Ones to Watch: Boy Harsher
Under the moniker Boy Harsher, Jae Matthews and Augustus “Gus” Muller create dark, danceable electropop. Their combination of minimal synths with Matthew’s ethereal vocals and confessional lyrics that cover topics from loss, desire, fantasy, and mental illness has led to them obtaining a cult following. Formed in 2013 in Savannah, Georgia, where they met at film school, the synthpop duo now lives in Northhampton, Massachusetts.
Milk talked to Boy Harsher about how they got their start, their love of film, and the first CD they ever bought.
How has quarantining impacted your creativity?
Augustus Muller: The big problem is finding motivation. I work the best when I have deadlines. I’ve been trying to set “office hours,” times where I have to be in studio working. I’ve been having fun though, trying out some new instruments and just experimenting.
Jae Matthews: It’s been hard for me; trying to take everything slow and be patient with myself.
What does your typical day “In the Studio” look like now?
AM: We’ve got some remixes in the work and some cool collaborations. I’m just trying to follow whatever I’m inspired by that day, so having a couple different projects to work on is helpful.
JM: I’ve been walking this steep service road up Mount Tom. You can see the whole valley from the summit. <3
Can you name the first CD that you bought?
JM: The first CD that I bought was a gift for this girl. I got invited to a birthday party and I remember wanting to get her something special. So, my mom took me to The Last Unicorn, and I bought the Blink 182 CD with the nurse on the front (with the glove). Don’t know what it’s called. I gave it to her, but didn’t realize it was a display copy (I took it off the wall) and there was no CD inside the case.
AM: I think mine was a Nirvana Nevermind album.
Fast forward, but looking back—can we start about six years ago? At this time, Jae, you were making very darkly lit films. That visual medium kind of bleeds over and parallels the dark minimalist sounds of Boy Harsher. Did your filmmaking lead you into exploring a complementary musical sound?
JM: I was making two types of films. I was making these VHS films, but I always had trouble with the soundtrack or finding a way to have an interesting score or sound design. I met Gus and I think somewhere we decided that Gus could help me with scoring these VHS things. That element of it evolved into us presenting the work with Gus live-scoring, while I also read on top of it. That’s how you separate the Dirt short film that you watched, a narrative film, with the latter VHS style. The music came out of the experimental video stuff that I was making with no concept of music-making or anything. That was all Gus. Gus wanted to start pushing what we were doing into the direction of motto-driven landscape films, I guess landscape pieces.
The project first started as Teen Dreamz, but became Boy Harsher. Why did you take on that name?
AM: We were just evolving as a band, Our sound was changing and we wanted to start fresh. That’s reason number one. Reason number two, Teen Dream is the name of a Beach House record…so kind of a weird connotation there.
Can you talk about how that creative process has evolved from that point? Specifically, from the film and live scores to your now fully developed tracks and records. How do you currently sit down and collaborate?
AM: When we first started out it was very spontaneous and improvisational. Now we spend a ton of time writing. It’s a lot of experimenting, a lot of tweaking, and a lot of throwing songs away.
JM: We started playing a lot live and no longer just in our gallery (we had a gallery where we hosted shows). We started playing in cities outside of Savannah and found, and still find, noise musicians getting into techno. So we’re watching a lot of really amazing fucked up, noisy techno. That was super inspiring. And not to say that we decided, “Oh yeah, let’s make techno,” but I remember after playing Noise Fest in Columbia, we started incorporating more percussive elements into the pieces that we were making.
With Careful, what song are you most proud of? If you can even choose of course?
JM: There’s a song on there called “Jerry,” or “The Look You Gave (Jerry),” and I think for me that the song, even though it’s probably the most cryptic, is the most important. It is about my stepfather who died two years ago when we were in deep writing the album. At that point of his death, we kind of had to take a break. So the first song after our hiatus was that song. We tried to encapsulate the feelings of grief, but also honor Jerry who was a big supporter of Boy Harsher more than anyone else in my life. Jerry was a rock. I think for me that song, just when I hear it I can hear this sadness and I can always feel where we were coming from.
