Three piece band from Michigan, S4LEM, is comprised of John Holland, Heather Marlatt and Jack Donoghue. They mix up genres to create a unique sound blend of hip hop, goth and witch house that is bound to get you trippin. We were thrilled when this underground band agreed to do an interview with mindyourmind! Heather and John Holland get into what their song and lyric writing processes are like, saying there are no rules or limitations or formulas, but rather a creative process that should be free. When asked what role music plays in their mental health, Heather notes “I think it plays a huge role in our mental health, as a lot of times music seems to be the only thing we have going for us.” Although S4ALEM talk about their fans and how touched they are when someone tells them that their music helped them through a hard time, the sweetest part of the interview for me has to be John Holland’s answer to “...Do you see yourself creating music together 10 years from now?”, when he says, “I hope we never stop making music together – I want to work with Heather and Jack forever.” Simple. Friendship.
You’ve been around for a few years now. Has your song writing process changed since you started? Have you crafted a technique or routine for how you usually collaborate to write songs, or is it different every time?
Heather (H): We don't really have a routine, but our process is more complex than it was when we first started. We use way more tracks than we used to and spend more time on each song. Our sound has gotten a lot richer since it first began.
John Holland (JH): We are very intuitive when it comes to starting a song. A lot of times we will start working on something musical from a place that we don't really understand in words but we do in sound. This is why it’s good for us to make music- because we'll have an idea that can only be expressed through listening, through chords or through different musical patterns. Other times we will start a song when we are inspired by something- it could be very small or very intense, and could come from anywhere. We build off this inspiration, adding and subtracting- sometimes it’s like a sculpture. In the beginning we spent less time on detail oriented editing but now we concentrate so much on each sound and how we want it exactly to sound. We could spend a whole day on 3 seconds of a song- but other times we make a whole song in an hour. I think it’s good to work in a way where you let yourself be free and you don’t have rules or limitations or a formula. We want to experiment a lot more these days.
I haven’t had the chance to see you guys live (come to London, Ontario!). How has your live show evolved? You have said that you’re striving to make your live show more “environmental”. How is that going? What are the challenges of translating what you do in the studio into a live performance? How different are the songs when they are performed live?
H: The structure of the songs is not different at all live. It sounds different depending on the venue, like our set is going to sound a lot different if it is in a church in England than it does in someone's garage. That sort of makes it interesting for us since it gets boring playing the songs over and over, we can feel good about when we play a venue that really works with our sound. As far as improving the visuals, that is a work in progress that is constantly evolving. One of the challenges of being an artist who is relatively new is translating your vision into reality. I think logistics are the thing we struggle with most, making things happen is a lot harder than developing a concept.
Where do your lyrics come from? I suppose that on some level, all lyrics are “personal”, but when the lyrics are created, is there an intention on the part of the writer to tell a personal story or talk about something specific?
H: Sometimes, I know a lot of my songs were inspired by personal experience. We all like stories a lot and like to tell stories so personal experience might inspire a story to evolve into an entire song.
JH: It’s nice to combine a strong narrative from personal experiences with things that are a lot more obscure or hidden. Sometimes we can make this happen even by writing lyrics that tell a clear story and mask them with the music and sounds around the voice. Sometimes the singing and or rapping in our songs are inaudible to the listener and only we know what they say- it’s like having a secret.
I read an interview with you last year, and you said, when speaking of influences: “Pretty much everything that’s happened to us in our lives goes into our music; past and present.” (Dummymag.com, 20.09.10). What part does music play in maintaining your mental health? How does creating songs together make you feel?
H: I think it plays a huge role in our mental health as a lot of times music seems to be the only thing we have going for us. There are a lot of pressures and people in this industry who might not have everyone's best interest in mind so I think we are lucky to have one another. Working together is the best feeling because it's like ok, they get it, it's really validating. Negative energy from press or critics never gets to us because ultimately we are making music for each other.
JH: Music has literally saved our lives at one time or another. Sometimes writing a song about an experience can be very helpful in understanding it too.
What are your influences these days, either musically or just generally?
H: I think a lot about horseback riding since I can't do that right now.
JH: I have been paying a lot more attention to soundtracks and how they are edited during the movie. After I watch something that I really love I like to listen to the soundtrack because I feel like it brings me closer to the characters.
Why do you think people are grabbing on and connecting to what you’re doing now? Do you feel like your music is “right now” or “the future”? Do you see yourself creating music together 10 years from now?
H: I hope there is a musical resurgence and people need to feel inspired. God willing we will always make music together.
JH: I hope we never stop making music together – I want to work with Heather and Jack forever. It’s really exciting to work on something that u can tell reaches other people – in both good and bad ways.
People have been making music themselves, teaching themselves, and recording themselves etc for a long time. But, now it’s 2011, and you can create songs, and set them to sail out into the world and get heard by people across the world. I think your band is the definition of underground success right now. What is it like to know that people are listening to you and connecting with you across the globe? What is it like dealing with the pitfalls of that success (being compared to other bands, people speculating on your intent, people criticizing / scrutinizing your live show etc.). Do you care?
H: The best feeling is when we hear from fans who tell us that our music helped them through a hard time. That to me is such a great unintentional result. So many positive things happen through the internet and freedom of information that it is hard to take the negatives seriously. It is important for everyone to maintain perspective when they read things online. It is really easy for people to get carried away and write really hateful comments since it is not real time so you have to be careful not to take them too seriously.
JH: It is true – it makes such an impact on us when someone says something really genuine about what we are doing and how it has helped them or touched them. I think it’s a really amazing thing that at this time creating music and all art forms is so much more accessible than before. You don’t need to have a lot of money or resources or contacts to be creative – which is how it should be.
Finally, what do you do to de-stress or navigate through bad experiences in your lives?
H: I set limits for my working hours and I practice hypnosis. If I am going through a bad experience or a hard time I talk to my friends and family about it and they always have good perspectives for me. One of the reasons I moved back to Michigan was so John and I could be near our families.
JH: I have written stories about bad experiences or times in life from a 3rd person point of view and afterwards it helps to see the situation in a different way and understand it better. I think the first step to feeling better about something is understanding it completely and understanding exactly its effects are on you and why or how u feel the way you do.