DATE OF INTERVIEW: 25th January 2020
ALEXANDRA JAMES; ZACHARY JAMES
For decades now, ever since Black Sabbath appropriated a Hammer Horror styled aesthetic to marry their music with Satanic imagery, the Devil has been predominantly associated with the metal genre. However, LA’s Twin Temple are seemingly on a mission all of their own, to bring Satan into 50s/60s rock ’n’ roll, the original “devil’s music”, branded as it was by unhinged Christians of the day. The Dark Lord has returned home! And, refreshingly, there’s zero pretence or gratuitous provocation in what they do; rather, it’s a hundred per cent Satanically sincere, and all wrapped up in the form of gloriously entertaining revelry. With Twin Temple over in the UK for a handful of dates at the start of 2020, Metal Discovery met up with Alexandra and Zachary James, the band’s founding members, ahead of their show in Nottingham, for a thoroughly interesting natter about all things rock ’n’ roll and Satanic… and nipples…
METAL DISCOVERY: It’s a fantastic debut record, which I understand you released independently in the first instance, with 666 copies…
ALEXANDRA: [Laughs] You did your research, sir! [Laughs]
(Alexandra James on negotiating a record deal, and bonus nipple, with Rise Above's Lee Dorrian)
"...Lee was like, “I will see your one nipple and raise you a nipple!” We got two on the Rise Above release…"
Photograph copyright © 2018 Harry Eelman
Interview by Mark Holmes
MD: How did you hook up with Rise Above Records for the wider release? Was it Lee Dorrian who found you?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, he did. It all ended up in us meeting in a Victorian pub where the Great Train Robbery was planned, which felt like a really apt place to plan the release of our record. He’s great, he’s really artist friendly and he totally got what we were doing and was like, “I’m not gonna change this, I’m gonna let you do whatever you want.” In fact, our self-released record, we had a hell of a time getting one nipple on the cover distributed. It was impossible to get on Spotify. We were having to call all these different people to try and get the nipple on the cover. So Lee was like, “I will see your one nipple and raise you a nipple!” We got two on the Rise Above release…
MD: Is that what clinched the deal?!
ALEXANDRA: That’s what won the deal, yeah!
MD: I have to say, I particularly love the vintage sounding production…
ALEXANDRA: Thank you.
MD: It brings an air of authenticity to the songs. It’s like the antithesis of the over-produced, sterile Pro Tools productions you get on most records today. I gather you recorded everything on tape, which explains the whole analogue feel to the songs, but was it difficult to attain the precise retro sound you were after?
ZACHARY: Well, it started with the writing of the songs and we consciously referenced the arrangements and chord progressions from the period we were trying to reference. So it started there…
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I think a lot of people are like, “Yeah, if you record on tape, it’ll sound vintage.” It’s like, no, it’ll just sound like it was recorded on tape. We definitely, purposefully referenced a lot of chord progressions and compositions from the 50s and 60s and purposefully scaled it back. So, it really started with the songwriting process.
ZACHARY: But, that married with the production.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, and we had a guy that was very much in line with what we wanted to do. It was in his garage, actually.
ZACHARY: Yeah, a converted garage.
ALEXANDRA: He collects a lot of vintage gear. He had a lot of stuff that Elvis had at RCA that he recorded on. We wanted it to sound very organic and kind of fucked up; really like exactly what it sounds like - all of us in a room, pressing record and playing the song, and pressing stop on the tape machines.
MD: Apart from the backing vocals, I gather you tracked everything simultaneously so, in essence, it’s a live recording?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, what you hear is what you get.
MD: It’s phenomenal, really, in how great it sounds.
ALEXANDRA: Oh, thanks. Well, we wanted it to sound kind of imperfect, you know. To us, we’re human and perfection is boring. All of our heroes didn’t record these multi-track things; you can really hear the flaws in it and that’s what we wanted. There were definitely a lot of things we included where it was like, our drummer’s cymbal stand fell over at the end of one of the songs and it happened to be the better take, so we were like, “Oh, throw it in there.” [Laughs]
MD: And you opted for a mono mix, as well, which I think adds to the late 50s, early 60s authenticity you have in the songs themselves. Was that a decision you made from the start?
ZACHARY: We mixed in stereo first but it wasn’t sounding right, you know.
