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In Florence, Massachusetts, a small town ambitiously named after Florence, Italy because both places featured a thriving silk industry, Boy Harsher’s Jae Matthews and Augustus “Gus” Muller sit on the rickety wooden steps leading to their stone patio. It’s an old house in a quiet neighborhood in Western Mass; there’s only one other property on the block. “Dead quiet other than the crop duster that just flew overhead,” Muller describes the scene. “Pretty warm, beginning of fall. It’s a beautiful day. No clouds in the sky.” But is it a tranquil setting he’s describing, or the beginning of a horror film that will descend into madness and depravity? Considering the duo’s gothic sound, which straddles the line between darkness and light, pain and pleasure, psychosis and catharsis, either reading works.
Florence, Mass served as inspiration for the rural town setting in their short film The Runner, the musical couple’s 2022 slasher thriller, which they wrote, directed, produced and edited. The plot, which follows a confident, manic young woman as she develops a murderous thirst for ripping out human hearts, is also soundtracked by Boy Harsher’s signature blood-pumping darkwave. Besides their work in horror—they also provided a track for the latest film in the —Matthews and Muller have developed a global cult following, recruiting dance-addicted freaks in musty basements as well as nocturnal mammals at giant forest festivals. Their dedication to keeping things independent (they release on their own Nude Club imprint) and their reputation as hardworking sweethearts has led them to the mutant realm where pop and underground meet.
Clearly, Muller’s beefy ‘n’ creepy synth productions and Matthews’ breathy entreaties and hair-raising yelps have real resonance in DIY and beyond. Over the phone, CREEM spoke to Boy Harsher about making music with your partner without killing them, touring, cops, CREEM, and other things less interesting than CREEM.
CREEM: You’ve been on tour for months. Are you alive? Where’d you go?
GUS MULLER: A lot of the dates were places we’ve been before, but in June we went to Eastern Europe, which we had never done before. We did Slovenia, Slovakia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia. All of those places were really amazing to explore. Zagreb, Croatia really stood out, [we played] a really cool club by the river [Sava].
JAE MATTHEWS: We actually were on a tour bus for the first time in our musical career.
Any fucked up shit happen?
MATTHEWS: Somewhere in the middle of nowhere France at like 3 a.m. the tire exploded, so it was just, like, we totally got fucked. We still made the show; we were just so late.
Damn. Jae, I heard you're a deadhead.
MATTHEWS: I think it’s hard to publicly call yourself a deadhead because…so many 65-year-old men are gonna be like, “Really? You wanna prove it to me?” I really appreciate the beginning of bootleg culture. I think word of mouth is the most effective way of being a successful musician, because it means that there's a fan that trusts your songs enough to share them with someone they care about. For me, studying the Grateful Dead is a very important and humbling experience. Because now, especially, we’re taught to hustle all the time, and these really superficial standards are placed upon musicians: all your numbers on social media, tons of things that I don't have any control over. We are completely independent artists. We do not hire people to get our numbers up online or push us onto weird Spotify playlists. For me, the Grateful Dead is an example of a band that believed in what they were doing long enough to provide a lot of fulfillment. It ended, of course, super tragically, and I think that speaks to the way fame also really harms people.
Word on the street is you’re also a CREEM fan.
MATTHEWS: It’s a really good segue actually, because the only reason—this is maybe like, TMI—my beginnings with the Grateful Dead happened when I was in middle school. I was really a strange kid and I didn’t have a lotta friends, and I just thought, “Wow, maybe I should be a hippie. I like smoking weed and these high school hippies are cool and maybe they can be my friends.” It did not work out that way, but that’s when I started really getting into the Grateful Dead. Then I started getting into these older, stranger folk projects and CREEM kinda came outta that, because my only friend and I, we were both these weird little hippies and we would go to the one remaining CD store in the upstate New York area [where I grew up]. It’s gone now, which is really a bummer, but it was called The Last Unicorn. They had a collection of CREEM magazines and they were all vintage. You could buy them, but I was like 14 or 15 years old, so like, I wasn’t gonna buy a $50 magazine. But I’d be flipping through the pages and I’d get this feeling of, “Man, I wish I was there then.” For whatever reason in my little child lizard brain, I really identified CREEM with being a cool musician, being cutting edge or underground. And it’s only because of these very circumstantial experiences.
For whatever reason in my little child lizard brain, I really identified CREEM with being a cool musician, being cutting edge or underground
Gus, what about you? What was a formative moment for you as a kid with music?
MULLER: I skateboarded, so a lot of skate videos were really big for me. That’s kinda where I found a lotta music, or found an aesthetic that made sense to me. One of the first videos I saw was Birdhouse’s The End, it’s got that DJ Shadow song in it. Definitely no one I knew was listening to anything like that, so that was a huge discovery for me. It also has Queen’s “Under Pressure,” and the video just reframed it into more of this punk aesthetic, and it made sense to me.
As darkwave musicians—can “rock music” be “rock music” if it doesn’t have guitars?
MULLER: I think we’re a rock band for sure.
MATTHEWS: It’s funny because it makes me think about all the border crossings we have to do. Generally you don’t wanna say you play electronic music, I don’t know why. I feel like border cops just suck and they don’t get it. So it’s better to say you play rock music. Invariably, the question is like, “Oh, musicians eh? What kinda music?” So you just have to be like, “Yea, rock man.” There’s no more questions after that. But if you say electronic music, it’s like suddenly you're a criminal.
What? Cops don’t like electronic music?
MULLER: If you say you play electronic music, the van’s gettin’ searched. “Pull to the side, we're searching your car.”
MATTHEWS: When we went back to America this time, it was one of the craziest searches. They really were convinced that we were smuggling something. They bring out the dog, Gerti, the dog had a weird German name which always makes me feel kinda uncomfortable, and then they fucking searched everything. They were like, “If you have drugs on you, don’t lie.” And it’s like, “No one’s lying, man, just do what you gotta do so we can go to our show."
If you say you play electronic music, the van’s gettin’ searched. ‘Pull to the side, we're searching your car.’
Any advice for couples who make music together? How can they avoid murder-suicides?
MULLER: When things are super stressful we’ll do a hard cut off, and be like, we can’t work past 10 p.m. You can’t ask me any questions about work past this time.
MATTHEWS: Within the last couple years, outside of Boy Harsher, we are dealing with a lot of badness within my family and medical concerns. Life began to really become bigger than the band. We love it and it’s our livelihood, it’s our career, but our actual health and relationship is more important. The thing I envy in any couple that I recognize as a successful couple is that, not only are they very patient, but they’re obviously grateful for what they have. Because if you have found someone and you can figure out how to make something work, that is an incredibly special experience. We gotta hold onto it, right?
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.