I originally wanted to start this article with a clever play on the phrase ‘these are dark times.’ Unfortunately, I had assumed the expression was from a weightier literary source than its actual root – Harry fucking Potter. Regardless, the witchcraft link I have now clumsily hatched is apt enough to describe the outlook of Liverpool’s newest (and probably first) gloom-punk outfit, SALEM RAGES.
Formed from the ashes of well-supported local punk acts S.S.S and Cold Ones, this band take a rather different perspective on that branch of rock music. Salem Rages are all horror-show guitars and dark chord changes, given a sprinkling of Gray Matter-esque American punk; in fact if you’re struggling to envisage the final product, think Zombies on skateboards. The assumed names of its members are a further example of the band’s ethos: meet Messrs. Rag Payne, A.Dark Sun, Sunday Mourning and Roman Remains. I got the opportunity to chat vinyl, artwork and trick or treat with the latter two as they used their ‘daytime names’ – Dave and Russ.
We inevitably start by talking influences, and Dave eagerly lets me in on the secret regarding the specificity of the group’s origins: “Sometimes it’s not just bands, it’s things. There’s a film called Suburbia and there’s a bit in that film where there is a band called TSOL [True Sounds of Liberty]; we just liked about twenty seconds of it. We were like ‘that bit there, that’s what we want to do’. That look, that feeling, that’s what we wanted to aim for.” It makes sense. This is a band pushing a level of originality unlike most; they should at least have an influence equally as quirky.
Russ brings a little more of a musical backdrop to the band’s cultivation, however, citing the British-tinged late skate punk scene as an influence. “If you look at it in a hardcore timeline, it starts in 1983 when American punk bands slowed down a little bit and started taking in a few more influences. They started gelling hardcore aggression, speed and simplicity, with guitar elements which lend themselves to bands like Joy Division and Echo & The Bunnymen.”
Given the end product of this witches’ brew being something of an acquired taste, I ask if they have trouble with being pigeonholed into certain gigs? Dave tells me that this has thus far proved impossible: “We’re always the square peg in round holes on billings.” When I enquire whether this is a good thing, both the lads swiftly and emphatically reply in the affirmative – this is clearly a band enjoying their uniqueness. Their latest release then, an EP entitled Disturb Not The Sleep Of Death, of course follows this philosophy closely.
First editions of the vinyl record came encased in a crushed velvet sleeve and with several unique pieces of assorted paraphernalia associated with the band. This is the group’s prerogative, adding their spin to the DIY project, and Russ explained how this route presented itself: “We got a label from London not coming through on the promise of putting a record out. We thought, ‘to this point we’ve done everything off our own backs, why don’t we just pull together everything we’ve got.’” And so, a wonderful artistic opportunity was born.
Everything is now put together financially and artistically by the band and, as Dave explains, this is an aspect they are rather enjoying, given the slavish nature of record labels they had encountered whilst in other bands. “The last band I was in we had no artistic control, everything arrived to you already done. It takes all the fun away when they advertise you how they want you to be.” In keeping, then, with this ideal, the band’s next EP, entitled Our Halloween is set to be released on Flexi Disc (anyone remember those?!).
For future releases, the band are understandably unwilling to surrender this creative flair. Russ says: “This is the band where we’re going to do everything we couldn’t do in other bands and completely go for it,” before telling me they’d like to release an album… on VHS. So, when Dave adds to this by declaring, “Any idea goes,” I see that utterance as not just a summary of Salem Rages, but also of art itself. And, though it is often forgotten, that’s the point of it all, isn’t it?