No Dream is Ever Just a Dream: An Interview with James Kent of Darksynth-Transcending Perturbator
Last year, during the opening of an interview I conducted with the darksynth trailblazer James Lollar of GosT, I briefly noted the unique standing of the genre in contrast to its origins in the wider synthwave scene along with speaking on how GosT, despite their continued musical evolution, still appealed sonically to many in the metal scene. I made sure back then to verbalize that Lollar wasn’t alone in his approach. And, for that matter, he certainly wasn’t the first: that distinction, even if it’s only by a year, has to be attributed to James Kent from France and his project Perturbator.
Before the first year of Perturbator’s existence came to a close in late 2012, three songs from the project were used in the soundtrack for indie-video game Hotline Miami, which can be best described as a retro arcade style top-down shooter/fighter with an aesthetic and plot akin to if David Lynch had directed Miami Vice. The game became a massive success that helped expose the burgeoning project to a worldwide audience through the gaming community. Since then, Perturbator has released four full length albums, six EPs, and numerous singles that have all tapped into similar surreal 1980’s sci-fi and neo-noir tones while consistently expanding the sound on each subsequent release allowing for a clear sense of musical evolution.
A dramatic shift in that evolution occurred with 2017’s ep New Model, a short work that saw a real incorporation of electro-industrial (think Skinny Puppy and early Nine Inch Nails) and post-punk into the John Carpenter- and Vangelis-indebted atmospheres on ice cold dance beats that could bring an android to tears. Four years later, after a lengthy gap in releases,Perturbator returns with their fifth full length Lustful Sacraments, which even further embraces the previous EP's new trajectory with perhaps more of an emphasis on the post-punk given the expanse of moody guitars and goth rock-timbre vocals dripping off the album.
So far, nothing mentioned has been explicitly metal and for that reason Perturbator would never be called metal; and yet many of those similar artists I used for comparison have large portions of their fanbase made up of metalheads. Celtic Frost were no strangers to incorporating vastly divergent sounds to their art, and I’m often reminded of a quote from that group’s legendary member Martin Eric Ain who once said, “There are many-many more shades and colors to darkness than just black.”
Perhaps one sign of the metal community’s own evolution in admitting its own collective embrace of different shades of darkness compared to Celtic Frost’s heyday has been the love shown by all sorts of metalheads for Perturbator’s music, including some very high profile slots at traditionally metal festivals. Very early on, when Perturbator started performing live, they played a closing set for the underground black metal festival Nidrosian Black Mass and have since played such big name events like Brutal Assault, Roadburn, Graspop, and much more. One of the last before Covid-19 struck the world was the 2019 iteration of Psycho Las Vegas where along with Mork I hoped to land an interview with Perturbator's James Kent for one of my first pieces here on this site. Unfortunately, either conflicting time schedules or perhaps an avoidance of in-person interviews prevented me from talking with Kent at that bacchanal of sonic delights, but I remained hopeful for an opportunity.
Such an opportunity came knocking this year with the release of Lustful Sacraments and an accepted invitation for an interview. Despite the dramatic time zone differences between Paris and Los Angeles, I got up bright and early (well, early for a night owl like me) to chat with Kent online about his latest work and ask a multitude of questions—some that had been bubbling in my mind since that arid night at a Las Vegas casino pool where he commanded psycho legions in a neon-hued tribal war dance.
First off, how are you doing? How have you been managing with COVID, quarantine, and everything?
James Kent: I mean I've just stayed at home. It's not like it changed a lot for me, because I'm usually staying at home and not really going out. I mean, I do, but... well, I can work from home so that's very convenient. Though it does feel a bit like it's taking very long right now and I'm kind of tired of it to be honest.
I have a friend in France, though I don't know how far he lives from Paris, but he was saying that the vaccine distribution hasn't exactly been great yet.
Yeah, the vaccine process here has been really bad. Still not a lot of people vaccinated yet. They barely just started to make it available for everyone right now. So I guess I'll get my own, soon hopefully.
So Perturbator has at least publicly been in existence for almost a decade now. I think most fans and critics have noted how your music has evolved over that time. Probably most so with New Model and they probably will again with your new full length, Lustful Sacraments. How would you describe your music today and its evolution from when you started?
It's kind of hard to put a name or like a genre name to it. It's basically become much more of a mix of a lot of influences that I have, whether it be soundtracks, electronic music, some goth music, ambient music, a lot of industrial, and etc. It's sort of like a melting pot of all this. Whereas before it was much more of a love letter to the 1980’s, exploitation cinema, and stuff like this. So now it's just going a bit less in a nostalgia driven direction and more of a, I guess you could say, experimental approach but it's not experimental to the point where it's hard to digest.
