Thy Slaughter on medieval fantasy, Soft Rock and PC Music
In 2014, Bronze appeared.
Shared in the SoundCloud era of PC Music and featured on the pioneering label’s inaugural compilation, PC Music Vol.1, for almost a decade Bronze – with its gloriously giddy pop and singular ancient coin as artwork – along with a remix of Life Sim’s IDL – remained the only artefacts existing in the enigmatic Thy Slaughter realm.
That was until this year, when the project – made up of long-time PC Music conspirator EASYFUN (a.k.a Finn Keane) and label founder Alex ‘A. G.’ Cook – released two double singles followed by their debut album Soft Rock. Arriving in the 10th year of PC Music and marking one of the final new releases on the label – which announced that after 2023 it would no longer be putting out new music, there’s a timeliness to the Thy Slaughter debut.
As a project that spans the breadth of PC Music’s existence Soft Rock feels like a fitting emblem of the label’s evolution and legacy: from the album’s collaborations with fellow PC Music-affiliated artists – including Charli XCX, SOPHIE, Alaska Reid and Caroline Polachek – to the sonic combination of pop and rock sensibilities. Not to mention the playful lore of Soft Rock, which hones in on the distinct, imaginative atmospheres that PC Music artists have always so intricately and amply crafted. For the Thy Slaughter duo, a shared interest in fantasy and medieval history underpins the project, with Thy Slaughter universe, then, acting as a space for them to gleefully revel in this mystical lore. Alongside the album, which interweaves motifs from ancient Roman and Greek mythologies with medieval references, there’s a narrative quest which has been interactively developed through a ‘Quest & Answer’ series on the PC Music Discord.
We caught up with Keane (who in a wild recent turn of events has been accused by EasyJet of emulating the company’s branding with EASYFUN) and Cook earlier this month as they prepared to release their album to discuss PC Music, medieval fantasy and the different collaborations on Soft Rock.
How did Thy Slaughter begin as a project?
A. G. Cook: Finn and I have been working on music in different forms for a long time. He’s probably my longest collaborator in a consistent way, making music in different forms from odd band projects at school and then on to various proto-PC Music stuff and even with PC [Music], EASYFUN was one of the first releases. Then we worked together on some of the Hannah Diamond and Charli XCX stuff, and then others. We’ve done a lot of collaboration in different forms and Thy Slaughter originally was a vehicle for this track Bronze that we had. Bronze was in the particularly hyperactive SoundCloud era of PC Music where there were just different artists names dropping with no explanation, really, other than one artwork. I have a memory that that week was right before Kane West and just after some other thing, it was intentionally quite jarring. Bronze was this track we had with a chord progression that feels like an Escher staircase – it confuses you and it’s still really catchy. Then we settled on this one bronze coin as a historical artefact and that set us off into thinking about it being a band project. What’s so interesting about the album is that some of the songs have been written in the time from Bronze ‘til now in various forms, and it dips in and out of our other musical collaborations. Four or five years ago we were like, ‘Actually, Thy Slaughter is this sound, we’re trying to do these extreme contrasts between our interest in pop music and rock music’. There’s a lot of songs that really have stood the test of time to our own collaborations. I think we’ve enjoyed the historical feel of it. Because actually, it’s a genuinely longstanding band project.
Finn Keane: Yeah, if I remember correctly, I actually think the way it started was Charli XCX had just reached out to you about working with PC Music generally. And we were like, ‘We should write a song for Charli’. Then we ended up writing Bronze and it went off in this other direction. It would have been 2014 or 2013. Initially, it was the enjoyment of it being a really sugary, light track and then having a really dark name. Then the way the whole song ends, with a horrible distorted growl. It seemed funny to imagine if that distorted growl then turned into a whole album project. Then we had a song called Bullets. Both of us were into this Steve Albini letter that he wrote to Nirvana just before they started working on In Utero and it’s really funny, him laying out all his really extreme punk ethics. But the bit that was more relevant to us was him talking about working really, really quickly and trying to catch the charisma or enthusiasm of a band rather than it being completely perfect. Obviously, that was very self-consciously departing from the Nevermind sound. When we started working on Bullets, we were very much like we’re just going to do this quickly. If there’s a mistake, keep it in. This is out of time. Great. This clicks here. Great. Keep it. I think we did that in a day. What’s been funny about this whole project is that some of these songs are now almost seven years old. With most of the songs, we’ve made most of the key decisions in a day. We’ve tried to complete things really quickly and allow things to be a bit messy. That’s really been key to the whole project.
