In 1961, country singer Jimmy Dean released a folk tune called “Big Bad John” about an antisocial, rough miner who sacrificed his own life to save others when the mine collapsed. Twenty years later, the cult classic slasher film “My Bloody Valentine” was released. In its opening scene, a man and woman in miner’s garb head down into the tunnels, where they begin undressing and caressing each other. When the man, still in his mask, sees a heart-shaped tattoo on the woman, he goes into a fit of rage and kills her.
Aside from the fact that they both mention miners, these two have absolutely nothing in common. Unless you’re vocalist Jae Matthews and composer Augustus Muller, the duo behind the dark and addictive dance music of Boy Harsher.
In an email interview with The Miami Student, Matthews discussed Boy Harsher’s 2016 track “Big Bad John:” “it’s a reference to Jimmy Dean’s song (of the same name) about a hero miner. But our interpretation is more sinister, and the bespoken mythical ‘John’ is an evil entity, a killer, an abuser.”
Using Matthews’ twisted take on this familiar character, Muller’s track places the killer in a soundscape inspired by the aforementioned scene from “My Bloody Valentine.” That same seductively unstable tone — an amorphous mix of lust and violence — carries into the dark, 80s-inspired synth instrumental and the sultry, whispery vocal delivery by Matthews.
Boy Harsher has a knack for finding the through line between competing or disparate ideals. They elicit emotions of sex and pain, vice and euphoria, intimacy and heartbreak — often all at once. The music combines elements of drone, coldwave, 80s-inspired electronica, and synth-pop into an evocative amalgamation, at once ethereal and visceral.
Since their 2014 breakthrough opus “Pain” (which plays like a version of New Order’s “Blue Monday” from a darker parallel universe), Boy Harsher has managed something unique among modern artists: Creating a sound that is uniquely, unmistakably them.
But the duo doesn’t approach songwriting with such specific criteria. “We’ve never really had expectations of what the music should sound like,” wrote Muller. “My taste in music hasn’t drastically changed in the last five years. We’re still referencing the same influences as when we started.”
Matthews explained that each new project comes along naturally. “Not to sound tacky, but our musical evolutions came from life events: several moves, supreme luck, happiness, some sadness. I also can’t do a whole lot vocally, so we already know the box we gotta dance around in.”
Matthews has a unique, spoken-word-esque style that developed from a history of reciting her original short stories. Most tracks feature hypnotic, breathy delivery with a healthy dose of reverb. Whether you’re listening on massive speakers or headphones, it creates an illusion of her voice echoing throughout a cavernous dance hall, while also feeling like she’s whispering secrets in your ear, so quiet you have to strain to understand her. Like the best collaborations, Boy Harsher would lose all allure without Matthews’ vocals on top of Muller’s tracks.
Though it may not be entirely deliberate, the group’s evolution is unmistakable. 2016’s “Yr Body is Nothing” was a great full-length that explored every crevice of their sound — gnarly industrial noises, steady beats and synthesizers that wouldn’t be out of place in “Stranger Things.” The following year’s “Country Girl” EP was their most danceable release to date, featuring stellar production, groovy bass lines and high-BPM breaks.
Their upcoming LP “Careful” (available Feb. 1) takes even better production and marries it with the best aspects of their songwriting. Muller has never seemed more masterful with his arsenal of synthesizers and drum machines, and the diversity of layered sounds allows for close listening, if you can resist the overpowering urge to get up and move.
This album’s dance-centric tracks — namely, single “LA” and album cut “Come Closer” — are more propulsive and energetic than ever. The melodies and hooks are increasingly strong, bringing to mind synth-pop legends like OMD or Pet Shop Boys, but always with a biting edge.
It’s a style that is hard to explain in words and even harder to replicate. It demands a certain type of songwriting, and not everything is up to snuff. “There are times where we jam on a song for a while and realize, ‘this definitely isn’t a Boy Harsher song,’ so we put it to bed,” explained Muller
So what’s in this bin of scrapped projects? What genres do they want to explore outside of the Boy Harsher front?
“We make a lot of ambient tracks that never see the light of day,” wrote Matthews. “I’d like to do an entire ambient album at some point.”
Muller dreams of a side project that strays further from expectations. “I would love to make country music someday, really croon out in a desert dive. I am not sure if that’s really possible. But we’ll see!”
“Careful” is one of the most interesting, confident and consistent releases of the new year. With an NPR feature, increased media attention and a world tour, Boy Harsher seems poised to make a splash on the scene. In the midst of all the excitement, Muller prefers to remain modest: “My focus is on getting through it all alive.”
“Right now we’re just riding the wave,” wrote Matthews. “We’ll see where it takes us.”