Interview: Wax Idols

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 04.17.13 in Interviews

It would probably aggravate her to know it, but there’s an R.E.M. lyric that reminds me of Hether Fortune: “Not only deadlier — smarter, too.” I first became aware of Hether’s band Wax Idols through the “All Too Human” 7″, which was released on the Chicago label HoZac. Its clanging, apocalyptic guitars and Fortune’s stern, bellowing delivery were instantly arresting — one of the rare times an artist seemed to materialize fully-formed. The more I read about Fortune, the more fascinated I became: She was close friends with Jay Reatard up until his death in 2010. She works as a professional dominatrix. And she was the author of a ruthlessly candid, thought-provoking and acidly hilarious Twitter feed, which she wielded as both a scalpel to dismantle music industry hypocrisy and a dagger to go after those who’d fallen afoul of her.

But unlike most internet provocateurs, Fortune seemed both self-possessed and incredibly smart — the kind of person who pours themselves completely into their work, and who only reacts strongly to criticism because they feel things deeply and passionately. Fortune and I have struck up a loose internet acquaintance over the last few years — we occasionally Tweet at each other or send messages through Facebook — which is how I knew that she had, during the making of her second record, Discipline & Desire, struck up a stormy S&M relationship with Mark Burgess of legendary UK post-punkers the Chameleons and that, after their romance capsized, she’d fallen in love with — and pretty much immediately married — Tim Gick of the band TV Ghost. After several weeks of missed connections, I reached Heather at by phone to talk about true love, global power dynamics and murder/suicides.

So first things first: I wanted to congratulate you on your recent marriage — watching the two of you on Twitter and Facebook has been pretty adorable. I think the thing that kind of surprised me the most was how fast it all happened. What was the story? Was it a “love at first sight” situation?

It was a love-at-first-sight situation, but I met him over a year and a half ago. And I was actually dating someone else at the time, and so was he, and so nothing happened. But it was a very intense interaction. I was obsessed with him immediately. I was at one of his shows, and I was like, “That’s the guy. Right there.” I’ve never been so horny watching someone play. [Laughs]

So we stayed in touch, and I think we were both obsessing over each other secretly from a distance. We finished our records at the same time we exchanged them and found that we had both reached kind of a common middle ground sonically. His band used to be real no wave and crazy whereas I came from a more traditional pop/punk structure and then got weirder. We kind of met in the middle and we were both really intrigued by that. So we started booking a tour together and, like midway through that, he said to me, “I think I’m in love with you,” and I was like, “DITTO.”

How did his parents react to the engagement?

Oh, his mother wanted to kill me. She was not happy at all. [laughs] She’s chilled out a lot now, and I seem to have grown on her rather quickly — I do that — but at first, man, it was rough. I mean, my mom is used to me being unpredictable, so this stuff tends to roll off her like water off a duck’s back. At first, she was kind of dismissive. She kind of thought, “Oh yeah, yet another ridiculous thing that Heather is doing. Whatever.” But I think she realized quickly that I was really serious and really happy and that I was really gonna do it. And when that kinda sunk in, she got on board and was as supportive as she could be.

We were talking about your new record in the office the other day, and the one thing that kept coming up about it, in comparison to No Future, is that this one feels much more you — it’s much more of a natural extension of your personality.

Well, with No Future, what happened was that I had a collection of songs that I’d written over the course of two years. They were all over the place. I’d written some in collaboration with people who were in the band at the time and who were coming from a completely different set of influences. The thing that tied that record together was that all of the songs were more or less written about Jay [Reatard]. Pretty much every song on that record was written in the two-year period right before and right after Jay died. So the common thread was the subject matter. I made that record largely to get those songs out of my system, and also as sort of an homage to Jay. It was very much something that I needed to do as part of my grieving process. His influence is all over that record.

But by the time the record was out, I was already writing a ton of songs that were much truer to who I am, and had less to do with how I was feeling after the death of Jay, and were less informed by other people who were playing with me. Growing up being obsessed with, like, Joy Division and stuff, my whole intent with this project was to try to find myself as a songwriter and find a way to balance my aggression and my attraction to things that are darker with the fact that I am naturally gifted as a pop writer.

In other interviews you’ve talked about being influenced by Daniel Ash and Siouxsie Sioux. I was wondering what, specifically, you learned from them that you incorporated into your own writing process.

