To get into the next level of the game, Hill started taking some inspiration from his younger brother, a career gamer. In one of their long, confiding conversations, Hill talked about The Book of Five Rings, a 17th-century text of philosophy and strategy from a Japanese swordsman. His brother countered with some techniques used in role-playing-game staple Magic: The Gathering. There are three types of decks in Magic: the speedy offensive of the Aggro deck, the deus ex machina checkmates of the Combo deck, and the slow-and-steady game of the Control deck.
"We perceive that this record label is running a game, right?" says Hill. "The Control deck is the shit because, basically, you un-summon people's magic by using their own magic against them. It's totally control; you put yourself in the same place as the other person, so they have nothing on you, it's like an illusion. Redirection of power and putting yourself in the environments these other people are in — it creates a chaos element to it. We started thinking about that in the sense of where we were as a band."
When they'd landed in Los Angeles for their first impulsive visit to the label, they were walking down Sunset Boulevard with their bags and passed Chateau Marmont, the famed $435-a-night luxury hotel and/or castle where Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby, Lindsay Lohan got booted for skipping her bill, and Katy Perry and John Mayer currently rendezvous on dates. "We're aware of that place and the things that it represents," says Hill. "All the people we're working with, they do their lunches there and stay there, and we can visualize what that is. We walked inside somehow. It's not the kind of place you can just walk inside, it's a real tripped-out environment, it's very elitist. We walked inside and started having these flashes about the Control deck and posturing and putting yourself in these places. So we put ourselves there. We moved in there and stayed there for two months. We used what was left over from our advance and burned through the fucking thing."
For the next two months the Marmont was the band's Control station, as they played an illusion game against everyone they were working with. Learning, through "full infiltration," about Hollywood social hierarchy. "All these artists want to work towards being able to live at that place," says Hill. "A lot of people, that's their version of success, so we put ourselves in what people's version of success is and burned through what we had to experience that. But also what it did for us is make us realize this isn't success at all: This is a joke. We were about to torch all of that while living in the building. Everything pretty much was essentially done from that place."
They subverted the Hollywood dream and wrestled for control. The usually camera-shy band posted a rare photo: Burnett standing on a Marmont balcony with two middle fingers blazing at the Hollywood Hills. At midnight, October 1, under the next full moon, they leaked NO LOVE DEEP WEB from their hotel room. And, yes, Hill used an iPhone to shoot the most iconic album cover of 2012 from their bathroom in the Chateau Marmont. So, back to the original question: Whose penis is that on your album cover?
"Yeah, that's mine," Hill finally admits. "It was difficult to do, honestly, in general, it was very difficult. It's difficult even telling people that's the source of it; it feels sacrificial in a sense. That idea existed long before, by the way. This is going to sound funny to other people, but we saw it as tribal, as spiritual, as primal. Also, it comes from a place of being a band that is perceived as…such an aggressive, male-based, by some, misogynistic-seeming band. If you can get past this and still enjoy the music…. It's a display of embracing homosexuality, not that either of us are homosexual. Am I making sense? People are still going to think that it's macho, but that's not the source of where it comes from."
Burnett interrupts, and quietly, asks, "I mean, do we seem like macho people?"
Death Grips had adorned their album with a photo that they believed was a piece of contemporary art. But the media assumed it was a perverse stunt, a taunt to their record label, a childish prank. "It was pretty much telling, as far as where the mindstate and mentality of society is," says Burnett. "Honestly, by some reactions to many things we've done, especially recently, it's obviously been a bit disappointing to see that that's where the mentality of the present state is. It's a bit disappointing, but not surprising."
As the media swarmed around the leaked album, Death Grips once again took to Facebook, posting private e-mails from Heath Kudler, Epic's senior vice president for business and legal affairs, to their manager. In the messages, Kudler says that the band has broached their record contract, infringed on copyrights, made "false and disparaging statements on various websites about Epic. All this despite the fact that Epic has done nothing except wholeheartedly support the band, even though theband [sic] has made certain decisions that have financially damaged Epic."
"Just for clarity, the posting of that e-mail, that was nothing to do with us and the label," says Hill. "That had to do with you and other people who were increasingly catering to the idea that this was a marketing scheme, that this was more for media-based decisions." That being said, Hill admits the label took it personally and describes the repercussions as "a shitstorm." The following day, an announcement went out that the band had been dropped from Epic. It read, in part, "Unfortunately, when marketing and publicity stunts trump the actual music, we must remind ourselves of our core values. To that end, effective immediately, we are working to dissolve our relationship with Death Grips. We wish them well."
Now, completely freed from a machine they weren't necessarily raging against, Death Grips have no marketing budget, no news pegs — i.e., nothing but their art to speak for itself. This includes a long-promised do-over tour where the two lean-as-veal members go full-contact expressionism for about 45 minutes with no breaks for water or banter. Fraser attempted to make good with every promoter they missed the first time around, and shows have been selling out. The music is going to have to be the story; both now and in the future. "What we're doing live right now, we love it 100 percent, we stand behind it," says Hill. "But it's kind of weird, because we already know what we want to do for the future, and as far as a record, concept, live performance, it doesn't look a lot like anything that's happening right now. We're already existing a year from now."
"If you read the bio on the Sex Pistols, there's just so many similarities to how it all went," says Cob-Baehler. "The Sex Pistols were signed to five major labels in their career, the first was really short-lived…In the same way that the Sex Pistols became one of the most important bands of all time, they were able to overcome these types of issues that, at some point, maybe looked like they were overshadowing the music. And I think Death Grips will do the same. This won't be the main part of their story for long."
Fortunately for Death Grips, they're very much unlike the Sex Pistols in a lot of ways: the dogged sincerity, the relentless compulsion to create (they've already released three times as many albums), the artistic vision that keeps everything two steps ahead of stability or sanity or expectations. In the process, they've created the new model: Don't clamor for the Internet's attention, embrace its chaos.
This is the first piece in SPIN's series of Year-End stories, which we'll be publishing now through the end of the year.