WARGASM on creating their spiky brand of electro-rock in AltPress issue #402 cover story
WARGASM are taking a break from recording one of 2022’s most eagerly anticipated debut albums. When Alternative Press checks in with them, they’re at Chapel Studios in Lincoln, in the east of their native England — or, more specifically, sat on the sofa, where Sam Matlock is eating toast, and Milkie Way, fittingly given her name, is enjoying a bowl of cereal. It’s not the only point of diversion between the two.
Vocalist and guitarist Matlock is a London-born ball of twitchy energy, his mind prone to overthinking and second-guessing, which made the lockdowns of the past 18 months a struggle; his pinballing thoughts pull few punches and arrive in a boisterous rasp. Co-vocalist and bassist Way — birth name: Rachel Hastings — grew up in Northern Ireland. Her blond hair in a pixie cut and her face inscrutable, she’s a picture of poise, having weathered small-town judgments for how she dressed and what she listened to before boarding a plane to London when she turned 18. Her voice warm and melodious even when her utterances aren’t, Way is the unstoppable force to Matlock’s immovable object.
For another illustration of the duo’s differences, ask about WARGASM’s recent U.K. tour, their first headline jaunt ever, a sold-out run dubbed War On The Road. While Way remains stunned by the response, Matlock was never in any doubt. Why was he so certain? “I read an old interview with [My Chemical Romance frontman] Gerard Way in which he said he knew from the start that something special was going to happen,” explains Matlock, before checking himself.
[Photo by Corinne Cumming][/caption]
“I don’t want to be that egotistical by suggesting I’ve thought exactly that, but we’ve recently taken a couple of new tunes out on the road that, when we wrote them in the studio, something felt weird and different. I had that same feeling when we played festivals over the summer. And before that, when we sold out [legendarily dingy Camden Town venue] The Underworld, having released a handful of singles, it felt like things were going to go that way.”
By “that way,” Matlock means the steadily building tidal wave of hysteria currently engulfing the U.K. and about to radiate across the Atlantic. He’s referring to his band’s show-stealing turn at England’s Download Pilot, a 10,000-capacity festival used to help inform government policy on bringing back live music in the face of the pandemic, hosted last June at Donington Park, the U.K.’s legendary home of metal.
“Festivals are wicked, but when you play your own shows, you get to see who your audience is,” Matlock enthuses. “Ours is a really cool demographic: a mixture of young couples, many of them going to their first show, as well as big metal dudes and loads of queer teenage punks. We fucking love to see it.” WARGASM love keeping in regular touch with them, too, more intimately than social media accounts, using what Matlock describes as a “burner phone” WhatsApp group.
While both Matlock and Way suggest the formation of WARGASM was an “organic” process, to anyone else, it’s a rather unusual story. At their time of meeting, Matlock was the lead songwriter in alt-rockers Dead!, while Way was a model with a penchant for photographing gigs, regularly found jostling in venues’ photo pits, plying her trade with nothing more than a disposable camera.
“I liked the band,” Way says of Dead!.
“Your boyfriend liked the band more than you did,” Matlock corrects.
“My boyfriend liked the band more than I did,” Way clarifies. “And he was the one who introduced me to them.”
All was not well within the ranks of Dead!, though, and in the summer of 2018, they abruptly split. “I couldn’t picture myself being the writer in another project,” Matlock says of his bruised demeanor post-breakup. “Then I gradually realized I wanted to work with a feminine voice.” And there was only one voice he had in mind, so one evening while feeling drunk and dejected, Matlock contacted Way, then some 6,000 miles away on a modeling assignment in Japan, sending her a direct message that read: “For the love of fuck, tell me that you play an instrument.”
Thankfully, Way did — and WARGASM were born… eventually.
“I don’t think what we’re doing is terribly original,” Matlock admits, “but it’s original for now.”
This, on the surface, is a curiously honest statement from a young rock musician who you’d expect to be full of hyperbole and touting his band as unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. That’s not Matlock’s style, though. He’s been around the block a few times and is aware that self-aggrandizing is the bullet with which you shoot yourself in the foot, and that his band are a continuous work in progress.
When the duo started hanging out, they mostly listened to music and partied, before Matlock began introducing pieces of recording equipment to Way’s North London apartment, as well as fragments of song ideas. Their formative musical experiments were based around their collective love of riot grrrl, the underground feminist punk movement that birthed L7, the Los Angeles band whose song “Wargasm” served as inspiration for the duo’s name, as well as a smattering of other subgenres, all swirling around the core influence of big-hitters Linkin Park, Slipknot and Limp Bizkit. It’s fair to say Matlock and Way aren’t overly proud of their early efforts; they admit to recording and shelving an entire EP, now referred to as “Sadgasm,” that Matlock describes as “Placebo does pop punk.” That sounds like it might be pretty good, we mention. “It’s not,” Way whispers.
The catalyst for the WARGASM sound of today — spiky, sleazy, electro-tinged — was the result of a rather surprising blind spot in Matlock’s musical knowledge. One evening he was at a club when the DJ suddenly dropped “Lapdance” by N.E.R.D. “I must have heard it before,” Matlock suggests now, “but at that moment, I felt I hadn’t.” Overcome with excitement, he lurched over to the booth to ask what he was listening to, terrifying the DJ in the process. Matlock immediately called Way to tell her they needed to record a cover version, which they promptly did, amping up the anger and lasciviousness while introducing a cornerstone of their live set and establishing their musical identity. “That song sounded more like WARGASM than anything we’d done ourselves before then,” Matlock says. “‘Lapdance’ was the starting point. Pharrell [Williams] doesn’t get a fucking cut, though.”
