Brighton's darkly experimental artist shares her second record, inspired by feral children, anxiety and supermarkets
Unflesh is Elizabeth Bernholz’s second album as Gazelle Twin, a dark and depraved journey into the remote cells of her subconscious. “The idea of 'unflesh' is like a shedding of skin,” she says of the record. “It’s a tearing out of your body down to your skeleton and breaking free. I was also interested in the London riots: young people are always demonised, very misunderstood, but they're also at the peak of this intense consumerist culture. You just think, what might happen if we ply generation on generation with excess desire, unattainable desires, and just hammer it? It's survival mode, but it's survival for nothing. Survival for the most menial reward. You're not running from a lion, you're just trying to get out of the supermarket after buying some dinner.” To mark the astonishing record’s release, we asked Bernholz to walk us through the sanatorium of night terrors, childhood traumas and escape strategies that wrought it.
I wanted a song that sets the tone, like a film’s opening credits. It’s an expression of having a panic attack. Our society has a lot of excesses - humans have very primal ways of dealing with things and panic attacks are one of them. I’m interested in that constant state of being under threat and ready to deal with it. ‘Unflesh’ is about stripping down to get out.
It's a celebration of resisting urges, resisting your DNA and having the guts to push against your feral instincts and root out neuroses. It's about taking pleasure in the strangeness and complexity of the mind. There's plenty of fear, but also enjoyment. I enjoy tripping out without drugs - having flu fevers, thing like that. I've always been a sickly person - which was great when I was young, because I got to miss school - so it’s always been a weirdly positive thing for me to be incapacitated and to wander around inside my head.
There's a sexual theme throughout the album. "Exorcise" is probably the most sexualised - it's more fun and upbeat than the others. It's based on various types of hallucination, ranging from fever dreams to orgasms, and tying that into trance states, ritualistic and religious. There's lots of breath, lots of gasps; a gasp of exasperation, but then one of ecstasy.
It's a musing on euthanasia, the idea that you can die when you want to, which is something I really believe in. As someone who grew up with a natural depression and anxiety, you're prone to suicidal thoughts quite often - I know what it's like to very seriously consider that act. We call (euthanasia) suicide here and I think that's wrong. It’s important that we control each other’s right to life.
It's the one song that's totally autobiographical. On reflection, growing up I had something that we'd now call body dysmorphia. It’s an account of the height of that process, and the moment where I made a decision to... to try and get out of being alive. Sports and PE time was the worst for me, and the whole image, my costume, all derives from that song and that moment. I was quite late to puberty. I was very boyish, very skinny, and was constantly made aware of it. Eventually it changed, at the moment I tried to end my life. But it was a fumbled attempt - I fell asleep for a very long time, but was quite glad to wake up. After that moment, I recovered fairly quickly. But Jesus, I'm still a female in a world that's fucking hard to deal with when you're trying to be honest and natural. Those things go in and they don't ever really go away.
I moved from my first childhood home when I was quite unprepared for it. All the experiences I had in that house, and a lot of the dreams I had, have stuck and won't go away. I think everything that happens between the age of four and eleven shapes everything and echoes throughout your life forever, sort of haunts you.
I've had a recurring dream for at least 10 years about looking after very small babies. I drop them or lose them or they transform into something else - it’s a slightly Eraserhead type of situation, but really horrible and real. So it was musing on that idea of maternal instinct and fear. Miscarriage is one of my biggest fears. My mother and my sisters have all experienced it, and my brother too. It's my ultimate fear. I wanted the song to be a sort of lullaby dedicated to everyone I know who's been through it.
There’s this amazing BBC interpretation of the M.R. James ghost story, Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad, which I was obsessed with growing up. At one point the protagonist wakes up in his hotel and he's being harassed by this spirit, and there's an incredible dream sequence of him encountering this apparition. This is my interpretation of that moment.
"Belly of the Beast"
After "A1 Receptor" the idea is that you're waking up, but into a different sort of nightmare. It's broad daylight - no ghosts, shadows, corners. You’re in a very normal place, in a supermarket. But it’s the cold, fluorescent reality of life. I went back to that feeling of being controlled and oppressed by authority, at school, things like that. But it’s connected to the excess of modern situations, being in a developed capitalist society. I dream about supermarkets a lot. For me, they're very politically loaded. It's kind of grotesque to be in that situation, but I'm also interested in it purely aesthetically - the cold, clinical relentlessness of it.
I've always been fascinated by the phenomenon of feral children. In the late nineties I saw a documentary about this Ukranian girl, Oxana Malaya, and the song’s from her perspective. This girl pretty much lived with, and was raised by, local stray dogs. Her parents were alcoholics, they were just fucked basically, and didn't even know she was there. So she adapted her every human attribute - mannerisms, body language - to being like a dog. And I'm interested in how this girl could be so transformed, and learn affection from dogs. Eventually humans took her away - from her family, really - and rehabilitated her to walk upright, and speak. She probably wouldn't have survived very long, but perhaps she would've been better off with the dogs.
"I Feel Blood"
I really like the Iggy Pop album The Idiot, and I wanted a vibe that's really doomy and relaxed at the same time, which is what Iggy does: casual doom. I like how the title relates to "I feel love". I was thinking about the obligations of gender - father to son, mother to daughter, and then all that goes between that. And for some reason I applied it in the patriarchal context of colonisation, which is a massive example of the need to dominate and sow seeds and breed out populations. The song’s about blood, DNA, being the agent for all this to happen. This weird fearsome thing that's passed on and has its own urge to dominate.
Still Life really bookends the album with "Unflesh". It's more of an accepting song, the culmination of a lot of thought and emotion. There's more of a controlled vibe, but there's still a need to scream and purge. It's like the aftermath of the anxiety attack: gathering yourself and preparing for whatever’s next.
Buy Unflesh here.