Jordan Gatesmith seems to react against his environment.
While he was living in Minneapolis, more than 1,500 miles from the nearest ocean. Gatesmith played surf-rock with his band, Howler. Now that he’s in sunny Los Angeles, he’s making the coldest lo-fi music of his career with his new band, Wellness.
“I wish I had trusted myself more,” Gatesmith says of his college-age years in Howler, a group he started in 2010, when he was just 18. “I think I didn’t understand what my boundaries were at that time. I didn’t understand what would make me uncomfortable. Maybe ‘control’ is a better word than ‘boundaries.’ But being able to differentiate what sort of situations, who I’m speaking to, or what sort of articles or videos I was doing would’ve been more important.”
Gatesmith releases Mall Goth today on Minneapolis cassette label Forged Artifacts, the follow-up to Wellness’ 2017 debut EP, Mostly Blue, and these six new tracks of experimental grunge-pop are worlds away from Howler’s brash rock sound. Gatesmith left Minneapolis in 2015 for L.A., where he says he learned to be more self-sufficient, and to focus on building his own sort of music community. The insular sound of Wellness is a musical reset, a means of pursuing self-improvement.
“Starting Wellness was one of the best things I ever did for myself.” Gatesmith says. “I think the name of the band reflects that.”
The video for the album’s lead single, “Fake Flowers,” follows a group of L.A. goths lurking around the outside of a mall, and Gatesmith’s take on the inherent sadness of introspective lo-fi music sounds refreshing and new. His anxieties seek existential answers through astrology in “Moon in Libra,” and throughout the EP, the textures are as inviting as dreams, most strikingly on the gauzy shoegaze of “Purge.”
Howler got signed to Rough Trade after a writer sent the storied indie label their debut EP without the band’s knowledge. Soon NME, Pitchfork, and the New York Times were all covering the band, who went on to play major music festivals on the heels of 2012’s America Give Up. It was a time when music blogs were celebrating indie bands with anything even remotely beachy in their sound—Best Coast and Beach Fossils, the Drums and FIDLAR, Surfer Blood and Wavves. Howler happened to fit the mold, and the press continued to lump Gatesmith’s band in with this trend even after their 2014 sophomore album World of Joy aimed to grow beyond it.
“It fucking sucked,” Gatesmith says bluntly about finding himself in the spotlight while he was still figuring out his own life. “Parts of it were obviously fun and memorable—it was good and bad. But I got my ass kicked, and I didn’t expect to be affected by that sort of attention. It took a mental toll on me.”
Gatesmith says maybe if the band was just starting out now that he’s a little more grown up, it’d be a different story. “The good part of it is that this is something I think any sort of person who works in the entertainment industry will have to deal with at some point in their life, and I just had to deal with it right away,” he says. “It was kind of like bootcamp, in all honesty, and I think it made me a much stronger person. After the craze of the first two years of it, I was able to grow more into myself and figure out what works for me and what doesn’t.”
The name Mall Goth combines the titular subculture’s gloomy outlook with the dread of late capitalism, relishing in the slow death of commercial centers. And as the spiteful, slouched Notes from the Underground-inspired narrator puts it on “Fake Flowers”: “I’m paling in the sun/ I shake a hateful fist/ At every single orange strip mall fascist.” For Gatesmith, the darkness of the mall seems to be where capitalism and conformity meet, which inspires a morbid sense of commercial pop satire not far removed from the work of Ariel Pink or Nick Cave. (As in the video for Mostly Blue, where Gatesmith witnesses his own open-heart surgery in a bathtub).
“I think Wellness is 100 percent a goth band,” says Gatesmith. “Anytime somebody sees us, literally someone’s like ‘Oh wow, you sound like Bauhaus.’” (Thing is, Gatesmith has never even listened to those goth godfathers.) “I think this record comes from a darker place. I think the songs themselves are a reflection of my life at that time, post-Howler, and so they have a moodier sort of feel, a little on edge, and are more autobiographical than anything else.”
And yet, L.A. has lent Gatesmith a more relaxed perspective on life and provided the opportunity to explore a new community.
“It was so hard to break-up with Howler, because it was such a big part of my life,” he says. “But you know when you tear something up and bring up that blank page? Nothing feels better. I’ve done it before with previous bands, and it was really a liberating feeling.”