Was there a particular point, over the past almost decade of making tracks for this project, where you decided you wanted to do the debut Thy Slaughter album?
AC: For me, there was a turning point with the exact time period of the last 10 years and PC which included this big turning point with streaming in general. The first years of PC, streaming barely existed – or it did, but it was quite niche. People cared about free downloads on SoundCloud or there’d be a lot of people talking about MP3s. In that headspace, I was really not into albums for a while other than just being conceptual frameworks or eras – like, ‘Oh it’s the next Rihanna era’. Then there was the proliferation of streaming and that real deluge of new music and new things constantly. Subconsciously, with that happening, I started to really enjoy albums, what they meant for speaking directly to listeners and doubling down on the things that I always liked about albums – this contained concept and universe for it. It’s something that we then started to play with as a foil for Thy Slaughter – even the rollout to have these double singles as A and B sides. It’s slightly anachronistic. There’s obviously no B side on a Spotify stream, but this idea that there’s always a bit more context, there’s a bit more thoughtfulness – it’s not just X and Y, it’s this weird combination or space in between these two things it could be. It really helped us to look at all the songs in dialogue with each other. We’ve had this notion of a Thy Slaughter album for quite a while, at least when we were starting to be like, okay, we’re finishing the songs in this style, it will feel underwhelming to just have it as some other EP format or something. So let’s make an epic but tight album. Personally, that is also related to why I did two A. G. Cook debut albums. And also, Finn, how you’ve done the most recent EASYFUN EP set too is related to both the extremes but also trying to allude to something bigger than one track or or one stream, bigger than its parts in a way.
FK: Completely. We’ve had these songs for so long. Often what happens with any artist’s album cycle is that you’re writing for like two years and then you put it all out and whatever you’ve written in those two years goes on the album. Whereas both me and Alex have always been really interested in this idea of a really short album, but each song is really considered. That’s something we tried to do: taking the songs we were most excited about for the longest amount of time and putting them all on one album, and then hopefully [making] it quite concise.
AC: It’s quite a luxury to do that!
FK: Exactly, everyone would love to do that. We’ve both been putting out our own music and working with other artists so it’s naturally happened like that. There was a moment when we were collecting together songs that we really still loved and it felt like this is actually a nice concise album where we care about each of these songs. They each have quite a distinct starting point and then to finish them all in quite a quick timeframe as well. That was a fun way of unifying it into an album. That was quite a key part of it.
"SOPHIE kept saying “more Taylor Swift in the delivery of your vocal take” and I was like, ‘Wow, OK. That’s a tall order for me’" – EASYFUN
You also have this amazing lore around the album – with each of the release drops and the ‘Quest & Answer’ on the PC Music Discord – and I wondered if this is something that you’ve been developing over the years along with the tracks?
FK: One of the things initially with Thy Slaughter is that we’re both into this weird fantasy and all fantasy intersecting with medieval history.
AC: Also intersecting with pop music as a natural bedfellow, I think it’s quite funny. I wouldn’t call it fantasy by any means but I think all PC Music releases are [doing that] in their own way, whether it’s purely visual or someone wanting to build out their own world. I don’t love the term world building, when it’s hit over someone’s head with a hammer when they read about an album. I always try to think of it in a more atmospheric way. Some of the most effective world building is something like Twin Peaks where everyone understands that it’s an atmosphere, that it’s sort of the real world but it could not be. PC has had many very personal takes on that sort of thing. For an album like [Soft Rock], we’re already referencing some rock music, some of this historical fantasy stuff, even Spinal Tap and so on. We were trying to do this epic album and so we were like let’s roll out some sort of lore, even though it is contradictory and paradoxical. Let’s actually double down on something that has the tone of a fantasy epic.
