Schnipper’s Slept On


Each Tuesday, FADER editor Matthew Schnipper highlights an underappreciated release he thinks we need to know about. This week it’s Salem‘s Water EP. Listen to “Redlights” from the record and read Schnipper’s thoughts after the jump.

Though they may not agree, the best moment of Salem’s SXSW must have been at 2AM at the IAMSOUND party when the schedule ran so over that the club insisted on closing and they were unable to play their headlining slot. I saw them milling in the back of the club, leaning on a railing. They didn’t look especially sad, but I heard they were. I was sad to learn they have feelings.

Salem’s first record was a single called “Yes, I Smoke Crack,” that “yes” making it the answer to an apparently obvious question. The video for “Dirt,” from that record, featured a crying middle age woman sitting in her car slowly killing herself with carbon monoxide poisoning. At some point, a nude woman emerges from the gassy smoke and dances on her car. The first minute of the video is silent. It’s unclear if, at the end, the woman is dead. I read, or someone told me, that the dancer was a prostitute they found on Craigslist. I can’t imagine where they found the crying woman.

The first major press Salem did was an interview with Butt magazine. Butt is a Dutch gay men’s magazine. It is printed on pink paper. The interview was casual, with John, one third of the group. It’s fairly outrageous, running through his stints as a prostitute, a Chicago art student, a heavy drug user and a rap fan. At one point he says he routinely pulled in $2000 a trick, a claim the interviewer gently nudges against. “Isn’t that kind of rate more for highbrow prostitution?” he says. And John says, “Well, I’m actually lying; that, like, only happened a few times. But you just start out, like, ‘$2,000?’ and they either say yes or no. If they’re like, ‘No’, then you have to lower your rate.” He is so polite when corrected that his exaggeration seems good-natured and without misleading malice. It makes the rest of the interview’s lengthy forays into dark places seem like they contain a wet mix of fiction and truth, though the purpose and momentum behind all the tales must be strong and kind-hearted.

That the members of Salem seem perfectly nice and well-meaning is a surprising and possibly calamitous discovery. In the Butt interview, John expresses a displeasure and surprise that their band is occasionally labeled as “goth,” though he seems to have some inherent understanding of the bleakness they project. He prefers, though, to reference their influence and roots in juke music, a quick-paced and repetitive dance music that comes from Chicago, not far from where Salem has their roots in Michigan. But Salem’s music is slow. If juke is an influence, its mostly ambient, though they do have a strong interest in choppy electronic drum rolls. Salem’s songs are mostly too blunted to dance to, too stuttered. It’s like they listened to the Neptunes’ glossiest songs and then shredded them, stealing tiny parts and cribbing together a much darker puzzle. The bass may have bark like in hip-hop, the vocals may sometimes be rap, the hi-hats may glisten, but Salem sit in the dark distinctly outside the realm of pop music. Calling them pop is like saying a dog should pay real estate taxes because he lives in the house.

Salem’s Water EP is possibly the closest they’ve come to accessibility (even if their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” counted, it minced any shred of the original’s radio gloss). “Redlights”’ distinguishing features are a blistering guitar, hardly recognizable beneath a mist of electronic fuzz. Heather Marlatt sings and she’s got an easy voice, layered and light. Played clean, the song could double as a simple skeleton for bubblegum, but its grime is half the point. Or maybe the entire point.

I did get to see Salem play once during SXSW, at our space. They were booed off stage. That is, because, unfortunately, honestly, they were not good. But that “good” needs so many asterisks and quotation marks that it barely exists as a measure of worth. The show was outside, during the day. The smoke machine suffered because of the wind, its effects blown backwards behind the tented stage. The sound was crisp and when Jack rapped, you could hear it clearly, which is not a good thing. There was no slowing down the speed, no frying the smooth edges, no haze from which to emerge. Salem’s ingenuity comes in the invention of its own creation myth. Played clean, there is no mystery. Even if they feel no partiality to a hidden agenda, their music deserves a shrouding daylight does not deliver. Turns out the truth is a detriment to their story.

Salem did deliver one mystery, however, a ponytailed and kind of sweaty-faced woman on stage with them. She played no instruments, nor did she sing. In fact, after the first song she sat down. She was cool. She smoked and sipped from a Budweiser tall can. I later saw she had collected the free Levi’s® given to performers. And why not.

POSTED March 23, 2010 7:25PM IN SLEPT ON Comments (16) TAGS: , ,




  1. chris says:

    Wait. So they were bad because:
    A) The smoke machine wasn’t working right, and
    B) You could hear what they were saying.

    Um. SALEM sucks. That’s why they were bad. If you have to hide music in fuzz and bury it in fried haze to make it palatable, it’s almost decidedly not worth listening to. Sure there are great musicians that exploit those techniques, but they’re exactly that – techniques. If you build your foundation on that sand, someday the house will fall down and you’ll get booed off the Fader Fort stage.