Would you say there are any influences or inspirations you have today that you didn't have before? Say something that in the last few years really caught your ear?
Not really, actually. I mean I always listen to the same things. I just expanded my music library but that's just like new releases and stuff like this. I mostly listen to black metal; I always did [laughs]. I listen to a lot of new wave, which I always have. More recently I guess... I wouldn't say that I discovered goth music because I did beforehand but I kind of like, rediscovered it. I guess like a newfound love for it in some ways. So maybe that also had an influence on the album.
Was there a particular artist or someone that kind of rekindled that for you?
I guess The Sisters of Mercy. I mean there's a lot of artists that I really enjoy who currently do these types of things, like True Body who appear on the album. Then stuff like She Passed Away, Drab Majesty, Boy Harsher, and more. This sort of like a new wave of goth music led me to re-listen to the older stuff that I used to love but kind of forgot for a little bit. That old stuff being like The Cure, The Sisters of Mercy, Fields of the Nephilim, and such.
Nice. Yeah, I kind of have to thank you for bringing True Body up on my radar. I hadn't heard about them before and actually the first time was while listening to the promo for your new album. So thanks for that as they're really good.
No problem. Yeah, I really love them.
Your discography grew pretty rapidly. Early on you'd have albums or EPs within a year, or at most maybe two years apart. Although since the New Model EP it's been about four years now. What caused this longer period between works?
Well, for one I guess it’s pretty obvious but basically I'm just taking a bit more time and just trying to be more precise than I used to be. I remember around like 2011 or 2012 I used to be very, how to say... sort of impatient. I was churning out tracks and just releasing them without really thinking about it. There was no promotion behind it; just me putting it on the internet. Now, there's a lot of promotion stuff. You know... making vinyls and other stuff, with a lot of deadlines. Also during that period, after I released New Model, I had a lot of touring to do. I was always on the roads and I'm the type of artist that cannot write when I'm not at home. I need to be in my headspace or able to control my own mindset in order to compose. I can’t do it in the back of a tour bus. It's just too hard for me, so that basically took a lot of time. After that, when COVID started, was pretty much when I could really finish the album.
Well, that definitely makes sense. It seems like your biggest early breakout was having some of your songs featured on the Hotline Miami video game and then later on the sequel as well. What are your memories of that time and getting your music in the game?
I mean it was pretty cool. At the time before the release I didn't really think too much of it but the game then got really, really popular. I think that even the developers of the game were not expecting such a crazy rise in popularity. So at first it just felt like I had made a track for a tiny indie game that at the time even kind of looked like a... like a phone game. If you really look at the screenshots of it you're like, "okay, that's kind of weird."
Yeah, that retro low-bit processor look.
Yeah, so I was like, “ok, it's just this little project,” you know? Then the game got released and there was just this explosion of... like all my notifications were going off. I was like, "oh, that's pretty crazy, actually." I didn't expect the game to get so popular and I’m super grateful for its success. I remember feeling pretty ecstatic when that all happened.
From looking and digging around I haven’t seen too many other video game collaborations, nor movie ones, but have you been approached for any?
Not really. I mean, yeah, I've been approached by other game developers but it always ends up being cancelled or the game never gets finished. So I don't really want to start something that's just gonna be shelved away or never come out. I also haven’t really had many people asking me to do movie soundtracks either.
I think that’s a bit of a shame since your music is pretty cinematic. Speaking of video games though, I was listening to your interview from a few years ago with the Beyond Synth podcast. You guys were talking about video games a fair bit. I'm not a huge gamer but I do really love Fallout, which I noticed you mentioned in that interview.
Yeah, I'm a big fan of Fallout.
With everything that’s happened between the release of Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 how do you feel about the franchise at this point?
I don't really like the later games. I'm really not a fan of 76. I tried and really didn't like this one. Fallout 4 is, you know it's decent, but it's not... I mean it's cool but...
You’re still more a fan of...
Fallout New Vegas. Fallout New Vegas.
Fallout New Vegas is my favorite or at least one of my all time favorite games. It's gonna be hard to go beyond that.
Yeah, It'll be interesting to see if Bethesda can pick up the pieces on that. Certainly seems like most fans agree that New Vegas is the best, so maybe they should just give it back to Obsidian.
