all photos courtesy of Leechwife
Art is a critical means of escapism for many. The real world can be callow and cruel, and at times the only solution is to leave it behind in pursuit of whatever fantastical visions we can put into our heads. Whether we create these worlds or simply enjoy dwelling in them, it’s undeniable that escapism through art is of the utmost importance.
Especially in times as uncertain as these, now more than ever we must remember to find spaces to explore. For Lilith Grace – the psych-rock, industrial and sludge metal wunderkind from Columbus, OH who performs as Leechwife – this use of escapism was critical in the composition and recording of her latest album.
Nebulae and Debris is a fantastically layered and intricate concept album about escaping to the furthest reaches of outer space, and all the strange creatures and eldritch horrors that await the intrepid space-farer. The record is a vast sonic nimbus of alien synthesis, unusual instruments (Balalaika! Oud!) and an asteroid belt’s worth of drum samples. Leechwife has been known to shake things up and push her sound forward to the bleeding edge with each record – check out her other excellent albums like Goat Milk and Sentience Is Feeling for examples – but Nebulae and Debris sounds plucked from a wormhole, not of this Earth.
In my recent Zoom interview with Lilith Grace, I was shocked at how much we had in common in terms of our love for classic Nintendo games and cutting-edge intuition on musical fronts. Among many, many other things, we had the chance to discuss the appeal of cassette tapes, take a deep dive into the LSD-infused galactic wanderings of Nebulae and Debris, and just plain gush for a few minutes about Zelda and Metroid and their myriad influences upon us. My conversations with artists tend to skew discursive rather than straightforward, but even for me this one was exceptionally exploratory.
What’s something that’s been piquing your interest over the last few weeks or months?
Well, to be honest, I don’t have too many hobbies other than music. I spend most of my day and night just literally – if I’m up, I’m probably listening to music or working on something. I guess my one thing outside of that that I really enjoy is video games. I’m pretty psyched about the new Metroid [Dread], I still haven’t played it.
It’s so good! I’ve been putting in hours.
I’ve heard that it’s pretty great. Metroid has been my favorite series since Metroid 4 [Metroid Fusion], which was pretty much 20 years ago.
Fusion is an amazing game, so scary. I’ve actually been really into horror games lately, and I think Metroid Prime planted that seed a very long time ago.
That is a perfect game right there. I love Metroid Prime 1 and 2.
Apparently they’re sitting on a Switch remake of Prime 1 just waiting to tell people about it.
Oh, I believe that. I still have the GameCube versions, but if they do an HD remake – I don’t usually spring for the remakes, but with that I think I would have to.
I think the last one was the Prime trilogy on the Wii. You really can’t beat the free aim – though I do kinda like the weird L-targeting thing a lot of GameCube games were into at the time.
It works really well for that game. I think it keeps it more exploration-focused.
Yeah! It’s not a shooter game, it’s a scanner game.
Oh yeah. But I don’t know, I like a game when it’s exploration-based. Those games are some of my biggest interests.
You’re gonna love Dread in that regard. It’s also very combat-intensive, and there’s some really cool sequence breaks – good signs for any Metroid game.
Oh yeah. I got to see a little bit of gameplay hanging out with my friend a little bit ago. Also, just the aesthetic of the whole thing is really cool. I like the robots a lot; they seem pretty fun.
They are terrifying. My friend set his text tone to the EMMI sound, and I get so anxious hearing it. (Laughs)
For a while, my text tone was the screw attack noise – right now, it’s the sound it makes when Mega Man dies in the old NES games. (Laughs)
I love those games! Mega Man is so fun.
Same. I just finished my collection of all the NES ones not too long ago, so I’ve been super stoked on that.
Do you have those on original hardware?
Yeah, yeah, they’re back here somewhere. Here’s a better angle on the stack of stuff back here. (Shows NES game collection)
Oh yeah, you got the whole stack! I love that content.
I am a big Nintendo nerd.
Same here, eye-to-eye on that one. I’d imagine that that has some influence over the sounds you choose to make – it certainly has for me.
Absolutely. There are certainly some tracks on Nebulae and Debris where I tried to be pretty, like, blatant about that influence. Really lean into the, “Here’s the sound of an NES playing alongside guitar and drums and bass.” But yeah, it’s so ingrained in my head that I think there’s always a degree of influence it has. And the whole idea of using music as almost part of the visual in a lot of games – it’s all part of the environment. Any of that has influenced my songwriting to a more general degree.