Friends of mine who are big music nerds have been telling me since the first Wax Idols 7″ that they can hear that I’m obsessed with Daniel Ash. Which is completely true. Daniel Ash and Wire have been the two strongest influences on me over the last five years or so as a songwriter. With this record, I was just hugely inspired by the first Love & Rockets record in terms of the way it was produced. I borrowed techniques from them all over the place — direct-inputting 12-string guitars, layering harmonies in weird ways, switching up effects on vocals to accentuate different transitions in songs.

Siouxsie Sioux is somebody that helped me find my voice. I identify with her as a singer, because I feel like when she started, it was very punk and she was just yelling in this really powerful weird way. And she probably didn’t think of herself as much of a singer — that’s what my feeling is at least, I could be wrong — but she was a singer. She wanted to front a band, and so she forged a path for herself vocally, and it sounded weird and androgynous, but there was power and passion in her voice. I also identify with her because I think she was really influenced by a lot of Middle Eastern singers, and I was raised in a Lebanese family, so I was raised listening to Middle Eastern music. It’s a huge influence on me. I still listen to a lot of Turkish psych and traditional Lebanese stuff.

So, the album is called Discipline & Desire. And I feel like, anyone who knows anything about you, they know you work as a professional dominatrix. So I think the natural tendency is to interpret that phrase, “discipline and desire,” in a BDSM context. But I actually don’t think that’s what you’re talking about on the record at all. I feel like you’re just using that as a metaphor to explore the power dynamics that come into play in the world at large.

You’re exactly right. Discipline & Desire is the name of an old ’70s fetish mag — that’s where I first stumbled across it. But what struck me about it wasn’t its tie to fetish at all. I immediately knew, upon looking at those words together, that it completely embodied everything this record was to me because of its association with power dynamics — which is a huge subject on this record, and in my life in general. Power is something that I think about all the time. And not in the way where I want power — it’s something that, I don’t know…Often the wrong people have power, and everyone wants it, and you can’t get it if you’re looking for it. It’s a twisted, weird world we live in.

Given that, it’s interesting that you open the record not by seizing power, but by essentially identifying with the metaphorical “sub.” You sing, “I love the sad and the sick of the world.” That’s where you’ve cast your lot — with the outcasts.

Exactly. That was intentionally the first lyric of the record — I immediately wanted to spell out who it is that I’m looking to connect with, which demographic I’m a part of and want to speak on behalf of. And that the people who are the “sad” and “twisted” people should have everything they want in life but don’t, and are trying to. Or who are misunderstood, or are being constantly told to go away or shut up, or that they’re weird, or that they’re not good enough.

When did you first start becoming interested in these issues?

Unfortunately, it was something I was raised with. I think I started becoming aware of it when I was pretty young — kind of around the time I started going through puberty. I was raised in an environment where power was unevenly distributed toward men. It was a cultural thing, a lot of it. It was the Middle Eastern family that I was raised in for the first 12 years of my life. Specifically, in my household, it was that we all lived in fear of my first stepfather, who is my brother’s father. It wasn’t the worst it could have been, but it was very much his house, his rules. And I, in particular, was terrified of him. And as I got older, I started seeing how those kinds of power dynamics play out in the world in general. I’ve always had a problem with authority figures, I’ve always had a problem with being told what to do. And it’s not so much because I feel like I’m above authority, it’s just that I disagree with it, largely. I disagree with uneven power distribution and it makes me mad. It’s something that I decided when I was rather young that I would spend my life fighting against, in one way or another.

How do you see that dynamic playing out in the music industry? You don’t have to name names.

[Cracks up laughing] Oh, come on, you know I’m gonna name names! It’s Pitchfork. It’s not the individual writers at Pitchfork that I have a problem with. But Pitchfork itself represents to me an unevenly distributed form of power within the creative world that I think is fucked. They remind me of an overbearing stepfather. That’s why I hate them [laughs]. It’s not personal. It’s not that I think that when they started that they had bad intentions or anything like that. But, unfortunately, it has become a monopoly. And I feel like over time a lot of the people involved with it — this is my feeling — may have subconsciously started wielding that power in a way that is destructive rather than constructive. And is unfair and is less about music and more about who knows who, and who can make who popular, and who’s the favorite. Pitchfork certainly isn’t the only problem by any means. But I think that money and media and all kinds of things have really changed the way the general public is exposed to art and to music, and has changed the value of music and have made artists and musicians feel like they have to change along with that in order to survive. And it’s really fucked up and sad. I don’t like it.

“Dethrone” feels like a rallying cry against that.