Yeah, but I think Obsidian made another game called Outer Worlds.
Which I tried and it's, eh... it's not that good.
Yeah. They lost a bit of their touch I think. Of course, they can always get it back.
Well, hopefully. I mentioned movies earlier and on Twitter I saw you praising a piece from John Carpenter's “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” soundtrack. I think the soundtrack for a while has been treasured in the horror soundtrack community but more recently it seems that the movie has been reevaluated as a cult classic. Beforehand it was sort of seen as an "Ugh! What the hell was that?" kind of film. What are your thoughts on the movie? And along with that are there any other movies you enjoy that you don't feel get enough attention in the same way “Halloween III” hadn’t for a while?
Well I vividly remember the day I saw “Halloween III''. I was like a kid and my father, I guess, bought me the box set; a two disc thing that said "the Halloween movies made by John Carpenter." or something like this. So it had the first and third movies but not the second. I put the first movie in and it was mind blowing! It's one of my favorite movies of all time, still to this day. Then I put in the third movie expecting something just as cool, and I was so like… well, at the middle of the movie I started to realize Michael is not going to be there [laughs]. So, fucking hell! I was so angry at the movie. I was disappointed and I never watched it again.
Well, for a long time at least. Then I grew up and listened to the soundtrack. I really listened to the soundtrack a number of times and it made me want to rewatch the movie. I now kind of agree with the general consensus that it's a good movie. It just was a bad idea to market it as a Halloween movie [laughs]. As for the second part... I mean, I'm trying to think of movies that I really love but don't get enough attention and actually there's a lot of them. Like... I'm even scanning around my house because I have a lot of posters, but damn, I’m having trouble...
Ah, sorry about that. Maybe that was a bit too open-ended of a question.
Yeah, that's tough. I'll tell you I'm gonna think a bit about it but I don't think I can give you an answer here.
No problem. Moving on though I wanted to talk about the art for Lustful Sacraments. It's quite compelling… entrancing even, but it also seems like a departure from some of your previous album covers in terms of aesthetics. How did the piece become the cover art and is it thematically tied into the album?
It's definitely tied into the themes of the album. Basically I wanted something that doesn't look like typical electronic music artwork or metal artwork. Instead I wanted something very strange. My good friend Mathias, who illustrated the album, came up with the idea of having these weird shadows, like a theatrical play using shadows. And so, that was pretty cool. There's like a theme and even a little story to the album, so I just told him the narrative behind it and he did a great job fitting that to the art.
It kind of reminds me of two rather different things. For one it reminds me a bit of a Wicker Man type of paganism...
...especially with the dancing around the fire. Second, well... have you ever seen the movie "Howl's Moving Castle"?
No, I don't think I have actually.
Ah, okay. There's certain moments in the movie with these sprites or spirits. They're dancing in a ritual and you see their elongated shadows. Your cover was very much reminding me of that.
One of the inspirations I gave to Mathias was the scene from Eyes Wide Shut where they went to this mansion, the orgy place. There’s sort of a strangeness to it, you know? It looks all beautiful with the masks and the very Baroque environment; the scenes are full of gold and red. Then you realize that something is hidden behind it, something disturbing and twisted but it's all very mysterious. You don't know exactly what's fucked up but there’s something below the surface.
I love that movie. It's very underrated especially amongst most of Kubrick's other films. I had a question though about the song “Dethroned Under a Funeral Haze''. I can't help it but every time I see that title it makes me think it's a black metal song [laughs]. Considering your background as a fan and also playing in black metal bands did that influence your thinking when you titled it or was that just pure coincidence?
Yeah, I guess it had a hand in it. The fact that I'm a big fan of black metal but I generally don't really remember how I found the title for this one actually. I think it was supposed to be called just "Dethroned," but then I was like, "Oh, that's pretty lame." So I just was searching for cool words, things that would tie into the lyrics. At some point I was like, “Oh, I’ll just add Under a Funeral Haze.” A lot of people have so far thought it was a reference to Darkthrone because they have an album called Under a Funeral Moon. So yeah, I didn't do it on purpose actually. I hadn’t even thought about that kind of connection.
A bit more subconscious, perhaps?
In the piece you did for Decibel you talked about some of your favorite venues and live shows you've experienced over the years. One you mentioned was opening for John Carpenter in Las Vegas as your favorite. I don't think I saw that one but the last time I did see you perform was a couple years later at the 2019 Psycho Las Vegas
Psycho Las Vegas, yeah on the beach or the pool stage [laughs].
