It’s not surprising that Halloween is John Holland’s favourite holiday. The 24-year-old is one third of Salem, a band whose lo-fi witch vibes have been casting spells over writers and bloggers at most taste-making music and fashion magazines — notably The Fader, V and Butt — for nearly two years.
Formed three years ago in Chicago by Holland, Heather Marlatt, 24, and Jack Donoghue, 20, Salem specializes in druggy, bass-heavy beats, foreboding synths and distorted vocals. The trio takes a break from recording the debut LP for a one-off performance at Will Munro’s Vazoween party in Toronto.
So what can the audience expect? Holland’s face painted in Native American style, Marlatt dressed as a porcelain doll, shrouded in smoke, lasers and backed by a found footage video montage of burning cars, police chases and contortionists synched to the music.
For Holland, the visuals are as important as the sound.
“I think of video like I think of music. I don’t think of them as separate,” he says over the phone from Interlochen, Michigan. “Sometimes people make videos and the song completely changes when you see the video with the song. I try to think of the videos that we make with our songs as not making it better or worse, just like adding a couple more tracks to it.”
Of the three, Donoghue, the band’s beatmeister and rapper, is the most outgoing, while Marlatt, with her delicate and airy vocal delivery, is the most introverted. Holland says he falls somewhere in between.
Holland and Marlatt met during their freshman year at Interlochen Center for the Arts, a fine arts boarding school in Michigan that counts singers Josh Groban, Jewel and actress Felicity Huffman among its famous alumni. Both of Holland’s parents are teachers in the music department.
After high school he moved to Chicago where he lived for five years and befriended Donoghue, who was making juke beats, a minimal type of booty bass popular in the city’s clubs. Marlatt, who moved to New York after high school, came to spend one summer and the trio started hanging out in Holland’s studio apartment. Before long they were making music together.
The debut EP Yes, I Smoke Crack, was released in 2008 by Acephale Records, an indie imprint cofounded by the band’s Vancouver-based manager Patrik North and Toronto DJ Rory Them Finest. They’ve since released a second, limited edition EP Water via London’s Merok Records, plus a handful of singles, remixes and cover songs.
Holland finds Salem’s mysterious reputation in the media perplexing. Each band member has a public Myspace profile full of photos, Flickr pages and regularly do interviews. Still, they don’t exactly live in the limelight. Both Marlatt and Holland left big city life for their hometowns in Michigan and Donoghue now lives in Kansas City. “It’s a lot more peaceful here,” says Holland. “I can focus and think about the music a lot more.”
Hip hop is also a big influence on the band. These days Holland is listening to Plies, Soulja Boy and DJ Nate. He was recently taken aback by an interviewer who wanted to know why Salem counts music considered “entertainment” — like rap, trap rap, footwork and screw ’n’ chop — among the band’s influences.
“I think entertainment speaks to real feelings and not just something superficial,” he says. “I can relate to the sound and the form and the flow. A lot of indie music, I just can’t really keep in touch with it as much as I can with a lot of rap music. It’s like, more real or something.”
All three contribute equally to the music, though the end result will lean toward a particular member. Holland’s songs are often the most inscrutable.
“There is sort of a mystique in terms of when I’m singing and writing lyrics and the relationship between them,” he says. “I know what they are and what they mean but I don’t really want anyone else to. I want to keep it a secret. I’d rather have the music express what I’m saying.”
In high school Holland mostly wrote songs about guys he liked — two in particular — but not so much anymore. “I write about one person sometimes if I’m writing a song about a love interest or something romantic,” he admits, “but I guess that’s why I want it to be a secret.”