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Artist of the Year: Death Grips

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.

So, to get to the question everyone’s thinking about: Whose penis is that on the cover of your album?

After 90 minutes of spiraling conversation with Death Grips, the query completely sucks the energy out of the room. Tonight, that room is the posh, twin-bunk-bedded “band room” at Brooklyn’s yupster-chic Wythe Hotel, which overlooks the East River and the twinkling Manhattan skyline — not especially bad digs for two guys who blew through their major-label advance and are currently homeless. An awkward laugh is exchanged and an even more awkward silence follows. While an overturned coffee lid in front of the duo overflows with spent American Spirits, the question hangs dead in the air. Muffled music from a party downstairs promptly fills the void.

Death Grips producer and splatter-drum aggronomist Zach Hill and lung-peeling lead bellower Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett sit cross-armed and mutely trade looks, hiding inside puffy jackets even though the weather is unseasonably warm for November. “What do you think? It’s Stefan,” mumbles Hill, who then breaks into a barking laugh to cut the tension, since 2012’s most notorious member-cum-meme clearly doesn’t belong to his bandmate.

Hill talks in a quiet, slow-to-unravel Sacramento drawl. Burnett’s voice — on the very infrequent occasions when he does speak with a tape recorder running — is even quieter. “If you look at that and all you see is a dick, I don’t really have anything to say, pretty much,” Burnett murmurs about the photo that ultimately became the album art for their corrosive, cyber-grinding, electroshock scream-therapy sesh NO LOVE DEEP WEB. “I looked at it and said, ‘This is a great photo, and I’d love for this to be the album cover.'” Both Burnett and Hill are reserved, soft-spoken, maybe a little shy, hopelessly insular, and they don’t exactly look strangers in the eye when they walk down the street. Most importantly, the men of Death Grips are serious as cancer about making their art.

Which is to say, the duo are the complete opposite of what countless Internet commenters have declared the elusive band to be — the enfants terribles of art-rap. They’ve been called (at best) punkish assholes and puckish pranksters and (at worst) hopeless publicity addicts and nü-McLaren hucksters. A lot has been said about everything but the band’s music. In the last calendar year alone, they unexpectedly canceled a highly buzzed 30-date tour just weeks after the release of their Epic Records debut, The Money Store; they removed themselves from the music-media maw at the apex of their press cycle, they nixed interviews, they leaked the aforementioned follow-up album without their label’s permission; they posted some pissy e-mails from the label on their Facebook; they got dropped by the label; and, most infamously, got Death Grips fans to walk around with somebody’s pale pecker sproinging out onto their iPhone screens whenever they wanna blast “Bass Rattle Stars Out the Sky.”

While the Internet journalism ouroboros has spent a decade reporting on musicians who have turned social networking into a business model (reaching an apotheosis of sorts with Amanda Palmer raising $1.2 million over Kickstarter), Death Grips are the first band to unmake themselves via the Internet. They’re a band computer-savvy enough to leak records directly to geek-download havens like BitTorrent, release hypnotic .gif walls as music videos, or play promotional games on the super-anonymous Tor network. But they won’t play ball with music blogs and have recently deleted their Twitter account. “It’s stupid,” says Hill. “That’s it.”

In indie-rock circles, Death Grips have maintained a constant, Code Sufjan-level presence as a project all year, but Hill and Burnett have essentially been ghosts, not uttering a single peep to the press since they talked to art mag Flaunt for a two-page feature back in May. How did the most talked-about band of 2012 disappear?

The story of Death Grips was unlikely from the giddy-up. Noise-punk cult figure Zach Hill had logged a solid decade as Hella’s inhuman jitter-prog drum octopus; his rubbery, kick-drum double-bounce was the must-have th-th-thwap for California eccentrics Les Claypool, Omar Rodríguez-López, Wavves, and more. Hella guitarist Spencer Seim was starting a family, the band’s activities were winding down, and Hill was ready to realize a daydream of doing hip-hop production. His soon-to-be-partner Burnett, who lived on the same street as Hill, had studied art at Hampton University, a private, mostly black college in Virginia. After dropping out, he pursued music with his brother, a “very experimental rap” project that was similarly sidelined when his bandmate got married. Burnett spent the following ten years bussing tables at the same pizza restaurant in Sacramento and returning home to pursue his other passion, painting.

Burnett possessed a yell that could bust through ceilings, and knock down doors, but he wasn’t about to play the role of a traditional frontman — as soon as their instantly acclaimed free mixtape Exmilitary started getting press attention in 2011, Burnett let seasoned Q&A veteran Hill handle all interviews (sans the Flaunt article where he says a whopping three sentences on the record). Even at the Wythe, he politely but firmly rebuked SPIN when questions got even remotely personal.