What do you remember from that weekend?
So my show was very shortened by the way and the show itself on that day was kind of like... I was never happy with it to be honest. It was shortened because the band that was playing before, I forgot their name but it was like a punk band, and they just literally took all of my time slot. So I got to play only for 20 or 30 minutes but I wanted to play for an hour. Then we had some technical difficulties with the gear and stuff. So overall the show was not very pleasant but I really love the festival and I loved being there. I just love Las Vegas by the way too. So at least everything around the show was awesome.
Just not the show itself. It's funny because I had entirely forgotten it got delayed and you had a shorter set. I guess that's my rose tinted glasses with me just thinking "Oh yeah, that was a great one." Not even remembering that had all happened.
Oh, well thank you.
No, I mean I think you made a good impact with the limited amount of time you had. I'd seen you before in Los Angeles a couple of years before that but...
Yeah, that was probably a bit better.
Perhaps so though that gig was a number of years back and it was actually at Psycho LAs Vegas where for the first time I saw you with a live drummer. Given a lot of COVID-19 restrictions potentially laxing relatively soon for most of us, between the second half of this year and the beginning of the next, I imagine you're making plans for live shows again.
Are there new changes we can expect in terms of the live presentation?
It's mostly going to be an improvement over the one that you already saw. So keeping the drummer and gonna keep the synthesizer but I'm going to add a guitar that I'm going to play and I'll be adding a vocal mic. I'm gonna use it to do some vocals myself sometimes, depending on which track as some tracks from Lustful Sacraments have my own vocals.
I saw on Twitter not too long ago you were showing off a really nice guitar and you mentioned you were going to play that live. Admittedly that prompted me to wonder, “Oh, how's that gonna work?"
Well, of course I'm gonna have to switch between a synthesizer and a guitar. I'm preparing the show, actually as we speak, and I'm making sure that it doesn't get too overcomplicated for myself. So yeah, we'll totally see about that but it's just basically going to be an improvement with more lights, instruments, and basically stuff like that.
Nice. You've announced collaborations with other artists on remixes with, I think one of the more recent ones was Author & Punisher. Many of these artists certainly seem to make sense in terms of being related to your music but one that stood out and surprised me was Pig Destroyer. So I was wondering how exactly that came about?
The guys from Pig Destroyer are fans of Perturbator and Scott Hull’s also a very good friend of my manager. So we just contacted each other, like briefly, to just talk. Mostly text messages with me just saying stuff like, “Hi, I dig your music too.” So when we did the brainstorming for what bands we wanted to have on this thing we thought Pig Destroyer would be a pretty fun idea. The idea is to have every cover to sound very different from each other, you know? So Pig Destroyer would be the ultimate weird addition.
I'm excited to hear it because that's gonna be very interesting to hear them interpret it. In some recent social media posts you shared screen captures of the Metal Hammer interview you did. The article was titled by the magazine...
"Synthwave Is Dead.” Yeah.
That seemed to rile up in the comments of quite a few people. I saw you explain that line wasn't quoted from the interview.
Yeah, it's not a quote.
Right. The publication created that. So it's somewhat ironic, since I'm a music journalist asking this, but do you feel like that happens a lot where you get misinterpreted? A false perception created not because of anything you do but because maybe the way a media outlet editorializes?
Yeah, I think there's a lot of things and that's certainly a problem that I seem to have from time to time. One of the worst cases of that was when there was this school shooter in Santa Fe. I think this was a couple of years ago where it was reported a school shooter was a fan of my music, which really sucked, and the New York Times wrote an article about the whole thing. So I read in the New York Times, “something, something Perturbator, associated with neo nazi movements”, and it's like, “Well hell! The New York Times is basically calling me a neo nazi and I cannot defend myself.” Yeah, it was kind of really fucked up and it's not the first time something like this happened to me.
As a result I have this sort of thing that I do on social media where I just try not to talk about too much. I just relay some information on new music or maybe only to share bands that I like, stuff like this. I never write my opinion on Twitter because I really don't like being portrayed in a weird way by people. I don't really want people to potentially get a mob mentality for no reason. As I might not have even said it, you know? [chuckle] I don't really like social media in general so I hate that it seems nowadays some people are really out for blood on the internet.
