Since 2014, Jae Matthews and Augustus Muller have steadily released what some might call the gold standard of darkwave and new industrial under the moniker Boy Harsher. Their latest is The Runner, which doubles as an album and a short film. The Runner is out now on Nude Club/City Slang.
Augustus Muller and Jae Matthews are Boy Harsher, an electronic group based in Northampton, MA; Cooper B Handy is a singer and producer who performs as LUCY, and is also based in Western Mass. Cooper contributed to Boy Harsher’s latest record-slash-short film The Runner — out now on Nude Club/City Slang —so the three caught up about it, and more, here.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Augustus Muller: I was just wondering, in your recollection, where was it that we met you?
Cooper Handy: I want to say I originally met Jae in catering. I don’t think that I necessarily knew that you guys even made music until after working catering events together.
Augustus: That checks out. I think I remember Jae showing me one of your music videos like, “Yeah, there’s this kooky guy, he makes these videos.”
Cooper: I feel like I probably figured out quickly about your music, like after some kind of fancy catering function.
Jae Matthews: Yeah. For the record, I think it’s important to know that Cooper and I both were the blue collar employees. [Laughs.] I don’t want anyone to think I was Cooper’s catering boss. I think though, the first time we saw you play was at Tube Cats.
Augustus: Yeah, definitely a basement.
Cooper: OK. Because I remember there was a time when we played together there, but that was probably pretty soon after I met you guys. I want to say it was 2017, 2018.
Augustus: I’m picturing that show, and I’m picturing dirt floors for some reason.
Jae: Mhm. I have a serious question for Cooper: As a songwriter, I noticed that with “Autonomy,” when you and Gus were working on that song together, the famous story is you came in and you listened to the song for the first time ever, in several successions, and then in your notebook just wrote out what is essentially the final vocals for the song — which, in my opinion, is very impressive. Is this your process? Do you just come up with lyrics this magically, and really good zinging melody? How does it work for you?
Cooper: Well, thank you, first of all. I feel like first, I’ll be making the entire instrumental too. So when it is a situation like this where I’m doing something over an instrumental that I haven’t made, I guess it is a little easier for me to just quickly come up with something that sounds good, because I don’t have to think about the musical component.
Jae: Do you bring a story with it already, or an idea? Or is it truly just kind of on-the-dime improv?
Cooper: Sometimes there will be a couple ideas I’m working with. I think in the beginning of writing this one, I was kind of just liking the syllables and the way the words sounded. I was thinking about lobotomy for a while, and then we had some line about photography for a while, but I think I changed those because it just wasn’t sounding right. But yeah, I feel like it kind of came together pretty smoothly.
Jae: I’ve talked to many people about the song, and it’s definitely one of the favorites on the album. A lot of times when people sing it, they sing the line, “Angels marching in a straight line.” That, to me, is just such a special moment to begin with. And it’s also just this amazing imagery.
Cooper: Yeah, I think when we first did it, I was sort of — not second-guessing it, but I just kind of zoned out while we made it. And then I didn’t really think about it for a while until I got another mix in the email, and I was really pleasantly surprised with what had actually happened. It’s also just really subtle. Like I remember we talked about adding the octave higher vocals for the last third of the song or something, and it really makes the progress of the song cool.
Augustus: Yeah, I was probably pretty annoying to work with. I think you came back, like, four or five times just to do the most mild overdub or something.
Cooper: I think that stuff really paid off, because if we hadn’t, it would be not as popping of a song if we had left it off with just one session.
Augustus: Yeah, I always wonder if being neurotic, in terms of recording and mixing, if the pros outweigh the cons. I’m going to keep doing it — I think being neurotic is helpful.
Cooper: Yeah, definitely. I think if you’re too lax… I mean, a lot of people really believe in first take recordings or whatever, but I think it’s good to be a little bit picky.
Jae: I mean, was working with us annoying? You can be honest.
Cooper: [Laughs.] No, I wasn’t annoyed. I’m not really used to doing that, so I don’t have much to compare it to. I’ve worked with a couple of people, but it’s not often that people hit me up and have me come to their space to just track vocals. So it was more like a cool experience, and the studio is tidy and easy to be in.
Augustus: It’s cozy.
Cooper: And the dog is nice. I was wondering about the synth [that the band made with Møffenzeef] — what was the idea behind doing that and getting that made? Was that something someone pitched to you? Or was that something you went out to make?
Augustus: That was another kind of funny COVID project. During COVID, it was kind of hard to stay motivated, so it was just about having these random projects that I was excited about. Ross Fish, who owns Møffenzeef, is a close friend of mine, and we had just been riffing on an idea for a synth. It started off as something much smaller, but then we just kept working on it and working on it. It’s just kind of based off of sounds that I like, kind of like JUNO-esque Roland sounds.
Cooper: Cool. Have people been getting those?
Augustus: We only made 250 of them, and they sold out pretty quick.
Cooper: That’s exciting.