  2. Matthew Schnipper says:

    If you don’t like them, you don’t like them. Can’t squabble with that. But you have to think of those missing things as a crucial part of what makes Salem Salem. I’m not defending their performance—I don’t think they would either—but what you saw and heard is not the Salem you listen to on record. Imagine all the fuzz and screwed vocals are just like another instrument. Fucked Up has three guitar players. If all of a sudden they had one, it would be a different band. Rye Rye has her dancers. If it’s just her, then it’s different show. I don’t think that Salem playing live is going to enhance who they are as a band, but it doesn’t make me like them less.

  3. matt says:

    SALEM should not play live shows period. Well, unless its during a lightning storm in the woods. If they do decide to play more live shows i think it would be a good idea to take a bit less heroin before going on stage.

    They should stick to recording and making videos. The less you know about this band the better and more terrifying they are.

  4. aaaaa says:

    “If you have to hide music in fuzz and bury it in fried haze to make it palatable, it’s almost decidedly not worth listening to”

    so u only listen to folk music and joanna newsom or something? some music/art is inseparably linked to the media its constructed with. there isn’t necessarily a core/heart/authentic center or something that “technique” merely embellishes. imagine a live adaptation of a david lynch film performed in daylight on an outdoor stage with the actors wearing their own clothes and no camera to hold those endlessly long shots. it would be terrible. or take yr favorite song by yr favorite guitar based “rock band” and put it in the hands of an acoustic guitar-playing coffee shop open mic-er. doesn’t matter how good the song sounded with 4 bros playing it thru distortion pedals, its now ruined.

  5. russ says:

    did *no one* see the glasslands show? it was epic, perfect, headfuckery, unexpected. the BIZ3 show at SX was really uncalled for in terms of how SALEM were introduced and all that jazz (henceforth, hollywood holt, just stfu), but god at least they played at like 10 pm. 330 in the afternoon? i mean these SALEM kids are making their own mythos. also pretty sure none of them KNEW the word mythos til south by southwest this past year.

  6. Sam Hockley-Smith says:

    I was at that show. It was certainly more fitting in both audience and venue, but still not quite right. That being said, if you asked me what a “right” Salem show would look and sound like, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you. I think Schnipper nailed why it worked by not actually working at all.

  7. Paul says:

    I liked the Fader Fort show. Guess what I like weird mostly shitty art. If you have a problem with how weird people who do drugs sound then you are stupid. There are plenty of reliable and consistent sounding bands to see live. SALEM is not for you.

  8. Pingback: Salem, “Redlights” at the Levi’s® FADER Fort « The FADER

  9. EL NOU MON says:

    The burden of awesomeness is on the band playing live, always. Anybody who needs the perfect environment, the lights just so, the EQ tweaked exact should go back to art school and not be a live band. That something could go wrong, that the unexpected could occur and to see the band deal with that, is part of the thrill of a live performance–to negate that in favor of some sort of lab of reverb presets is to negate live performance. It is ironic, though, that a band whose whole persona is apathy should demand such coddling to achieve their effect. The internet should stay in the internet.

  10. killwave says:

    “a band whose whole persona is apathy”

    wait wut? not really sure where you get this from. SALEM are feelings

  11. EL NOU MON says:

    “SALEM are feelings”

    I agree, if boredom is a feeling.

  12. Patrik says:

    Getting a bad reception at SXSW is the best endorsement Salem can have. They are one of the best bands America has seen in years. If they don’t meet your technical standards then I’m afraid you’re missing the point.

  13. north says:

    posting my opinion of someone’s opinion of SALEM live on The Fader, on the internet

  14. peabo says:

    er, they DID play at the iamsound show. it was equally disastrous. you need a fact checker or something.

  15. someone in austin says:

    Needs a fact-checker indeed.

    I was front-and-center at both the IAMSOUND and Fader Fort shows at SXSW.

    They were not booed off stage at Levi’s/Fader. They played their entire set in the time slot they were alotted. It was a SALEM show in the daytime, and every bit of awkwardness that can be expected of watching them, of all bands, during the day. It was still great. If you expect all bands to sound exactly like their recorded versions, then I bet most shows are disappointing for you.

    At IAMSOUND earlier in the week, they played last, yes, and only got to play a few songs. Did you bother mentioning that this was because of the dragqueen emcee that took about 35 mins between each band to give the longest-winded introduction, accompanied by some bullshit story no one was interested in hearing? The total amount of time she spent on stage that night was greater than the amount of time SALEM had left for their entire set.


  16. afrenchguy says:

    I never seen Salem on stage, but I dont give a fuck of this (one) bad show, their music is so strong that it rises in my heart and mind and it’s what music has to do. For me the music of Salem is oneof the best creation i’ve listened to for years, i’ve had a crush, like the early Adult. some years ago but much more stronger.