Past and present coalesce in Guy Lecoq’s conversation with DHI founder Vicar, speaking about the band’s history, the evolution of recording technology, the failings of social media, and more.
An InterView with Vicar of DHI
By Guy Lecoq (GuyLecoq)
Death and Horror Inc – better known as DHI – had been a staple of the Canadian electro/industrial scene in the early ’90s, garnering acclaim for the band’s gritty textures, forceful beats, and socially conscious lyrics. The band’s return in 2018 after a considerable absence, first with a series of reissues of the group’s back catalog, and then followed by a series of singles that would culminate in 2021’s The Idiot Parade EP. Guy Lecoq had the opportunity to speak with DHI founder and primary songwriter/producer Vicar, allowing the artist himself to provide the nitty gritty details about the band’s extensive history and creative output. Without further ado…
A few years ago, you released remastered editions of your ’90s catalog, followed by a new EP, your first new release in 22 years. Can you tell me a bit about the band’s background and what prompted its reactivation? What was it like to revisit the past and to come back after so many years?
Vicar: Well, there’s a bit to unpack there. If we’re looking at DHI’s background, it goes all the way back to my teenage years. The project began, very informally, between me and a new friend — the man we call Graf. I was a budding electronic musician, guitarist, and graphic designer at that time, and Graf was a budding visual artist with an emphasis on photography. Although he was not a musician, I didn’t second guess whether we should collaborate. We were both quite self-motivated, and had a lot of common ground in our art and design interests. We were also into a lot of the same music, and certainly had a taste for the weird and obscure.
I had a modest home recording setup in my parents’ basement, which was centered around a Tascam 4-track, a TR-707 drum machine, and a handful of effects units, alongside my guitar. That gear, in addition to a rotating cast of rented or borrowed keyboards, is what Graf and I were playing around with in those early days.
At the same time, I was also collaborating with another friend who I met on the club scene in Toronto (don’t ask how I managed to get into so many nightclubs at the age of 16, but I did!). This was the guy that we called Max. He was a bit older than Graf and me, had a fulltime job, and was building up a little synth-based project studio in his apartment bedroom.
After doing a bunch of sprawling, soundscape-type recordings with Graf, and more beat-driven, structured stuff with Max, I realized that we could probably create something more interesting if the three of us joined forces. At that point in 1987, the first incarnation of DHI had crystallized, and we got to work on our debut cassette release, called Need and Ability.
Our early shows around that time featured what Graf and I used to call a ‘media barrage.’ What this entailed was Graf projecting film slides of ‘found imagery,’ which he had shot off a TV, onto the side wall of the club. We’d also have a film projector at the back of the venue, projecting WWII-era anti-Nazi propaganda reels onto the stage. Then, alongside our live instrumentation, there would be tape loops of news clips, televangelists, and dive bombers, etc. The intention of all of this was to try and make an anti-fascist, anti-war, anti-corruption statement, while investigating the desensitization that can occur when an audience is inundated with a cacophony of images. But after doing that for a few shows, I wasn’t convinced that the message that we were trying to project was coherent enough. So, we agreed to eliminate the visual sideshow, and instead focus on being as strong a live act as possible.
By 1991, Max had moved onto a new life in the States, and was replaced by Nocturne, who was another new friend at that time. She proved to be a fantastic addition to the band, and arrived just in time for our shows in support of our first CD, Machine Altar Transmission. Then, after we wrapped up our recording sessions for our second album, Pressures Collide, we took on a fourth member, called Speed, who provided a second layer of guitar and bass onstage, beginning in 1993. We were all friends who hung out a lot together during the ’90s. It was a very social atmosphere – not without the usual band disagreements, but absolutely not the sort of arrangement with the frontperson calling all the shots, and the other players are more or less hired guns. We were a gang.
By ’97, 10 years after the band started, it was time to call it a day. This was not a decision that I could’ve predicted just a year prior, but a variety of factors culminated in our decision to put the project to rest. Aside from business dealings that were simply not presenting the band with enough opportunities for us to take things to the next level, so to speak, there was a desire among us to paint with a broader palette – a bit more color, a bit more light. That is when we decided to put all our energy into our instrumental electronic project Transformantra. But, despite the fact that that project’s debut CD received some great reviews, and we were about to release a follow-up disc on World Domination Recordings, everything fell apart. Both of our labels went under, and by the end of the ’90s, we went our separate ways.