When we were writing some of the songs quite a while ago, we weren’t really thinking of any of that stuff. The songs are written as quite pure songs, in a sense, but there is always that tension of the extremes like hard and soft, electronic and acoustic. It’s fun to project those back onto the historical fantasy notions of good and evil with this tragic heroic journey. It’s been really easy to throw that onto different things because the music already had such a reach to it. And it comes imbued with a sense of like failure as well. There’s a journey in some of the lyrics anyways. A lot of the songs are written by the two of us together in different combinations. But with the last two songs – the second last is one that Finn pretty much did by himself. And the last one Fountain is one that I pretty much did myself. But we were thinking about this tragic, silly, heroic fantasy thing. And our track with Caroline, we share a lot of mutual interests and references and her visual world is obviously incredible. With that song, it was quite near the end of the process and we were like ok let’s have someone like Caroline in the underworld. I’ve really enjoyed trying to quite approximately put some of those known themes into something that’s focused as pop music and see where it’s sort of gone. Since the pandemic, we’ve also individually got more into the whole notion of fantasy literature and culture.
FK: It’s interesting with the track names and the nature of Thy Slaughter, there’s always been this dark, archaic feeling to it. In general, during Covid Alex got very into Dungeons and Dragons and I got into Tolkein, particularly Tolkein’s maps. Then we had this idea of an album being like a quest with the final song being a weird destination that may or may not exist. And having a map leading towards that, with each of the songs being a point in the journey. That all sounds very pretentious but it was more a fun way of structuring it.
AC: What’s nice too, is that it’s been a sense of maps, rather than literal. With the Discord, you can get these crazier dialogues happening and people can come up with their own theories. There’s always been tons of easter eggs and red herrings in PC Music websites and projects. So it already comes with this ‘is it a riddle? Is it a myth? Is it bullshit?’ quality, which I think is really nice and chaotic.
It feels like there’s a prominent crossover between pop and experimental music and medieval fantasy worlds right now.
AC: Definitely, there is a whole larger movement at play. I think it’s also because of how the mainstream is positioned right now. Compared to previous eras of pop culture there’s a less dominant mainstream and a lot of the subcultures are huge. But at the same time, you have a lot of pop stars getting into rock music or using guitars and wanting to have a live band. And you also have a lot bands who used to turn their back on pop music being really poptimist and wanting to work with pop producers. So there’s this strange mix up happening, it’s complex. I do think it’s also related to this balance between a strong mainstream and really strong subcultures and people having to reinvent themselves quickly and aim for almost novelty contradictions. There’s an amazing clip I saw recently, I don’t know what year it was, of Foo Fighters and Deadmau5 performing at the same time on duelleing stages. What’s funny is, in a certain era, that was pure nonsense in a Vegas kind of way. Whereas now, I think that’s pretty normal. Not to get too EDM historian but Steve Aoki came from the scene of hardcore bands that brought early Daft Punk to LA. Especially in America and the UK there have been all these weird funny moments where those genre mix ups have been a big part of music moving forward. Fantasy, rock and pop and also commercial aesthetics, it’s already a big melting pot.
Also, just to quickly add why PC has done the Halloween shows and live streams. It’s been a really interesting bridge to let people into another way way of thinking about performance anonymity. Everyone’s like, oh, yeah, we know Halloween. Everyone’s cool with that. I feel like suddenly the mainstream is down for total folkloric mythic weirdness.
Speaking of the Halloween show, that was one of the first Thy Slaughter live shows – how was it?
FK: It was great. It was our second show, we did one in LA. It’s been really fun. It’s been interesting thinking about these songs because a lot of them are quite produced, we use a lot of synths and stuff like that. We were both very much on the same page about making sure that if we were going to do these songs live as a band that we keep it really, really minimal. We don’t try to recreate the recording completely and have loads of backing track and a DJ at the back. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it with an incredibly simple arrangement of drums, bass guitar, almost like an early Nirvana setup. That was a really fun process of reducing the songs to their core elements. That was a really exciting challenge to try and fit within that very limited palette.
AC: It’s funny because for a PC live project to have no backing track allowed is a nice challenge. We were also very lucky for each show. We had a different drummer, but we had Ryan [Mcdiarmid] in LA and Russell [Holzman] flew in for London. We were working with virtuoso drummers.
The album features tracks with SOPHIE and Ellie Rowsell, Charli XCX, Alaska Reid and Caroline Polachek – what was the process like for these collaborations?
