Words by:
Photography: Yulissa Benitez
Photography assistant: Timothy Smith
Stylist: Angel Emmanuel
Makeup: Nina Carelli

“I’d say that if we took the average of the last two years, it would be mediocre,” says Augustus ‘Gus’ Muller, surveying recent history, personal and otherwise. “But I think the last two-to-three months have been looking a lot better.”

Keyboardist and producer Muller and vocalist Jae Matthews – the duo known as Boy Harsher – are sitting in their studio, surrounded by equipment, while their dog paces in and out of frame in the background of our Zoom call. As undisputed frontrunners of the ever-evolving darkwave and industrial scene, Matthews and Muller craft deliciously gloomy soundscapes by melding coldwave, techno and post-punk into some of the most vital electronic music being pumped through the underground. At a typical Boy Harsher show, you can expect ear-splitting beats mechanically punctuating Muller’s eerie keys, while Matthews sings, screams and moans, her face obscured by a mane of thick, bleach-blonde hair. It’s halfway between a dance party and a ritual sacrifice, and after five albums, the band seemed to have settled into the kind of critical acclaim and fan appreciation that most niche musicians spend their whole career chasing.

Matthews wears Dion Lee corset tank top, Zara vest, H&M trousers, Hanan Sharifa sleeves and her own shoes and jewellery
Muller wears vintage tee, London Frog coat, Balenciaga pants and Dr. Martens shoes

Having met at film school, long before either of them thought to pursue music, they share the kind of emotional shorthand that all partners do – not quite finishing each other’s sentences, but more like existing in their own two-person universe. But behind the scenes, the soul-wringing writing process behind their newest album was taking them to their creative limit, and forcing them to find new artistic avenues to express what Boy Harsher is – and what it would become.

“I was in the studio every day trying to make something and nothing made sense,” says Muller. “We just got done with two years of heavy touring and I felt like we were really starting to harness that energy. It felt like our next record, if Covid hadn’t happened, would have been really club-ready. But suddenly, playing live wasn’t relevant anymore, so we got way more introverted and insular.”

In the midst of all this, another situation arose, one that made the creative process behind Boy Harsher even more difficult: Matthews fell ill and was eventually diagnosed with MS. What started off as a bout of writer’s block became a turning point for the band, as they navigated unfamiliar health challenges and looked for a completely new footing in a world where touring – their main source of income – had been indefinitely put on hold. “We’ve always been obsessed with dance music and that kind of in-person engagement,” explains Matthews. “We were writing during a moment when that was the ultimate danger: being in a public space and dancing.” In other words, it was time to get creative. To reinvigorate their passion for music-making, and find a way to ignite that creative spark again, Boy Harsher turned towards their first love: cinema.

Corset tank top: Dion Lee
Suit jacket: Low Classic
Choker: Zana Bayne
Pants: Stylist’s own

As one of the most popular darkwave bands in the world, it seems par for the course that Matthews and Muller would share an affinity for horror films. “I love them,” says Matthews, her eyes sparkling with pure excitement. “I’m also so scared of them. I think I am able to exist in this realm of utter appreciation and almost repulsion, too.” It’s a lot like Boy Harsher’s music, which flourishes so effortlessly on the dancefloor, but retains this unnerving atmosphere that has you looking over your shoulder while stomping your feet to the beat. “Everything I write is kind of horror-based,” continues Matthews, “because I do believe horror to be the best metaphor for grief. A lot about living is about trying to process the loss of life.”

When I ask her what horror movies have really stuck with her in recent years, we both land on Ari Aster’s instant cult classic Hereditary (“It scared me to my bones!” she exclaims) and Julia Ducournau’s feminist gorefest Titane, two films that frame death and birth as both terrifying and inevitable. “For whatever reason, in my brain,” Matthews says, “horror and fear are just those segues into understanding life.”

Quickly, Matthews and Muller realised that all the noodling they had done in the studio in 2020 had a through line. They decided they would write music not as a traditional Boy Harsher album, but as a soundtrack to a film – a film that didn’t yet exist, but that they would make themselves. For Muller, the breakthrough was almost immediate. “We had these songs that are all over the map, and we wanted to give the meaning, so we wrote this script together. It’s important to us for our albums to have a narrative, a cohesion and a cinematic quality.”

