Could it be magic?
Death Spells: Frank Iero and James Dewees making more of a racket than you’d ever think possible.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Death Spells’ debut album is disgusting. From the goose-bump fairytale of ‘diluted’ through the broken anarchy of ‘why is love so disastrous’ until the droning pendulum of ‘i don’t know much but i know i loathe you’, ‘Nothing Above, Nothing Below’ is twisted. In this world, hooks don’t exist. It’s noise upon dirty noise and the whole record feels grimy. But that’s sort of the point.
“It’s not the type of music that I expect anyone to enjoy. The original idea was that Death Spells was anti-everything,” explains Frank Iero who, alongside James Dewees, created this monster. “It was a reaction to our surroundings, a reaction to the music and the people we were meeting at that time. I think it’s also a reaction to the feelings we were having, just with our own worlds crashing down around us. What you have are these people who are, on a constant basis, creating in a stasis where they’re told they’re not really allowed to create. It’s a rebellion against that.”
Starting in a Hollywood apartment in 2012 while Frank and James worked on the fifth My Chemical Romance album, Death Spells was a knee-jerk push back against the world they went back to each night. “It was never supposed to be a band. It was us two locked in this weird apartment, feeling like two strangers in a strange land. And that was our battleground. We were just trying to create noise and trying to offend as many people as we could.” Going back and forth, Frank and James would add layer upon layer, trying to be more offensive with every turn; a nuclear arms race of noise and din. It only became something more when Frank realised he had something to say. “And then, the songs started to take shape. It started to be less of just retaliation and reaction and it started to be more of a stance.”
‘Nothing Above, Nothing Below’ was finally finished this spring. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for years. There were times when I didn’t think it was going to happen and I was able to move on from there, but not fully. I would always come back to it. I felt like there was something really special missing. This feels like a completion of sorts.” But instead of the shapeless anarchy that sparked it, this Death Spells record comes complete with a purpose. The message that “things need to be dirty, they need to be ugly,” rages throughout. “Life is just not about what comes after and the bliss. Life is all over the fucking place and what’s important is what we have right now. We can’t concern ourselves with what comes next if we’re not prepared to deal with what’s here.”
On first glance, the grime and the darkness that clings to Death Spells makes it look bleak and uninviting but just below the surface, lies a clarity. “It started off as this retaliatory reaction to these things that were going on around us and it slowly started to grow into an emphatic statement. A feeling that we were taking this stand together,” explains Frank. “We really formed a cohesive bond through the writing process of however many years.”
other commitments (Frank’s solo project, James’ band Reggie And The Full Effect) Death Spells has only ever lived in intense circumstances. More off than on over the past four years, to the outside world it looked like Death Spells was dead, buried and forgotten. In fact, the announcement of ‘Nothing Above, Nothing Below’ was the first we’d heard from the band since 2013.
“The stars just aligned,” offers Frank to why now. “I was writing a record and came to this point where I couldn’t for the life of me finish it. I didn’t know what it all meant and I just hit this wall. James hit me up, he was free and I said I really feel like we need to finish this Death Spells thing. I feel like we need to get that record out.” Conversations started and the pair ended up finishing the record. ”Once Death Spells was finished, I finished my record. I felt like I could finally move on.”
Since the breakup of My Chemical Romance, we’ve been getting to know Frank Iero through The Cellabration. We’ve seen him step into the spotlight and learn to work it. However, Death Spells shows a very different side to him and people are going to be shocked. It’s okay though, “I love that shit,” laughs Frank. “That’s the thing, I love creating. I can’t not do it. And at times, as much as I love it, I fucking hate it. It’s my life source and it’s also going to be the thing that fucking kills me, I know it. I can’t make just one thing though. I need to be all over the place because that’s the person I am and this band is one of the facets of my personality. As was My Chem, as was Leathermouth, as was Cellabration. It’s the same thing with the solo records, every record is going to change. I can’t do the same thing over and over. It’s got to be different. It’s got to be a different band completely, otherwise why are we doing it? You’ve got to be a shark, man. If you’re not moving forward you’re dead.”
