Boy Harsher realised their new album was a soundtrack, so they made a film too

Considering the dystopian pop duo’s film background, their latest album is a nice fit

‘I got burned out within a span of five years,’ says Matthews of her screen career. Photograph: Jordan Hemmingway

‘I got burned out within a span of five years,’ says Matthews of her screen career. Photograph: Jordan Hemmingway

 

In 2017 Jae Matthews, of dystopian pop duo Boy Harsher, watched her world fall apart twice in the space of several months.

The great unravelling began with the sudden death of her stepfather. This was followed by the news that her mother, with whom she’d had a sometimes difficult relationship, had been diagnosed with dementia. Somehow, amidst these traumas, she and her artistic and romantic partner, Augustus Muller, found the strength to carry on.

“It was a moment where we had to pause everything and deal with that grief. And to reevaluate what was going on with my mom. Having a parent with dementia is such a challenging and unknown reality,” says Matthews. “I think it’s going to become more common. People are living much longer. Boomers are the first generation to have to reconcile with being older and having brains that will become weakened.”

Matthews poured her anguish into Boy Harsher’s 2019 LP, Careful – a masterpiece-in-miniature that recalled 1980s synth-pop, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and the Blade Runner soundtrack. But now, after two years of lockdown, a life-changing medical prognosis (see below) and what feels like decades of isolation, she and Muller are ready to try something different.

And “different” truly is the word for their third full-length album. The Runner is a tour de force of post-apocalyptic electronica, that, on numbers such as Give Me A Reason and Tower, pairs Matthews’s Kate Bush-Goes-Cyberpunk vocals with addictively chilly melodies. However, it’s also something else in that it is the score for their first film – a low-budget splatterfest (likewise called The Runner) which is to stream exclusively on horror website Shudder.

We have some sense of film-making because we both went to film school
 

“When all the songs were complete, it felt like a soundtrack,” says Matthews. “Each song felt so varied. Once we had the idea to pitch it as an OST we decided we actually wanted to make the movie that we’re fantasising about around in the songs.”

Boy Harsher’s music suggests, at maximum velocity, a sci-fi nightmare oozing through your headphones. Yet in some ways Matthews and Muller are rather traditional. As a synth duo, they are standard bearers for a genre that goes all the way back to Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. And which, in the US, has metamorphosed into the slightly adjacent category of his ‘n’ hers electro pop, as epitomised by outfits such as Ms Mr, Yacht, Sofi Tucker, Matt and Kim, Poliça and others.

These groups, if critically adored, have rarely broken through to any mainstream degree. With Boy Harsher, however, there is a feeling the big-time – or, at least, the medium-sized time – may be knocking. Their grand introduction to global audiences was supposed to have happened in 2020, when they were due to tour Europe. That run included a Dublin Button Factory date that would have almost certainly have sold out had Covid not intervened.

They’ve also been heralded by taste-maker journals such as Pitchfork and Stereogum. “It’s easy to imagine these tracks playing well to the goth clubs of the world,” said Pitchfork of Careful. “But it’s chiseled and streamlined in a way that suggests it might also slip into the cracks of a techno set.” “Gloomy, pulsating synth music,” was Stereogum’s approving take.

Kris Esfandiari in The Runner (2021)
Kris Esfandiari in The Runner (2021)

That The Runner represents a fresh chapter is made clear by the trailer for the accompanying movie. It stars their musician friend Kris Esfandiari as a nameless protagonist fleeing a faceless evil. And it conjures effectively with the ghosts of The Blair Witch Project, Twin Peaks and Evil Dead.

The plot is under wraps but the directors promise it “explores lust, compulsion, and the horrific tendencies of seduction”. The trailer opens with a woman driving through the deep dark woods of western Massachusetts (Matthew and Muller shot it in the Berkshires region, close to Vermont).

Next we see her standing amid the trees, her mouth streaked in blood. “It’s going to be alright,” a voice whispers. Things are very clearly not going to be alright.

 “We have some sense of film-making because we both went to film school,” says Matthews. “I worked on films for a while. This one was super low-budget. I wouldn’t say we were flying by the seat of our pants. We were maybe not totally prepared for how intense the project was doing to be.”

Had it not been for Covid and the lockdown The Runner would probably never have come to pass. Boy Harsher toured all the way through to March 2020. And when the world as we knew it went into deep freeze, they, like the rest of us, suddenly had time on their hands. Obviously the past 24 months haven’t been easy. Still, living in the deep New England countryside, they feel they were comparatively lucky. Many, many people went through a lot worse.

