by Alma R
“Every day is Halloween”, proclaims the Ministry song; now, the phrase is a mantra adopted by goths everywhere. While the vast majority of people view Halloween as one day in October, for some of us black lipstick isn’t part of a costume but part of a lifestyle. Salem, armed with morbid knife-wielding punk songs, embrace that spirit.
But morbidity isn’t all there is to the band – the cover for their self-titled EP sports an Archie Comics-style character surrounded by the baby pink hue Salem have made their signature. Goth as a genre is undetachable from aesthetics; one of its core tenets is to catch people’s eye by shocking them visually; often with blood and gore, but also with campness. Theatrics are an inherent part of the subculture as a whole. For bands, that translates into creating distinct worlds to go with their records, such as My Chemical Romance’s Three Cheers and Black Parade eras. It’s something in which Salem frontman Will Gould has experience with his other band, Creeper — every release has come with a vibrant theatrical experience of its own.
“I love the idea of this baby pink evil. I thought it was really cute, the bubblegum in one hand and a knife in the other,” frontman Gould tells me as we discuss his new project. “I thought it represented the songs very well because they’re fun, kind of flirty songs, but with these really dark metaphors in them.”
He’s right — objectively, the lyrics “my little pocket knife, she stabs herself into my side / true love knife fight” are what most people would call dark. But as a morbid goth myself, I hadn’t thought of them as anything but extremely romantic. When I explore why that screams romance to me, it’s less about the act and more about the aesthetic performance of being a goth – a recurring theme in Gould’s lyricism. The inspiration for goth style often comes from flaming displays of theatricality, and Gould is no stranger to that himself; while we talk, he brings up The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a horror punk cult classic that serves as a eureka moment for many people, including him. “At the time I had no idea what it was, and I thought it was a horror film. And that film really changed my life. It was a real seminal moment where it was just like, ‘oh my god, I want to live in this world’.”
One of the biggest strengths of the EP is that it makes no effort to cater to anyone but the freaks — the kind of people to whom “baby you are my curse” sounds like the ultimate declaration of love — and in doing so, creates a space where acceptance is paramount, which is Gould’s aim. “It’s always felt like everything I’ve had with my audience over the years has been like that; [it’s] been a collection of people because they don’t fit in anywhere else, don’t conform to regular stereotypes, and I think that’s important.”
While we speak, Gould is walking around his living room with his toenails painted. “No one would know that if I hadn’t told you that now,” he laughs, reflecting on the way being a goth is often seen by mainstream culture as something you put on just for show when in reality, the lifestyle goes deeper than that. It’s something I can relate to; like Gould, I grew up going to punk shows and eventually found a home within the goth subculture. More than simply wearing black and liking dark things, it’s a means of liberating yourself from the oppressive norms society pushes on you every day. It’s a blood-drenched revenge over gender and sexuality norms. For as long as I can remember, there was always something making me an outsider, whether that was my sexuality, my gender presentation, religion, or not having a nuclear family. In being goth, I found a place where being different wasn’t something to be laughed at but something to celebrate. I remember reading about death obsessively after my father died as a child and thinking there was something wrong with me for being fascinated by it — as it turns out, there was an entire subculture of people out there who shared the same love for the macabre.
Salem delve into both, from ‘Destroy Me’’s chorus about being tied up, to ‘Eyesore’s “I’ll be the trophy wife neither of your parents like” — as a gender non-conforming gay goth, it jumped out immediately how visceral and real to the experience those songs were – something I’ve only experienced a handful of times. There’s no shortage of music that explores similar themes, but most bands write songs about us rather than for us. Salem’s music, however, is unapologetically from the point of view of a spooky bitch.
“I like to think that we’re very sex-positive in our way of thinking, and especially with people being less embarrassed about talking about their own sexuality, I think that’s important. For example, a song like ‘Destroy Me’ has lots of BDSM undertones there, but it’s not about, ‘I’m gonna destroy this girl’, it’s like, ‘destroy me baby’, but that’s a really common thing in the kink world as well. It’s not always about male dominance at all, in any sense of the imagination,” Gould says. In a world where toxic masculinity reigns supreme and songs about violently objectifying women are dime a dozen, Salem foster themes of mutual adoration and ghoulish devotion – not unlike Gomez kneeling to Morticia Addams in Family Values.
Gould underlines the irony of talking about male dominance, adding in passing that he’s speaking to me “as a white boy”, but the point still stands — it’s important to show that gender and sexuality don’t have to be a box you fit into, but rather what you want to make of them. Morbid gender non-conforming goths who grew up in the 2000s looked to AFI’s Davey Havok and My Chemical Romance’s Gerard Way as examples of what we could be. Now, Gould hopes to carry the torch: “To be in a position where I have influence over anyone and can encourage them to be themselves and dress however the fuck they want, that’s a real privilege.”
In every queer goth person’s life, there comes a tipping point where you see a person doing something you never thought possible by just being themselves and realise you can also be like that, and with his new band, Will Gould embodies that very spirit.
Salem is a black lipstick-covered knife planted in the heart of having to be normal and palatable to kill it dead before pulling it out and licking the blood; long live spooky bitches, death to the closet.