The cathartic racket of Kill Alters uses home recordings of a dysfunctional childhood as raw material
“I didn’t even know I lived above a porn video store at that time. There’s a lot of stuff I’ve stuffed down and forgotten,” says Kill Alters’ Bonnie Baxter casually, leaning down to plug the phone she’s Skyping from into a charger. Three years ago she discovered a box of cassettes, recorded by her mum between the 1970s and 90s, and memories started resurfacing from her childhood. Baxter’s mum, who has lived with OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome since her own childhood, constantly taped her daily life; singing, family arguments, crying, phone calls, whatever. The tapes filled in blanks for Baxter, a New York artist based in Brooklyn, who was releasing dark, solo synth pop as Shadowbox at the time, but she decided to work the recordings into a debut LP from Kill Alters, her project with bandmates Hisham Akira Bharoocha and her husband Nico Kennedy.
Released in a limited run of 100 yellow cassettes, their debut was an unsettling, nightmarish blur of whispered malice, little girl chatter, industrial drones and lo-fi noise. It accessed memories from a chaotic phase in Baxter’s life, when she was being sexually abused by a neighbour, and living with her alcohol mum and coke-taking dad.
“I was pretty surprised when I heard people’s reactions, they thought it was pretty fucked up, I guess to me it all just seemed normal. Some of the bits with my mum doing voices, telling jokes, wanting to be a star, I think it’s kind of funny.”
This year’s follow-up EP No Self Helps is way lighter in comparison, with each track intro’d by a clip of three year old Baxter and her mum singing, at first cutely, then maniacally, over Casio keyboard sample tracks. A secret track turns out to be a mother-daughter skit recorded on an iPhone, where Baxter pretends to have a genital wart, and her mum, in a gruff voice not unlike her comedy hero, George Carlin, offers hypnosis as therapy for it.
“Growing up, my mum was very lonely so she talked to me more like a friend,” Baxter explains. “She’d show me how to puff a cigarette, or tell me she was going to some guy’s house to ask him for money, but she definitely wasn’t going to suck his dick, stuff like that.”
Although Baxter describes her childhood as dysfunctional, and her relationship with her mum remains complicated, she speaks sympathetically about her mum’s own traumatic upbringing, where she was labelled as possessed by her family because of her Tourette’s.
“I just couldn’t imagine ever cutting her off. Some of the stuff I’m unravelling now is pretty messed up – but I also think I’m pretty healthy and normal,” she adds with an awkward laugh, as her husband potters about in the background, popping in and out the webcam frame. “I guess making the music is part of my self-healing – expelling those things or something. I also hope some of it sounds fun, or playful.”
The new EP was recorded in Baxter and Kennedy’s apartment, but designed to be played live on “a really big soundsystem”. Kennedy describes it as ‘dark, mutated, heavy, weird shit’, also drawing heavily from their drummer Bharoocha’s past – he’s played with Lightning Bolt, Pixeltan and Black Dice, still tours with Boredoms, and has a solo project called Soft Circle.
The first album had a crackly, lo-fi texture which got them lumped in with the rest of Brooklyn’s noise scene, but they’ve invested in new equipment for a clearer, stripped down sound now, and are trying to shake off the ‘noise’ tag. “Don’t say it was expensive – we’re gonna get robbed!”, Baxter jokes.
“The noise scene here is very healthy, and also very cool,” says Kennedy. “But what we’re doing is actually a lot more melodic than noise, and Bonnie writes song-based music, so that label would probably mislead people now.”
Kill Alters’ visual side is also very strong – Baxter chops up Snapchat images with fuzzy VHS home movies and shaky iPhone footage to create DIY videos – a sickly, moreish blur of Miss Piggy masks, old Polaroids, her mum dancing in her bra and disembodied legs writhing around in red lace tights. The creepy aesthetic and theme of suffering sits them somewhere between Aphex Twin and Gazelle Twin, with some of The Julie Ruin’s twitchy energy or Moor Mother’s troubled and traumatised vibes.
As those names indicate, the couple’s musical influences are extensive. They enjoy listening to everyone from the Beastie Boys, BEAK>, Elliott Smith and Nine Inch Nails to Solange and Illum Sphere, and find it hard to guess who their own music will go down well with.
“What we do is pretty fragmented – there’s not one emotion. Some of it’s us hanging out and cranking out stoner jams, other stuff’s more fun, or dark. I guess if there are kids out there who listen to Kill Alters, and are maybe going through some weird shit of their own, feeling alone or anxious, and this helps them feel empowered, then I’ve done my job,” says Baxter.
Kill Alters’ No Self Helps is released via Bandcamp.
This interview was in the December issue of The Wire.