In April 2012 Leonie Cooper interviewed Death Grips for NME on a hotel rooftop in Los Angeles. The band’s first major magazine feature, and one of the mysterious group’s very few interviews, was never published – until now
“Everything we do is critical,” says an unblinking Andy Morin of Death Grips, the most thrilling rap, industrial, hardcore, rave and no-wave performance punk trio you’re set to come across this year. And, it’s also highly likely, the only one.
Comprising hellcat drummer and beatmaker Zach Hill and long-standing collaborator and producer Morin plus the disaffected whirlwind of rage that is frontman Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride – an artist who lives down the street from Hill – this gut-grabbingly exhilarating trio first entered the studio together a year and a half ago. From then on in, it’s been a hectic sprint to underground infamy. Last year they gave away their corrosive debut ‘Exmilitary’– which featured music built out of sound conjured by the radiation of the rings of Saturn – as a free mixtape. They’ve dazzled and dumbfounded crowds at a string of confrontational live shows and last month released their searing official debut, ‘The Money Store’ after shaking the living bejesus out of the Coachella Festival in their homestate of California. But until agreeing to this, their first big feature interview, they remained pretty much a total mystery.
Death Grips are based in the dilapidated city of Sacramento, as notorious for a huge homeless population crammed into tent cities as its uber-conservative values and semi-police state vibe. “It’s kind of a weird one,” explains Zach Hill from under his hood, as we meet on a Los Angeles hotel rooftop on a grey, blustery day – MC Ride is in the building, but had decided to opt out of the interview at the last minute. “You have these two really polar opposite things existing right next to each other. It feels like the UK or something in the medieval times; the monarchy and then you have these peasants right next to it.” It’s this austerity which informs the band’s caustic output, coupled with the kind of horrific events which are a day to day occurrence in Sacramento, where gang violence and drug addiction are rife. “A woman put her head on the tracks a couple of days ago and decapitated herself,” explains Hill, of an incident outside a friend’s shop only a few days ago.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Death Grips’ deeply textured, desperate sound and raw lyrical content have been referred to as apocalyptic, something they are keen to refute. “We aren’t influenced by this 2012, Mayan calendar apocalyptic scenario thing,” states Hill, explaining that the act of sheer survival is more of a stimulus, borne of getting by, day-to-day, in their particularly deprived North American city, an act which he compares to “living in a third world in a first world county.” His eyes widen. “We see desperation on a regular basis, every day, and we’ve been desperate ourselves”.
This state of mind is deeply embedded in the band’s squalling sonics and sandpapered riffs, which is anything but simplistic, and – heaven forfend – lo-fi. “What we see ourselves as doing is much more hi-fi than lo-fi,” explains Morin, bristling at the mention of the term. “We actually pack a lot of information into our songs and when I hear lo-fi, I think of something that is a distorted copy of an original and for us, when you hear our songs it’s not distorted at all, it’s crystal clear. There’s just a lot going on in there. I think maybe the first time you hear something like that it can be a bit confusing or overwhelming.”
They compare their work, from the thudding womb-cocooned rattle of ‘The Fever (Aye Aye)’ to stone cold banger ‘I’ve Seen Footage’ and ‘Exmilitary’’s renegade robo-funker ‘Guillotine’, to dense pieces of visual art, which might feel chaotic at the start. “It takes a few times,” continues Hill, who has played in a host of other experimental acts over the years. Putting in stints in his own band Hella, as well as with Wavves, guitarist Marnie Stern and also releasing reams of solo gems, Hill finally seems to be settling down and making a fulltime home for himself within Death Grips. “I think what we’re making is very new and different sounding than other things that have been made, particularly in rap music,” he states, with genuine delight. “When Nirvana came out anybody that wasn’t connecting with it was always like ‘I can’t hear what he’s saying’. That’s how I would consider us.”
It’s true that on the first couple of listens it’s difficult to make out just what MC Ride is on about. Stick with it though, and disturbing, piecemeal tales of sickness, ferocity, death and madness studded with terse religious imagery start weeping out of the tightly packed sonic stacks. They come direct from the lungs and the pen of a man who brazenly graffitied the swanky record label toilets the day they signed their major label deal with Epic. “We went in there and he ripped up the bathroom. He carved Death Grips in the bathroom stall,” smiles Hill, proudly.
He sounds great. So why, we wonder, has MC Ride refused to take part in our – and, for that matter, any – interviews? His tour manager says he’s sick. His manager says he doesn’t do press due to that ‘frontman mystery thing’. “He’s a very intense individual,” reveals Hill of his absent bandmate.
We mainline a shot of that very intensity at Death Grips’ unbridled afternoon set at Coachella, as a twitching Ride contorts his sinewy, Iggy Pop torso while layering his wrath over their stuttering electronica and skull knocking beats. It’s doomy and vital. It’s heavy metal, and its made a welcome return to UK shores this month.
“When we play we like to welcome people to basically feel like they’re joining our group. Whoever’s in the room is part of the performance as well,” says Hill, who likens their visceral shows to those by Daft Punk, where audience interaction is just as important as what’s happening on stage. When it comes to entrancing live sets, it would also seem that this is only the beginning. Hill reveals to NME future plans to bring in six dimensional floor to ceiling screens “and then messing with the space to where you can force motion or acceleration. Where you can give the whole room a sensation to where you’re falling or to where you’re rising, based on what you’re projecting.”
Before they get around to that though, there’ll be another album, ‘No Love’, which is 70% finished and due out this Halloween. So, will it be as bleak as the title makes out? “Yes,” says Morin. “But it’s not without hope.” According to Hill, ‘No Love’ will be a culmination of their previous two releases. “You have the most subtle and then the most raging stuff that we’ve ever done next to each other,” he says of the next LP. “I can see all three as a trinity of sorts,” suggests Hill of this decidedly unholy trilogy.
The next album is also set to contain some unlikely source material, recorded by the band in the corridors and crowds at a Lady Gaga gig in New York’s Madison Square Garden. If this at first seems like a strange coupling, it transpires that Death Grips and Lady Gaga have more in common than you might think. You want to make people dance, yeah? “Oh, absolutely,” chime Hill and Morin. “We wanna make them fuck,” adds Morin, with a serious nod of the head. Gaga, we have no doubt, would approve.