Millennials, by and large, are blithely incurious and have no taste, amIright?
See, I’m trying not to be the “get off my lawn” guy that makes sweeping, disparaging generalizations like that, but it does seem to get harder and harder, given the state of contemporary popular culture, such as it is. I just can't get behind the particular content and “talent” the afore-cited generation cites as crucially significant. Sorry, but in a world where every damp fart from Kanye West is treated like breaking news, it’s difficult not to be deeply disdainful.
Enter Andi Harriman.
A thirty-something writer, in-demand club DJ and “goth scholar” from Brooklyn-via-Virginia, Harriman is far --- nay, HELL AND GONE, -- from your average millennial. Rarely to be seen not immaculately decked-out in the suitably funereal finery of her chosen subculture, Harriman would not have looked even remotely out of place in 1984, stalking the dancefloors of Danceteria or scrutinizing the imports and Cure bootlegs at Second Coming Records on Sullivan Street. Were it still the 90’s, Harriman’s natural habitats would surely have been Communion night at the Limelight or the Mission on Avenue B. But while those locales and ventures have all since vanished, their essence lives on and preternaturally walks among us in the embodiment of Andi Harriman. She is a woman out of time.
Her story reminds me a tiny bit of David McDermott, a visual artist/filmmaker/photographer whose lifestyle and work are singularly defined by a flat refusal to embrace the historical present. As such, since at least the early `80s, McDermott has dressed like an erudite late-19th century gentlemen. You can see him chatting with Jean-Michel Basquiat in Glen O’Brien’s “Downtown 81,” dressed in spats, bowler hat and a detachable collar. “I’ve seen the future,” he’s been quoted as saying, “and I’m not going.” You can check out more about the man here.
Much like McDermott, Harriman’s detour from the present is more than simply a tonsorial and sartorial appropriation. As I’ve laboriously warned here on Flaming Pablum over the past thirteen years, if I spot you sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with a band I rate, you best be prepared for me to accost you and quiz you on the specifics of your fandom. But were I to march up to Ms. Harriman and interrogate her over her Skinny Puppy t-shirt, she’d likely turn around and school my unsolicitedly pedantic ass on the finer points of the Canadian industrial trio’s macabre discography. She may be young, but she’s no dilettante.
If there’s one common thread Harriman does share with the rest of her age-group, it’s her driving ambition. Taking her nascent fascination not just with all things Goth, but with adjacent subsets like post-punk, synth-pop and industrial, Harriman completed her immersion with an academic approach. In 2014, her extensive research and deeper dive culminated with the publishing of her first magisterial book, “Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace: The Worldwide Compendium of Postpunk and Goth in the 1980s.” Beyond this impressive endeavor, she’s expounded on the subject for a wide variety of outlets, and also channels her passion for her arguably anachronistic aesthetics as a sought-after DJ, spinning variants of her favorite music – old and new – for both the old guard and a new crop of black-clad acolytes. Once again, Harriman walks it like she talks it.
Having first encountered her on social media, by way of my usual circles of otherwise grizzled rock-journo types, and having been a sullen teenaged fan of all this same stuff myself (my 1987 passport picture finds me frowning under a floppy fringe and sporting a Bauhaus t-shirt), I decided to reach out to Ms. Harriman to see if she would be game to subject herself to a Flaming Pablum interview (joining the august ranks of RB Korbet of Even Worse, Big Paul Ferguson of Killing Joke, Chris Egan of Missing Foundation and a few others). I was curious as to how her manifestation as a preeminent goth scholar came to be … or if, much like Catherine Deneuve’s character in Tony Scott’s “The Hunger,” she really has been here since 1984, and is simply an immortal vampire.
Here's what she had to say.
Flaming Pablum: First up, I’m not going to ask you how old you are, being that it’s none of my business, it’s vaguely inappropriate and might only reinforce lazy ageist preconceptions. That said, it does seem a bit like you slipped through a crack in the space/time continuum and made some sort of quantum leap directly from 1985 to 2018. While most individuals of your perceived age are listening to mush-mouthed ersatz-hip hop by clowns like Lil Pump, Lil Peep, Lil Xan, you are credibly versed in the music and accompanying subcultures from three or four decades prior. This cannot have happened by accident. How did you manage to cultivate this appreciation, let alone with such loving depth?
ANDI HARRIMAN: I can credit all of this to my childhood. I grew up in a very religious family and was only allowed to listen to the soft rock station on the radio... this means all your 80s pop hits like Phil Collins, Heart, Journey. On top of being an incredibly nostalgic person -- even nostalgic for times I never experienced -- 1980s music, specifically that synthesizer sound, became a part of me. Music truly became my only friend (with the exception of my Victorian novels, which I accredit to my verbose style of writing and my tendency to romanticize things) while growing up in a small town in the mountains of southwest Virginia -- an isolated area where I found myself, at most times, unable to make connections with others. I developed social anxiety in high school and was unable to leave my house and venture to the store, or anywhere else, alone. It was music that helped me to cope with that anxiety and what kept me company (this is still true today).