Like building spaces, or creating a sonic space where you can picture a visual with the sounds.
Yeah. And I’ll kinda get a visual for a lot of songs before I write them, and kinda work backwards from that – I dunno, it works for me. I actually wrote the whole plot of this album before I had a note for it or anything. Like, “oh yeah, this section is gonna sound like this.”
I would love to hear more about that.
It’s kinda hard to describe, but… when I work on an album it’s very album-focused. I come up with what the album’s gonna be, and a lot of times the track listing, and even how long I want each song to be before I start writing it – just kinda get this skeleton going. But I’ll have a general idea of, “Oh, this song is gonna have this overall timbre, or conjure up whatever sort of image.”
With Nebulae and Debris, because it was a concept album, it was real, real specific. Like, “This song has to sound like going to fight a worm monster on the sun,” or whatever. So obviously if you have that, the song pretty much writes itself at that point. (Laughs)
I’d imagine so! Once you get the clear visual, it’s a matter of transmuting what you see and then turning it into a process of sounds and instruments.
Yeah, yeah. And once I have that, I’ll start writing the song in my head. I’ll usually have a good degree of it tabbed out on my guitar before I actually pick it up and start playing. Lately it’s been the guitar and the bass that come first; a lot of times, it used to be the drums and synths I’d start with. Then with the synths, rather than doing lead parts like I used to do, I’ll harmonize with the guitar and create whatever weird chord with what the main riff is playing.
Yeah. Which is harder, especially, to know exactly what I’m gonna want before it starts being programmed on my drum machine. With the synths being a more textural thing, I have to hear exactly how that’s gonna fit in before I know what it’s gonna be. It’s been nice working with a sampler, because I have every synth I’ve ever owned sampled onto here.
With Submission, a lot of that was based around synthesis. Now you’re using balalaika and outrageous stringed instruments with a much harder-edged, slightly more analog/digital blend. What was that process like for you, bringing guitar and microtonality into your music?
It was a lot of on-the-whim decisions. The guitar and bass were my first instruments I really got serious about – I was a metal-head all throughout my teenage years. I liked industrial, but never to the same degree at the time. And around the time I started getting the idea for a solo project, I was heavy into it – those were the “dark-wave revival” years, when that was a big thing. So I was like, “Yeah, I can do that – I’ll do that as a solo project.” When I started incorporating the micro-tonal guitar, that King Gizzard record [Flying Microtonal Banana] came out and I said, “This seems like something I could have fun with.” So I had one of those made – actually, James from Reflex Machine put it together, but this was all custom parts. (Holds up the microtonal guitar) This is my little purple jobbie that I love so much.
What’s the process like for building a microtonal guitar?
Parts-wise, it was everything standard for a normal Telecaster, except for the pickups. The neck we had to source out and get custom-made. I was only able to find one place at the time that made them – I don’t like saying who they were since they did not do a very good job – and I had to then take them to Sean Bauer, whose repair company put a bunch more work into it to get it playable. He did a great job, I’d highly recommend him. But yeah, it was just a matter of finding all the parts and then pulling it together. We didn’t really build it build it – just assembled it, I suppose.
About when in the discography would that have been, when you started bringing microtonality into the mix?
That would have been There Is No Reality, the second one. On that one, I was playing the oud. I had just gotten the microtonal guitar, and was not confident on it yet, but I’d been working out microtonal scales I would use on the oud, and I sort of attempted a quarter-tonal album with that. I don’t know exactly how spot-on I was on the oud – my intonation is usually a little bit off, admittedly. But that was where it started. And then Sentience Is Feeling, and then on Goat Milk, I got that official Eastwood microtonal guitar from the factory and tuned it real, real low –
Yeah! I tuned it to drop A like Electric Wizard – that was the whole idea. That was Goat Milk. And then I did not use any microtonal stuff – I used the oud, played it non-microtonally, but I didn’t use any microtonal guitars for Nebulae and Debris. But I got to use pretty much everything else I owned – I made a point to use all my non-microtonal guitars. Between guitars, basses, banjo, balalaika, and oud, it was something like 10 guitars or something if you count those all as guitars.