“Our experience with Covid was pretty mundane,” says Muller. “I mean, we were in rural Massachusetts, where Covid wasn’t really a problem. We had all this time and we didn’t have a lot of direction.”

There was one major setback. Bang in the middle of the pandemic, as plans for The Runner were taking shape, Matthews was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “A lot of what I was doing during the lockdown was just like processing my feelings on that,” she says.

What’s iconic about David Lynch is that you can make something very simple and mundane unsettling
 

What was it like suffering a private health scare as the world was going through a very public one? “It was totally bizarre,” she says. “And wild timing. Luckily, we weren’t on tour and so I was able to be home, go to the hospital here and stay for a little bit. The only lingering effects would be that now I’m on medication that weakens my immune system. And in the new Covid world, it is a little bizarre to, like, go out there knowing I don’t have full defence. [In terms of touring], it certainly has made it more complex.”

Matthews grew up in upstate New York, near Utica (population 60,000). She was 16 and had just started to going to punk shows in Rochester and Buffalo when her her father, a Methodist minister, died. She’s already had a difficult relationship with her mother, who battled alcoholism through her life. Music became her way of channelling her negative feelings.

Muller is from Northampton, a liberal motherlode in Massachusetts which has one of the United States’s highest proportion of LGBT residents (the couple currently live on the outskirts). They met in Savannah, Georgia, where they were both studying at film school.

Covid allowing, the duo hope to resume touring too (and are eager to book an Irish date)
Covid allowing, the duo hope to resume touring too (and are eager to book an Irish date)

With a background in cinema, Boy Harsher’s journey from recording studio to screen is not as far-fetched as it might appear. Their music, moreover, has always had a cinematic component. Michael Mann’s Heat and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive were among the influences baked into Careful in terms of mood and aesthetics. The Runner, meanwhile, evokes the lean and mean post-modern horror of Ari Aster and Robert Eggers – and the American pastoral surrealism of David Lynch, who of course reimagined picket fence USA as a hellscape hiding in plain view.

“What’s iconic about David Lynch is that you can make something very simple and mundane unsettling,” says Muller. “That’s something definitely we are interested in. If you look at the trailer we’ve just released [for The Runner]. Someone walks into a bar. To be able to put so much curiosity and tension into something so simple is what we’re striving for.”

After film school Muller and Matthews dabbled with careers in the movie industry. Muller worked as a production assistant on short features. And Matthews was second unit director on a number of indie productions. These included Christine, the 2016 biopic of Christine Chubbuck, a 1970s news anchor who took her life on air (and who was portrayed by Rebecca Hall).

Music and cinema have a certain amount in common, they say. But there are profound differences, too. Film-making, in their experiences, offers fewer opportunities for self-expression.

“I got burned out within a span of five years,” says Matthews of her screen career. “You are devoting your whole life and all your energy in order to make this one piece come alive – the movie.

“It’s exhausting. Especially because it is an industry just built on exploitation. Not just worker exploitation. Just even the nature of creating a story with humans on screen in itself is exploitation. Music – I came to it very differently. We started super, super DIY. Music began for me as something that was very exploratory and open.”

Boy Harsher began after the pair had connected romantically (for a while early on Muller had lived in Matthews’s attic). They’d actually played together on an earlier project, Teen Dreamz, which that fell apart after they had a row backstage and temporarily split. Since reconvening as Boy Harsher they’ve succeeded in balancing the personal and the artistic. It isn’t always easy. When it works, it is immensely rewarding.

 “Finding boundaries is hard,” says Muller. “We can definitely get overworked and overwhelmed. But a strength of our music is that we can dive into something so heavily and work on it and put everything we’ve got into it. I feel only a couple or a real close relationship can do that.”

“We are truly, really successful partners,” says Matthews. “Sometimes it’s incredibly difficult. Especially when there is an endless amount of work and the only thing you can do is yell at one another. But we’re getting better at it.”

A busy year awaits. The Runner is sure to win new fans. Covid allowing, they hope to resume touring too (and are eager to book an Irish date). They’ve also been thinking about what they would like to do next. They aren’t adverse to writing again for the screen. With their song Fate recently featured on SyFy Channel killer doll caper Chucky, their appetites are officially whetted.

“If there’s a director out there who is reading this Irish Times article . . .,” says Matthews. “If Julia Ducournau from France who did [art-house body horror hit] Titane is looking for composers, we’re here and we’re ready.”

The Runner by Boy Harsher is released January 21st on Nude Club/City Slang. The film of the same name premieres on Shudder January 16th.

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