No Clever Title: An Interview With Justin Symbol

justin symbol

I’ll admit, I don’t know a goddamn thing about EDM or industrial music.  Not my bag.  But Justin Symbol is from Stamford, he’s playing at Seaside on 12/13, and hey, we are the fucking scene, right?  So here I am interviewing Justin Symbol.

The first thing I did to acquaint myself with Symbol’s work was to go to his website and watch the video for his eponymous band’s  song “Purgatory.”  The imagery was intense and disturbing, as were the lyrics — for instance, “There’s a rapist in me / And he’s lonely,” to a scene of Symbol spanking a chick and then being asphyxiated with a plastic bag by said chick.  Eeeeeee….

But in spite of the creepy feeling I got from the video, the song was pretty fucking good.  I listened to a few more tunes and while “Purgatory” was my favorite, I understand why this music appeals to people — and how Symbol managed to get founding Marilyn Manson guitarist Daisy Berkowitz involved with his just-released album V Ω I D H E A D.  His music is unnerving but hypnotic, ugly but also thoughtful.  His goal is to expose the sickening parts of himself and his audience that we’d all really rather just turn away from — but I dare you to go outside and smoke a cigarette when he takes the Seaside stage in his leather thong.  I bet you’ll be right there, watching the whole fucking thing.

Alternative Control: Is this the same band that came to Rack n Roll to play with (my former band) Pink Missile a few years ago, or is it a new incarnation?

Justin Symbol: No, that was BLACKBOMBS, a prior band I was in where I was handling bass and programming duties.

AC: What is the band’s songwriting process like?

JS: I write with my bandmates, usually one other bandmate and I lock ourselves in a room and write and emerge with a demo. For our album V Ω I D H E A D it was basically me and the keytarist Baba Yaga. For future stuff I’m currently working on, it’s me and Matt Minion. Sometimes it will start with lyrics or a riff or melody that comes into my mind and a beat on my drum machine just to keep time. We flesh out a rough idea and then bring it to the rest of the band, where it will morph into something bigger as other people add their touch.

Often the songs change a bit after we’ve tried them out live a few times as well. I don’t like to commit something to tape until we’ve tried it out live. That’s the real test of good songwriting!

AC: From where do you draw your dark lyrical topics?

JS: My lyrics are usually pretty heavily based in philosophy and existential thought, but boiled down using visual and lyrical metaphors that I hope are more common and people can understand and relate to easier. For instance in “Control” I’m asking myself, “Is it easier to control or be controlled? You think you are such a rebel, a black sheep, and a leader, but in the grander scheme maybe you’re just a slave.” This is a pretty simple question on the surface but if you really apply this to every aspect of your life it might cause you to think twice.

The horrors of the world (terrorism, school shootings) may be inspiring in that they serve as a wake-up call for people who are immersed largely in a digital social media/infotainment bubble. I talk about that in “Digital Penetration,” where the song title is literally a metaphor for being raped by digital media. The question I’m asking is which is more real, the event which caused us to snap out of the trance, or the trance itself? Which is more invasive? And I’m not preaching that I have the right answer to that either, because I don’t. Often I’m asking myself these questions, through song. I hope that my lyrics will merely provoke people to think deeper about their reality.

AC: The video for “Purgatory” is very well-done.  Can you tell me a little about the production process?

JS: A lot of people ask about how I make these videos…”Purgatory” was a very challenging one in particular.  Soon I will release a behind the scenes video for “Purgatory” where I go into more detail about the process of making it. We were originally going to shoot it at Letchworth, an abandoned insane asylum complex in upstate NY. Because of weather, budget and other obstacles, I ended up doing the “Control” there instead and pushed “Purgatory” back a year.

We decided to film it in a church instead because of the religious and occult themes. All the churches we approached refused, so that was another challenge.Finally one accepted and we rented it out with a whole camera and makeup crew and a ton of incredible gear. It was ultimately shot over 5 days in 5 different locations! We did shoot one scene in a different abandoned asylum, so that became a recurring theme.

Other scenes, the one where I’m fighting/having rough sex with the goth chick, and the one where I’m drinking whiskey in front of a TV, those were actually filmed in a dance studio that we made to look like an abandoned house!! So it was really a lot of scheduling and budget challenges, and it was very difficult for the director Jeff Turick to pull this all together on a shoestring budget. He really did a fantastic job!

AC: How did you get hooked up with Daisy Berkowitz, who plays guitar on several of the V Ω I D H E A D tracks and appears as the most normal-looking person in the “Purgatory” video ?

JS: Daisy and I met through a mutual friend, a producer named Thee Pause. The two of them were doing this project Daisy Kids and they wanted me to audition as the singer. I went in their hotel room, got drunk and screamed into a microphone for several hours. By the end we had a few demos and we had established a friendship. The project never really came together but I kept in touch with Daisy and eventually asked him to play on a few of the songs on our album. These were songs that were missing that extra something. He really added a soul to those tracks and it was a pleasure working with him!

AC: For people who aren’t familiar with your band, what can they expect from your stage show?  I’ve heard rumors of leather underwear…?

JS: Haha! Our stage show is very wild and theatrical. Props and/or backing videos may serve to enhance the meaning of the individual songs. It is constantly changing and evolving, but yes it sometimes involves a degree of nudity and/or fetish-wear on my part.

I do this because I am representing the character of the King of Negativity. This is a person with massive ego and low self-esteem. It is the worst part of myself and maybe also the most compelling. It is a defense mechanism that was built up against the world. Performing nearly naked is a manifestation of extreme insecurity. I’m saying “I don’t think I’m good enough so I’m going to whore my body just so you like me!” It’s me being honest about how I feel and where I’m at, and that honesty makes the performance more powerful.

AC: You’re in New York City now, but you grew up in Stamford, right?  How have your days back in CT led up to where you are now?

JS: I moved to Stamford, CT when I was 11 after my parents split up. I think it strongly affected my development in the sense that I was in a dark place and entered an environment where I felt a strong pressure to conform and fit in. I rebelled against that and latched onto alternative and rock music. I was alienated by the preppy culture of Connecticut with its emphasis on wealth, the fake smiles and the blonde girls who I was told I should be into but wasn’t. I wanted to be the freaky outcast yet at the same time I was actually quite popular and got along with most everybody — so a lot of it was really in my head.

I’ve found over the years that reality is often smoke and mirrors. You see what you want to see, based on your own fears and insecurities, or your own biases. I went to my high school reunion the other day and everyone was completely warm and friendly. All the people who in my mind had disliked or judged me were completely the opposite, and everyone was excited about what I’m doing now. So really, I don’t know how much of that was in my head and how much was real. I am excited to perform (in Stamford) again and maybe find more resolution in my journey!

Find Justin Symbol online here.

Upcoming Justin Symbol shows:

  • 12/12: Championship Bar in Trenton, NJ
  • 12/13: Seaside Tavern in Stamford, CT, joined by Headgun and Mantyhose
  • 12/31: Blackthorn 51 in Elmhurst, NY