full-length next year. A Unity of Miseries' “Self Management” and “The Deal” are songs that showcase a kind of energetic rhythmic form counterbalanced by icy ebullience that hint at their future direction. Subtract comments, “'The Deal' was that first song that we wrote that was a step away from the original songs and we weren’t even trying for it, it just got written - that’s what it was. And then again without trying for it, we just kept writing songs in that direction.”
Next year will see HFF release their sophomore album on Dais in Spring 2015. While the details and motif of the album have yet to be fully established, it is already apparent that it will reflect the amount of time and attention that Subtract and Vand continually invest into developing their sound and overall gestalt. As artists in Los Angeles, they feel especially connected to their music and the community that nourishes it. Subtract reflects on the dedication of the dark music community, “Everyone’s got their shit jobs, everyone’s got their high rent, everyone’s got their fucking shit they need to take care of, so going out to do that fun thing, that enjoyable thing they like to do becomes so much more important. So people do it. People come out to fucking Glendale to go to Complex, it’s awesome!”