The Supernaturally Witchy Sounds of Demdike Stare
Demdike Stare conjure the sound of nameless dread and free-floating fear. As in the stories of acclaimed horror-fiction author Thomas Ligotti, Demdike Stare's music makes its chilling impact with utmost subtlety. The atrocities happen off the page, beyond the screen, slightly out of earshot. But you know they're occurring because Demdike Stare have captured an essential aura of menace and malevolence with an array of allusive gestures. The track title "Suspicious Drone," from their 2009 debut LP, Symbiosis, embodies their approach.
The handiwork of Lancashire, England's Miles Whittaker and Sean Canty—plus key visual assistance from record-sleeve designer Andy Votel and VHS collagist Jonny Redman—Demdike Stare have garnered a sizable worldwide cult audience with a torrent of uncompromising releases, all housed in black-and-white sleeves full of cryptic, surreal imagery.
Whittaker, aka MLZ, is Demdike's forward-thinking techno-music head. He's also half of the minimal-techno outfit Pendle Coven and creates chilling abstract electronica under the name Suum Cuique, which is even more stripped-down and forbidding than Demdike. Canty has worked as an A&R man for the excellent Finders Keepers label, whose expertise at excavating rare back catalogs by obscure mavericks like Jean-Claude Vannier and Sarolta Zalatnay and curating arcane, genre-centric compilations (Hungarian funk, Spanish prog, Irish post punk, etc.) is almost unparalleled. The tension between Whittaker's futurist leanings and Canty's archaeological savvy results in an oddly timeless stream of music. It's a sampledelic bouillabaisse whose ingredients tantalize even as they elude identification; it's world-class studio alchemy.
The tracks on albums such as Symbiosis, Forest of Evil, Liberation Through Hearing, Voices of Dust, and Elemental span charcoal-hued minimal techno, desolation-row dub, library music of the damned, and puzzling, purgatorial ambience. Yeah, this doesn't sound like anything you can party to, bro, but rest assured, you will eventually recognize a need for music with gravitas and supernatural creepiness. And when that time comes, Demdike Stare will be your savior.
Some critics have categorized Demdike Stare as "hauntological," but they reject the term, which refers to past recordings' spectral presence in current music and how it triggers an uncanny sense of nostalgia for things never experienced. That being said, if by some freakish turn of events a massive tour was launched called the Monsters of Hauntology, Demdike Stare would coheadline it with Boards of Canada. And it would be amazing.
So, guys, are you trying to scare the living hell out of people, albeit very subtly? Is that the function of Demdike Stare's music?
"Not really," says Canty, "but we're unconsciously trying to reflect all aspects of life. It's an honesty thing—life is a balance between light and dark, both visually and societally, and, often, current affairs as well as historical events are incorporated into our influences. Also, we strive for atmosphere and mood music, so this in itself is in some way a more functional aspect."
Okay, then what scares Demdike Stare (a group named after an Englishwoman who was executed in 1612 after a witch trial)?
"Other people," Canty says. "Seriously, we're constantly scared by what some people do or think."
That's understandable. The world's overrun with nutters—many of them in positions of power and operating under orders from their so-called god. So Whittaker and Canty take refuge in the most rare and sublime old records in several genres. Out of these rich sources, Demdike Stare weave together tracks that insinuate themselves into your brain like illicit substances.
The duo's primary motivation for making music is charmingly selfish, says Canty: "To be able to hear the music we weren't hearing elsewhere. We only found snippets of certain things on old library, soundtrack, noise, and early electronic records. So we decided to get together after a long-term friendship and attempt to create music for ourselves. It was never actually intended for release; we were just lucky."
Demdike Stare didn't set out to create ominous, morbid music, but they've ended up making some of the most compelling material ever in that vein.
"It's more a statement of our honesty within life and music, not trying to be feel-good, and reflecting more about some of the music we like, rather than a more idealistic or hedonistic motivation," Canty says. "It was never a conscious decision to write music of a darker ilk; [we are just] trying to create atmospheres and moods that we wanted to hear."
Votel's hue-free aesthetic and disturbing repertoire of imagery in Demdike Stare's artwork is just as important as the music, according to Canty and Whittaker, and indeed it complements the audio extremely well. It's like if the band were to let any color into the art, the demonic spell they've cast so far would be broken.
"The artwork... helps create the character we have for the project," Canty says. "Though we have little input into what Andy creates for us, he needs no pointers at all. The sleeves are a perfect marriage to the sounds. We like to think of Demdike Stare's music as colorful, so the sleeve art's monochrome dynamic is a nice counter in this way."
Whittaker noted in an interview with the Quietus that "there are certain records that cross over between both of us, and those are the records that have drawn us together to write music." Fans are dying to know what those records are—give us at least a few titles, pretty please?
"The context of the records themselves that we crossed over with doesn't necessarily fit in with an objective view of Demdike Stare," Whittaker says, "as they sound nothing like the music we make, but they're mostly records that contain elements that we both love. Whether it's McCoy Tyner, Wolfgang Dauner, Egisto Macchi, Basic Channel, or Nas, our crossover points are everywhere, and as Sean states, it's just our personal identity within music that creates the project."
Judging from the one time I've seen Demdike Stare, their live shows are conducive to bizarre mind-alteration.
"Ha-ha, we want to enjoy ourselves at every show," Canty says, "and to hopefully create a narrative for each venue. We also like to scare ourselves by hearing new tracks out really loud for the first time; that's always a good testing ground."
The crowd at Demdike Stare's last Seattle appearance at Debacle Fest in May was seriously into the performance, and the group sensed that.
"We loved it—very DIY venue [Black Lodge] and super-nice organizers, though we wish we had more hardware with us and that we didn't blow half the system partway through the set!"
Even working on half a sound system, Demdike Stare blew minds like they'd rarely been blown before. With more formidable audio gear at their disposal, Demdike's Decibel show should be scarily powerful. Prepare for some of the most memorable nightmares of your life.
This article has been updated since its original publication.