DIY till you die: Meet Closet Witch
Having operated on the fringes of the metal and hardcore scenes for the past 14 years or so, I have a special appreciation for bands that walk the walk when it comes to their do-it-yourself ethos. In that spirit, I turn your attention to a band that does it all themselves: Closet Witch is a spazzy, grind-influenced hardcore band operating out of the southeastern Iowa city of Muscatine.
In 2015, Closet Witch self-recorded and self-released two EPs, the latest titled Black Salt. Guitarist and primary songwriter Alex Crist tracked both records live in their basement practice space. Intense energy, particularly from frontwoman Mollie Piatetsky and drummer Royce Kurth, shines through the rawness of the recording quality. Meanwhile, bassist Cory Peak has constructed videos featuring hand-drawn animation and found footage that reflect the frenetic sounds. I spoke with Mollie, Alex, and Cory via Skype about their new release, the band’s approach to writing and recording, and their local scene.
Jason Kolkey: So you’ve got this new EP out. Tell me a little bit about what you were going for with it. Did you have any particular goals or ideas for where you wanted to take the songwriting?
Alex Crist: I think the easiest way to explain it was Mollie took over all the lyrical work and then the instrumentals were really split between all of us. So it wasn’t really spoken about what directions we were going in, just the emotions that we were feeling as we were writing. For me, personally, with my guitar parts, it was a darker record for me. Where Ergot was a lot of my pent-up rage and was a darker record in a different sense, this one was more emotional and where my head was at one point in time and that kind of outlook when I wrote my parts. But we kinda went in different directions, and that’s kinda [Mollie’s} thing.
How is that split in songwriting different from what you did on Ergot?
Mollie Piatetsky: Alex did write a lot of the lyrics for the first EP we put out, cuz he had the idea of starting the project [as] a whole. He was like, “All right, I’ve got some ideas” and presented them and the lyrics and guitar were just together immediately. He already had a few of the songs set up. And where the difference is as far as the lyrics go, I pretty much wrote all the lyrics.
Alex: Yeah, all of Black Salt was Mollie.
Since it keeps coming up already, I’ll jump to my questions about lyrics. The [“Ode to] Queen Doris” jumped out at me. Are The Forbidden Zone and Oingo Boingo a big thing for you?
Mollie: I definitely feel really inspired by The Forbidden Zone and I think it’s awesome. Every time I watch it, it entertains me. It’s awesome and just wrong on a lot of levels, which is intriguing. And the fact they did all themselves is just really inspiring. But Queen Doris is such a strong, sad character, and Susan Tyrrell is just really awesome in general …
I’m not obsessed with Oingo Boingo, really. I think their songs are fun and cool, and I think Danny Elfman is just awesome on a musical level … just creatively, he’s awesome. I like some of the costume-y, choreographed things Oingo Boingo did, definitely. But I wouldn’t say I’m really very obsessed with them, as much as I just like Forbidden Zone.
I noticed a couple of the other lyrics are very “heart-on-sleeve.” Do you see the lyrics as a sort of therapeutic thing? How do you approach that?
Mollie: Yeah, definitely therapeutic, venting kind of thing. Just getting out some inner rage, I guess. Or just honest-ness, not even rage, really.
It seems like some of them are a little more angry, while some are more of an empowering moment.
Mollie: Yeah, overall they’re all really empowering, more about being empowered, I guess … and just accepting feelings. Cold, hard accepting your emotions and feeling this is what it is, and I’m gonna ride through it, and I’m proud of that.
Speaking of emotions, on a couple of tracks on the record it starts to get a little more melodic, especially “Secane” where you’ve got this almost Poison the Well kind of melodic hardcore [section] toward the end and the track after that, “Love From…” where it goes full-on into piano. Is trying to incorporate more of those melodic influences something you really wanted to pursue here or continue pursuing?
