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In a techno scene not known for its showmanship, Marshstepper stand out.

Photos from their shows resemble surreptitious shots stolen at occult gatherings: figures in robes and masks lifting chalices, strange rituals incorporating bondage and fetish play, naked bodies stretched out in supplication. The group’s London debut at Power Lunches back in October caught Marshstepper in relatively stripped down form, just the core duo of Jes Aurelius and Nick Nappa. Still, it was gripping. Aurelius, in a big military overcoat of the sort William Bennett used to rock in the mid ‘80s, loomed over a glowing interface of sequencers, mixers and pedals, spiriting up a choking fog punctuated by wailing synth lines and booming dub beats. Nappa, meanwhile, donned a mask, shrieked into a microphone, stalked through the audience, or climbed a small speaker stack to trigger spikes of feedback. As the set reaches its climax, Aurelius pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, set it alight, and drops it into a vase of flowers, filling the basement with a sickly-sweet smoke.

Marshstepper are just one incarnation of Ascetic House, a DIY collective and publishing house based in the desert city of Tempe, Arizona that churns out a steady stream of cassettes, videos, art pieces and esoteric publications. There’s no fixed genre: Destruction Unit – in which Aurelius and Nappa also play – do a kind of amp-melting psychedelic rock; Body Of Light, a darkly anthemic synth-pop. Others, like Jock Club and Memoryman explore house, techno and footwork, albeit often from rather unorthodox positions. In the upstairs café before the show, Nappa explains Ascetic House’s adventurousness and profligacy as a by-product of their isolation. “There’s no-one to show us the ropes,” says Nappa. “We just set out to make our own weird thing.”

But word of Marshstepper is spreading: their first vinyl release, titled A New Sacrament Of Penance, has just seen release on Downwards America, the offshoot of Downwards run by Juan ‘Silent Servant’ Mendez. It also led to an opportunity to take Marshstepper’s dark techno ritualism to the halls of Berlin’s Berghain as part of Downwards’ recent 25th birthday celebrations.

FACT spoke with Marshstepper about isolation, playing dance music to punk kids, and the importance of pushing things to the limit.

How did you hook up with Downwards?

Jes Aurelius: Juan [Mendez], Silent Servant, saw us in LA at this place MATA – a venue strictly for noise and art stuff. At the time we had mutual friends, and after the show he was like, “I’d love to put a record out.” He knew about the way we operate – like, “I understand you guys put out your own stuff, but if you want to…” And I was like, “you don’t even have to explain anything else, we’ll do it.” Given how much we already respected him, without knowing him personally. Not long after, he got in touch like, “we’re going to be doing this 25 Years Of Downwards at Berghain – do you fancy coming to play? Like, I know you’re on tour a lot, you guys are busy…”. And I was like, “we’ll cancel everything we have booked, we’re there.” [laughs] It was one of those things in the back of my head – like, this would be amazing, but I’m not going to think about it until it actually happens.

Nick Nappa: I mean, we’ve been to Berghain – it doesn’t seem real to us.

J: We’ve toured Europe before, just a few little shows a few years ago. And I remember when we were leaving Berlin to fly back to the US, one of us was like, “next time we come back here, we’re going to play Berghain”. But self-deprecating. Not thinking it might actually happen.

That’s funny. You talk about it, then it happens.

J: Exactly – but the weird thing is, that’s how a lot of things come together.

N: Nothing makes sense. [laughs]

J: It’s making your own reality, I guess.

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The Ascetic House itinerary looks pretty daunting – all of you working on multiple projects. How do you fit it together?

J: [laughs] A lot of the time we’ll bite off more than we can chew. For example, the January Program [Ascetic House released and then deleted a tape daily throughout January 2014] – we’d be updating the website every day while on tour, then we’d be home for four days and have to dub 5000 tapes. It took five people, rotating on 24 hour shifts.

N: It’s got to be challenging. We find ways to keep it challenging.

