Boy Harsher’s Jae Matthews and Augustus ‘Gus’ Muller thrive in discomfort. The Runner, the new short film and accompanying score by the US duo, features some of the most gripping and frenetic dance music by the band to date– and yet the conditions under which it was conceived were anything but comfortable. The Runner was born at a time when Matthews and Muller, and the world at large, had no choice but to stop and standstill.
As such, The Runner almost instantly feels like a fever dream – it’s club music born in and in response to a year of confinement released at a time when clubs have reopened. Having previously taken us through the inspirations behind The Runner’s psychological horror visuals (Coen Brothers, Andrzej Żuławski, Kathryn Bigelow, Bernard Rose, Robert Kurtzman) that follow a nameless woman fleeing a motel massacre, the accompanying driving soundscape echoes this need to escape – both from danger and from oneself.
On Autonomy, a (comparatively) upbeat pop song featuring Cooper B. Handy (Lucy,) Matthews asks “What do you see in me? / What will come / When we run?” As such, and much in keeping with the ethos of Boy Harsher at large, this new work serves as a rejection of the collective halt and introspection necessitated by a global shutdown. Matthews and Muller insist that they must keep running.
Conor Hudnut: I saw that you describe this album and short film as “an exorcism.” What compelled you to label it as this?
Jae Matthews: During the pandemic, we were really struggling just to write, and it felt like we were stuck in this existential fear and the purpose of Boy Harsher was really unclear. I mean, for everyone, absolutely. So, this question – I always feel like a cheeseball when I answer it because we weren’t an island. I think everyone was feeling this sense of ennui and questioning who they were supposed to be. But, when we started working, Gus was putting all these pieces together and I think the exorcism comes from… just the need to expel the music. And this project feels different from past Boy Harsher releases because truly it is a soundtrack. It feels like each song is very different and has its own world and moment.
Conor: Totally. If an exorcism is part possession and part purification, do you think both of those were true in making this?
JM: For sure. The music we make feels very possessive of those feelings, of darker feelings like lust and desperation, and if we want to further the metaphor, then our demons are ones that we definitely explore and fixate upon with our music. Especially with dance music, because it’s very much based in sexuality, encountering strangers and these feelings of insecurity and discomfort. When you’re able to write a song and perform it live, that truly is an exorcism, because you’re really just getting it out there and processing it.
Conor: What was the process like making an album to be a soundtrack? How was it different to your normal approach?
Augustus Muller: So this is the interesting story about the album. We wrote the album before we conceived of the film. We were totally mixed, and I think mastered, by the time we were shooting, so it was sort of like a reverse project, you know? The movie was a way for us to try to make sense of the songs, to try to find some cohesion with them.
“When you’re able to write a song and perform it live, that truly is an exorcism…”
CH: In one of my favourite songs from the album, The Ride Home, it felt so easy to envision a visual landscape surrounding the melody. I’d love to hear about how that song came about, it’s very cinematic.
AM: That’s one of the songs we wrote while writing the script. So, we’re starting to motivate where these songs are going to fit into place and then there’s sort of a gap on the album, we need some more songs. I kept going back to this scene we had, which was that ride home, and yeah, it was just me trying to channel that vibe happening in the car.
JM: I think at one point we hadn’t planned on using vocals, and there was a lot of back and forth because even without the vox, the song has that feeling, like that pumping, you know, something’s about to happen… it evokes that. The vocals maybe add this additional element of ghostly experience on top.
CH: I also found it interesting how in Give Me a Reason there is such a dissonance between the devastating lyrics and the pulsating dance beat.
Jae: I’d be interested to know what devastates you? Like, that is such a compliment. I can tell you where I wrote it from, I think it’s like you’re really propositioning yourself to another person, or you’re just wanting them to show any level of interest or attunement. I think that’s what drives The Runner. It’s like once someone is drawn to her, or even expresses a remote amount of desire, that triggers her and turns on her ‘monster.’ With Give Me a Reason, we really wanted to create a song that could feel like the bar anthem, or the end of the night anthem, and it’s just kind of watching her turn into that person –like, did you mean to engage with me? Because this is what happens next.
CH: Interesting. Did you always plan on having Boy Harsher be more than just music and more of a mixed media project?
AM: If you have asked us at the beginning of forming the band, like in 2014, we would have been like, “Yeah, it’s a multimedia project.” But I think, you know, we’ve had tunnel vision the last few years of just touring non-stop and the regular album cycle. Covid was sort of a break for us to revisit that and realise how important it is for us to have it be a multimedia project.
CH: Do you think you’d ever explore any other media?
JM: I mean, I do write, and will release little books I’ve made and stuff. And I often tell myself that I’ll do something with all of the photos I take on tour.
AM: You’re talking about a video game aren’t you?
JM: Video game investors out there, get at us!
AM: I feel like we’ve touched on most art forms. I don’t know what we’re missing, other than a video game, really.
“We shot on 16mm as well, so everything was very limited in this way that makes it very precious, which is important.”
CH: I feel like the word ‘cinematic’ is constantly used in reference to contemporary music, but I do think it applies in the context of Boy Harsher. I’m curious, if filmmakers like David Lynch inspire your music, are there any musicians who inspire your filmmaking?
AM: Ooh, let me think about it for a minute.