[Writer's Note: There’s a few things I feel the need to discuss here. I’d nearly forgotten this incident Kent mentions, which was regarding the New York Times and other media outlets mentioning Perturbator in their reporting on the mass murder commited at a Santa Fe High School in 2018. The teenage shooter was apparently a fan of Perturbator, to the point of having the artwork for the album Dangerous Days as his Facebook profile cover photo. The New York Times piece in particular, for whatever reason, decided to mention that “Mr. Kent’s music -largely instrumental- has been adopted by affiliates of neo-Nazi groups and the alt-right.” They followed that by a Facebook statement that Kent released condemning the act and saying he wouldn’t comment further due to not wanting anyone to twist and take advantage of his words in that situation. The only previous mention before the school shooting I can find is a BuzzFeed article about how some online fascists seemingly enjoy Perturbator’s work, even though the article explicitly states there’s no actual associations between Kent and white nationalist groups.
I personally find the reporting on this loose connection odd, especially as verbalized in the NYT piece, given no artist is responsible for who not only enjoys their work but who might try to appropriate it for a political agenda. Just ask Matt Furie about his endless attempt to reclaim his Pepe the Frog character from its alt-right appropriation. A good way to sum it up is in a comment found on Shayne Mathis’, the mind behind the Full Metal Hipster site/podcast, tweet pointing out the absurdity of the association. Commentor Brandon Geurts notes "Perturbator has about as much to do with neo-Nazis as Depeche Mode has to do with Richard Spencer," which references how Spencer in an interview once mentioned that band as his favorite. In an entirely different way, when CNN reported on the massacre they felt the need to highlight the Perturbator song “Humans Are Such Easy Prey” as if to suggest the music’s title encouraged violence. A film geek on the other hand would spot that easily as a line taken from the 1980’s horror film “From Beyond” and further that the admittedly disturbing out-of-context dialogue that opens the track is a sample from the classic science fiction movie “The Terminator”. Needless to say, it’s unfortunate that since Columbine, over 20 years ago, many media outlets still seem to go out of their way to suggest the arts are somehow responsible for the actions of school shooters.]
Yeah, I definitely see it sometimes.
Yeah, like in this article from Metal Hammer it's just... to me it's just so silly [chuckle]. Like it's super silly, you know, if an article says, "black metal is dead." It's just not but I don't really give a shit because I'm just not gonna agree with the article. I'm not going to be fucking pissed off and up in arms about it but I guess that's just me.
I think it's one of those things where the average person doesn't realize that when they see a title it may not even be from the writer of the article. It might be just the editor of the publication thinking, "oh, this is a catchy title so we'll use this," and you had nothing directly to do with it.
Yeah, I don't even know who wrote that. The weird part is when some people learned that it wasn’t a quote from me. They still went like, “but how can you accept this garbage?” Jesus. Oh my god [laughs].
Yeah, like you have to prosecute them about it [laughs].
Yeah, it's just nuts. If you don't like the magazine then just don't buy it. That's all. Whatever. I was just happy to share that I got featured in a five page article.
Of course, especially for a big publication like that. Related to all that, I have another question. Obviously when you release any work of art to the public every individual person interprets it in their own subjective way. To me that's a pretty basic aspect for the nature of art. So with that in mind I saw someone on a particular website give an interpretation I didn't find very charitable. So I wanted to ask about that because they seem to take issue with your song “Vantablack'' and specifically the lyrics on it.
Yeah, this one has also caused some trouble.
Far as I could tell from their article they never reached out to you for comment. So I wanted to ask you what that song is about?
So “Vantablack” is a song about a BDSM relationship. That's basically what the song is about and it's from the perspective of the dominant partner. Of course it does have this sort of weirdness to it. I remember the song was very misinterpreted by quite a few people who thought that I was making like a rape apology song, which is absolutely not what it's about. It reminds me of like… well, I'm gonna take the most basic example here, but like how Metallica made a lot of songs about death. That doesn't make them murderers. It’s just this whole weird thing about how this song was very misinterpreted.
I don't think I've clarified publically what it's about because I don't usually want to explain my lyrics. I think I told it to a bunch of fans at the end of a show where maybe they asked me about the song saying, "what's it about?" and I said it's about a BDSM relationship. The biggest inspiration for this track was actually the Nine Inch Nails song "Closer." I wanted this sort of weird sexually tense vibe to it; a sort of primal desire. I think the lyrics to "Closer" are pretty edgy if you really read them literally and I thought it wouldn't be a problem if my lyrics were a bit edgy too on this track. I mean to be fair, I can totally see how people can look at it and be offended or misinterpret it from what I intended.
Lustful Sacraments released May 28th, 2021 via Blood Music.