“If you don’t really have your footing and aren’t sure which direction you want to go in, doing a cover of a song that captures what you want to do is a great place to start,” Way explains. In WARGASM’s case, what they wanted to do, she says, was make “heavy and sexy” music. It’s a task they’ve been equal to across the course of the singles they’ve unveiled since they released their take on “Lapdance” in February 2020, many of which were written when the duo hightailed it to Way’s family home as the pandemic took hold.
Those songs include the pummeling “Spit.,” the video that was shot in the garage using green screen; the unsettling “Backyard Bastards”; and the blood-curdling “Rage All Over.” And they might have been even more productive if Matlock hadn’t dropped a hard drive full of tunes onto a stone floor, resulting in the duo starting over.
“We gravitated towards short-form single releases because with every release, you can do something different; you don’t have to commit fully to a certain sound,” Way explains. “We’re not against albums. I listen to albums from start to finish every day, but being able to change with every single was a blessing to us.”
We’re evolving out loud. With our short attention spans, it’s definitely an advantage to be able to say, “We’ve done that song — next!”
— SAM MATLOCK
“We’re evolving out loud,” is how Matlock puts it. “If you release a really good song, it’s relevant for, what, about 14 weeks? But if you release a bad song, your fans only seem to care for about six weeks these days. As much as that makes it sound like we live in a bit of a disposable culture, it gives you complete fucking free rein as an artist to go wherever you want. With our short attention spans, especially the amount of jitteriness that goes on in my head, it’s definitely an advantage to be able to say, ‘We’ve done that song — next!’”
Speak to any fairly established rock band in the past few years and sooner or later, the topic of the way in which they release music will come up. A few beers in, they’ll confide they’d love to take a leaf out of hip-hop’s book and break free of the rigors of the album cycle, releasing music as and when inspiration strikes, allowing for greater creative fluidity and adapting to the way most people listen to music these days. But while for many it remains a pipe dream, WARGASM are actually walking it like they talk it. Presumably, they’ve received little resistance to their protracted buildup to an album (11 singles and counting)?
“There’s been some resistance from some industry people,” Matlock concedes, his tone suggesting that opposition has been of little consequence. “And I’ve had a few friends in bands say: ‘Sam, what the fuck are you doing?’ Some within our fanbase have told us: ‘You need an album!’ I’d like to think selling thousands of tickets for a sold-out U.K. tour where everyone knew every word to the setlist proved a few people wrong.”
“They’ll get the album when the album is good enough to be released,” Way insists. “The 1975 were a band for 10 years before they even dropped a fucking EP, so I don’t know why everyone’s pressuring us for an album when we’ve only been a band for two years. But the naysayers don’t affect the decisions that we make.”
[Photo by Corinne Cumming][/caption]
[Photo by Corinne Cumming][/caption]While the 10 dates on WARGASM’s War On The Road tour were unimpeded by COVID-19, they were sadly blighted by violence. After their show at London’s Scala venue, a female friend of the band experienced intimidation at the hands of the venue’s security team, which Matlock took issue with. A scuffle ensued, during which he was subjected to having his head repeatedly smashed against a toilet.
“These things happen,” a weary Matlock suggests, keen not to say too much about an incident that’s not entirely resolved. “Fortunately, we had someone big on our team who was there. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d have been able to complete that tour, as those guys were going pretty fucking hard, and there’s a limit to how many impacts that specific areas of your skull can take.”
I want to do a debut that’s as good as Hybrid Theory. If I manifest it, it has to fucking happen
— MILKIE WAY
While the unfortunate incident reminded Matlock that “the world can be a really shitty place,” he’s quick to focus on the positives. Chief among them is their short run of U.K. dates in support of goth punks Creeper, alongside fellow hopefuls Holding Absence and Static Dress, as well as a debut album that’s going to throw a lot at the listener. “I wanted to write a narrative about it being the end of the world, and you’re in a room shagging someone at a party, and they have to become your sidekick,” Way says of one of its more out-there lyrical preoccupations. “And there’ll be plenty of party songs, for soundtracks we want to get on.”
The unabashed ambitions don’t stop there. “I want to do a debut that’s as good as [Linkin Park’s debut album] Hybrid Theory,” Way answers when asked what success would look like to them. “If I manifest it, it has to fucking happen.”
[AltPress issue #402.2][/caption]While pitching yourself against an album that’s sold 27 million copies worldwide is a tall order, Matlock is no more modest in where he’s set his sights. “One day in our history, ‘Firestarter’ was dropped,” Matlock says of the Prodigy’s famed 1996 single, which made it to No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart. “Songwriting is a fun game where you earn your stripes, and that, for me, is the benchmark for quality and impact, as it’s long since become a pop culture phenomenon.”
But do Matlock and Way believe, in a world that’s witnessed so much weird shit these past few years, that it’s still possible for a song to make that kind of impact? “I don’t think things have to be shocking to make an impact,” Way counters, soberly. It’s this mixture of bullishness and level-headedness that make WARGASM such promising contenders — they’re shooting for the stars yet savvy enough to know what the journey truly entails, having studied some of the masters. For evidence, take a cursory glance at their list of collaborators. They include Kieron Pepper, a dab hand with synths who spent a decade delivering fat beats as the drummer for none other than the Prodigy, the very band whose searing sonics and wrecking ball influence WARGASM want to emulate.
If you truly are the company you keep, then WARGASM may well be on their way to similar pop culture phenomenon status.
This interview first appeared in issue #402 (22 for ’22), available here.