After some time away simply focusing on being a guitarist, without committing much of anything to tape, I started an electronic solo project called Spiral into the Storm, eventually releasing a full-length CD called A Futile Veneer in 2008. I followed that up with UK Radio Session > In Dub, and then did a collaborative EP with an old friend of mine, Arthur Oskan, the New York City People EP. All of these releases, including the Transformantra stuff, is available on Bandcamp.
Back to DHI… fast forward to 2018, and I was reassembling my studio, after having not recorded any new music in about six years (I took some time out to recharge after the Spiral into the Storm releases). I hadn’t listened to any DHI recordings in quite some time, and was curious to find out how I would hear them so many years later. Quite honestly, I was astonished at how objectively I was able to perceive everything. It was almost as if I had never heard it before – a very clear-eyed experience. I could immediately see what I liked and didn’t like about our mixes. After intently listening to everything chronologically, I was amazed that there was such an evolution from Machine Altar Transmission to Pressures Collide. I was reminded of how much time and energy that went into the writing of both releases, but especially Pressures…. During the writing of that album, we were no longer teenagers. We were really pushing to expand our compositions, in terms of our sonic palette, our arrangements, and I was diving a lot deeper, lyrically.
But as I listened to the material in 2018, I was also reminded of the small budget that we had to work with once we had entered the studio. You have to remember, this was the early ’90s, several years before most people had access to a decent computer recording setup at home, let alone in the studio; everything was still primarily done on tape. And if you only had a very limited amount of cash, there was only so much time that you’d have to refine what you were doing on the mixing desk, and you definitely wouldn’t be in a position to bring in a marquee producer.
It was very clear to me, all those years later, that in order to really capture our energy and concepts, we would’ve needed someone onboard that was a level or two above us. Don’t get me wrong; everyone that we worked with did a fine job at the stage that they were at, and we certainly learned a few things from them. But looking back, we could’ve benefited from the classic scenario that so many well-known bands found themselves in earlier in their careers – working with someone that had been around the block a few times with experience in more advanced studio environments. We were learning on our feet in what was basically a demo studio.
I’ll make another comment about our ’90s recordings… when I listened to my isolated vocal takes some 30 years later, it was a bit emotional, because just about everything that I had set out to do was there, captured on tape. I was seriously belting it out in the vocal booth, but the way that those takes were presented in the final mixes left them sounding a bit dull somehow. That, in combination with other aspects of the mixes, held the songs back a bit in terms of impact. That’s why I did such a deep dive on the remasters that came out in 2019. Having said that, I have a pretty big surprise coming up with those old recordings, so please stay tuned!
As to what prompted me to start writing new DHI material, it was partially due to the fact that there was an audience that was interested in hearing the remasters. That was encouraging, but it equally had to do with a sort of visceral need that I had to respond to the far right populism that has taken hold in the U.S., and which is also problematic here in Canada, and the rest of the world for that matter. The decision to write new material came to me while I was driving. I was thinking about how crazy it was that some people genuinely seemed to believe that a nation’s president was chosen as a leader… by God. It was right then, while I was behind the wheel, that I started vocalizing the chorus to ‘Chosen Ruler.’ At that point, there was no turning back.
What has the evolution of technology enabled you to achieve compared to 20 or 30 years ago? Do you still sometimes work with ‘old-fashioned’ methods, so to speak?