“I’m a very private person,” says Burnett. “I have very few people that I call my friends. I’m very distrustful of human beings in general; I’m very distrustful of media. I have no interest in sharing my personal life with the world. Zero.”

The final piece of the puzzle was Hill’s longtime engineer Andy Morin, who has dutifully recorded all three Death Grips albums and was last seen dancing enthusiastically onstage at Coachella 2012. (He’s been completely absent from the current tour and his role in the band is undetermined.) Together, the group’s sound was shrill and merciless: chewed’n’scotch-taped Black Flag and Pink Floyd samples, vein-bulging slow-flow barks, Aphex Twinge nic-fit drum-stutter, and “FUCK IT”s defenestrated like Waka Flocka MacKaye. Angelica Cob-Baehler, Epic’s then-executive vice president of marketing, was passed their self-directed video for the fuzz-blustery “Guillotine.”

“It took about six seconds,” she says. “I was just sucked in. What I saw was a band that had the ability to capture violent, raw aggression in a way I hadn’t seen this decade. I couldn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was scared of them! I couldn’t resist the feeling of just wanting to be a part of it.”

In October of 2011, she brought Hill and Burnett in for a meeting with L.A. Reid, the newly appointed chairman and CEO of Epic. “It was funny, because Zach did most of the talking,” says Cob-Baehler. “Stefan was just sitting there with his arms crossed. He wasn’t saying anything; he was just looking at the ground. At the end of the meeting, L.A. said, ‘We really believe in this music and we want to make you part of this family. But here’s the deal: We wanna sign you today.’ Stefan looks up and goes, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ By 10 o’clock that night, they were signed.”

Five-and-a-half hours after the meeting started, they became the most unlikely rap group signed to a major since MC 900 Foot Jesus. They were labelmates with Jennifer Lopez, whoever wins The X Factor, and the Michael Jackson catalog. By late April of 2012, the band was giddily tossing giant inflatable pills around a Coachella stage and their major-label debut was a living, breathing glowing-review magnet.

But Hill describes this whole time as “a confusing, kind of darker period.” They were aware that The Money Store was a weird gamble for a major label, but says their ideas on how to expand its audience and further their artistic vision — including an attempt at collaborating with outré director (and onetime George McFly actor) Crispin Glover — weren’t being heard. Says Hill, “[A major label] has no real time and place other than, ‘Go play shows, and hopefully your record sells based on that.'” In addition, Hill could “hear a search in that record” and a “really condensed amount of information with not so much space,” and wanted to move on to a sound that was more roomy, cohesive, and emotionally connective.

Long before The Money Store’s spring 2012 release, the band had made an announcement that a second LP was coming later in the year, something they say the label was committed to, and something their upcoming tour was hindering them from realizing. The band wasn’t waiting to be assigned a spot in a release schedule; they were thinking and acting with the speed of the Internet.

“[Epic] aren’t futurists, so it’s like the old school,” says Hill. “You’re able, as an artist, to really streamline it and straight connect: You just finished this song, and therefore it’s hyper-relevant, because it’s now. Everybody’s experiencing it now. So when the song hits, you know, ‘Wow, this was just made.’ It’s existing in the same time, the same space, the same dimension of how life is moving at that point in time. It’s hard not to just want to roll with the future.”

Hill and Burnett stood in an alley by their apartment in downtown Sacramento and pondered their options. After 11 years of being on the road, Hill knew there wasn’t always something at the end of the touring rainbow, after playing “the same circuit of the same things of the same this of the same that.” Rolling with the future meant finishing the second record. He says, “I’d much rather be making a record [than touring]. For me, personally, it wasn’t that hard of a decision. Not to be insensitive about people who want to go see the thing, but you have to prioritize as an artist.” They gave the world no more notice than this tweet: “we are dropping out to complete our next album NO LOVE. see you when it’s done. (there are no longer any scheduled shows).”

They didn’t tell anyone they were bailing on 30 shows, least of all their booking agent, manager, record label, or publicist. “Listen, if that was a publicity stunt, it was one of the most clever ones ever, because it didn’t involve their publicist,” says Ken Weinstein of Big Hassle Media, the band’s beleagured flack. Hill immediately started receiving a mudslide of e-mails, often scathing, from people threatening to cut off business relationships with the band.

“Even the people that are close to us questioned our state of mind, our mental health,” says Hill. Having bailed at their RSS-monopolizing peak of buzz, fans and critics alike swarmed to the Internet to register disappointment and frustration. One choice Facebook response, which was reposted with brio on Brooklyn Vegan, stated, “Either way, the music remains great, but fuck them and their shady bullshit.” “Yeah, certainly, I’m sure, that was a very unpopular decision,” says Hill. “The thing is, when it comes to art…with all due respect to everybody, nothing comes before what I want to do creatively. I just don’t value [a band’s live show] the same way I value a piece of work.”

