Having given the pop world U2 and the Corrs, one would think of black metal quicker than dark, vocals-laden electronic music when imagining the alternative side of Ireland’s music scene. That’s forgivable, after all James Kelly did disband relatively famous Irish black metal band Altar of Plagues to pursue a solo career as an electronic musician. Now based in London, Kelly is also a recent graduate of Red Bull Music Academy – having participated last year – wherein JUICE bothered him during lunch hour for a quick chat on the Irish scene and his gender-defying alias.
Ireland isn’t a scene we’re familiar with (except for the expected mainstream acts), especially when it comes to electronic music. Is there a scene to speak of there when it comes to that genre?
I might not be the best person to ask because I only started producing electronic music after I left. But I did have an interest when I was there and I won’t say it was enormous. There’s a big scene there for people going to nightclubs and parties. In clubs, there are usually local DJs and it’s rare that someone international comes in, especially where I come from. A lot of people DJ there but not so many producers, there’s some but not many.
You started making electronic music after you left the country, how did you transition from black metal to doing electronic music?
I just tried not to over think it and work instinctually and work from my gut. In terms of the transition, the reason I ended the band that I was in was because the difference was so big, that there was no way I could fit in the ideas I had, so I had to end that and begin a new project. That’s how WIFE began really. And yeah, like I said, I try to think of them as two different things even though they come from the same person. Just not worry too much about how I used to sound like and what it sounds like now.
Did you come into contact with electronic music first or black metal?
Electronic music. My earliest music memory was… I had a cousin who was really into grunge, he had like the long hair, the flannel shirts and stuff and I got a Nirvana tape from him. And my best friend growing up, his older brothers were into raving and they got me listening to people like The Prodigy and Leftfield, stuff like that. So, The Prodigy was my first ever tape, Music for the Jilted Generation, and that always stuck with me. So when I was growing up those two tapes almost represented that kind of two styles that I was always interested in the most.
Going back to Ireland, you mentioned that there a lot of DJs and clubs over there. Most of them don’t produce but when they do play, are they mostly mainstream stuff?
It was pretty mainstream. I mean in Ireland, electronic music means Daft Punk and deadmau5 and stuff like that, and maybe then someone like a little more underground but Ibiza kinda DJ; it gets big. People like Richie Hawtin, but nobody would be into stuff that’s a little bit more underground. I’m talking quite generally here, obviously everywhere there are scenes of smaller communities who are into more obscure music but it’s not as common or prevalent in Ireland as it would be in the UK or anywhere like that.
Is that why you left Ireland?
I left Ireland for university and like I said, when I moved from Ireland to London, all of a sudden I couldn’t make live music anymore because I live in a house and I could hear my neighbours on each side shouting and I could hear their conversations, so I couldn’t take out an acoustic guitar, not even like blast that or it would be too loud. So I started making music on headphones and a computer. I kind of went from there. But no, I left Ireland for university and I stayed away, accidentally. I don’t want to say Ireland doesn’t have a lot of opportunities but there are places other than Ireland that can offer a lot more opportunities in any sense, in terms of jobs of any nature and music and things like that.
Being someone who was in a band and someone who plays an instrument, does it help your electronic music production?
Definitely. That’s one thing I strive to do, I like to think the stuff I make is a marriage of acoustic music and digital music, so what I do when I’m making something is I’ll record a lot of live instruments and bring them into a computer and work with them digitally. It’s kind of like this hybrid of acoustic and digital music.
When you play, do you use actual instruments?
When I perform live, I don’t, but if I’m recording a WIFE track, I do. For my last record, I rented a cello. I never touched a cello let alone play it at the time. I just recorded lots of it and it ended up being the dominant instrument in my whole record.
Are you self-taught?
Everything I do I’m self-taught. I did piano lessons for three or four years, other than that, everything else I’m self-taught.
How did you fill up your RBMA application form? What do you think made them choose you?
