Around 1986 a boy saw a horror film that he probably shouldn’t have. In catching George Pavlou’s Rawhead Rex, the seven-year-old witnessed an unhinged pagan god unleashing a bloodbath on the Irish countryside. Even if he shouldn’t have seen the Clive Barker-penned film, we can all be glad he did. It led to a lifelong love of horror that would stick with a young Justin Pointer, setting the stage for him to form the globally renowned metal-synthwave act Dance with the Dead with fellow horror fan Tony Kim.
“It just terrified me,” Pointer said in a Skype interview he and Kim did with Bloody Disgusting recently, fresh off the release of the music video for the kinetic banger “From Hell.” “From there, I’ve always been into horror and sci-fi movies — getting scared.”
Dance with the Dead — formed in 2013 — tap into their ‘80s horror film roots in both their music and in the art they choose for their albums. The cover for their latest album, Loved to Death, features a dark, red-eyed ghoul-of-a-man creeping up behind an unsuspecting young woman, his malintent oozing from his face. It was created by Marc Schoenbach, well-known to BD readers for his compelling DVD cover art. Previous albums such as The Shape and Out of Body all feature transformed humans emanating dark energy. There are no palm trees or neon grids here.
It’s not the just the visuals that draw from classic horror. Their music — a deft blend of metal guitar riffs and wailing leads with minor-key synth arrangements and danceable beats — and their song titles all draw from their interests in the visuals and music of horror films from the likes of Dario Argento and John Carpenter, among many others. Kim mentions Argento’s 1985 picture Demons when I ask him about a favorite, for lack of a better term, “so-bad-it’s-good” horror film.
“I mean, the film’s got punk-rocker demons,” Kim said, laughing.
So how did two metal heads/lifelong friends from Orange County, California, with a horror-film fascination end up creating a globe-trotting, best-selling synthwave band? How do they come up with their haunting-but-fun blend of rock and electronic music? Where do they plan to take this thing in the years to come? In this interview, conducted as the duo prepare for a European tour that begins this month, Kim and Pointer tackle those questions and many more. Are you ready for these screams and whispers?
Aaron Vehling: You two have never been averse to bringing your music to the stage. Six years into Dance with the Dead, it seems like you’re touring North America and Europe quite often. As I understand it, you tour about three times a year?
TK: Justin and I both have backgrounds in bands — punk rock, hard rock, [and] metal bands. It’s in us to want to perform as musicians rather than just releasing [our music] on the internet and hoping it catches on that way. It’s in our DNA to want to perform in front of a crowd and do our thing.
JP: We love it, but at the same time it’s our job. We really have to thank our fans for making it a full-time job. We’ve got so many downloads and sales, which freed up time to go on tour.
AV: On your records you have a deft, artful use of guitars — they complement the synths melodically and harmonically — but in a live setting they really kill. In general, from songwriting to your concerts, you two seem to have a deep emphasis on performance. (Reporter’s Note: At shows Kim and Pointer alternate their approach: sometimes both are on axes and let the machines do their work, at other times it’s one of them on guitar and another behind the synthesizers, or both are at the keys. In all circumstances, the result is spectacular.)
TK: Justin said it best to me… there’s something you can’t get with all the millions of dollars of lighting and stage props compared to just an artist having energy on stage and rocking out. For instance, if I went to see a band with a stripped-down stage and these guys were fucking rocking out, that… would blow me away.
JP: A perfect example of that— to go on stage with basically just a guitar amp — is Rage Against the Machine. They never dabbled in stage theatrics and can own a stadium, as far as energy.
AV: So did your background in bands influence your decision to do guitar-driven synthwave?
TK: When we first started off, I didn’t want any guitars. Justin was like, “Do a stupid solo” — there are not a lot of electronic bands with guitars incorporated. Obviously, there are guitars on the first record, but something was holding me back. I wasn’t super confident. We didn’t know what we were doing. As we kept making more records and more songs, guitars in a way also kind of became like the vocal part of the music, along with the synthesizers. Rather than just doing a fancy solo, we come up with catchy melodic riffs that anyone can kind of hum. That’s what I look like when I track something: more a member than being super shreddy or fancy.
AV: The guitars becoming vocals — I can hear that. As for the synths, I hear a lot of influence from folks like John Carpenter.
TK: Justin was a lot more familiar with electronic music than I was. I’ve known Justin pretty much my entire life. He’s always liked, let’s say “EDM” to simplify it. He was like, “You should check out these guys… maybe it’ll help trigger something. Obviously, I’ve always liked big guys like Justice and Daft Punk; but… also John Carpenter and even guys like Hans Zimmer are meshed in all our experiences.
AV: How do you two typically write and record your albums in a practical sense?
TK: Literally today I woke up, heard a bass line in my head and just wanted to lay it down really quickly before I forgot it. That ended up becoming like half a song. I can’t stop — it kept flowing out of me. There are times when Justin and I feel the need to sit down and write songs right now, because being a musician you hear melodies and beats and riffs in your head all goddamn day. In terms of technology — what we have now compared to 15-20 years ago — we can just go in our bedroom and lay something down real quick.
JP: Tony lives in Orange County and I live in Washington. Usually how it starts is through email we throw riffs back and forth together with Logic sessions.
AV: When you’re playing in front of audiences in all of those different places, what do you learn that you bring to your music on subsequent albums?
TK: We learn off the crowd what kind of energy they go off. For Loved to Death, Justin and I were like, “Now that we know what the crowd gets into, we have to capture that energy in these songs.”
AV: Anyone have a favorite horror score?
JP: Disasterpeace’s It Follows. He just nailed it: every scene, every synth sound. In terms of modern-day scores, it’s one of best.
AV: Is there a movie you’d love to rescore?
TK: I think Justin will say Christine. [Justin agreed.]
JP: I’ve got two that pop out right away: Gladiator and Christine.
AV: What is it about Christine?
JP: It was perfectly done. The directing and acting is perfect.
TK: When I first watched Christine in high school, the score reminded me more of something like Tales from the Crypt almost. It was a more song arrangement than sounds or a spooky synthesizer in the background. It’s one of my favorite Carpenter scores for sure.
JP: Just like Halloween will not work without that theme, Christine is in the same boat. That movie would not work without the exact score that’s on it.
AV: If you didn’t actually do a rescore, perhaps because an existing score is just too good and memorable, would you consider getting into film scoring?
TK: That’s our next goal. We’ve always incorporated some kind of score piece in our records — a mellow score piece in the middle of an album (though not on Loved to Death). We love scores. If a horror director approached us, we’d be open to scoring.
JP: I don’t think we’re looking for rom-coms. [laughs]
AV: I could see you rescoring You’ve Got Mail. That would be wild. Anything else you’re up to? What’s next for you guys, in addition to the tour? A new album?
TK: No album, but we have more tours coming up after the European run.
JP: As far as an album, we’re always writing, but one thing we’d like to dabble with in future EPs and albums, if the situation presents itself, is working with vocals (in a collaboration). We don’t know who we’d work with at this point, but it’s something on the horizon for us.
AV: Before we sign off: What do you want people to get out of your music?
JP: We want our music to touch people emotionally. We’d like people to create stories of their own in their heads with our music. We have always been super passionate about all kinds of music and the escape from reality that it can bring.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Dance with the Dead kick off their headlining Europe/UK tour on Feb. 17 in Cardiff, Wales, UK and concludes it on March 9 in Amsterdam.
DANCE WITH THE DEAD