Alex: When I first brought “Secane” to the table to even start hashing out drum parts for it and everything, I really wanted that ending section. Well, the original idea was to take a band that was pure chaos most of the time and then tack on the polar opposite to it. And I really wanted just a beautiful idea at the end of it. And I wanted it to be like eight minutes long, I think, when I first pitched the idea. That quickly got trimmed down to five minutes. And I dunno, I was really happy with how it turned out … I think it meshed really well. It really flowed, and it wasn’t so out of the blue, and you weren’t so thrown off by it. It was a little journey there.
The bridge track is controversial, but I really wanted it there too. It broke up the first four songs from the cover song, which was a little irritating to me at some points because I felt like we had written a really good EP, and then it was really separated with that cover song. The end of Ergot was separated with TED Talks about healthcare, which was a huge motivation about the first album – a lot of anger towards not having universal healthcare and coverage that’s currently going on in our country. And where I felt for me, personally – this is only my input – Black Salt was very personal and on a level of loss. And that’s where I felt my creative energy going into was the friends I’ve lost through time, and I just wanted to portray a beautiful moment. That’s where “Love From…” kinda comes in,is just a story telling from three perspectives about the value of life, all at once and how three people’s dialogue actually kind of synch up and react to one another throughout. It was very interesting to make and produce, but very controversial at the same time. But I was really happy with putting it on there.
Where was controversy coming from?
Alex: I’ve gotten some messages from some upset individuals and some people who are just very curious. But I think the only reason why I really did it was, “What did you feel when you heard it?” And that’s what we … Well, what I was trying to push for that track …
Mollie: Alex just put that together with all the copies of the masters he sent us, and we were just like, “Wow.” It made me feel some sad things … at the end of the record.
How did that come about?
Alex: It was just built and produced through everything on YouTube that was free. I just took seven different pieces and started slamming them together and seeing what would happen, which is pretty much like everything on both records is like that, too, production-wise. Which is also why we give it away for free; can’t just rip it off. But it’s all been manipulated so much, too, so it’s more of a sample, so to speak. However you want to look at it.
Or a sound collage, maybe.
Alex: Yeah (laughs).
Talk a little bit about the recording methods in general. Obviously it’s kind of an unconventional setup. Is there a philosophy behind that, or is it just what you happen to have around?
Alex: Got burned really, really bad and didn’t wanna go through that again. Engineers…they can be a little shady sometimes. I’ve been in scenarios where we put down a lot of money, didn’t get our mixes all the way. Got screwed over at the end. There was no contracts, whatever. And after getting burned so many times, it was just like, “Forget it, I’ll just do it myself.” And then I also came from the do-it-yourself scene. You know, stop relying on other people, and start putting out your own material. It kind of stemmed from more of anger at the time from somebody, but then realizing, “I can do this” and putting a lot of effort into it. But then it’s all amateur at the same time.
Yeah, we didn’t have any money, so we just got what we could and used what we could. Used freeware, and that was kinda one thing where, yeah, I’m broke, but then I can put a positive spin on it and be like, “Oh, but you’re broke too, and you wanna record? Then look how awesome.” It’s not the most spectacular recording, but…
Mollie: We did it.
Alex: We did it ourselves. We got it done, so it was a positive experience. We just want to put out our own music so let’s just go for it. And the recording process that way is so much more relaxed. It was just hit record, all live. Just sit there and we did as many takes as we wanted. There was no guy in a control room getting kind of frustrated.
Mollie: We did it all here at the house in the basement where we play and practice. And then Alex had all these little Handycams, so we recorded pretty much everything into them. And then Alex pretty much layered that all together off of what was on the memory card from that day. That’s kind of how it all was put together.
Do you think you’d ever want to use a proper studio? Or do you think this is just going to be the way you do it?