Augustus: Yeah, it’s definitely cool. Yeah. I really hope people are playing with them, and they’re not just on people’s collector collector shelf.
Cooper: Yeah, I bet people will use them. I was also thinking about the songwriting process on this album, and I was wondering, Jae, are you doing all of the lyrical writing?
Jae: Except for your song and Mariana [Saldaña]‘s song, yeah.
Cooper: That’s awesome. And is it like, Gus will come to you with the beat or are you both involved with the manipulation of the sounds?
Jae: I think generally what will happen is, Gus will shut into the studio for a while and come up with several very scratch demos. And then I’ll come in and listen and be like, “Ooh, I like these moments.” And like, “Can we keep this piece?” But the truest test of time is to see if my voice will sound good over Gus’s… basically bass note, right? Because that’s like the foundation of all of our songs. And we end up throwing out so many things that I love so much — I try so hard, but I’m very much in a certain octave, and I’m not a trained vocalist. So I think we want to hear the magic while we’re in demo phase, or we’re just not going to like the song when it’s done.
Cooper: That’s a good way to put it. I have a lot of songs that I make that I’ll be really excited about as an instrumental or a piano part. And then I’ll spend many sessions going over it, and all these instrumentals that I really love end up at the bottom of a huge list because I just can’t get the key to make sense for my voice.
Jae: Yeah, which can be so tragic, right? I think when Gus started reaching out to guest vocalists, there was an excitement there because suddenly we could work with people who are performing in different ranges, or even generally just singing differently than I sing.
Cooper: Yeah. I feel like your singing style is really specific and really you. It’s something that you’ve homed in on a lot in a really sweet way. I was wondering if you feel like you did things differently on this record, or you feel like it’s in the same range for you? Not technically range, but how you feel about your singing style.
Jae: Yeah, like my comfort zone. I think this record in general was developed in such a dense amount of anxiety. I’m sure you felt this too, but not knowing what was happening in the world made certain things much more difficult, just emotionally trying to write. And I felt like because we were no longer touring, my insecurity really grew and the little devil on my shoulder that has always whispered like, “You’re not good at this,” really grew. So writing the Runner soundtrack, I think, was fighting a lot of really negative impulses, or trying to combat these horrible feelings that were obviously manifesting within the pandemic.
Cooper: Yeah, that’s interesting. I definitely agree with confidence being down because of not touring. I’ve played some shows recently, but after not playing shows for a while, I feel like I forgot how it felt to be singing loudly. I wasn’t really projecting. I was trying to record stuff at home, and I could still do it and it was not super hard, but when you don’t play shows for a long time, you lose track of what is exciting to say loud. You know what I mean?
Jae: Yeah, absolutely. We went and played five shows, and there was only one show in that string of shows where I felt like I hit it. I think it’s because that show was already super stressful — we were last, and I was like, I‘m really going to fuck this one up. Like I had this assumption that the show was going to be bad. But then it was the one show where I hit all the marks and I felt really good about it. I felt really confident and the crowd out there was a really appropriate transference. But the rest of the shows, I was so in my head. I’ve never, ever before experienced this, but I was like experiencing that feeling like, What’s the lyric? It was crazy.
Cooper: Yeah, it’s weird how it’s like exercising or something. It’s like if you just stop doing it and then try to run or something, it’s going to be insanely hard. I still feel like I’m not like fully… I’m happy with my performance, but I want to be consistently playing. It makes recording a lot easier.
Augustus: Yeah, people keep asking if I’m excited for tour and I’m like, “I’m excited to be like seven shows in on tour.”
Cooper: Yeah, exactly. You guys have two tours coming up? Or one tour, but US and Europe?
Augustus: Yeah, we just announced, like, 60 shows.
Cooper: Woah. That’s crazy. Have you done that before? Like that dense?
Augustus: Yeah, in 2019. Basically, in 2018, 2019, we played every month. Well, a month off and then we go out for a month. It was like nonstop.
Cooper: That’s ideal. Honestly, I do a tour every year, but it’s usually only 15 to 20 dates, and then just one off stuff for the rest of the year. But I would love to be in a position where I can be touring a lot. I feel like that would be really fun.
Augustus: Yeah, it’s definitely fun to switch over your brains to just working on your live set. Because for me, the live set and recording is a totally different part of my brain.
Cooper: Yeah, definitely.
Augustus: It’s like, Yeah, I felt like we were really honing our set, we’re feeling really good. But then you get home and it’s like weird to record music.
Cooper: Yeah. But I think there’s something about the inspiration of traveling and becoming better performers that makes recording music more worth it or something.
Augustus: A hundred percent. It gives you the confidence to be like, Oh yeah, people want to listen to this. And that’s why it was so weird when everything shut down. You just kind of lost that confidence of understanding where the music exists
Jae: I wonder, too, if it’s like the same for you, but the first couple albums we released — I mean, obviously we were not well-known whatsoever, so we had the ability to have a bunch of songs that were basically blobs, right? Like they were a little fluid, and then take them on the road and play these DIY tours. You can kind of gauge what people like, and then you bring those blobs into the studio and that’s how you make a record. But now we have to do everything the opposite way, which is really challenging. I feel like like, it’s hard to anticipate what really hits live.