JM: I don’t know if I have utilised that in this particular instance, but definitely ten years ago when I was in film school, I would listen to a ton of scores and atmospheric music in order to get the blood flowing. Like Johan Johansson. But then this really magical moment happened while we were living in Savannah, Austin, where suddenly there was just like everybody, this really strong group of people, making very dirge-y, very droney compositions, like SURVIVE before everyone now knows SURVIVE through Stranger Things. Before we were ever even making music, SURVIVE were one of those bands that we were really excited to see at SXSW. And so there’s this whole encampment in Austin in particular, at least back then, and it was SURVIVE, and Troller, and Thousand Foot Whale Claw and Sleeper Hold. I remember this music felt so visual to me, and there are no words or anything; it’s heavily synth-based. So listening to that and driving around, that really helped me come up with ideas. That music is fundamental, I’d say, in my storytelling process.
AM: Music’s a pretty important part to film and I think it’s important to sort of have music in mind when you’re writing. I think that’s why we’ve had some success with the film, because music plays such an important role in it. It just adds so much more emotion.
JM: I mean, we were literally thinking about the music that we’d made while we were filming it. For instance, when we were shooting this scene that features Give Me a Reason, Gus was counting out the seconds as the camera was rolling in order to know that it could fit in this piece. We shot on 16mm as well, so everything was very limited in this way that makes it very precious, which is important.
CH: I’d love to hear about the two features on the album. Was it difficult to incorporate other artists when you have such a precise vision?
AM: To be honest with you, when we were writing the album we did not have a lot of vision. It was sort of like mid-Covid, we’re just–
JM: The movie had yet to be a plan. Or at least during the period when we started working with outside vocalists. It was this period of time where we wanted to explore other voices and how to wrap songs around other people’s thoughts.
AM: I repeat this a lot, but it’s important for me because it made me feel better – Covid was a horrible time creatively for me. It was hard to write, it was hard to be prolific, so I was just trying to find any way to make something. We did a lot of remixes which was a good assignment, as was working with another vocalist. Working with somebody else gave me purpose because I was having a really hard time self-motivating.
JM: Sometimes it’s really difficult to be one another’s boss and it’s pretty easy to fuck off and be like, “Let’s go away this weekend.” But if you have someone else really depending on you and also giving you this gift of their time, you’re more like, “I wanna get this done.” And what’s lucky is Lucy, Cooper Handy, who is Lucy, lives in Northampton. So the opportunity to have him in the studio and Gus being like, “Oh cool, that sounds great, but let’s try it this way” – that felt like a very productive thing for you.
AM: Yeah, it’s not that I was fucking off, I was in the studio every single day trying to write something, but it just wasn’t sticking. Or I couldn’t find a connection to something, so we needed a little break out of our norm to find some traction.
“During the pandemic, we were really struggling just to write, and it felt like we were stuck in this existential fear and the purpose of Boy Harsher was really unclear.”
CH: How else did you guys spend your time during quarantine?
JM: When we got the news about Covid, we played this show at Knockdown Center in New York, which was in late February, and our manager happened to come to the show from Berlin and he just was like, “Guys something bad is happening and all the tours are getting cancelled.” And so we knew really early in 2020 that we wouldn’t be on the road. So at first, it was really overwhelming and kind of bizarre: we moved in that time, so that was a good project, reclaiming our at-home life. We went swimming a lot in watering holes, which I like to tell people because it’s not like we have a lot of time to do that normally. So I feel like we were having this real summer, like we were grilling and waking up and being like, “There’s a new watering hole – let’s go find it, let’s go get it, let’s go down.” In the beginning, I think we really took it as a time to work a little bit on Jae and Gus, separate from Boy Harsher. But then we were getting back in the studio and working a lot. I also got sick, so it was a complicated year, to say the least.
CH: Of course. I read about some of your health struggles throughout the past year. I hope everything is okay. Do you think the project was a good outlet despite all the heavy stuff going on?
AM: Probably not.
JM: Probably not, yeah. I was diagnosed with MS in mid-2020, and I wanted to get a handle on my stress. Things like, let’s quit smoking, let’s eat a little better, let’s take vitamin D, let’s lay off the stress. That’s kind of what I was doing at first. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to relax and chill out.” I mean, one of our greatest vices is work, Gus and I. We’re obsessed with work. I was thinking about this today, everyone in my life is a similar level of workaholic. I’m clearly drawn to these people; or maybe we have discovered that there is this real validation, like a form of affection, that comes out of completing a project.
AM: Making music can be therapeutic, or relaxing. But the process of making a film is awful, it is so stressful when you’re producing it and directing it.
JM: Which is what we were doing. There were days where I would just, I remember coming home from location scouting for ten hours and being like, “This is not going to work, this is not going to happen, let’s quit.” But everything came together, so that’s the magic. We were so blessed with this insane cast and in the end, all the locations we really wanted kind of manifested, so we were lucky. But, yeah, it was so much work, and I don’t know, I probably regressed a little bit. But it’s okay.
CH: Do you think you guys are going to have a more chill 2022?
JM: It looks like no. It feels like everyone is kind of making up for lost time. Post-Covid, I’m not sure if you’ve felt it, but there’s this manic energy: go to the show, go out, get dinner. You know, suddenly everyone’s like, “I have to do all these things!” because we forget how much we took value and joy in it, and then had it taken away for two years. But we’ll see, hopefully we’ll figure out how to keep the scales even.
Boy Harsher’s The Runner (original Soundtrack) is out now on Nude Club/City Slang.