“It wasn’t the way I wanted to start my weekend,” says Robby Fraser of the William Morris Agency, who booked the canceled tour. “I found out about it by getting e-mails, one right after the other. My phone started blowing up from promoters saying, ‘I heard they just canceled, that doesn’t affect my date, right?’ They hadn’t talked to me. They just literally pulled this thing down, unilaterally, across the world, on their own. It was bizarre. [Promoters] were almost concerned, ‘Are they okay? Did they get in a car crash? Maybe I won’t get pissed right now ’cause maybe there’s something more serious than I know.'”

But even if promoters were left confused or angry, that wasn’t exactly weighing on Death Grips’ minds. “Not to sound arrogant, but that’s their choice,” says Hill. “I’ll go play at a house down the street, right where I started.”

The band was even set to do a potential cover story for stylish web magazine self-titled, who had booked a flight to California for a freelance writer. Weinstein couldn’t find his clients. “This is what I wrote to him,” says Weinstein, dictating an e-mail from May 5. “So I’m writing this with my head hung low and scratching it at the same time…. I can’t get an answer from management. I’m embarrassed on one hand, on the other hand I’ve tried everything I can do…. I’m not getting an answer from anyone…. I don’t know if the band is gonna be around. No one seems to know where they are.”

In reality, the band wasn’t too hard to find. They were back where they started, in Burnett and Hill’s apartment in midtown Sacramento, a featureless cube of a building on a tree-lined street next to the train tracks. Hill, the mouthpiece of a band who built their name on the web, deleted his personal Facebook, hardly futzed with their shitty Internet connection, and ignored the great majority of his e-mails — though he does remember Björk sent a very kind artist-to-artist note of support. For four months of self-imposed solitude, they spent every day working on NO LOVE DEEP WEB. The sessions were immediately plagued by a spiral of alienation and isolation: The first show of their canceled tour, the Sacramento Electronic Music Festival, was happening nine-and-a-half blocks away from their front door. “There’s the feel of the whole town not feeling that decision and not getting behind that,” says Hill, “and, obviously, rightfully so.” They lived above Sacramento Bike Kitchen, which, after hours, Hill claims is a popular meeting place for sticky-fingered ne’er-do-wells in a city where more than 1,150 bikes were reported stolen last year alone. The band worked around the hours of the Bike Kitchen and suffered a handful of noise complaints. At one point, the porch caught on fire for reasons unknown.

“You could tell people were trying to break in,” says Hill. “In the middle of the night, I’d see someone fucking with the door, so I’d throw a bottle out the window in the alley so it would shatter and they would run. It was tiring in that sense, a very exhausting space mentally. And mixed with our internal struggles, it was not a pleasant time making that album at all. It was actually very dark.”

The band finished NO LOVE on August 31 and flew to Los Angeles that night under a blue moon. They weren’t going to set up some meeting or “do lunch”: They were going say, “We’re here.” However, in the time it took to finish the record, Cob-Baehler, their most devoted advocate at Epic, and their project manager, Arjun Pulijal, had been let go from the label. “The small team that we had, who had their own problems with trying to represent what we were trying to do, those people disappeared,” says Hill. “So we ended up being basically straight-up ghosts in the building…if we weren’t already. We went down to Los Angeles to try to basically force entry and get answers or solutions as to what was going on with the band.”

They didn’t get that meeting immediately, and had enough time to fly back to Sacramento, put all their stuff in storage, say goodbye to the meth heads on I Street forever, and return to L.A. with no home, but an industrial-strength new album stored on their iPhones. Once they got into the Epic offices to play NO LOVE for chief operating officer Mark Shimmel, the meeting was inauspicious, to say the least. “There is a lot of psychological warfare in the music industry,” says Hill. “When we got there, he brings us into [Cob-Baehler’s] old office. The place was stripped out. That’s where he chose to have this meeting. They don’t listen to any of our album or any of our music. We hadn’t seen them all summer, we hadn’t seen them since we canceled our tour, since any of this shit. We talked about plans and touring, and there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm towards the music. L.A. Reid did show up for a second. He wanted to tell us he was still down for us. Which he is: L.A. Reid is down for this band.”

Hill and Burnett stayed in Los Angeles and tried to get meetings to play Epic their promised second album of 2012. They started texting Epic A&R head Tricky Stewart. There was no release date to speak of and, since they blew off their promotional tour and their whole team was gone, who knew if there was going to be a release date at all. The band tried to stay optimistic. They figured they could be dropped any day. But, Burnett says, “we had no plans on disappointing our fans again. That was not an option.” Adds Hill, “At a certain extent, there is a game involved in where they’re coming from. And there is an aspect of, ‘How on earth are we going to get control back?'”

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.

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