ALEXANDRA: It was like, “What is it; what’s wrong with this?” Actually, Zach said one morning, he woke up and, “You’ve got to mix it in mono.” I was like, “Ahhhh, that’s what it is!” [Laughs] I feel like it was a Satanic move because it’s very antinomian; it’s very much in opposition to the way everything’s done today. But, also, it was just out of love. A lot of our favourite records… you know, The Beatles in mono, it sounds better! The Beach Boys in mono…
MD: I know that some records used to be released in mono and stereo versions, and it used to say which at the top-right on the cover.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, we truly think it does sound better and, funnily enough, later, after we’d mixed it in mono, we happened to stumble across some LaVey writings where he was like, “Records are better in mono.”
MD: Oh, wow.
ALEXANDRA: Probably his contrarian stance like ours, but we’re like, “Oh, then it all works.” [Laughs]
MD: Was it important for you to have as authentic a sounding record as possible, not just from an aesthetic perspective to reflect the original period of the style of music, but also to help emphasise the sincerity of the Satanic themes in the songs?
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I mean, Satanism is so much about individualism and expressing yourself and being authentic to who you really are, I feel like if we were to auto-tune it or, you know, mess with the sound too much, it would really take away that humanity from it, which is what we’re really trying to express. So, I think it was very much in line with our Satanic ideals, but also, I mean, that’s the way all the records we idolise sound.
ZACHARY: Just trying to copy that.
ALEXANDRA: So, I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a massive rock record with a huge production, that sounds great too. But, for us, we just really wanted to make that record we had in our heads that we grew up kind of dreaming about as kids. And those are the records… like Otis Redding in a room, standing there with a microphone, with his band - there’s something so magical about that you can’t necessarily capture with other recording techniques.
MD: Yeah, I don’t think it would’ve worked as an overproduced Pro Tools record.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah! [Laughs]
MD: It does fit the themes of the record, as well, and helps emphasise those. Old rock ’n’ roll from the 50s and 60s was branded as the devil’s music by deranged Christians back in the day…
ALEXANDRA & ZACHARY: [Laughs]
MD: …which seems totally absurd now, because it was all so innocent, really. And there’s almost a kind of irony where you’re playing that style of music with Satanic themed lyrics, because it’s like come full circle. Despite the Satanic sincerity of what you do, was there any ironic intent there, too?
ALEXANDRA: Oh yeah, we don’t take ourselves too seriously… [Laughs] I mean, we’re as much laughing at ourselves…
ZACHARY: …as we are serious. You know, we care about the things we’re talking about, but it’s theatre, as well. It’s to have a good time.
MD: So never forgetting that it’s entertainment at the same time.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I mean, we definitely don’t take ourselves too seriously at all, and having a laugh at ourselves… I mean, we’re definitely self-aware and we want people to be laughing.
MD: I think when bands do sing about Satan and take themselves too seriously, then it can become too pretentious and devalued, almost.
MD: Out of interest, have you encountered any animosity for what you do?
MD: Obviously, nipple-gate, I guess…
ALEXANDRA: Nipple-gate was intensely crazy and I think it’s worse in America than it is in the UK. But, I mean, there’s nothing more blasphemous and sinful than a nipple! We had to go through three different streaming services and, “Oh, we won’t do porn.” It’s literally about one centimetre of nipple in the far corner, and it was really annoying because there are also weird cultural taboos around breast-feeding and just women bearing their nipples. And it’s like, I’ve seen guys with huger nipples and breasts than me! What’s the deal, you know?! It’s very sexist and I think being able to do that was very much about pushing back against the control of women’s bodies, like patriarchy has pushed for so long.
MD: Obviously, Satanism has been associated with the metal genre for decades now, both as a casual theme, and in a more genuine context, but do you think contemporary Satanism and its ideology is more suited to the style of music you play? Because, I mean, you get extreme metal bands, like black metal bands, singing about Satan… and I do love many of those bands…
ALEXANDRA: Us too.
MD: But I guess they have a very niche, listening audience, as the music’s not immediately accessible to people who don’t necessarily like metal. But I guess, what you do, is going to have a broader listening audience, so if you’re singing about something you really want people to pay attention to, then it’s perhaps more suited to what you do…
ZACHARY: By default, that might happen, but it was not the goal.