Cooper: Yeah. It is hard. I feel like there have been times when I’ve made instrumentals that I’m like, Oh, this is going to sound really good, because I’ve tested it on like certain speakers I have and think that it’s going to have a certain impact. And then I get to the actual venue, and it needs, like, 10 more shows and 10 more adjustments or something.
Jae: Yes, so many adjustments.
Augustus: Cooper, can I ask you about some of your influences? What made you want to make music like you’re making right now?
Cooper: It’s tricky. I was playing a lot of guitar music forever, since I was 12, 13, and then just kept doing that. And then realized that I could also use the computer as a tool. I think a lot of my credits do go to rock bands I was listening to that got me thinking about music as something I could do.
Augustus: But what about the electronic side? Is there an album you heard that made you want to start making beats?
Cooper: Good question. I’ve always listened to hip hop music, but I never was wanting to come off as a rapper. And I don’t think people really think that. Nelly’s Country Grammar — the production on that record is something that I sometimes credit if people ask me about certain drum patterns I use. That’s an album that I had when I was in elementary school, so I feel like that sort of stuck. But there’s a lot of stuff like that, like early 2000s 808 work. But yeah, I’ve been using the same eight or nine drum sounds the whole time I’ve been making this music.
Augustus: 808, baby.
Cooper: How about you, influence wise?
Augustus: I started making beats when I was 18. I was listening to hip hop — GZA’s Liquid Swords was really big for me, Method Man’s Tical.
Cooper: That’s crazy, I didn’t know that you were making hip hop beats. Do you still ever dabble in that?
Augustus: Yeah, I think our stuff’s a little bit higher tempo, and I think we’ve realized that our stuff’s a little bit better higher tempo. I think when I found out about four on the floor, I kind of got hooked on that. But just kind those sounds and that space — especially Method Man’s Tical, the production design on that just feels so DIY. I was listening to that album before I even knew about synths, and I could picture, like, boards and equipment. And that was like, Oh, I can do this. I can get this groove box and start making beats like this. It’s just so minimal, but then so effective.
Cooper: That’s cool. Yeah, it’s good when you’re young and you can sometimes visualize what you’re listening to and have it make sense.
Augustus: Yeah, because I was always into music, but I picked up a guitar and I sucked at that. I tried drums, I sucked at that. And I had all these friends that were pretty musically-inclined, so I just never thought I could do it because I was surrounded by so much more talent. So I just got a drum machine as a hobby, and it’s something I would do in secret for years and years and years.
Cooper: But at that point, were you pretty into it? Like you knew that you were feeling serious about it? Pre-Boy Harsher, were you already like, I gotta do music.
Augustus: Not as a career at all. It’s something I would just want to do, that I’d get out of work and I would just want to go make beats. That was the most fun I’ve ever had, and I would just do that with myself.
And then noise shows were a big thing for me. I would go to a house show and see someone just with a four-track on the ground, just distorting that. That was like, Oh, well, this is really powerful, this is cool. I’ve got my four track, I’ve got some beats on that. I could throw together some little set. So I just started doing these little sets at house shows, and that started making sense. And having people give me feedback, and meeting other bands through that was definitely a turning point for me.
Cooper: That’s cool to hear. I like the idea of you getting out of work and having fun on a drum machine.
Augustus: I remember it fondly. Everyone’s going to party, and I was like, “No, I’m going to go fucking play.”
Jae: When I met Gus, he had this studio in this church that was falling apart, and he would go there. Everyone literally was drinking at every single bar in Savannah, and he would be in this absolutely haunted church making crazy music.
Cooper: That’s awesome. And that’s like when you guys started?
Jae: No, he was doing that way before he met me, I’d say. We started a year or so after we met, or maybe longer. Do you remember?
Augustus: Something like that. But yeah, I was making that stuff, but I wasn’t really playing it out. And then around the time I met Jae, I started playing my solo project more, and then we started the band.
Cooper: I was going to ask another question that’s a little out there: Have you ever thought about working with, not an orchestra necessarily, but having like a bigger band of any sort? Or would you rather keep it kind of in the box?
Augustus: I’m really into choir sounds. I like cheesy choir sounds, vintage choir sounds. I recently got this kind of newer digital keyboard that has some more realistic choir sounds. I was thinking if we have the resources that some time it would be cool to play around with that, and actually get a choir to sing those.
Cooper: Yeah, even just for recordings, it would be cool. I feel like when groups get bigger, they have access to talented people who are down to do stuff. I always think about working with real strings — getting people together for that would be really cool.
Augustus: Yeah. So, when I’ve got the budget to get the Philharmonic…
(Photo Credit: left, Courtney Brooke)