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The Baltimore musician exploring brutality and masculinity

Get to know VIOLENCE, a former death metal drummer who writes bruising yet beautiful electronic pop songs, and watch his new video for ‘Rain’

“I didn’t really read as much as I wanted to at school,” explains VIOLENCE over Skype. “I didn’t have time. I was always taking way too many classes.” Today, the Baltimore artist spends much of his time reading – he’s particularly interested in US history, and more recently has delved into gender studies following a break-up that inspired him to read more deeply into it. “I was trying to understand. I wasn’t even mad. I was just like, ‘Damn, we were real crazy. What the fuck was wrong with us?’”

As a reader, music wasn’t an especially important factor for VIOLENCE – real name Olin Caprison – when he was growing up in Baltimore. In fact, he didn’t like it at all. The “textural quality” of AM radio, his only source of music at the time, made him feel nauseous when he heard it in the car. When he got older, he started listening to death metal. “A couple of my friends were trying to start a band when I was 15 or 16,” he says. “I was like, ‘Well, I have a drum kit...’” But it wasn’t until he was nearly 20 years old that he started to make “weird ambient” music with the help of his Final Cut software. “I was taking video editing classes and I was just moving soundbites around and adding effects,” he says.

These early forays led to Caprison developing and honing his own sound in the subsequent years, one that melds the fluid melodies of grime, the grit and distortion of noise, and the brute force of industrial music. After contributing to compilations by genre-warping DJ Total Freedom and rapper/poet Mykki Blanco’s Dogfood Music Group, he released his debut album A Ruse of Power this year through NON, a record label and collective of artists from the African diaspora that seek to articulate, in their words, “the visible and invisible structures that create binaries in society”. Caprison’s work concerns these power structures, with accounts of violence and the struggles of less fortunate people influencing his process.

A Ruse of Power explores different societal contexts of violence – from political tragedies to neighbourhood shootings to the consequences of performed hypermasculinity – both subtly and overtly. It explores different sonic terrains, jumping from Caprison’s piercing screams to howling industrial winds and tiptoeing square wave melodies. The album’s opener, “Rain”, quietly rumbles with the beautiful tones of his own singing voice – Caprison wanted its video to have a “rap party vibe”. Watch it below, and read on for a discussion of symbolism and masculinity with VIOLENCE.

What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘violence’?

VIOLENCE: I’ve ended up in a lot of situations where I’ve been explaining the Arab Spring to friends of mine recently. When I think of the word ‘violence’ right now, I’m thinking of when they pulled Gaddafi out of that drainage ditch. I feel like a lot of the content under this project was more relentless because I felt like it was my responsibility to interact with all these different kinds of documents – (which) at the time felt really new, (yet) sort of familiar in a way – of the less fortunate that were popping up all over the world.

Could you talk about the video for ‘Rain’?

VIOLENCE: I was just like, ‘Yo, I want to do a really cool video.’ The idea for it was to take a rap party bus and throw me and all my friends in it. They have this song that’s not an upbeat rap song playing, but they have this rap party vibe with all my friends in it, who are non-conforming motherfuckers. (laughs)

There’s a symbol that rotates and flashes up at the beginning of the video for ‘Rain’ that you’ve used elsewhere. It’s a titled ‘V’, a love heart, and another symbol.

VIOLENCE: The version in the video is a little squashed. Usually it’s gothic with extremely sharp edges and elongated lines. First, the project used to be called ‘VILENCE’, without an ‘o’. It was a combination of the words ‘violence’ and ‘silence’. I came up with the symbol for that – it was ‘VIL’ and then a heart. It’s a mix of a couple of symbols. I like to think about how old a lot of symbols are that have dubious meanings nowadays, and the way that cultural ownership is decided upon. I was thinking about that when I made it. I remember sitting in church when I was four years old and drawing all these weird shapes as I got older. I saw (that) each of these things I would draw over and over again had their own meaning that had been decided upon before I even came around. A lot of my stuff is a lot of different symbols and metaphors that I’m putting together so I can remember information – the logo for the project is no different.

“When I think of the word ‘violence’ right now, I’m thinking of when they pulled Gaddafi out of that drainage ditch” – VIOLENCE

‘Carcrash’ is a track on the record that’s particularly fascinating to me. At the end, there’s a siren that sounds like an ambulance nearing. What went into making that track?

VIOLENCE: That song is a combination of two old songs. One of my oldest songs is about when I came (back) to Baltimore when I was 19 for a year. I showed up in the neighbourhood I grew up in and nobody was outside. It was really eerie. It was the middle of the day in the summer and the wind was blowing, and I just had this terrible feeling. I went to my childhood friends’ house and was like, ‘What’s going on?’ He told me that someone had just gotten shot up the street from where I lived, in this alleyway. I just remembered thinking about that over and over. I’d been through that alleyway so many times. I reference it in the lyrics, the weird mumblings in the back of the sounds in that song.

The artwork for A Ruse of Power has quite an unnerving effect, with hands creeping up from the back of your head that clasp over one side of your face. Why does that image visually represent the record?

VIOLENCE: It’s a reference to the first single, ‘Psycud’, where I’m interacting with this character, expressing this character through the lyrics of the song. It’s a real lazy, masculine character that I’m moving through – which I can relate to, because of how I grew up and the things that I was supposed to believe in. The environment that character comes from has a grasp on him and he can’t really escape it. There’s no way that kind of person can see (a way) out of a situation that drastic and extreme, where they have to be this violent, fucked-up character that’s not themselves. It’s a disassociation, where you have to become this thing to survive.  

You were saying that you partially related to that. Have you personally felt a pressure to perform a certain kind of masculinity?

VIOLENCE: Oh yeah! Especially when I was growing up. That was me up until a couple of years ago. Then I was like, ‘This is actually wack as fuck,’ and I could do whatever I want.