J: It’s pushed to the limit intentionally, and sometimes things don’t work out as planned, but it mostly works out. You learn from that. You learn more from screwing things up than from doing things perfectly.

How did Marshstepper come into being?

N: Me and him have been doing bands for a long time. It came about when Iceage came over [to the US] for the first time. They had asked to play with Jes’ other band, Pigeon Religion.

J: Yeah, we met the Posh Isolation dudes because somehow my first band, our record made its way to Copenhagen. The guy booking the first Iceage tour in the US was like, Iceage is coming to Phoenix and they really want to play with Pigeon Religion. I was like, there’s no way that’s true – you’re making that up so that we’ll play, and get a few more people through the door. We didn’t play, but a sort of alternate version of the band played. But Anton [Rothstein], who’s in Lower was doing merch for Iceage – we met him and he was like, you’re in Pigeon Religion? We found your record at the record store, we play it between bands at our shows all the time – your song ‘Dead Boss’ is like a Copenhagen anthem, everyone singing along. That was before I’d done any proper touring outside Phoenix – no-one really knew our music – so the fact that someone on the other side of the world knew our band was pretty wild.

N: The other guy in Pigeon Religion didn’t really want to do it. So we said we’d do this new thing, Marshstepper. It was just me and Jes, but from the very first show we had our friend on hand to do some performance art stuff. Greh from Chondritic Sound caught that show it, asked us to do a tape. And then our third show, we were doing a show in LA. It went super fast. It’s the first time we’d done a band not through amps. The point of the project was just to do something new.

Being a fish out of water?

J: Exactly. That’s behind everything we do. You just dive in, maybe you get lucky. Maybe it works perfectly, maybe it’s a disaster, but you learn from it.

How did the performance side come together?

J: It’s different every time. Sometimes it’s just the music. Sometimes it’s a small performance, other times it’s elaborate. We’re trying to keep it from becoming a shtick. You see people post on social media, like, oh, I’m going to go see Marshstepper tonight, all these naked boys… but the performances are very different, and they’re done for different reasons. Sometimes it’s bondage, it’s sexual. Other times it’s violent. Sometimes it’s…

N: Lighting shit on fire.

J: But of course the ones that are super crazy are the ones when all the cameras come out at.

N: Berghain, we tried to go all out for that one… we had some friends come down.

What happened?

N: We made a mess, had some fun.

J: It’s tough to describe… it sort of lessens the impact if you describe what happens word for word.

N: [laughs] You kind of have to be there.

J: But it was about pushing people to physical limits, I guess. Our main performer at Berghain was our friend Emile, who also played a New York show with us. That was one of the more intense performances we did, I guess.

N: Like, physical pain.

J: The Berghain performance was completely different. But at the end, Emile was like, that was actually way more intense. The great thing about Berghain was that they let us do what we want, which is unusual. Usually we’re used to covertly sneaking all the equipment in, setting up in secret, hoping people don’t shut us down. But at Berghain they were very helpful.

marshsteppersxswAscetic House puts out a lot of dance music – is there a conventional club scene in the area you come from?

N: [laughs] No. We literally created something out of nothing. There’s no industrial music, a few kids who do noise.

J: There’s a dance music scene, but it’s nothing you would want to be a part of – it’s like, Top 40 remixes, EDM. And even that, it’s a small scene. The stuff we do is in the same vein as the noise shows we book, the punk shows we book. We tend to mix it up, some noise stuff next to some dance music. We’ll look for people who’ll be like,”‘Oh, Jock Club are playing, last time we saw him we danced all night, it was sick.” But then Marshstepper perform beforehand. Maybe they like it, maybe they don’t. It’s all about moving people in strange directions. There’s a lot of people looking for something deeper than the shitty Top 40 parties, they just don’t know where to go. So you find ways to draw them in.

Does it colour what you do, making house and techno in DIY venues, rather than the sort of club infrastructure that this music was born in?