I've always been that outsider and somehow "outsider" music found me. I saw The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" on TV and fell in love with Robert Smith and his red lipstick. That took me to buy Kiss Me on CD, leading me to the one band that absolutely developed my life's path, Depeche Mode. And I've always had an obsessive personality and that sort of darker 1980s music threw me into post-punk and goth. And it never left -- it only developed as I ingested everything I could about its music and subculture. A major moment in my life was the "Gothic: Dark Glamour" exhibition at FIT here in New York City in 2008 curated by my hero, fashion theorist Valerie Steele. This exhibition -- full of clothes, accessories, memorabilia -- helped me realize that I could pursue goth as a subject of study. It didn't seem like a possibility until then.
Luckily, I'm quite self motivated. When I get an idea or concept, I usually don't allow obstacles to deter my plan too much.
I think the point I was most impressed by was that even though you had an innate affinity for the aesthetics of “Goth,” you took an academic approach to it, tracing it back to its roots ----- the music of the post-punk era. While “Goth,” like “Punk” before it has been arguably misappropriated and somewhat de-fanged by the mainstream vernacular, you knew there was much more to it than simply dressing like an undertaker. You immersed yourself in the minutia. No one could ever accuse you of being a dilettante about it. As a result, it seems to have gone onto enhance and inform your identity. What started as research has turned into your lifestyle -– is that a fair characterization? What’s it like being a Goth Scholar in 2018, let alone such a youthful one?
I believe that's a pretty fair assessment, though it was always the music for me. I initially didn't realize there was a whole aesthetic to go along with the music. This might seem naive now, but the only sort of "goths" I had known in high school were Slipknot and Marilyn Manson fans. It felt special to realize that, in fact, there were others out there who loved the same things as me -- and I still find this comforting. But as I immersed myself into the music I found the fashion to be so elegant and aesthetically pleasing to me. And, yes, over the years its certainly become a lifestyle for me... which I think it's supposed to do for anyone who finds a scene where they belong. What I found most intriguing about the original goths was their commitment to the subculture, their complete immersion into all aspects of it. I found that admirable and want to continue in that tradition, one of which seems to get lost with the fast pace of society today. I have some friends who are much more visually "goth" than I am, and I love the devotion that still exists today. It's so inspiring! I don't find it completely necessary to have standards for goth fashion, but I think anyone who is immersed in the subculture finds ways to sneak that aesthetic into their everyday look.
What I've done in terms of lecturing and writing (or "scholaring") has been a great experience. I've found goths and goth-adjacents want a different sort of experience than simply going to clubs and having online conversations. People want to participate in ways that aren't so common - the communal aspect of a group at a lecture is pretty special, actually.
What do you consider the biggest preconception about you, given your status as a Goth Scholar?
One problem I originally had was that I couldn't possibly know enough about the subculture to be a writer on the subject. It's a criticism that many people gave without reading "Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace," a book built upon the hundreds of interviews I conducted with original goths from the 1980s. That's disappeared for the most part, given that I've remained a writer on goth and dark music. However, it's important for me to stress that I've never claimed to know everything, and I'm always happy to find myself in the position of the student instead of the teacher -- I love learning, listening, and discovering new things on the subject.
Tell me a little bit about Synthicide. How long have you being doing that?
Synthicide grew out of my dissatisfaction of the dark electronic scenes here in NYC -- there were way too many boundaries and lines drawn between genres. At the time, nearly 5 years ago, it was rare to blend variations of techno with 80s electronic music such as industrial, EBM, and new beat. That's changed a lot since, but I like to think Synthicide has been the only consistent party with this specific goal in mind -- that is, to bridge the gaps and introduce people to music they might actually enjoy. It started out as a Sunday evening happy hour at Bossa Nova Civic Club, a techno club that had just opened just months before, and one year later Synthicide transformed into a monthly Thursday night party. It's now grown into a community and I've put out a compilation with another to come out soon. I like to think of it as a club night that focuses on giving artists and DJs that might not otherwise have a platform, a place to grow - as well as a place for misfits to dance and socialize without judgement (and listen to some really great music selections and performances all the while).
If it can be distilled to a single piece of music, what song set you off on your particular path?
Quite a question, but if I'm forced to pick just one song, it would be "Disintegration" by The Cure. That song alone got me out of some particularly bad moments in my life. It became my goal to give back to the music as a thank you for saving me when I was at my lowest.