12-string too, right?
Yeah, yeah. I got the Hagstrom 12-string electric – bit of a Sixties jobbie. I love that thing, super fun to play. But that, Hagstrom bass, Hagstrom 6-string – both from the Sixties – an Epiphone Casino, a Jazzmaster, my aluminum Electrical Guitar Company guitar, and then, yeah, the acoustic ones and a 5-string bass.
I don’t know, I just have fun getting to play everything for once, since I usually just do one stringed instrument per album. I have another microtonal one I’m working on right now that’s on both those guitars. That’ll be coming at some point in 2022; I’m not sure when yet, but recording on that is probably gonna start pretty soon. I have too many albums I’m working on right now.
Believe me, I know the feeling.
One of ‘em I’ve been working on since 2019, then I was like “What if I also do a banjo album? What if I do a straight sludge album?” And then I get overwhelmed with ideas and I don’t do any of them.
That’s a real thing too – “analysis paralysis,” I think I heard it called.
Oh yeah. I always call it “paralyzed by choice.”
Yup. Too many options!
Someone make this choice for me.
What, then, makes you decide definitively “This is what I want to do” in your art? What’s the tipping point for you, to see an idea through to the end?
A lot of the time I’ll just have my many ideas and go to work on something, and then whatever comes out it’s like, “Well, guess I’m doing that now.” I had a couple album ideas around the time I started doing Goat Milk, and I remember that I went into the studio the first night I was starting to work on the album. I was unsure what I was going to do, and then I listened back in the morning to what I had made and said “Oh shit, that’s Goat Milk. That’s the one.” But yeah, I don’t know. It’s either stuff like that, or on a whim just going “I’m gonna go do this now.”
Sort of an intuitive take on the process – getting in the spirit and knocking it out.
Yeah! Yeah, I have to be in the right mood, but once I’m in the right mood it doesn’t matter. I’ll do something, and then whatever that thing is, I’ll just commit to doing that. It’s very rare that I don’t use an idea at all – like, I’ll find something to do with it.
It’ll show up in some form or other.
Listening through Nebulae and Debris, it struck me how intricately detailed everything was. I wanted to ask you about how you got that sound in the studio. Do you record with anybody?
I do it all solo. What I’ve been doing with actually recording the tracks, I start with a sampler. I’ve actually taken the time to record each track individually, now. That’s helped the mixes a lot. I start with that, then I’ll either do guitar or bass, usually whichever one I primarily wrote the song on. And a lot of times – in fact, pretty much every song – I leave some spaces in the song that are left to be improvised. Especially on this one; I wanted it to feel like exploring space – so I figured that if I were exploring space, it would save me the time of writing parts!
But yeah, it’s pretty standard though – I guess then it’s drums, synths, and bass guitar and lead vocals last. I usually write the lyrics after everything else has been recorded, because that way I can actually see how it fits. I don’t think of the vocal parts too much when I’m writing the songs; it’s usually an afterthought, like “There should probably be vocals,” and then I put something in.
So you pretty much reverse-engineer everything! Working out album concepts and track-lists and ideas, then going into the minutiae of the music, and then deciding how the lyrics and vocals will take shape.
Yeah, yeah. I’ll usually have the subject of the song, but no melody or definitive lyrics – unless it’s the title, I’ll probably work the title in.
The lyrics on this record are wild. What inspired you to pursue space-faring as a theme for this record?
To be perfectly honest, I was working on this other album in 2019 – it was about this whole doomsday cult thing. And then 2020 happened, and I was like, “I don’t wanna think about this. I wanna think about spaceships.” And I pretty much spent the latter half of 2020 just eating acid and playing a bunch of old Nintendo games, and the album kinda took form from there. I’d sit down and play video games for 10 hours, and then be like, “I know the song now.” That’s pretty much how it worked out. (Laughs)
Between Goat Milk and the evil goat soldiers on Lunar War Herd, I notice that the idea of goats comes up a lot in your body of work. Is that mostly heady Satanic shit?
Yeah. Oh yeah.
I was gonna say, with Electric Wizard as an influence, you don’t really need a reason to include anything like that other than “It’s heady.”
The Goat Milk thing was a metaphor for drinking too. I was drinking way too much at the time, it was a real problem – but not anymore.