J: It gives it its own individuality. But if something is good it’ll work anywhere. Like, Jock Club – he’ll play last at a hardcore show, and for the first five minutes you’ll get two punk kids in vests like, I don’t know how I feel about this, and then one of them will start ironically dancing, and then 30 minutes in everyone is dancing. It’s a universal thing. Being able to make it work in a shitty basement or a house to 10 people gives it more ability to work anywhere. If you can make something work under the shittiest circumstances, you become resourceful. And when you play somewhere like Berghain where they’re super-helpful, it just makes it all the better. We’re used to being fought everywhere we go.

Has it got better in your home state?

N: No. It’s no better. There’s no venues really. What’s big in Arizona is nothing you’d ever want to be into. We’re very much a reaction to the climate that we find ourselves. In. It’s super conservative, not really into any latest trends. So we travel, see all this amazing music, come back home and set out to create our own version of it. There’s no one to show us the ropes. So we just set out and make our own weird thing. It’s become like everyone is influencing one another. Like someone is doing footwork music, but all these other sounds are seeping in.

J: It’s funny but all the local mid-level indie venues, Destruction Unit has been asked to play there a couple of times. Marshstepper, never. Yet we’ve played Berghain.

N: Destruction Unit, we couldn’t fill a bar for years, there would be 15 to 20 people max. And then we’d go play in LA to 200 people. It’s like, what the fuck? It feels crazy getting these opportunities, it doesn’t make sense.

So what’s the material on A New Sacrament Of Penance? Does it differ from what you’ve done before?

J: It was one of the first times we really recorded Marshstepper in a studio – well, a practice room. Pretty much everything we’ve released is other than a live recording. It was recorded two years ago – [laughs] like, we don’t really know what we’re doing still, but we knew even less back then. It’s kind of a document.

N: We weren’t really going to put out a record, but Juan and Regis were like, we really want to put this out.

J: Most of what we’re doing now is so much better. But they liked it and they understood it as a document. It’s primitive. It is what it is.

I read that you’ve got video stuff in the works.

J: We have a lot of video projects in different stages of completion. It’s hard because we’re on the road so much. Doing video stuff is tough, it’s even more time consuming than records, there’s a lot that goes into it. But I think video is an extremely powerful artform. We’re working on this thing I call Lysergic Television – we’ve collected all this footage over time, friends playing, us playing, different scripted things, interviews – it’s like a video magazine, but stream of consciousness. That’s being edited right now, it’s nearly finished.

That sounds a bit like the kind of thing Throbbing Gristle used to do. It kind of died out.

J: Yeah, yeah. I think any type of artform has its function. But it’s interesting to blur lines between them. You could do a performance where you’re reading something over a drone, and it’s like, is that poetry, or music? After a while, it becomes irrelevant. You ask yourself? Is it a performance? Is it a video? Is it a piece of writing? How do you present it? It’s about mixing it all together. Like, we’re not purist as far as that goes.

What do you want people to take from a Marshstepper performance?

N: For me, it’s like – I like the moment when you’re in a room, and you totally forget that you’re in a room, watching a show. You are so immersed in an experience that you forget you’re at a show, you forget yourself and everything going on around you. And if you can get as many people into that mode…

J: We’ll play alongside noise acts, but we’ll also play alongside DJs, and a lot of times people aren’t there for us, they’re there for whatever’s there after, they’re there for the hardcore band. But maybe they’ll be like, “Oh shit, I didn’t realise something electronic could have the same spirit as this hardcore band I liked.” Their ideas of what they could be into are expanded. There was this guy we met at Berghain, I think his job was guarding the back door, and he came up to us afterwards like, that was fucking sick, man! He was there telling the security guards, these guys rule. He probably works Berghain every night, and it’s techno, techno, techno. And then us. For him I think it was like, there’s more out there. We’re here to blow away the idea of: ‘I know what I like.’ That’s what it’s about.

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