Now with your latest record, Country Girl Uncut, how do you think your sound has evolved?
JM: Country Girl Uncut is actually a re-release of sorts. Originally a four-song EP, released in 2017 – we reissued the record last year with four additional tracks. Three of the four songs were recorded around the same time as the original four, except Send Me A Vision, which was brand new production.
GM: Country Girl is definitely a transitional record. We had relocated to Massachusetts and the fate of the band was up in the air. Soundwise, we were playing a lot of shows in New York with techno and a noise-driven lineup and that was rubbing off on us.
What has been one of the most rewarding aspects of self-releasing your music on Nude Club Records?
JM: You know, it’s a lot of work and it’s funny because I think we’re spoiled in a way. We’ve always been very, very involved in all of our releases and all of the work surrounding our music and our videos and our general presence. But, what I learned this year is that actually that amount of control is a…
JM: No, not a burden! The opposite. Not many people get to have that level of control. So it’s truly a gift. Sometimes I feel like, “Oh my God, it’s just so overwhelming and we have so much to consider and so much to think about.” But, oftentimes I think musicians are being pushed by a label or some type of industry thing to conform their ideas, even in a press packet or things that we’d never once have to think on. No one ever once was like, Jae, you have to be this. Can you be more like this? Or Gus, you have to be more like this. Right? We’ve always been able to be fully ourselves. That’s the reward. And Careful is a perfect example—it’s ours, completely our thing.
Do you turn to other mediums and artists for inspiration?
AM: Not deliberately. It’s like we watch a film and we reference it, for example with “Face the Fire”—we were writing that song and I was making the sounds for it and it started to remind me of To Live And Die in L.A. That was not deliberate at the beginning—I’m not like ‘I want to make a song that sounds like To Live And Die in L.A. Halfway through, it starts to remind me of that, so I start referencing it.
JM: I think usually what happens is Gus starts with sounds, it’s a very basic process and then i I add, “Ooh, this environment feels like this… like nighttime alone on the highway or at a rest stop. Let’s take that feeling and roll with it. Where does it go? How does that make me feel? How can I somehow manifest that into lyrical content?” It’s always memory-based or like image-based.
You use a lot of like bold, simple statements and your album titles, your chapter titles, what do you hope listeners are taking away? Like what’s your main purpose in creating and releasing that?
JM: For me, it’s far more profound to find a strong phrase and use repetition to change it. The meaning or turn that phrase into something it’s not, or pervert it. I don’t write truly complicated songs. It’s like taking a feeling and then using that feeling and repeating it over and over again and seeing what happens. I hope the way it feels when you listen to it is in the moment instead of getting stuck on, “Oh, what is she saying?” It’s not something to be read. It’s more something to be felt I guess if that makes sense. I mean our music is body music. That’s what we do and that’s what we’re trying to make.
When did you realize that this musical partnership would be for the long haul and not something that you just kind of made one summer when living in her attic?
AM: I mean we’ve always done it because we loved it. We loved to travel. We just kept putting these tours together. We never thought it was going to be a successful career. So we just kept chugging away and it’s not until probably this album that it feels a little bit more permanent.
JM: The reality is, we broke up and we weren’t on a healthy basis. I moved away. This was before we recorded anything, but we had been playing live for maybe a year or so. We had at least an EP worth of unrecorded songs. Gus made it his mission to get me back into his life, as a friend. Probably to record. I don’t know. At that time I thought “whatever, this is not permanent, but it’s important to Gus to at least record Lesser Man. So let’s do it.”
PRODUCER + INTERVIEW: Gabriella Plotkin
EDITOR + WRITER: Corey Bates
PHOTOGRAPHER Mikaela Lungulov-Klotz
HMU: Rodrigo Alvarez
PHOTO ASSISTANT: Tommy Venus
Additional “Stay the Fuck Home” images courtesy of Boy Harsher.
Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.