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Frank Iero and James Dewees bring catharsis with Death Spells’ debut LP

June 26 2016, 2:00 PM EDT By Jason Pettigrew

There was more than just tears and sad resignation when My Chemical Romance decided to disband three years ago. There was DEATH SPELLS, the caustic electronic-rock reaction to both the breakup and the plastic environment MCR guitarist Frank Iero and keyboardist James Dewees found themselves in. But after a handful of interviews, one mixtape and a tour supporting Mindless Self Indulgence, it seemed that DS was over before it really began. The unit was never going to come to fruition functioning as a real entity, releasing music and touring the world to spread abrasive, electro-fear toward a generation of listeners weaned on synthetic pop, bro-step and strains of metalcore fond of filigreed electronic flourishes. Iero made music and toured with his Cellabration, while Dewees continued working on Reggie And The Full Effect, the Get Up Kids and touring as a member of Gerard Way And The Hormones. Death Spells are dead. Long live Death Spells.

Until now. Released on July 29, the duo's debut album, Nothing Above, Nothing Below, is the kind of throat-punch the music scene needs right now. Iero and Dewees decided last December to bear down and give their corrosive outlet its day, working on tracks in Iero's home studio and at longtime friend/mentor Ed Auletta's North End Studio in New Jersey. The 12 tracks range from atmospheric spoken-word and atmospheric interludes to uzi-fire tempo hardcore (“Where Are My Fucking Pills?,” the first single, “Why Is Love So Disastrous?”), and some lugubrious moments (“End Of Life”) which will resonate with people who collect movie posters of psychological thrillers. With the arrival of Nothing Above, fans of old-school industrial rock (Ministry, Skinny Puppy) and vicious breakcore (Alec Empire) will have their tinnitus reactivated once again, while a new gen of listeners can ready up for some severe devastation via Dewees' programming skill and Iero's straitjacket-fitting vocals. “I did most of the vocals on my own, late at night in the dark,” Iero says. “And I think it sounds that way.”

The duo chatted with Jason Pettigrew in advance of their new song premiere today about the intentions of the band since its inception four years ago, how darkness is a relative thing, and whether fans will ever get to see that upside-down cross the duo wanted to take with them on their first tour.

Death Spells was something you two created during sessions for My Chem's doomed project, The Paper Kingdom. Four years later, how has the project's intention changed?
FRANK IERO:
Everyone in the band had moved to LA, except for me and James. We were living in a North Hollywood apartment complex that was kinda sketchy. Not dirty, but definitely seedy and shady. Twenty-somethings looking to “make it,” dance crews, some porno-movie type stuff. You've got two guys locked in this room with a studio across the street that [they weren't] allowed to go in and do anything. We were stuck in this apartment building and we’re starting to wig the fuck out. James, remember when you went to that garden center and bought all those plants and wound them all over the patio so no one could see us?
JAMES DEWEES: Yeah. Hawkeye was there.
IERO: Yeah, the second Jason Bourne! (Jeremy Renner—movie reconnaissance ed.)
DEWEES: Yeah, he was there shopping for plants and we fuckin' schooled him. [Iero laughs.] He was getting a stupid palm and I ended up getting eight gigantic tropical plants. We were on the ground level. There's so many people that come to North Hollywood to “make it,” They build these apartment buildings right next to each other where as soon as you walk outside, you're on somebody else's patio,  And all those millennials were annoying: Kids who have moved from [wherever] whose parents gave them $20,000 and said, “Here Ricky, here's your year before college. You wanna be a twerk dancer? Here's your year to go do it.” Thinking about it now and remembering the conversations... [To Iero.] That Russian girl that lived upstairs from us was fucking amazing. I don't know what kind of pills she was taking; she would just sit out there and yell. Yell shit that made no sense and invite people over.
IERO: [Laughs.] So James had created this jungle on our floor. [To Dewees.] And I feel you were just bubbling over and you started creating [music] that sounded like the Locust cutting up Ministry samples. And that was blaring out of this Peruvian jungle setting. It was essentially our attack on everything and everyone that was around us.
DEWEES: We had a guy that lived upstairs that only listened to house music. It's like, “Get the fuck out of there with this.” I mean, house music with Soundgarden  would be great. [Laughter.]

But you're in much nicer homes right now and you don't need the pressure valve release. So how does this music fit in your lives right now?
IERO: When that period ended and we moved back to the East Coast, in my head, I was done doing bands and making music. A few months later, James got a call from Jimmy [Euringer, lead vocalist of Mindless Self Indulgence] saying, “We're going to do this tour. Are you doing anything or do you know anyone who would be cool to open?” James sent him some tracks and we did that tour. And on that tour, we're doing these experimental things. Meantime, he's writing Reggie [And The Full Effect] stuff, I'm writing Cellabration stuff.