It seems like the pandemic has done a number on people’s routines – sometimes for negative, but sometimes for positive.
Oh yeah, I was able to quit drinking during the pandemic, which was awesome. I feel like with a lot of people, it forces you to deal with some of your shit, I guess.
Yeah. I mean, you’re stuck in one place with yourself and no one else for a whole year, you have to deal with some of your problems now.
It’s like a bottle episode of a TV show.
Yeah! That was… a time. But yeah, the actual writing process for this one ended up being pretty fun. It was just a lot of escapism, really. Goat Milk was for dealing with my shit, but this one was “Ahh, let’s sing about spaceships.”
Was that a process you needed to make the escapism on this record work fundamentally?
Yeah! If I’d tried to do escapism in 2019, it would not have gone well while I was still drinking heavily. But yeah, no, I think it’s just where I’m at in my life and what I’m able to write. Doing anything other than that is just – I can’t do it, like I physically can’t. It feels weird, and then I get discouraged and don’t do it.
One of the major lyrics I noticed on this record is “Take this and be wire to God’s throat” – it feels like a rallying cry for your music. What does that mean to you?
So this phrase is a lot dumber than what it seems like. The original working titles and idea for the album was that it was gonna be songs inspired by the different video games I’ve played over the years. And so, at one point, “It’s dangerous to go alone / Take this and be wire to God’s throat” – it was originally gonna be a song about playing [The Legend of] Zelda. I ended up working on an album where the main character gets whatever macguffin that allows them to fight the solar gods or goat-god things – all that nonsense, stuff that makes sense. (Laughs) But in a more realistic sense, confronting the idea of reality and divinity by taking a bunch of acid. This was very much my LSD album.
What was that process like for you – making that while on acid?
Honestly, a lot of the recording I would do while tripping. That’s like my favorite thing to do if I’m in that state, just playing guitar. I feel like it makes me better – but whether that’s actually true, I don’t know.
I imagine that would allow you to tap into subconscious emotion in your playing.
Yeah. It becomes very visual, too, where I can manipulate the visuals based on what I’m playing or what effects I’m using – that’s one thing I found that was super fucking cool. I think I might have some form of synesthesia, so I think it may have something to do with that.
That would actually make a lot of sense! Because your process is a negotiation between the visuals you see in your head and the sounds you make. And then using the acid to manipulate it just so it feels like that thing you’re seeing in your head.
Yeah, yeah – actually, exactly like that. And I have a similar experience where I’m sort of in between being asleep and being awake –
A kind of liminal space.
Yeah, yeah – where I can change what’s going on in my dreams, depending on what music I’m thinking of in my head.
So you’re a lucid dreamer!
Yeah, yeah! I’m not able to get into that state very often, that half-dream state, that lucid dreaming but when I’m able to and I’m able to control the universe around me by songwriting, it’s like… that’s cool.
That’s intensely cool. What do you do in your dreams when you lucid-dream?
I don’t… It’s hard. I never remember them particularly well. But I think a lot of times it ends up honestly being very video game-esque, platform-y little worlds that I’m just exploring. Like I said, I have like two interests, music and video games, so they both worked their way into that one. (Laughs)
I’d imagine so – that stuff can affect the way you think and hear things, I think, ultimately for the better.
Oh, yeah, I would agree. Especially in terms of music, there’s so many good compositions in so many games. It’s good media, I think, for a musician to consume, generally.
Sometimes the music for other things – films, games, TV – is the stuff that will set the gears turning and get me thinking about what I want to do next.
Yeah, ‘cause it’s written in a different paradigm altogether. It’s not music being written to be listened to.
It’s always for something – for a specific purpose.
Yeah, yeah. Which helps me in songwriting from a different perspective. It keeps things fresh, I guess.
Right before the pandemic, I saw you play at Cafe Bourbon Street. And I was struck by the stark, minimalist live setup you had. This record, meanwhile, is one of the most layered you’ve done. Did you have any ideas in the studio on how to translate this stuff live? Or did you just dive right in and see what would happen?
So my initial plan was to get this done real quick and release it during quarantine, and have something else done by the end of quarantine and then never even touch this live. But that is not what happened, and instead of taking a few weeks or so, just like I usually do, I spent about a year on this album – which I’m glad I did, I think it shows.