Vicar: Compared to 30 years ago, there really isn’t much of a comparison to be made at all. The vast majority of my studio gear is virtual – virtual synths, effects, processors, amps, speaker cabinets, mixing board channels, even virtual microphones. If I’m creating a new synth sound, I’ll be using a plugin that emulates a physical synth, often with expanded capabilities that don’t exist in the hardware version. But I’m never satisfied with just a raw synth sound, so I almost always continue to sculpt it with things like tube or tape saturation, analog preamps, or channel strips, etc. These days, I find that I have a bunch of elements like that happening at once on any given sound. I apply a touch of this, and a touch of that, with all of the various manipulations hopefully adding up to a sound that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Having that kind of unlimited access to each channel in a multitrack session is something that I could’ve only dreamed of 30 years ago. To do what we’re able to do today even just 20 years ago, your computer would’ve been choking, and analog emulations often sounded brittle. Today, the emulations are astounding, and I find hardware to be limiting. I probably wouldn’t have reactivated my studio if I had to use hardware that’s similar to what I used 20+ years ago. I’d much rather work in a totally refreshed environment, especially one that has so few compromises.
How do you work with sound to strike a balance between organic and electronic elements? Do you have a preference for one or the other?
Vicar: Well, for example, if we’re saying that a guitar is organic, then I find that the balance is achieved in a few different ways, with those approaches coming together at the same time. First, because DHI instrumentation tends to have an intentionally mechanical feel, I play my guitar in that spirit; I like to tightly lock in with the drums, playing in a metallic style. I’m never satisfied just hearing a guitar part in the mix anymore, though. For me, it needs to be broken apart and treated like any of my synth or sample elements. I’ll use as much processing and glitch treatments as I feel are necessary in order to get everything to come together as a cohesive whole. I’m also pretty ruthless when it comes to throwing things out. Leaving space is also key. The notes that you don’t play are just as important as those you do, as they say. All of this applies to the vocals too. In fact, everything, no matter what the source, is just a block of information to me. It all goes through the grinder.
You’re currently in the studio working on new material. What can we expect next?
Vicar: More of the same, but better. (laughs) I have a full-length album in the works, and I’m really happy with the way the tracks are turning out so far. Texture is very important to me, and there’s a certain patina, if you will, that the overall sound needs to have before I’m satisfied. It’s essentially a process of corrosion that I put each element though.
However, something came up recently that inspired me to take a break from working on the album. It relates to the surprise that I mentioned earlier. Without giving too much away (it’s supposed to be a surprise, after all), I veered off course a bit, and ended up working on something else, which will be presented before the album comes out.
How did you experience the upheavals in the music industry from the late ’90s to the present day?
Vicar: There have certainly been some positives, including the ability for artists to independently distribute and promote their own releases. But, as the use of your word ‘upheaval’ suggests, the overall experience within the industry in general has skewed toward the negative, from my perspective.
For one thing, with everything existing as digital files, it is easier than ever for someone who might want to bootleg somebody else’s work. DHI has been ripped off in this way by an individual who has no rights whatsoever to our material, and there have been at least three other artists who have publicly come forward claiming that the same person bootlegged them. I’m not mentioning this person’s so-called ‘record label’ here as DHI has no interest in driving any traffic toward it, obviously. Our site has a page called ‘Don’t Buy the Bootlegs,’ where our listeners can see which releases to avoid.
My broader concern about the industry goes back to the advent of Napster and so-called file sharing, which I saw and continue to see as an almost total devaluation of music. And now, the new normal is streaming, which I don’t think is much of an improvement over file sharing. Aside from the fact that the streaming royalties are so pitifully low, there’s the sheer fact that for only about $10 a month, a subscriber gets access to virtually the entire history of recorded music. On the surface, it may seem like a good deal, at least for consumers, but looking a bit deeper, I only see more devaluation… a race to the bottom. The movie and TV industry knew better than to allow such a bargain basement arrangement. I mean, if you want access to all – literally all – of the movies and TV shows in existence, how many subscriptions would you need to buy? And why would having to do that be wrong somehow? Because behind the creation of every show or every album, there are people – real, living human beings with families to support, who need to put food on the table, and pay all of their monthly bills. Everyone deserves to be justly compensated for their work, and creatives are no exception.
If you’re a serious artist, it’s a full-on commitment. We’re talking about a countless number of hours, weeks, months, years that are spent writing, composing, arranging, performing, producing, mixing, mastering, and much more. Streaming in its current form, with one low price for everything you could imagine, isn’t nearly sufficient to begin addressing the shortfall of the revenue that was once earned through physical or even digital sales. And the apologists who like to go on about how the purchasing of recorded music is a relatively new occurrence within history and therefore nobody should be complaining about the fact that hardly anyone buys music anymore, they aren’t considering the broader picture. They aren’t thinking about how the devaluation of music will affect the type and quality of work that’s being done, or how little incentive there will be for artists to stay in the game.
