Wicca Phase Springs Eternal: the figurehead of rap’s gothic reinvention

The Gothboiclique founder talks making the jump from emo to future-facing rap, and how Lil Peep’s passing brought the vultures out

On an otherwise unassuming Tuesday evening, something strange is going down in Cardiff. Sandwiched between two heavy hardcore bands, a wraith-like figure is contorting about The Globe’s tiny, barrierless stage, backed by the skittish percussion of trap music and an evermore urgent-sounding voiceover. “Gothboiclique”, that voiceover announces sporadically, following it up intermittently with barks of, “You are now listening to Wicca Phase Springs Eternal”. Half the venue’s occupants are baffled beyond belief; the other half are down the front, phones aloft, treating this black clad figure like celebrity. It’s a duality that Adam McIlwee is used to.

An hour before stage time, McIlwee – that’s that Wicca Phase Spring Eternal chap, by the way – is mobbed within seconds of doors opening. Kids are desperate for a photo, barely able to string sentences together. He takes the attention with a charming, if awkward, good grace. Eventually, after almost 15 full minutes of photo-taking, he’s able to escape to a nearby pub. It’s something that happens a lot, he admits, “moreso in Europe.”

That fevered reaction owes no small part to Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s standing as the de facto founder of Gothboiclique – a like-minded collection of rappers, beatmakers and creatives, which once counted Lil Peep amongst its ranks. Elsewhere, the likes of Lil Tracy, Cold Hart, Doves, Horse Head and more join McIlwee in creating the gothic-tinged trap that’s come to define the alternative underground.

Wicca Phase was borne of McIlwee’s restless creative streak – “I get bored easily,” he says succinctly. Cutting his teeth as one of the primary songwriters of indie-rock cult heroes Tigers Jaw, the songwriter turned to electronics as a means of creating something fresher. “I was definitely disillusioned,” he says of that time in that burgeoning US guitar scene. “I wasn’t thrilled with the bands we were playing with all of the time. And the thing is, I was writing those songs, or at least half of them – so I was contributing to that! I was writing the songs that people were associating with these bands that I didn’t like. I can’t blame anyone else for it – I just wanted to do something electronic.”

Departing Tigers Jaw in 2013 with a bunch of new, electronic material under his belt, the man that would become Wicca Phase bedded himself into Tumblr and Twitter. From there, he began building an alternate world to get lost in. That might range from seemingly random, cool-sounding statements blurted out on Twitter – that’s where the Gothboiclique moniker came from – to more complex entities like Corinthiax, a motif described by McIlwee as “an evil, romantic entity that tortures me and makes me emotionally restless.”

“I was spending so much time on the internet, Tumblr and Twitter promoting nothing,” Adam says with a grin. “I wasn’t even promoting the songs, necessarily, I was just promoting the idea of what I wanted Wicca Phase to be – the aesthetic.” That aesthetic is as intrinsic a part of Wicca Phase as the songs themselves. Like other, musically disparate acts like Code Orange and Turnstile (who Wicca Phase has, despite the stark sonic differences, toured alongside), it’s about the creation of a whole world – rather than specific songs or albums – that most interests him, and keeps that boredom at bay.

For the first few years, that world was a lonesome affair, he admits. “It was strange, because I didn’t really know anyone that was doing it,” he says with a shrug. Eventually, a chance Tumblr stumble led him to Cold Hart – a producer making beats that aligned with how McIlwee saw Wicca Phase progressing. They linked up online, and then in person. It opened Adam up to a network of individuals, all creating this outsider art. “Until those people reached out,” it was a lonely process,” Adam admits. “I was working with a bunch of people, or designers. I was really into alternative comic books for a while, so I was working with people like that, just trying to shape this. I definitely didn’t think that it would take off – after a year, I was pretty sure that it would not take off.”

Wicca Phase Springs Eternal (Credit: Rob Yaskovic)

The formation of Gothboiclique changed all that. Kids identified with the languid, lovelorn sentiment of McIlwee and his pals, and the neo-gothic imagery that accompanied it. Lil Tracy and Lil Peep began amassing worldwide fanbases – the latter’s, Adam compares to Beatlemania, “to the point where he couldn’t go anywhere without being hounded.” When Lil Peep passed away last year, that underground attention suddenly bubbled upwards.

Their interests piqued by the outpouring of sadness that Peep’s death generated, major labels and big-time producers suddenly started trying to crack Gothboiclique’s shell. It’s something that Adam turned away from, ghosting offers from managers to take him into the mainstream. “The amount of people that will try and throw Peep’s name into a conversation to get something out of us…” he half-sighs. “The amount of messages I get that are like, ‘Bro, jump on this song – RIP Peep’, or ‘Bro, jump on this song – it’s a Peep tribute’. Or ‘I’m so influenced by Gothboiclique, please get on this song.’ I want no part of that.” After a second – and a note of praise for his current label Run For Cover for not playing the vulture – he re-centres himself. “That’s how it goes – that’s the history of the music industry,” he shrugs. “Something that’s underground and natural gets tapped for everything until it’s played out or people get bored with it.”

It is, of course, a story told a thousand times – the commodification of something which was once punk, or alternative. Adam cites one major label, Billboard-topping rapper whose works are undoubtedly influenced by Peep, as evidence of that spread. That’s not the only ties to punk, though, Adam admits – each member of Gothboiclique and their various associates has some sort of history in rock and alternative music. “I don’t know what the bridge is!” he says, with another grin. “Personally, it came from early Bright Eyes songs, where he’s using drum machines and acoustic guitars. I can point to that and be like, ‘Yeah, that was my early inspiration for this’. It wasn’t necessarily trap hi-hats and 808s – but I just like how that sounds. I like how those drum beats sound – they hit hard, and they’re kinda ignorant and aggressive. You’re able to create a nice dichotomy between low, drone-y singing over very aggressive hi-hat patterns. That’s what I enjoy about this. It’s not that I think it’s any sort of call-back to emo or the early days of Fall Out Boy, or something like that.”

He snarks at the term ‘emo rapper’ – a lowest-common-denominator phrase, which polishes away the edges of this music’s creative eclecticism. “There is definitely a punk aspect to this kind of music, though,” he concedes. “In the sense that it’s easy to get started – you can just produce an instrumental pretty easily, if you watch a YouTube video and figure out where to put the hi-hats and snares and stuff. You can get beats pretty easily, or steal them from YouTube – type in ‘Lil Peep type beat’ or something like that, and I’m sure there’s hundreds of people doing things like that. You can record it at home; you can promote it online. That’s kind of what punk music felt like to me when I was younger – in the sense that I didn’t have to be great at guitar to play that… I mean…” He smiles: “It would’ve helped more if I was good…”

Much like the early days of punk, it’s uncharted territory, too. Lil Peep’s early trajectory was the closest thing anyone had to a blueprint for where this music could go – Adam’s keen to stress that he doesn’t want to follow that same path. “I don’t know what the trajectory of any of this is,” he shrugs. With a backlog of songs to release throughout November, before attentions turn to his debut Run For Cover album proper, due next February, the unknown is Wicca Phase’s biggest asset. “I don’t know if it’s the radio, or playing Saturday Night Live, or something like that,” he continues, “or if it remains an underground thing, almost like EDM, where it has its moments in the Top 40, but it can also be a self-contained scene.” He grins again: “Where you go to festivals to see fifty ‘emo rappers’!”

Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s debut album is due next year on Run For Cover.