But it is a little challenging. Some of the songs I know I just can’t do live. Lunar War Herd’s got me playing guitar, bass, balalaika and oud – I can’t do that live. I’ve played a couple of them live; I’ve done Orbit of the Solar Wyrm and Take This live. But there are a few songs like that where I can at least program in a bass part on the sampler and then just play along, the same setup that you’ve seen. It’s pretty much my setup for every show now – I just bring the sampler and a guitar, two guitars. My pedalboard… I’ve been using fewer pedals, too.
I’ve talked to a lot of artists who are either informed by noise, harsher or more unusual elements. A lot of those people have told me they find comfort in those abrasive sounds – I wanted to ask if you’ve found that to be true for you?
I usually require some amount of noise in my day – I don’t deal with silence well, it makes my brain not work. But usually, in terms of noise in music, I like harsher tones; of course, I like the dying-sounding synths and the gross fuzzes – the album’s full of those. There are a lot of synth tones I program on one of my FM machines with the ratios of all the operators – I’ll program them to be nonsense ratios, so they just sound harsh and atonal no matter what you’re playing. That makes a few appearances on the album, a few of the sounds do. I don’t listen to a whole lot of noise music, to be honest, though. I like stuff that’s considered noise rock, but like… I don’t know, I listen to it as part of a rock band.
So you use it more as a tool or palette than a focus on the noise elements.
Yeah. I feel like any sound you can use melodically, regardless of how harsh and disgusting it is. There’s a lot of weird noises repurposed to being sounds on the album, like one of the intermission tracks, Gelatin Planets, Glass Moons. That backing noise below all the guitars is just me making a “pskfht!” sound into a delay and then overloading that, turning that into a weird variable beat.
Through the sampler?
Not even on the sampler, I have this vocal delay – this guy. (Holds up Death By Audio Echo Master)
Yeah, Death By Audio! I know a little bit about that.
Yeah, I love Death By Audio stuff and use a lot of their pedals. But yeah, that was the backing beat for the song. It has this weird distorted warbly sound that’s fun to play with. I added a little bit of tape saturation too to the vocals on a lot of tracks throughout the album, just to give it that harsher edge in general.
Kind of that glued-together sound and feeling.
Yeah, yeah. It takes out a lot of the super-harsh highs, and like the unintelligible bass. But also, I like experimenting with tape a lot. I think that a lot of records, especially records that were mixed during the heyday of tape, a lot of records in certain genres will sound better on tape. Listening to the digital version versus listening to tape – the cassettes we got made, I kinda like the way it sounds on tape better.
It’s funny how often that happens with tape.
I first noticed it when I first got into collecting tapes. I got these Nine Inch Nails cassettes, and immediately it was like “I feel like I’ve never fucking heard this album before.” And, you know, it’s Nine Inch Nails, everyone’s heard this album at least seven hundred times.
Sometimes I’ll buy a tape, then hear the digital and get confused as to what I heard in it before, then play the tape and go “Oh, yeah.”
More recently I got the entire Bjork discography on tape and I’m just loving that right now. That shit sounds great on tape – any synthy, dancey stuff and industrial stuff is great on tape.
I have a lot of jazz tapes, myself – live bootlegs and strange shit.
Oh yeah. I don’t think I actually have jazz tapes – I have jazz vinyl, but my tape collection is all industrial… little bit of metal, plus bands I’ve played with. And that stack of Bjork tapes.
I think beat-heavy genres sound great on tape – hip-hop is perfect on cassette.
Oh, absolutely. I assume it’s something with the frequencies on the drum parts, the way they sound is saturated in that way. It definitely gives an edge to the kick and snare on pretty much everything.
Makes it snap a little harder. You get that sometimes on old hip-hop records, where it sounds loud on digital but it smacks on tape.
Yeah. I actually, for a lot of the drums on this, kinda did something similar to the old-school hip-hop method of just sampling shit straight off vinyl. I didn’t sample entire beats, but I would find drum solos on different albums and be like, “I’m gonna sample just the snare right here.”
Because then you can shape it however you want with the sampler.