FK: It was very different. With Immortal I remember we started the song and very early on as we were writing we were like oh, this feels quite Caroline in some way. The melody has this…
AC: … celtic lilt!
FK: Yeah! Then I remember we were channelling Caroline more with writing the lyrics in various ways. “Baying at my heart” and things like that felt like the kind of things that she might write. Even just in a general way with that one, we were very much aware that even if she wasn’t going to be on it we were just thinking of her style.
AC: It’s really nice channelling people while writing sometimes anyway.
FK: Exactly. You’re doing it all the time anyway, with friends or people you collaborate with often.
AC: Heavy started as Charli and I just writing fast and freeform. It had a different version, and it was always something we liked. I remember sending it to Finn at the time and you were like, ‘Oh, this really works’. Especially with Charli who’s so capable of writing more songs than you can even remember. So that one we revisited, it was an old demo. Bullets was written in a writing camp for Charli from even before that, and that’s why we ended up writing it with a large list of people: Noonie [Bao], Patrick Berger, Alma, us, Charli… which is a really classic writing camp. Lost Everything is probably the most interesting, with the long journey of it. I was still living in London. We were flying into LA for a month to write a song in different sessions – pure LA session style.
FK: It was 2016. I think it was my first trip out. We had a pop session booked with someone else and then got bailed on. So we just made these chords and this synth sound and then SOPHIE texted us like, ‘I’m in the area’. We already had the music bit done. She came in to work as an LA topliner and really captured that spirit of SOPHIE’s songwriting that is really undervalued, the softer side to SOPHIE’s output.
AC: You can really hear it. There’s this melodic lyric style that, for me personally, SOPHIE is famous for. But I think compared to her sound design and amazing synth and drum work, it’s underrated. You can feel the roots of it in like Pet Shop Boys or Prince where it’s kind of overflowing with words that have a colloquial swing to them. It was so interesting to not even be distracted by the production, to really work on that level where it’s about that melodic, lyrical style. We had that demo since 2016 and we’d been revising it a few times and it was clear that it was quite a personal song and it would probably end up on a personal project like Thy Slaughter. SOPHIE always thought the band name was funny and silly. I remember her DJing Bronze and just being like, ‘Oh, yeah, that band you guys have’ – always a bit of jest with that. I think the demo was you singing right?
FK: I was doing the initial demo. SOPHIE kept saying “more Taylor Swift in the delivery of your vocal take” and I was like, ‘Wow, OK. That’s a tall order for me’.
"I feel like suddenly the mainstream is down for total folkloric mythic weirdness" – A. G. Cook
AC: We always wanted it to be another vocalist and we reached out to Ellie from Wolf Alice. It was funny writing and recording together because she’s not out there doing pop sessions or doing vocals for DJs, she’s really in that band life of touring, rehearsing and recording. She was really thoughtful about trying to figure out okay, this chorus is great but what’s a setup that would make it feel a bit more of a narrative and a bit more personal. That was a year and a half ago or something like that.
Then Alaska’s the other collaborator. I’ve been with Alaska for a while but also, her and Finn are good friends. It was actually a song that I started by myself – I was trying to write for Miley Cyrus, not in any concerted way. I’ve not done any sessions with Miley but sometimes it’s like ‘so-and-so is looking for these kinds of songs’, this rock-pop hybrid. I got Alaska to demo it, which I don’t normally do. I really love her voice, but she writes her own stuff very much in her own world. And I never ever use autotune on Alaska’s voice, it just does not need it, her pitch is insanely good and it’s her style. But because it was going to be this pop thing I got her to sing it like this, which was really out of character [for her].
FK: You guys almost broke up recording that vocal, right?
AC: It sounds extreme, we have very few genuine arguments but that was one! Like I said, singing through autotune feels weird to her and I think she was trying to replace my vocal and was just very frustrated by the whole whole thing. Finn and I share different demos we’ve done so then he heard it and started building it out, keeping that demo vocal from Alaska. It felt like a family affair where it’s our internal song and you forget you’re writing it for anyone else. I also think sometimes, when you’re really quickly trying to write, you probably write more honestly than if you’re sitting down and trying to write a great song. Like if I try to imagine what Miley would sing if she’s pissed off – it’s something more honest to me. I think that’s a common thread with a lot of this writing.
Soft Rock is out now via PC Music