ALEXANDRA: No, and I don’t necessarily think that any form of music is more suited than another to Satanic ideology. I mean, the very fundamental, premise of Satanism is individualism and expressing yourself, and pushing back against social norms.
ZACHARY: There is no dogma.
ALEXANDRA: There is no dogma and, really, there is no Satanic Bible. Yes, LaVey wrote a book called ‘Satanic Bible’, but it’s not the end all and be all. It’s a living tradition; it’s meant to, you know, be adapted; it’s meant to change as the times change; it’s meant to be adapted to the individual, to individual experience. So, I think, any kind of music could be suited to Satanism.
ZACHARY: Yeah, it’s an honest expression and if it’s done in a certain way.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, I think as long as it’s true to the self and it’s true to what that individual is trying to express, that’s true Satanism. If that’s death metal, fuck yeah! [Laughs]
MD: Yeah, and with individualism being at the core and heart of Satanism, I guess it means it’s going to be an ever-evolving movement for what it means to each individual person.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, we probably have more in common with death metal and black metal than other genres, because we all love Satan.
MD: Very generally speaking, I think that metal fans are far more accepting of other genres of music than fans of other genres are of metal, so did you anticipate the attention you’ve had from the metal scene?
ZACHARY: No, we had no idea, you know. We had no idea.
ALEXANDRA: We had no plans.
ZACHARY: It makes sense now.
ALEXANDRA: Everyone we showed it to, in the beginning, said that this would go nowhere and that we would literally alienate absolutely everyone. Because they said, “Well, metal’s not gonna want these soft oldies that sound like crooners from the 50s.” And the vintage scene that’s going on, it’s very gospel driven; there’s a lot of vintage Christian themes because that’s the style of music that grew out of the Baptist churches in America. So it was literally, no one is gonna like this. We’re big record collectors, we love cult records and if I was flipping through some bands or whatever, and I found a dusty old record that was a Satanic 1950s rock band, I would lose my shit and be like, “Oh my god, give me this record!” You know, sort of just that rare find that we were dreaming of, that we saw in our minds that didn’t exist, and we just wanted to make it for ourselves, really.
MD: Would you say there’s a didactic dimension to what you do? Beyond entertainment, are you hoping to re-educate people of what it actually means to be a Satanist?
ALEXANDRA: No, no. I actually don’t think that being didactic is a goal for us, at all, because proselytising or educating is basically antagonistic to the Satanic philosophy. At the core of what we do, it’s really about expressing what we believe. So, if you believe that, that’s great; if you don’t, that’s great.
ZACHARY: If you’re fans, it doesn’t matter to us what you think.
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, we’re not attempting to convert anybody; to change anybody’s mind; to teach anybody anything. If they get something from what we do that’s useful to them, that’s a bonus.
MD: Yeah, I think I meant as a side-effect because, if you were being deliberately didactic, then you’d kind of be evangelistic, which is what Satanism stands against. I guess it could be a positive side effect of what your’re doing, that people can get a grasp on, okay, Satanism isn’t about… you know, like the burb you have on the album sleeve, where you make a point of saying Satanism isn’t about eating babies, or whatever…
ALEXANDRA: But if they think that we do, all the better! Be scared of me, because I am that witch. I think, you know, if there’s one thing that we’re very vocal about, that we feel very strongly about, it’s not Satanism per se, but I suppose it’s in line with our philosophy, and that’s being yourself, and inclusivity. And we’re very vocal about being against racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. All of that, if there’s one thing that we would like to impart is that we need to respect each other, for our common shared humanity, and get rid of…
ALEXANDRA: Yeah, to say it succinctly in a word. At the end of the day, if people can feel better about expressing who they are, by watching us express who we are, then that’s, honestly, the hugest reward for us as artists. We’ve had people come up to us and just be like, “Oh, I actually feel welcome at a rock show." You know, and for me, as a woman of colour, growing up in a rock ’n’ roll scene, I didn’t really have many people to look up to. It still is a very male-dominated scene, and I still butt heads with a patriarchal industry and misogynist industry, all the time, very much every single day. So I see it like a battle every time I make it on stage, and if it makes just one person - one little girl, one non-binary person, whoever it is - feel better about who they are, then that is what I feel like I’m here to do.
MD: An amazing goal.
ALEXANDRA: It’s a low key goal…