I read a recent article about how Disneyland’s fabled “Bats Day” has come to an end. Personally, I had no feeling about that phenomenon one way or another, but I was struck by a line in the article (in Vice) that alleged that “Goth died in 2005” and that “a lack of new Goth music” abetted the demise of “Bats Day.” Do you agree with either of these statements?
I had to look this up! The quote says: “Honestly, I want to say goth pretty much died out around 2005 [or] 2006,” he explained. “Really, what the goth community was, it was all about the music. And unfortunately, due to the lack of new goth music coming it, it’s sort of metamorphosized into sort of like a, I guess you could say, like a style.”
He is incredibly wrong but also right. The goth subculture has certainly not died out. One, if you measure the scene by Wave Gotik Treffen (the world's largest goth festival held in Leipzig, Germany) alone, it's thriving. But also, I've been reflecting lately on the development of the subculture in the 2010s and I would say that since 2013 or so, the scene began to grow once again after a bit of a hiatus (maybe it could have been 2005/6, which is why the quoter used those years specifically). As a subculture we are in a special moment where there's quality music being released pretty steadily and there's interest in older bands touring. Off the top of my head I can think of Siglo XX, Trisomie 21, 13th Chime, Skeletal Family, and Clan of Xymox as bands I never thought I would see who are now touring and are well received all over the world. So I find this a terribly wrong assessment in terms of why "Bats Day" has ceased.
However, goth has morphed into a style that is easily appropriated. With the technology of today, anyone can be an "expert" on the subject without truly knowing or understanding the very foundation of goth. That includes ripping off the style of goth without actually participating in the subculture. Participation is also a huge part of being a goth: going to shows, buying records, supporting artists of all kinds. It's harder these days for local scenes to exist because of the internet - it's easy to not go out to see the band or DJ play, everyone is short on cash, we are all strapped for time. So perhaps that's why "Bats Day" had to fold, but it's not fair to say "goth died out" -- it didn't, there's just more shit to shovel through.
Beyond your DJ gigs, what’s next for you?
Finding time to work on my books. I'm also working on some shows here in NYC for the fall and some lectures/panels outside of the city.
What artists are you currently into – contemporary or otherwise?
I believe I am in the sad man post-punk stage of my life wherein I'm listening to mostly Comsat Angels, The Chameleons, Asylum Party, Snake Corps, and Pink Turns Blue (as I sit here listening to Sad Lovers & Giants). But, in terms of more contemporary stuff, Selofan consistently impresses me with their music - I've been giving their new LP Vitrioli a listen. But there's been so much amazing music out this year already - Kontravoid's Undone and Qual's The Ultimate Climax have been my favorites so far.
From the perspective of someone who got into bands like Theatre of Hate, the Sisters of Mercy/The Mission, Bauhaus, Fields of the Nephilim, the March Violets, Alien Sex Fiend et al. in their teens and twenties, the term “Goth” hasn’t always been an easy one. As a devoted student of the subject, you may have more light to shed on this, but the descriptor itself was initially coined by journalists, and not really with the intention of flattery. I’m reminded of the similar tag “shoegazer” from the 90’s -– initially a pejorative penned by cheeky rock critics to connote the alleged lack of stage-presence in bands like Ride, Lush and Chapterhouse. Fast-forward a decade, and you have bands proudly calling themselves shoegazers. Many of the torchbearers of Gothic music (some cited above and scores more) actually resent the term -- Eldritch is notoriously wary of the word. What’s your take?
In terms of musicians hating being called goth, I believe it could be because of the "limitations" it puts on their artwork - no one likes to be put in a box. I also find it comical that goth's most influential characters do happen to hate the term so much. I would agree that some facets of the subculture are not like the traditional goth - and they are not to my liking either - so I could understand a musician's desire to not want to be categorized into goth as a whole. "Goth" wasn't a term until the late 1980s, and perhaps that connotation to artists who were around much earlier than the mid-to-late part of the decade, when this type of music found mainstream success, find it a lazy way to categorize their sound and artistic endeavors.
But I find it interesting the word is currently at this intersection of both being glorified and misunderstood (as it always has been). Dressing "goth" - in all black, dark lipstick, all the surface level indicators of the word - is rampant throughout mainstream fashion. It's cool to look edgy, to have that level of mystery, and to call yourself goth. So its interesting that goth is misinterpreted and overused as an adjective for an OOTD or a seasonal look. It causes the word to become diluted - thus, the original depth of the term is lost. It's much too easy to fake being a goth these days...
Given my own predilections, I am obligated to put this question by you with all respect that our perspectives may differ: Killing Joke – Goth Not Goth?
I would certainly say goth-adjacent. Their music is often played at goth parties and, goddamn, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns is one heart-wrenching work of art. Also Geordie's guitar work became the blueprint for what we recognize as the classic post-punk sound, thus directly or indirectly influencing dark genres to follow.
Find out more about Andi Harriman's doings via her website.