“I believe horror to be the best metaphor for grief. A lot about living is about trying to process the loss of life”

Jae Matthews

The result is The Runner, a short film that is as engrossing, uncanny and utterly brain-melting as Boy Harsher’s music itself. The imagery completely sucks you into the band’s world: a dark-haired woman, covered in blood, creeps through the underbrush of a shimmering forest. A kid watches TV in his living room when he feels someone watching him from his porch. The hazy glow of a neon sign flickers above a dingy dive bar, somewhere in rural America (and somehow, being on the inside feels more dangerous than standing outdoors, under the bare bulb of the sole streetlamp). This isn’t a long format music video, or a one-off side project; it’s a full-blown cinematic experience that feels like a giant step in the band’s artistry.

The Runner is the story of a nameless monster in the shape of a woman terrorising a small American town, interacting with the locals and generally causing havoc. Filmed in 16mm, it has a grainy quality that makes it seem both fantastical and palpably real. While the band are swift to say it’s not a period piece, it’s abundant with relics from the late 20th century – landlines and VHS tapes anchor the story firmly in our collective memories. Its nightmare feels personal.

Matthews wears Dion Lee corset tank top, Zara vest, H&M trousers, Hanan Sharifa sleeves and her own shoes and jewellery
Muller wears RtA top, Dior trousers, Henry Uomo jacket and his own shoes

“I think that throughout my life and also my relationship I really struggle with feeling like I am a good person,” says Matthews, explaining her inspiration behind the title character. “What does it mean to be good? The metaphor is, this entity, this creature, is obsessed with consuming others, and that desire is what drives her forward but also places her in complete isolation.” In a way, Matthews is saying that there is a Runner in all of us; that forbidden desire that would unleash unknown forces if given into. “I’m fascinated by those monsters because I genuinely believe we are all that. Everyone goes out to a bar and has a drink, someone gives you that look, and there’s a moment within you when you’re like, ‘I like the way this feels and I like the idea of consuming this moment.’

Musically, The Runner (Original Soundtrack) is also some of the most interesting and cohesive music Boy Harsher have released to date. The Tower opens both the film and record – an explosive track that showcases both the emotional range of Matthews’ vocal delivery and Muller’s scoring, and could sit comfortably alongside the work of horror film composers John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream. Meanwhile Autonomy is a dark pop song unlike anything the band have ever written, offering respite from an ambience so tense it could break your neck (the vocalist on the track, Cooper B. Handy a.k.a. Lucy, also has a cameo in the film).

Tee: Vintage
Coat: London Fog
Pants: Balenciaga
Shoes: Dr. Martens

Interspersed with the narrative arc of the movie is footage of Boy Harsher performing in their studio, weaving the songs in and out of the imagery that depicts them so well. “Since we started this project in lockdown, we were being asked to do live stream performances and were really nervous about doing one,” says Matthews. “We had this funny idea, like, what if we did this kind of VH1 Behind the Music vibe? And then it kind of married itself to this project because we did very much want to showcase this as a Boy Harsher album. It’s not just a short film, it’s also this album that we created.” Muller agrees, adding that the pair “just whittled away the live performance and turned it into more of a narrative”.

Try as we might during the course of the interview, we can’t quite steer away from the subject of the Covid-19 pandemic. It seems redundant to state that it has changed everyone’s lives, but for Boy Harsher, the effects on their creative process will be indelible. “I think we definitely want to keep making films,” Muller states decisively. “I think The Runner is a unique thing that could only really have been born out of Covid, but we definitely want to keep expanding our albums into full-fleshed narrative pieces.”

Matthews is in complete agreement. “That is the dream. It’s funny, we spent this whole time trying to find our space and figure out who we are, and we’ve realised that we’re just never going to.” She adjusts her tone to be more assertive. “That’s one thing I wish people told you: you’re never going to find your place, and no one’s going to tell you where you fit in. We just want to do the things that interest us and represent us. Life is short so make the movies you want to make.”

The Runner (Original Soundtrack) is out on 21 January via Nude Club/City Slang

The Runner short film is out now via Shudder/Mandolin