How do you perceive the evolution of our societies, human behavior and mentalities over the last 30 years? Whether from a political, cultural, or ethnic point of view, with all the changes brought about by the internet in the transmission of data and information.
Vicar: With respect to the latter part of that question, I think the most profound changes began to take place with the introduction of the iPhone in 2006 (I believe it was), and the appearance of Facebook at just about the same time. The dual impact of the mobile phone and social media can’t be overestimated. I think it’s plainly obvious when you look how easily wide swathes of populations can be manipulated by misinformation, largely through social media, via a continuous data pipeline into one’s palm, that we are simply not equipped to handle our current level of nonstop interactivity with the screen. For many of us, it seems to have a sort of vortex-like gravitational pull. I find it shocking that so many people will take information at face value just because that information may have been posted online. It was posted, and the post claims it’s factual, so it must be real.
Bearing in mind how easily people can fall into rabbit holes of toxic information, and what seems to be an increasingly tribal atmosphere as a result, I see an exponential evolution of technology, but not necessarily of humans. I think that we are fundamentally primitive. Nonstop social media engagement, and even nonstop texting, with all of its attendant drama, is dividing us… personally and politically. It’s been well documented that all of our virtual socializing has actually caused us to be less social in person. We’re not having nearly enough genuine, nuanced, face-to-face conversations anymore. And yes, it is different in person. At this point, with all of the evidence that we have about how our addiction to mobile devices and social media can deteriorate our mental health, I think we’re overdue in radically reducing our engagement with the screen. We need to turn it off longer than we have it on, and make an effort to listen to voices that are outside of the silos that we’ve ended up in, silos that are largely a result of the internet and what the algorithms feed us.
Thinking about the siloing effect of the internet brings me to cancel culture. Which is not exactly a new phenomenon, but has gone overboard in recent years. Again, we are all merely human. We’re fumbling our way through life. We need to have uncomfortable moments. We need to make mistakes in order to grow, and we need to allow people some space to do that, as opposed to trying to shame them into oblivion. Unless we’re talking about figures who are clearly and continuously intent on sowing hate, being criminally abusive, undermining our democracy, or denying climate change, we need to exercise some humility and try to understand views that are in opposition to ours. Issues are rarely black and white; there is nuance in the shades of grey between those extremes, and there is often something to learn from the subtleties in between. Our colleges and universities are dependent upon this type of discourse and so is the freedom of the press, to give just two examples. Cancel culture and its notion that there is one and only one way to speak about and deal with a given issue is bollocks. My fear is that this type of push to the far left could ultimately position our society on the far right, which would not be double-plus-good. The famous ‘Letter on Justice and Open Debate‘ that appeared on harpers.org on July 7, 2020 was encouraging to me, but somewhat depressing in that it had to be written in the first place. I’ve read it a couple of times since then, and support every word of it.
And what about climate change?
Vicar: I’ll state the obvious – it’s real… and it’s getting worse. The summer of 2023 should’ve been a wakeup call to anyone who still doesn’t believe the science. I’ve paid close attention to climate news over the past couple of decades, and it’s clear to me that the planet is going through an accelerated, radical transformation. If we continue to do as little as possible about that, which is what we seem to be doing now, it won’t be long before this place is uninhabitable, at least for humans.
Generally speaking, what do you think we can do, individually or collectively, to improve the world situation?
Vicar: Go vegetarian. Become a member of an environmental group that’s fighting for the well-being of the planet, such as Greenpeace. Consider whether the space race is ultimately just a distraction. That is, how is our climate crisis being addressed by spending so much time, effort, and untold trillions by shooting, and often failing to shoot, rockets up in the air? If that question resonates with you, then why not throw that idea into your next conversation, your next social media post? What would happen if more people were asking that question? What would happen if we were no longer in awe of the latest rocket launch, but instead looked up in horror as our planet continues to burn? Vote in every election. Make small talk with strangers. Be kind.
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