Over the past four years, I came to the realization that music isn't something I do like a pastime—regardless of what I do, it is who I am. Knowing that, I got to the point where I was writing the second Cellabration record and I couldn't go any further without having this project that kinda started everything see the light of day. The realization of who I am and what I do came flooding out.

 

A photo posted by Death Spells (@deathspellsmusic) on

Death Spells was a bridge from where you were at the end of MCR that needed documentation, as opposed to merely being “Frank's Lost Year.”
IERO: Absolutely. A year ago, somebody asked me how old I was going to be. I mistakenly said 35. My birthday came and I mistakenly realized that I skipped an entire year. I'll be 35 this year, and I thought, “If I skipped that year, there would be this missing hole in my life.” And that's how I felt about DS: I got to where I am now because of this, and no one's really properly heard it. It's never had its time past that Mindless tour. No one knows how we got to where we are because of it. I felt I cheated myself out of that year, and I'm just realizing it now.

The new record is pretty full-on in its attack, recalling the halcyon days of furious electronic-based artists like Ministry, Skinny Puppy and Alec Empire. The title Nothing Above, Nothing Below feels violent and bleak. The most commercial thing on it (“Fantastic Bastards”) still feels like some dude hanging out under the bleachers during high school football practice, huffing non-stick cooking spray out of a grocery bag and loading automatic weapons. It achieves a vibe that's really dark and totally hardcore. I'm wondering if it could be too dark.
IERO: Let me jump in right now and say that I see the complete and total opposite of what you are saying. The title of the record implies, what if there was nothing else? And all we have is right now? I thought about how we treat each other and how we treat people who are different from us, all in the name of “love” and what happens to us after this world and how much we give a shit about what we believe in. I'm taking the position of fuck what’s above us, fuck what's below us—let's talk about how we treat each other right now.

In that particular song “Fantastic Bastards,” the bruises given to you by the person who is supposed to love and take care of you do not define you. And in that song, the people end up taking their revenge on that abuser. I want to keep things vague and keep it open to listeners' interpretation.

For me, when we first created [the album], it was all aggression, but at the same time, trepidation. I wasn't sure of myself. Now, I feel confidence in it, and that’s where my fuel is coming from. There's validation and from that there's finding new strength in the other projects I'm doing.

Does Death Spells create a psychic fuel that somehow informs everything else?
IERO: I think everything fuels each other. I don't feel DS is an interim or side project. I think it's part of my whole. It's like breathing, something I need to do. I've been in bands since I was 11 years old, but for now somehow, I feel there's a new importance to it, because I've come of the ownership of what it means to me. It's such an integral part of everything that I'm doing, I needed for it to have it's day to shine.
DEWEES: I do a lot of goofy music for a career. [Laughs.] But that's not to say that I don't have things that make me angry or frustrated. Having music as a vehicle for venting is a good thing, whether it was me playing drums in Coalesce, programming for Death Spells or playing keyboards for MCR, Reggie or Get Up Kids. I'm not a bad-news person, I'm definitely a good-news person. But as adults, you have to deal with the bad news—loved ones dying, divorces—the things that make life life. You're never really ready. I think it's necessary to have an outlet to get that stuff out, through music, writing or whatever. Let it happen and when you get to the end of the journey, you're better for it.

So DS is an outlet for personal catharsis, as well as a viable aesthetic development.
DEWEES:
When I went to rehab, I made that Reggie record Last Stop, Crappytown,

That's a great record.
But it's not a Reggie record. It should've had a big Frankie Goes To Hollywood logo on it that read REGGIE GOES TO REHAB. [Laughter.] That's a situation that's super-personal and super-private [about] trying to get your shit back together. People weren't thinking, “We hope you get your shit back together.” They were thinking, “This is waaay too heavy. We liked it better when you were on drugs because you were funny.” Fuck you, assholes! I promise you that we're not going to have girls in fluorescent body paint, bikinis and Eskimo boots holding up glow-in-the-dark wristbands at Death Spells concerts. It's not that kind of electronic music.

There's been so much crazy shit happening [in my life]. My mom passed away and my mother-in-law passed a month later to the day. And I sat there watching it happen for months. So when I put on the Death Spells record, it kinda captures the way I felt the last couple of months. But it's weird: I didn't feel that way when I was writing it. It's such a bizarre thing.

Death Spells are doing a lightning run of dates in August after the record is released. The last time you went out on tour, Frank was looking to bring a huge upside-down cross onstage. It didn't happen, obviously. Will it happen this time?
IERO: [Laughs.] Here's the thing: It was never supposed to be upside down, just neon.
DEWEES: I totally forgot about that until you mentioned it. Frank just wants to keep it after the touring is done. [To Iero.] You'll have it on the front of your house for the neighbors to see.
IERO: [Laughs.] I still want it, man. alt

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