Alex: When I’m mixing and trying to figure it out on the spot, because I have no education behind it, yeah, I would kill for somebody to take over. There’s times where I can do unlimited mixes, and I can do everything I want. I can make sure [Mollie’s] happy. I can make sure [Cory’s] happy. I can make sure I’m pleased with it at the end, and it’s not cutting any corners. But then, yeah, there’s definitely times where I would kill for somebody with an actual education and a degree to take over and make it sound awesome. There’s things I want to achieve that I can’t. But then we saved a lot of money, and there’s a community that latches onto that at the same time, too. There’s a lot of people that appreciate that. And then we can also turn around and give it back, too. I’m not sitting here like, “Oh, man, we gotta still pay off this bill if we wanna break even, so we could not be in the red.” Now it’s just, we produced this album. It cost just a little bit to get physical copies, and we can just digitally give it away for free, which is awesome. And I’d much rather have somebody listen to it than pay for it.
I feel like that’s the age we’re in now. Like, please just listen to my music. Especially with the Internet, it’s so hard cuz there’s so much to choose from. Anything you want is available, so it’s really hard to compete. Especially when other bands that are leagues beyond you are still putting their stuff out for free, too. I don’t know, you’re in an age where you almost have to. If you don’t have anyone representing and pushing you from behind, it’s really hard to actually ask for money and produce something in a studio, I feel. But then other people have better connections.
Cory, you haven’t said anything yet, so I’m going to ask you about your art. How do you feel your artistic style, which you use for fliers and different things for the band, connects up with the sound and general aesthetic?
Cory: Not too much, actually. I don’t really do too much with Closet Witch besides producing a couple of music videos and whatnot. Alex does most of the design work. Yeah, I draw fliers and whatnot occasionally, but I don’t know how well it really lines up with the music. I just kind of draw whatever I feel like and try to promote things here and there as I can.
How about the videos? Like you did the one for the “Doris” song this time around.
Cory: Yeah, I tried to just use some imagery from the movie, obviously, like some Queen Doris imagery. And then just kinda used some clips and stuff that I knew Alex was a fan of. Actually, I think we just discussed it real quick one day. We were like, oh, what are some clips of things we should put in this? And we just threw out some ideas of Gundam and stuff like that. And then I found some cool witchy type, occult-looking stuff from anime and stuff and threw that in there and kind of brainstormed some other ideas that looked good with it and just kinda messed with it digitally. And that’s how that came about.
What sort of tools do you use for that?
Cory: I use Sony Vegas. It’s just a movie and sound program. And I just kinda taught myself how to mess with video and record on that.
I’m definitely going to stick in the animated video, because that’s really cool. So why don’t you talk about that.
Cory: Oh, cool. That was just, again, like an idea we had. We talked about it real quick. Like, what should we do for this, and kinda brainstormed about it. And then I just did my best to draw. I enjoy trying to do animation and stuff, so I just focused and kinda pumped it out.
How long did it take you to draw all of those images?
Cory: For that video, I don’t really remember for sure, do you? A couple weeks, two or three weeks.
Mollie: It was like a week or two. And it literally took you a couple days to put it together. And then you had it together, and suddenly you were adding to all the different things in the background during that one scene.
Cory: That one was relatively easy, because I drew everything on individual little pieces of paper. You just scan everything and color it and then line it all up and then I didn’t have to do anything really elaborate. But it still looked pretty cool.
I really enjoyed when I was in your general area. It seemed like you’ve got a pretty cool little scene going on around there. You guys want to talk a little bit about what’s going on there?
Mollie: I think ultimately that just the Midwestern, Southeast Iowa, and like the Illinois area, Quad Cities, Iowa City, the scene is just awesome. It’s very eclectic. People do so much DIY. Which I’m sure they do in so many cities, but it’s nice. You don’t think of just random Muscatine, Iowa; Iowa City, Iowa; Davenport, Iowa having so much – Galesburg, Illinois having so much going on. And there is just thriving music. People with tons of house shows. Even if there’s just one place having house shows, there’s those few, people who always show up and always support what’s going on. And you get people from all over that come through, and it’s just awesome. There’s lots of cool bands. There’s so many awesome bands in this area.