I’m not sure because I was speaking about this to someone the other day and to tell the truth, I didn’t really put a lot of effort into the application. I don’t mean that as to suggest to dismiss people who did put in effort or whatever. But in this case for me, I don’t think this is like a job application where you have to think about it and say the right things. I really feel like it’s the type of application where you need to really be yourself because they are looking for people who are themselves. I would imagine it’s those people who try to overthink and try to tailor the interview to what they think Red Bull wants, I think they are the people who don’t get it because they’re being dishonest in a way. I don’t know. I’m sure my background in a metal band and my being active in electronic music makes me moderately interesting. And my willingness to collaborate might be appealing to them and all these kind of things. Being here now, it seems evident to me that they curate it based on people who share a similar attitude more so than stylistic similarities because everybody here has this kind of positive approach to collaboration and everyone’s enthusiastic and there are no egos. Everybody is just open about everything.
Speaking of being here, how has it helped you with whatever you’re doing now?
It’s just been so inspiring every single day. It’s a big mix of stuff from just really practical advice and you might pick up anecdotes. Even during these lectures, when people share their anecdotes, their experience ends up being really important kind of wisdom that you will take onboard and know for the rest of your life. Or just practical stuff in the studios, having facilities downstairs and really high-end mixing engineers who I can bring vocals to and they can show me how I can really use them… you know high-level things like that. And then the personal relationships I’m building with people here and I have no doubt in my mind that everyone that has participated in this will go on to have amazing careers in whatever they choose to pursue.
Your stage name is interesting. WIFE, is it an acronym since it’s all in capital letters?
I like capitalising it because I think it works, maybe because the symmetry of it – its four letters. I like the idea of playing with gender identity and people’s expectations, stuff like that. I won’t say it’s political but I’d say it’s rooted in that kind of thing. It’s not something that I like to talk about too much because I feel like it is what it is and I don’t wanna invite [attention]. You know if I open that door, I might end up in a lot of conversations about gender and things like that which are kind of long and complicated and would often come across the wrong way. Basically, it comes down to that and just the very fact that I like the word and how it looks and everything like that.
Is that something you discuss in your music then?
A little, like my record I just put out, lyrically it’s quite based on how people present themselves and how sometimes people present themselves as something they’re not, like how people use a lie and misrepresentation for personal gain. I believe this kind of things are really common lately especially in a world where you can have an online self and real life self. And so many of us only know our online self, and you can make that anything you want it to be. You can take the best picture of yourself and you can research the coolest things to say and that’s like your online self. Your real self might just be a totally different person and I feel like people often, you know, they often lie in that way, I think that’s very common now.
Your music is neither for the club nor is it for a dingy gig. But the first music you truly loved was The Prodigy, and that’s quite dance-y even though it’s hardcore. Are you gonna explore that direction?
I do wanna push a bit more energy into the songs. I like techno and fast music in a certain environment. But for me to write it, I don’t find it inspiring to create. So, I’m slowly trying how I can keep music that has faster tempos more interesting for me – the songs that I like are sort of slow and they take their time whereas I think music that’s that pace feels like it’s in a hurry. But it is something that I want to explore in the next record, something with more energy.
As someone who plays instrument and does music production via laptop, do you feel like these days it’s too easy for people to create music?
It’s kind of cool, I mean the way I think about music instruments, they were never hard to grasp. Anyone could always get their hands on a guitar, I feel like if somebody had a passion in them to make music, they’re gonna do it by whatever means necessary. Even though the easiest thing in the world now, if you decide you’re gonna make a song, you can go on The Pirate Bay and 20 minutes later, you have Ableton and be able to use it for free. So in that sense, every time someone’s gonna come by a guitar at some point in their life and if it’s in you to make the music, it’s gonna come out of you by whatever means necessary. But other times, people are just messing around with it, so I don’t feel like it makes it anymore competitive or anything or that it makes it more difficult. One thing that you can do with digital music that you couldn’t do with, say a guitar, is that you can create a fully formed idea with drums and voice and music all on your own, which is obviously more difficult if you’re using live instruments. So in that sense, it makes things a little bit more competitive.
What’s the one thing that you can take away from being a student here at RBMA?
I’d remember this for the rest of my life and I’ll always be honoured to have become part of this, because you know, 6,000 people applied, 60 picked and it’s not a lottery, they don’t just put their hand in a hat. They pick you based on your skill and ability and that’s a flattering thing when you look at those numbers. Everything I learnt here will be with me for the rest of my career.