There’s a fearlessness to that attitude and to Death Spells. It was there at the very beginning as they set out to offend the people living around them and it’s here now, sprawled across ‘Nothing Above, Nothing Below’. “Some people set up rules when writing songs. They set up barriers where you can only do one thing and that’ll be the formula for the songs. I didn’t want any of that. The only thing I wanted was there to be no fucking rules. The only rule was that you had to break down every barrier you had set up for yourself. I wanted it to be full blown, I wanted it to be naked but drenched in poetry. There’s a lot of dirtiness and a lot of ugliness to hide behind but I don’t think we really did hide on this record. It’s exactly what we wanted it to be.”
The Death Spells record feels like a futuristic wasteland, plagued with nightmare and fantasy. It isn’t though. “I have a hard time making up stories,” admits Frank. “I enjoy doing that in writing free verse but lyrically, I was never one to draw from fiction. It’s always been life experiences or things I’ve witnessed other people go through. This record is the same. These are all feelings that I’ve had or experienced through people close to me.”
‘choke on one another’ is about “being villains with a loved one and basically being the worst for each other and wondering where that’s going to end; if you’re going to wisen up or if it’s just going to end in the total annihilation of everything. ‘i don’t know much but i know i loathe you’ is about love and hate truly being almost the same emotion. It’s about hating someone so much, that you want to be them, possibly to destroy them but also maybe because you hate them so much because you want to be them but can’t.” Elsewhere, ‘fantastic bastards’ “is about surviving abuse and destroying your abuser,” and ‘end of life’ is literally about that. “It’s about passing on, wanting to still be with the one that you love and to give solace in some way but also the selfishness of still wanting to be with them so much, you end up haunting them and possibly destroying them.”
The record is dark but it’s challenged by an awful lot of light. It’s a reflection of what we all go through. “You can’t experience the bad without the good and the sweet without the bitter. Every time you listen to a record, you need that little bit of a ride to be taken on. I don’t think anybody can be punched in the face for 45 minutes straight. And who wants to be?” Over the past four years, Frank and James have had their ups and their downs. Cultivating those experiences and feelings from such a stretch of time gives ‘Nothing Above, Nothing Below’ a fully-formed weight. You can look at the title and see darkness but really, it’s an empowering stance. “This is the most uplifting statement I feel like I could make,” explains Frank. “There’s nothing above us, there’s nothing below us. We’re so concerned with what comes next that we’d kill each other over what we believe happens after this.” Instead this record asks, “How would we really, truly act if we felt like there was nothing else. If this was all we had and all we had was where we are and the people that we were with, how would we conduct ourselves? If you think about it in that context, this is it. This is heaven, this is hell and this is the gift we can all give each other.” Frank pauses. “I think it’s a very uplifting place to be. I think life might be a better place if we all felt that way,” he adds, before laughing. “Or it could all go to shit. Who knows. At least you’d know where you stand.”
Death Spells aren’t expecting their music to have some sort of mass appeal. It’s niche but “I know there are people out there who will get it. That’s the beauty of creating something, you have no idea what it’s going to do when it gets into other people’s hands. Relinquishing control is the scariest fucking process but it’s also the most rewarding. It takes on its own life and you get to see it grow and either destroy or create, or turn into a monster or an angel. As far as what I hope people get from it, I don’t even pretend to have that much control but I do hope it affects them in some way. I hope they’re not indifferent to it.” Whether you adore the neon-drenched nightmare that is ‘Nothing Above, Nothing Below’ or want to run from it as quickly as possible, it’s a record that forces a reaction. That’s how Death Spells started. That’s how they’ll end. As for Frank, “I don’t know about you, but when I listened to it, I felt dirty. You feel like you need to take a shower after. I like that.