All I know how to do is what works for me. Obviously my way is not the way for everyone. I just feel being really honest and self-aware and true to your vision and to what you think is right, or what feels right to you, and not thinking about how well it’s gonna fit in to whatever is cool at the moment is the best way to effectively change things. It comes from within first. I think a lot of times people confuse my passion for art, expression and discussion with being insecure, or with caring too much what other people think. And that kind of makes me sad, because I feel like people are so used to having to play this “Keep Your Mouth Shut and Play it Cool” game in order to survive in this silly, irony-based indie music world. Being really passionate and open and true to yourself is seen as uncool, or the wrong way to do things. And I think it’s the right way to do things.

Things upset me, you know? I’m not made of stone. I am a human being. I’m a weirdo. I am a very passionate person. I’m very outspoken. And when I get pissed about something, I’m pissed, and I don’t feel I should have to keep my mouth shut. Keeping my mouth shut is something I swore that I would never do. I was forced to keep my mouth shut, and to be “seen and not heard,” and to be this little scared, shaking unwanted stepdaughter in the background for most of my childhood. And fuck that. I am not gonna be that in my adult life.

We’ve talked about the “Discipline” part of the record. Let’s talk a little bit about the “Desire.” The last three songs on the record — “The Cartoonist,” “Elegua” and “Stay In” — those are the songs to me that kind of encapsulate this idea of desire and longing.

Well, “The Cartoonist” isn’t about me. It’s about a couple who I became aware of through Mark [Burgess]. The man was a cartoonist, and his wife was diagnosed with a fatal illness — I think it was MS, but I can’t remember — but it was something where she was physically deteriorating. The story was really sad. What happened is that he went mad watching the love of his life die slowly in front of him, and he ended up killing her and then killing himself. It’s really brutal. It’s just really struck a chord with me as a romantic, and as somebody who’s really passionate and also kind of crazy. I wonder, you know, about the possibilities of something like that — love driving somebody to the brink of madness. So the song is written from the perspective of the woman, as if perhaps she wanted him to kill her, because she was in so much pain.

“Elegua” isn’t a love song at all. It’s kind of a weird, dare I say spiritual song. It’s not about a person. It’s more about me looking for an answer within a practice that I am engaged in. I decided to write about it.

What kind of practice?

An occult practice. I don’t like to talk about it. It’s just about a ritual that I was working at and was having problems with. And then “Stay In” is about the deterioration of my relationship with Mark.

I kind of suspected as much.

It’s ironic, because he helped to write that song. When it started, the lyrics I wrote were about being in love with him. And then I rewrote them right before I recorded it, and pretty much had a breakdown while I was recording it. It was pretty terrible.

What exactly happened there? I remember talking to you on Facebook, and I think it was before you even started making this record, or it was in the early stages, and you were joking about how you were going to seek out Mark Burgess and make him produce your record. And then the next thing I knew, it was actually happening, and you had entered a kind of dom/sub relationship with him as well.

Well, I was being kind of facetious about it at first. I can be kind of mischievous I guess. Mark and I were connected because he already knew Keven [Tecon, who played drums on Discipline] and Amy [Rosenoff, bass] from Wax Idols because their other band had opened for The Chameleons before. And also a dominatrix that I work with had known him for 20 years. Mark and I had been friends on Facebook for over a year, but I just never said anything to him, because what am I gonna say to Mark Burgess?

But then I got tipped off that he was a submissive, and also tipped off that he liked the band. So I just started talking to him on Facebook one day just casually to see if he’d be interested in just talking to me. And I had no ulterior motive at all. I kind of had a hint, based on his lyrics, that he was a fetishist, but all I was thinking was maybe we’ll be friends or something. So we started talking and — he is very…let’s see…he’s very accessible, particularly to women, on the internet. I don’t think it’s something he’s a stranger to. I think it’s something he encourages, based on my experiences with him, so it wasn’t difficult to connect with him in that way. But it did feel very genuine, like we had some kind of really intense connection.

