“Escape” is a word you hear a lot from Jae Matthews, singer and lyricist for the genre-defying duo Boy Harsher.
“I’m the ultimate escapist. I don’t run away anymore. I just write songs about running away,” Matthews said.
On their third full-length album, Careful, released in February, Matthews and her collaborator, Gus Muller, create an atmosphere of beguiling urgency that constantly skirts the edge of dissonance. The video for the album’s third song, “Fate,” portrays a classic, dark-alley, gothic vampire story, but Matthews said she wasn’t picturing vampires when she wrote the song.
“The song is about trying to flee — trying to escape, or run away from something that is intrinsically you, which you will never be able to leave behind,” she said.
When I met Matthews and Muller in their Holyoke home in early February, they weren’t exactly conducting an escape, but they were packing pretty quickly. Careful had just been officially released that same morning.
“Yeah, it’s out there,” Matthews said. “It’s public. We haven’t really had time, I think, to consider that, because we’re leaving for a tour in about an hour.”
Muller grew up in Conway, Massachusetts, and spent his teenage years hanging out in Northampton. He met Matthews at film school in Savannah, Georgia, in 2012. He said their collaboration can get pretty fraught, especially when they’re making new songs.
“There’s no real process,” Muller said. “I mean, we come in here, and we’ll start jamming, or maybe I’ve been working on something for a day or two. And then Jae comes in here and hates it, or something, and then we fight about that, and then end up changing something, and something good happens.”
That intuitive process can make Boy Harsher hard to label. They’ve been called synth-pop, industrial-adjacent, or, most often, darkwave. But Muller said he doesn’t know what darkwave is, and he resists pigeonholing the band to a single genre.
“You know, if we called ourselves EBM, or cold wave or something like that, we might really offend some people,” he said.
Matthews and Muller released Careful on their own label, Nude Club Records. This was a significant move for a band that makes only a small portion of their income from streaming services like Spotify.
“We are full-time musicians,” Muller said. “It’s a combination of selling records, and touring and various other outlets.”
Boy Harsher’s Careful tour takes the band to venues across North America and throughout western Europe — and for the first time ever, they’ve got a road crew accompanying them.
In a packed club in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on the tour’s second night, Muller and Matthews provided a study in contrasts. He danced in place, all shoulders and slumped back, while she pitched herself across the stage, shrieking into the mic one second, crooning the next.
They closed the show with “Pain,” the dark-and-enrapturing tune that catapulted them onto the international stage two years ago.
“Thanks for coming,” Matthews told the crowd. “It feels surreal, but special.”
And it was, right up to the final beat.