Slutist is pleased to present the video premiere of “Don’t,” the bewitching first single off A Place Both Wonderful And Strange‘s forthcoming album, Sorry For Your Loss. To delve into the neo-pagan symbology of this haunting artifact, we communed with Russ Marshalek and Niabi Aquena about its creation and their creative process. Catch the Brooklyn-based occult pop duo live at Eraserhood Forever at PhilaMoCA on October 3rd, and the Blade Rave at Terminal 5 on October 9th.
You’re a self-described occult pop duo: how does the occult inform your work?
Russ: This is a really huge question for me to answer, and the first thing that comes to my mind is that because occultism/witchcraft is so inherently feminine to me, it’s a huge facet of the reason APBWAS is still around at all. For a while, the band was just a solo noise project of mine, and I remember being onstage in Brooklyn a few months into it and just screaming into a microphone and clod-hopping around the stage in a pair of creepers and thinking “what, exactly, am I doing here? What am I saying/creating/releasing into the world?” And the answer was not a damn thing that any other white dude with a laptop and a microphone and some pent-up pissed-off-ness hasn’t already done. So if I hadn’t finally connected with Niabi to start making music how we’d long talked about, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now, because the overwhelming DUDEness of the whole project had become a huge bummer for me. My own religious practices put me in touch with the fact that a feminine energy is something I need as a counter-balance in order to be able to create anything of value.
We’re a highly spiritual band—everyone we’ve worked with tends to be, really. The first shows we did together we also had a dancer, Bridgette, and we’d invoke and give thanks to Hecate throughout the course of the show and then, of course, kinda very nicely ask her to go her way after a myriad more thanks. Those shows were electric for obvious reasons.
Really, music itself is an occult force. We always have a moment in each show where we both emotionally and mentally wander into our own corners and stay there and kind of begin iterating on a sound or idea and then completely unconsciously the ideas/sounds come together and make something much, much bigger than we are.
“Don’t” has that grainy, VHS found footage quality horror directors and documentarians love. Interestingly, it mostly shows women in the throes of religious ecstasy. Was that intentional? What inspired both the form and content of the video?
Niabi: Thanks for the compliment! The video is literally my first edit, it was a lot of fun putting it together. I come from a background in design/ animation and film and was lucky to get a course in the edit program Premiere through my day job just in time for us needing a video. I started with sorting through the footage that Russ and his girlfriend shot upstate at a creepy Airbnb they stayed in and then effected the footage heavily. The rest—and majority—of the story was cobbled together from archival super 8 footage from 1976 shot in West Virginia at a Pentecostal church. I was doing searches on free domain footage libraries for “snake handling” and “faith healing” and was fortunate to find the documentary, Holy Ghost People. I’m personally fascinated with the idea of the divine feminine and how it’s depicted in art and history which is why I probably subconsciously gravitated to the footage of women in the throes of religious ecstasy. It’s interesting and a little sad to me that through organized religion the women in Holy Ghost People are given acceptance to freak the fuck out, because Jesus. We’ve seen this before; think about the contrast between the sculpture “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” to the Salem witch trials in terms of tone. Think about the differences and the similarities. I see very little divide between the two.
Russ: I kept talking to Niabi about wanting to do something found footage-ish, because I’m obsessed with the format. My girlfriend and I were going to a cabin upstate, and we happened to find ourselves in the most…surreal/unreal surroundings, and the footage I captured ended up becoming less stereotypically creepy and more about how emotionally/mentally/spiritually/sexually/romantically/etc fulfilling those days had been. The song itself walks a line between terror and ecstasy, and so I handed that footage over to Niabi and she somehow read my mind.
There has been a proliferation of neo-pagan/occult-oriented bands, artists, and practices in Brooklyn over the past five years, how does the city foster your artistic practice?
Niabi: I’ve often fetishized the idea of leaving NYC when times get challenging, but where else could I go to get a custom carved candle for rituals and an all women’s kirtan chant all accomplished within a day’s time?
Russ: There’s shit in NY I’m not sure I’d know how to find elsewhere. Slutist, for example. Or Catland—Catland has been hugely influential in nurturing both my practice and my art and combining the two. Also just being able to share line-ups and stages and get drinks with other artists who feel connected to the same things—that, naturally, nurtures the feeling of belonging. And that’s what witchcraft has always kind of meant to me—a feeling of being always connected and never really alone. In everything, really, if we talk about what “ritual” is, to engage in that space and be able to access facets of the brain and the heart and the self that you can’t get to, normally? I mean, shit, I find that at Monster Cycle, which is another spot that, for me, has been hugely important recently in keeping me feeling inspired, connected, and growing. It’s not something that’s immediately obvious for a lot of people, but you know it once you’ve felt it.
Janet Jackson and David Lynch are listed as musical touchstones, what would the two talk about upon meeting?
Niabi: Transcendental Meditation with Mr. Lynch and artistic collaboration with both.
Russ: Blazers and the direction on the Rhythm Nation 1814 short film bc holy fucking hell.
If your upcoming record Sorry For Your Loss were to be represented by 3 historical/fictional occult figures and/or witches, who would they be?
Niabi: Delia Derbyshire. Long, long time hero and pioneer for women in electronic music. Walli Elmark. A Wiccan journalist who supposedly exorcized David Bowie’s home during his “Thin White Duke” phase. Medusa. I find her so incredibly empathetic—unable to look anyone in the eye and connect, unable to ever love. So much loss it breaks my heart in two.
Russ: Joan of Arc, Moll Dyer, Cleopatra, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Zohra Atash
You’re playing the Blade Rave with The Crystal Method and Pictureplane. How much blood can we expect from such an affair?
Niabi: Apparently it’s a lot. And it’s fucking thick, not some “I’m red and representing what blood is but actually but more water,” no. No it’s intense, and there will be a lot of it, in waves, and thick, so dress appropriately.
Russ: A whole fuck of a lot. And I think it’s a proprietary blend? I think they were renting blood from Gwar but now it’s like, fuck it, we can make blood, let’s do this.
What role does ritual play in your performances? What do you hope the audience experiences at your live show?
Niabi: From our very first show, I’ve always saged the room before we play. During our last show I mixed things up by bringing copal resin and coal. The ceremony of lighting the resin and letting the smoke envelope the room plays an important role in our performance, I feel, in terms of setting positive intentions… and it instantly relaxes both of us which is obviously a very good thing. Russ got me into Monster Cycle, which he calls his church, and now I understand why. We’re both addicted to not only the aesthetic but the philosophy and it’s become a shared passion for us both. Taking care of our bodies both physically mentally and spiritually is vital to our band. We’re in better moods when we work out and this shows during our live performances.
Russ: I hope anyone attending sees our live shows as a sort of ritual, a summoning and release, a way of gathering a massive amount of energy into one space and crafting it into something that’s beautiful and terrifying and then that’s something we all have, as part of ourselves, that we’ve shared, together.