Yeah, yeah. And I only had so many good drum fills I wanted to sample that I could think of offhand. And then that worked out pretty well. This was the first record I’ve done with that method. I’ve mostly just been using stuff off machines before, like sampled drum machines and things like that. So more recently I’ve been – actually, I think I did do a little bit of that on Goat Milk, I was just starting to experiment with tracking off of sampled vinyl.
But it’s just now that it’s started taking shape into what you want to do.
Yeah, there’s very few drum hits that are not sampled direct off vinyl on an acoustic kit on Nebulae and Debris. Which is strange, that it’s a sci-fi album and uses less electronic drums, but that’s just how it worked out.
Yeah! Like a strange analog vintage-future thing going on.
Yeah. It’s very much supposed to be the idea of, “This is what the future would look like if we were in the Seventies.”
Yeah – like a more modern version of steampunk.
I’ve heard what you’re talking about referred to as “cassette futurism.” A future that’s boxy and weird, and there’s VHS and cassette tapes. I love that aesthetic a whole lot, it’s super cool.
With the new record, there’s been a lot of evolution in a very short amount of time. Obviously both you and your process have changed. But how do you feel, listening back through those old records and the new ones and seeing that change?
I feel really proud of the change the way it has, especially in terms of mixing. I listen back to those old ones, I hear how I mixed ‘em, I cringe a little bit. But, you know, I took so much more time on this one. Submission, There Is No Reality and Sentience Is Feeling were all deals where I took a week off of work. And then I had a week from writing the first note to being done. And Goat Milk I took three weeks on – I actually booked the tape release before I started writing the album on that one. I barely made that one in time, but it worked out! But this one I took a full year, and it shows, because I took time to experiment with the mixes. I took time to put in little intricacies and a lot of little touches. And it let me experiment with more complicated song structures, rather than doing a bunch of simple shit I could kinda whip out in a few weeks.
It lets the songs breathe and take their own shapes, too.
That was one thing that I realized after doing Goat Milk. I write these songs during these time crunches, and as I played them live, they’d change – the way I would play them would change, and the sounds would change. So I wanted to give myself more time with these songs, to actually figure out, “This is how I want it to be,” instead of putting the song out there, and then, you know, a month later being like, “Well… I could have had this going on.” With these, there’s very little I would change. There’s probably a little bit, but… nah, I wouldn’t change it. Well, you know – I won’t say I would change it. (Laughs)
One final question for you. We’ve gone to the furthest reaches of the universe and outer space. What’s next for Leechwife – where does the ship go next? I know we talked about the microtonal record; what else is on the back burner?
So I’ve got three right now in the concept phase. The first one is that microtonal one, which is called The Haunted Sun. I’ve been playing five or so of those songs live since late 2019. They’re a lot of fun – a bit more industrial, but still pretty heavy, very synth-heavy. I’m looking forward to doing that one. There’s one I’ve been working on called Spiral Through Salt, which is banjo playing all the leads and then oud playing all the bass lines – oud mostly being run through disgusting amounts of fuzz, banjo sometimes being run through disgusting amounts of fuzz. I’ve got one song for that one done, and then a lot more that I’m kind of working on. But with banjo, I’m a little newer to the instrument – these songs, I’m not entirely sure how to approach them, and… banjo parts just get weird. I started with that, and I’m like, “What the fuck do I do for drums for the rest of this?” But I think it’ll be cool when it comes together.
And there’s one more I started kinda working on, it’ll probably just be an EP or something. I don’t have a title for it yet, but it’s gonna be primarily on the aluminum jobbie – just kind of more straight-ahead sludge, but with some synths going on. I’d say, if anything, very similar to Ufomammut vibes. And I want that to be more or less a direct sequel to Nebulae and Debris, in this weird universe where all possible realities are happening at once as a result of Nebulae and Debris events. But I don’t know which I want to work on next, so that’s kinda what I’ve been figuring out. I have been mostly working on the banjo one for a while. I keep getting kinda stumped on it and how to make it work how I want it to, so I might take a break from that one and go back to the other one, and then take an un-break from that. I’d taken a break from The Haunted Sun to do Nebulae. Yeah, it’s been like a year-and-a-half break now, but… yeah, we will see.
I do wanna do a release show for Nebulae and Debris soon – I haven’t scheduled that yet.
It sounds like you’ve got a lot of good things and good ideas going on!
I like to think they’re good ideas. They’re definitely ideas. (Laughs)