So we just started talking all the time. And then I was talking about the new record and he was really curious about it, so I was casually like, “Oh, maybe you can come and help me with my record and that can be a ‘service’ that you can ‘perform’ for me’” [Laughs]. So, you know, I’m domming him a little bit. He just was completely on board with that, and then it just happened. And then the more we talked, it gradually started getting romantic and sexual, which didn’t surprise me. I’m a hypersexual person and a romantic and I found him to be extremely attractive — especially for an older guy. And he’s one of my favorite songwriters of all time! I got totally wrapped up. But it was a disaster [laughs]. Because although he is a fucking genius, he is a diva. A total diva. It’s The Mark Show, and there were many points [in the studio] where I had to be like, “Look, motherfucker, this is my record. Not yours. Shut up!” [laughs]. He drove me fucking insane. If I was in the middle of tracking, he’d cut in over the speaker and try to give me tips that I wasn’t interested in. If I didn’t acknowledge him the way he felt he deserved to be acknowledged, he’d storm out of the room and throw a fit. That happened a lot [laughs]. In our personal relationship, he was my submissive, but he very much actually was not. Really was not. And that played into the record, it played into every aspect of his involvement with me and with the band and it was based on this completely phony power dynamic that he insisted was real but that was not.

So he was essentially “topping from below.”

Oh yeah. Oh yeah. He totally tops from the bottom. And I’m sure if he reads this he’s gonna be furious and say it’s not true and he’s a “true submissive.” Whatever. As far as I’m concerned, being someone who genuinely is naturally dominant? That motherfucker does not know how to submit [laughs].

We broke up a million times while the record was being made. I kicked him out of my house, I kicked him out of the studio. He wasn’t around for most of the final vocal tracking, he wasn’t around for mixing, I didn’t want him to come back. And I don’t think he really wanted to come back. Monte [Vallier, producer] was exasperated by the situation toward the end and was just kind of like, “Get him out of here.” It was not just his fault — I’m a tremendously difficult person to deal with in any capacity, and I know that about myself. But it was a fucking disaster, it really was.

What were some of the positive things you learned from working with him?

He did really help me expand as a vocalist. He spent a lot of time singing with me. He really believed in me. He saw — and I think still does — something special in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself yet. And that helped me, to have that kind of encouragement from somebody that I admired so much creatively. He did a lot for me in that way. It also helped me to kind of be around him and watch the way that he writes and thinks and works because he’s a really weird, talented guy. It was really inspiring. Ultimately, all personal things aside, I still really can’t believe that he ever gave a shit enough about me or my band to do the things that he did for this record. And I am and will always be humbled and honored by that experience with him. Because he’s a genius. He’s one of the greatest songwriters of all time — truly one of the most underrated songwriters of all time.

Speaking of tortured geniuses — you wrote “AD RE:IAN” about the suicides of both Ian Curtis and Adrian Borland of The Sound. What attracted you to them as subjects?

I wrote that song on the death anniversary of Ian Curtis, which is always a really sad day for me. As silly as it is, Joy Division was one of the first bands that I ever heard that really moved me when I was a teenager, and I always get kind of sad, because he was so young. He’s become a mythical figure at this point, but I wanted to humanize him and his memory and connect with that feeling in the moment when a person decides to kill themselves

And then Mark told me something I didn’t know. I knew Adrian had also committed suicide about 10 years ago. But I didn’t know that Adrian was a huge fan of Ian Curtis and Joy Division and was really traumatized when Ian killed himself. So it just became this story about suffering artists trusting other suffering artists, and the kind of domino effect people have on each other.

You put yourself in the song. You talk about wishing you could have stopped him.

I do wish I could have stopped him. That’s kind of egocentric of me, but those two people in particular are people I think had more left to give. And I wish that they had found another way to deal with what was going on. It makes me really sad.

There’s also that myth of the tortured artist, where you have to be miserable in order to do good work. Do you worry about that, now that you’re married?

Well, if you’re married to someone who’s boring and stagnant and makes your life comfortable, that might affect you as an artist. But I’m married to someone who’s a fucking nutcase, so — [laughs]. He’s a fantastic person — he’s sweet as hell, he’s wonderful, but he is just as insane as I am and just as twisted as I am. He may be even a bit more so. So being married to him is actually hugely inspiring — it’s opening all kinds of new doors for me. I’m already working on a new Wax Idols record called Loss, so you can tell it’s not exactly a honeymoon record [laughs].

What do you think the biggest misconception about Hether Fortune is?

That I’m mean. I’m really not. I’m mean if you give me reason to be mean, I suppose. But I feel like a lot of people think that I’m this hardened, angry, bitter, mean, selfish asshole and that kind of hurts. Because I’m like, ‘Man, why does it have to be one or the other? Why does being outspoken and being honest and being tough have to automatically equate to my being a bitch?’ Because I’m not. I feel like I’m a total softie in a lot of ways. I’m a very loving person. I’m real sensitive. I cry all the time. I think that’s probably the biggest misconception. I feel like I’m expressing love constantly.