Last October, in a brief interim between strict U.K. lockdowns, Creeper’s Will Gould played four shows in two cities with his side project, Salem. In a dark, small venue in London the night before Halloween, fans sat at separate tables, some sitting devoutly through both the matinee and evening show. With the restrictions, it could have felt clinical, were it not for the sheer energy of the room. Fans screamed and danced as much as they could, dressed head to toe in the pink-and-black merch that sold out early in the night. “I thought, ‘Four shows in two days, it’ll be fine.’ But I forgot that I had literally been sitting down for a year. I did the first one and I couldn’t breathe!” Gould says over the phone from his home in Manchester. Still, the exhaustion didn’t show, and both band and fans gave it everything.
Modestly, Gould wasn’t expecting that much of a response to the project. His band Creeper had just dropped their second album, Sex, Death & the Infinite Void, after a year off. Creeper’s dramatic comeback was a hit, but their rollout and tour were disrupted by the pandemic, and Gould suddenly found himself with more free time than he knew what to do with. At his new home with girlfriend and longtime collaborator Charlotte Clutterbuck, Gould wanted to find something with which to keep busy. He had previously recorded a handful of tracks with friend Matt Reynolds for a playful side project they had called Salem, a nod to the Archie comics, but hadn’t yet found a way to release them.
Gould and Reynolds recorded the songs properly over the course of a week, finding that they had enough for an EP. The sexy, fast-paced, punk-inflected tracks with lyrics about blood-drenched love and lust moved away from the structure of Creeper to something closer to Gould’s DIY roots. Without the resources of Creeper to promote the EP, the pair enlisted friends, family and other creatives for support, including Clutterbuck’s sister Beth and Olli Appleyard of Static Dress, forming a kind of scrappy collective. The group designed merch, filmed videos and shot photos with an incredibly limited budget, navigating the restrictions to create something entirely unrestrained. Somehow the process worked, and when the debut EP, Salem, was released in October, it sold out almost immediately.
With the recent release of new single “DRACULADS,” from their Salem II, that energy perseveres. Featuring Salem regulars, the video is shot all over their town, partly on an iPhone, and all of it for very little money: “The bedroom scenes had to be done in our apartment, so we had to wallpaper with white paper, and then we drew all over the walls. When we pulled it all off, we realized we had gotten spray paint all over our wall. Charlotte had to repaint!” Gould says, laughing. It’s that chaotic spirit that defines Salem, a passion project that’s grown beyond all expectations.
The thing with Salem that’s so interesting is that you did it purely out of necessity, but it’s become something so much bigger.
Salem existed before the pandemic, but it was just in the background. We hadn’t touched it for ages. It was just for fun, and I thought it would stay on a hard drive forever. Then we were suddenly in lockdown, and I needed to work out what to do, so I dug it up, and it just blossomed into this really fun, creative thing with a lot of people. I have people around me all the time that really stimulate me, and it’s so nice to have everyone mucking in together. As much as people might think differently, there is no master plan here. A lot of the time people know Salem because of me, but it’s so much more than me. Matt is 50% of Salem. Olli [Appleyard] can take the credit for the visual stuff. He’s a little freak; he’s amazing. It’s a big relief to be doing something creative in the midst of everything that’s going on.
All of your work feels very influenced by where you are. The first Creeper record, Eternity, in Your Arms, was rooted in Southampton and in your upbringing there, but Salem is the opposite. The EPs and videos and the group you work with are so specifically Manchester.
The last Creeper record [Sex, Death & the Infinite Void] feels like a very American record because we were in America all the time. I think a lot of what I write and draw from comes from the stuff that’s around me in terms of the location. Being in Southampton for Creeper, it was so gray and bleak [that] the whole idea was to make something exciting out of something really boring. In Manchester, everything is so exciting around you because there’s just so much to do, and it’s so overwhelming.
The first track’s title, “William, It Was Really Something,” is clearly Smiths-inspired. Was it a conscious choice to reclaim that from Morrissey?
Charlotte was a massive Morrissey fan. She’s got two different Smiths tattoos, and the band were such a big part of her and her sister’s culture growing up. Up here, the history is everywhere. We used Salford Lads Club for the “DRACULADS” video, and The Haçienda is down the road. It’s hard to avoid it, but it’s difficult with the controversy surrounding Morrissey. I remember the day when we finally took down Charlotte’s Morrissey wall plaque. So for the first track, we had written the song without the title, and I asked Matt whether he thought it was strange to sing your own name in a song. He was like, “To be honest mate, I’ve sung my name loads of times!” Then I was like, “Wouldn’t it be funny to riff on the Smiths thing? Because Morrissey is such a piece of shit, anyway!” I thought that was a funny little quip. Some kids thought that we were covering the Smiths’ song because they saw the setlist at the shows. Of course not! It’s so difficult when you can’t listen to something anymore, but reappropriating it for yourself is the closest you can get.
In both “William, It Was Really Something” and “DRACULADS,” there’s a lot more drama than on the first EP. It’s like you can’t help yourself.
It was funny how that came about. Last summer, we had to rehearse for those shows that were coming up in October, and none of us had. We’d written the songs and done the drums, but because it was such a throwaway thing at the time, the four of us hadn’t played together. Matt knew of a studio in Devon run by an old friend, Peter Miles, so we decided to rehearse there together distanced when we were allowed to. So we waited for lockdown to lift, and the week it lifted, Matt said Pete said we could record. I was like, “We haven’t got any songs!” He was like, “Let’s just fuckin’ write some then!” I came a week early, and we wrote “DRACULADS” and some others. It was the first time we had actually written together properly. These dramatic moments just came out of nowhere. That’s some of the stuff that I really like about this record.
Creeper’s fans have responded so positively to Salem—you sold out the four shows in October nearly instantly. Were you expecting such a massive turnout?
Salem wasn’t even supposed to be a thing, but people really liked it. What I am enjoying about it the most is the constant collaboration. I’m finding that so fun. When you’re in a band, you have this pool of people that you collaborate with over and over again, but with Salem, it’s like the Wes Anderson actors. The same regulars that pop in and out. Charlotte is involved in everything we do, and it’s a project that a lot of our friends and family work on. It’s so great being able to work with and pay my friends. The creative industry has taken the biggest hit in the last year. Everyone has been struggling so much, so we all support each other. With Salem, it’s so much fun creating and coming up with ideas and getting everyone involved. There are no expectations—it’s not big business. It’s just stupid, sexy emo, isn’t it?