You wanna mention a couple?
Mollie: Well, just more recently a band I’ve seen ConeTrauma – they’re awesome. It’s [two] girls, and they’re just badass, punky, a little bit hardcore-influenced. We just went to a show that G.L.O.S.S. played. That’s not local, but that was cool, and that was just in town. Such an awesome show in Iowa City. There’s tons of cool bands: A Hill to Die Upon – they’re a pretty awesome metal band. In Muscatine there’s this badass band called Cranial Decay that’s been around a really long time, and they’re totally awesome too. There’s just so many good bands.
Alex: Yeah, I feel like I could just sit here for hours being like, Ice Hockey…
Mollie: Ice Hockey are awesome! Ice Hockey’s a badass band.
Alex: Arizona Landmine – really great. They just kinda burst out of nowhere for me. Now I’m on the spot after I finally speak up.
Mollie: Like, local in our little Midwest Muscatine town, along the river alone, there’s a few guys that have different bands, like Croatians, Abnormal Man, Mudhole. Cory and I have done a lot of stuff too. Cory was in a band called Trendy Bastard a long time ago.
Alex: They’re awesome too.
So, what do you guys have coming up, either with this band or other projects?
Mollie: Gas Up Your Hearse.
Mollie: Yeah, yeah. In Galesburg, Illinois, not far from here, there’s a little DIY scene that’s just totally badass and worth checking out if you’re touring at all.
Alex: They do barbershop shows. You set your amps up on the barber chairs. You’re laughing, but it’s awesome. It was a really good time.
No, it sounds great.
Mollie: Cory and I just played there. It was pretty great. I got my head stuck in a flytrap.
Do you want to tell more about that?
Mollie: Cory and I played with our electronic project, Baby Alchemy, at this place called Glory Days Barbershop in Galesburg, Illinois – when was that- Wednesday.
Mollie: And I was talking to two people, and I moved my head backwards into a fly tape trap. And we kept talking. And I don’t know how long I was stuck in it, but when we finally went to walk outside and take a picture, I moved, and I was stuck in fly tape trap. Tons of dead flies on it. So then I had my hair cut, because it was a barbershop and there was clean scissors everywhere. So it worked out.
But the space is like three chairs, and it’s so small and tiny and there’s tons of really cool stuff all over. Like tons of old horror graphic novels and fun things. Very cool.
We played with this badass band, Gas Chamber. Definitely worth checking out. Like a technical, grindy band. Very beautiful.
Okay, the last thing is the plugging thing. Anything you want to plug?
Mollie: Yeah, well Closet Witch is playing a show in December.
Alex: With – how do you pronounce it? Ay-See-Ex-Dee-See, or AC/DC or…
Alex: Thank you, yes.
That’s awesome. They’re a great band.
Mollie: Yeah, we’re playing with them in December. That’s our next definite show, with our friends, National Hero.
Cory: We should mention our split with them.
Mollie: Oh yeah, we’re releasing a split with National Hero, which is three songs we just recorded. So that will be a release for that, too. Pretty tight. National Hero are two-piece, kind of local, grindy band. They’re pretty cute and awesome. But that’s really our next show. We got asked to play a show with this awesome band Ice Hockey too, a few days before that. But we don’t know if we’re definitely playing or not. Pretty much December is when we’re planning to pop it back off. Hopefully we’ll push out some more music videos before then, quick and dirty style. Lately we’ve been practicing as this new project, Bird Scout, the three of us. Kind of definitely a baby project branching off of Closet Witch. Very similar. So maybe in the future we’ll be doing stuff with that.
So that’s also a grindy type of thing?
Alex: Way more noisy, that’s for sure. Yeah, a lot more blastbeats, but fun. Just really short and really sweet. Gorgeous little gals.