Persher: Unnatural Selection
Jamie Roberts, known best as Blawan, is no stranger to the kind of drudgery which strong-arms the imagination down strange corridors. The South Yorkshire-born producer, loved for his harsh club rattlers, was once employed on a dairy farm. This daily grind proved a fount for the unearthly themes which he says have long been at the heart of his music.
“It’s great work if you’re creative; being on your own, doing 14-hour shifts, hanging out with the animals… all that stuff gets the juices going,” he muses from a hotel room in Prague, where he and long-term accomplice Arthur Cayzer, a.k.a. Pariah, are preparing to play under their hardware techno guise, Karenn. “I was coming up with these fantastical stories, a couple of which you see on the new record.”
Roberts is referring to Man With the Magic Soap, the debut release from the pair’s new project, Persher. As Karenn, the duo have won praise for their improvised live sets which, over the years, have encompassed everything from synthetic psychedelia to room-wrecking techno. But as Persher, they’re embracing a lifelong fandom of more extreme sounds, blending death metal’s hellish riff worship with the freaky ferocity of crust punk and raw immediacy of hardcore.
“I still love a lot of that music,” admits Cayzer. Like Roberts, the Amsterdam-based producer was in his share of shitty-to-middling guitar bands as a teenager. He recalls a youthful zeal for hardcore, in particular, reciting Converge, His Hero Is Gone, Tragedy and “a bunch of not-very-good youth crew groups” among his favourites. Time took its usual toll, and he now counts himself among the not-insignificant number of jaded punks who fill up today’s clubs. “It reached a point where all the new bands that arrived were versions of bands that had come before. It became frustrating because I always felt there was much more you could do with that sound.”
But back to the farm: track titles from Man With the Magic Soap include Mother Hen and Calf. The former, Roberts explains through self-deprecating laughter, is a barnyard horror, the tale of a preternatural chicken which, one awful day, lays an egg that holds a human foetus. The latter’s story is explained in a comic, illustrated by George Addy, that will accompany the release. In it, a space-faring calf – perhaps in the throes of adolescence – makes a break into the cosmos, a sneer on his face, his headphones plugged in to Bowie’s Aladdin Sane.
If all this farmyard surrealism sounds a bit like Roberts is taking the piss, it’s partly because he is. “We want a laugh,” he deadpans. “This is the way we’ve always approached our music – having fun was a big part of the idea behind the project.” You might think that a punk-adjacent effort, put together in a time of great anger and societal freefall, would shelve the dadaisms and engage directly with modern conflicts. But this doesn’t sit well with Roberts’ own thoughts and preferences around creativity. “Abstract thinking has always powered my work. I’m more interested in the ideas that come out of nowhere, rather than arrive from somewhere else, loaded with baggage.”
Persher are not the first figures from the UK club scene to get the guitars out. Bliss Signal, a pairing of grime auteur Mumdance and guitarist James Kelly, might immediately come to mind. But, in this instance, the similarities are limited. Kelly, once of Irish metal experimentalists Altar of Plagues, brought a style and technique to Bliss Signal which immediately evoked the deep despair of black metal; layers of reverb-drenched, tremolo-picked chords channelling familiar doom and desperation to brilliant effect.
There is no such familiarity about Persher. The product of just ten days in the studio, Man With the Magic Soap is uncomfortably weird and prone to spontaneous mutation. Across seven drum-propelled tracks, the bloodied remains of standard instrumentation can just about be made out, as riff blasts are filtered through digital programming to create disfigured passages of sound. Meanwhile, Roberts runs the screamo gamut in the booth, with voice box-scorching howls giving way to guttural, gory belching. Complementing this throughout is a litany of studio clatter, from feedback and dropped sticks, to what sounds like a very nasty cough.
“Abstract thinking has always powered my work. I’m more interested in the ideas that come out of nowhere, rather than arrive from somewhere else, loaded with baggage”
Blown-out production values reign throughout, often lending Persher the feel of a noise rock act. The titular opener’s lurching, fiery bass fights with Roberts for dominance before the wheels fall off in a deeply disorientating breakdown. The tracks that follow nod to sub-genres dabbled with in the practice room and the club, while never settling on a single theme for too long. Calf’s lurid, half-time thud wrestles with a sludgy low-end. This worms its way beneath what sound like icy, ultra-processed snatches of guitar, which stab like needles falling from the sky. Ten Tiny Teeth’s rapid-fire rim shots and hi-hats bristle with the raucous energy of a jungle fill, before losing discipline and descending into thrashy rage. Patch of Wet Ground’s gothic churning is punctuated with grinding blast beats, eventually giving way to a gloom-laden coda.
Given Man With the Magic Soap’s sheer breadth of textures, it’s unsurprising when Cayzer mentions that neither of the pair knew what the finished product would sound like until the job was done. As such, he admits, the results have proven a little startling. “One thing that struck me was that neither of us are big doom metal fans, yet to my ears, there are definitely parts that have ended up sounding like that.”
The idea, Roberts continues, was never to approach the project as if they were starting a band, but rather to use these influences and the traditional studio setup as a new wellspring of sound. Most tracks are the product of extended improvisations, with recordings from across different sessions mixed and matched digitally. In some sense, the process is not dissimilar from electronic music production, with Cayzer effectively utilising the studio itself as a sample bank and collaging tool.
Persher is an attempt, at least on Cayzer’s part, to reckon with the frustration he feels with the music of his youth, pushing it in directions he has always felt possible. The purchase of a new guitar in 2020 fermented this drive, as did recent releases that showed a similar eagerness to experiment with heavy sounds. One came from Austin, Texas-based band Portrayal of Guilt. “Last year, [the band] did a record called Christfucker,” he continues, “which was way stranger and sludgier than the skramzy emo violence they’ve previously done. It sounds like a million things happening at once.” Production credits on that release include Ben Greenberg of New York industro-punks Uniform, whose marriage of blistering riffs, power electronics and blast beat drum machines is not far removed from Persher’s own menacing sound.
In discussing influences, it would be negligent not to mention black metal, says Roberts. “That crowd has always pushed the boat out in terms of production,” he says, praising the unconventional mixing which has forged the genre’s signature burnt-out tone. The only problem, he adds wearily, is one as old as the music itself: “You’ve gotta be so careful of who you lend your attention to! Every time you start listening to a new band you’ve got to Google them to see if they’re a bunch of wrong ’uns or what!”
The duo have no time for such unsavoury features in an otherwise rich, creative culture; one which they are now free to navigate as Persher. Where they go and how far they take it is uncertain. A live show, for example, will have to be balanced with solo commitments and Karenn’s ceaseless touring schedule. Still, Roberts lights up at the suggestion: “I’m hoping we do that as soon as possible,” he beams. “I’ve really missed performing on stage in a band. If we didn’t have our other projects, I think we’d jump in the rehearsal room for a few months, but we don’t have that luxury. Whether what we do is like a traditional band, I’m not sure. I hope it is.”
Beyond that, a bigger release is planned for 2023. “At this stage, it’s pure experimentation,” says Roberts. “That’s why I was excited to start this project – because that’s where the most interesting music comes from. Right now, there’s nothing loaded about us, no expectations.” Cayzer agrees, adding that while they’ve set themselves limitations in terms of instrumentation, they are working on the basis of no boundaries. Much like that mutant chicken, Persher remain in an embryonic state. But the monster is growing.
Man With the Magic Soap is out now via Thrill Jockey