Dirtbag Rock

Salem's Heather Marlatt, John Holland and Jack Donoghue.Photo: Jimmy Limit

There’s a strange, grim feeling that floats around the northern reaches of Michigan. It’s like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks minus the great scenery—sunless, woodsy, sinister. If Detroit is a decaying house, then the north is the creepy old shed in its backyard. I spent some teen years nearby, and my memories are as rich with small-town goons, chainsaw accidents, and militia trucks as they are with Mackinac Island fudge.

John Holland is from up there, and he says his teenage memories run to hard drugs and prostitution—habits that followed him to Chicago, where he became one third of an eerie band called Salem. Another member, Heather Marlatt, was a friend of his in high school. They make electronic music that’s far too morbid for dancing; King Night,their recent LP, mixes blown-out, demonically slow beats with the kinds of baleful synths and ghostly singing a depressed art student might have listened to in the eighties. It sounds huge, ominous, corroded, and awfully … Michigan.

It’s also been divisive, on several levels. The band has bothered some hip-hop fans by borrowing techniques—crawling tempos, splattering snares, even some ill-conceived rhyming—from southern rap. People who saw early live shows were appalled by the band’s indifference; they didn’t seem to care much about performing, or possibly anything else. Others find their morbidity and apathy juvenile: They titled their first release Yes I Smoke Crack; they intentionally misspell S4lem on their website, which makes them difficult to Google (an ironic trick for a scene that exists almost entirely online); mail is directed to a correctional facility.

There’s nothing surprising about musicians striking antisocial poses, except perhaps among indie-rock fans, critics, and bloggers—a world in which such disconnection goes against the grain. This is an audience that prides itself on being arty, forward-looking, and savvy, one that has been focused for some time on shrewd, thoughtful types (like Vampire Weekend, the quartet of friendly, clean-cut Columbia grads), not alienated freaks and weirdos. Salem—grotty, sullen, drug-addled, and wrapped in a thick fog of woozy noise and horror-movie signifiers—are harder to trust than the usual well-adjusted strivers. No surprise, then, that this act would provoke such fierce argument among indie rock’s hyperinformed listeners.

King Night

Dirtbag Rock