Frontman Jay Gambit tells Document how the band makes eternal despair sound catchy
“The ringing/buried under dead dreams/No funerals/Sirens sing for nothing/All of your gods have gone home.” Jay Gambit, frontman of Executioner’s Mask, bellows the lyrics to “No Funeral” in an ominous stentorian baritone, while Ryan Wilson’s drum programming drives beneath and Craig Mickle’s guitar chimes like a surging church knell. In line with the album title, Despair Anthems, the music is dark, adrenalin-pumping, post-punk goth, giving off black clouds of bleak cheer. It’s a sadness that makes you want to get up and dance—or at least raise your hands and sway enthusiastically.
Even over the phone, Gambit vibrates with an infectious, morbid extroversion. “Everybody’s fucking sad all the time now,” he says, laughing. “Even when you’re happy, you’re sad. There’s not much to be happy about anymore, in a system that’s completely crumbling around you. How are you going to be happy? Which is really, I guess, the core of this record—that, yeah, everything’s fucked. What are you going to do, pretend that shit’s not fucked? Shit’s fucked. But you’ve got to wake up every day and try to live your life and make a better world around you.”
Gambit grew up in the ‘90s shuffling between New York and Florida following his parent’s divorce. His family is Turkish and Russian-Jewish; he describes himself as having “dark features, bushy brows—I’m a brown guy.” Extreme metal’s audience and performers in the US are mostly white, and parts of the black metal scene in particular are famously racist. But that didn’t stop Gambit, who started out listening to bands like Skinny Puppy and vaulted into a range of other heavy music through the catch-as-catch-can methods one used before online music communities were fully established. He found White Zombie because a kid in an anti-drug video shown at school was wearing an Ugly Music for Ugly People T-shirt. An older girl he had a crush on wore a Gwar T-shirt and he went online to try to track them down.
In the 2000s Gambit was in what he calls “Jesus Lizard and Melvins worship bands,” playing grunge and sludge metal. But he got tired of negotiating creative direction with his bandmates, so he started Crowhurst, a free-form experimental noise metal project which he could do by himself or with whatever collaborators happened to be interested. He didn’t think it was music that would be of interest to anyone else, but to his surprise, Crowhurst became quite popular in indie metal circles.
Crowhurst had touches of post-punk and goth in its DNA, so Executioner’s Mask isn’t so much a reinvention as a kind of roots exploration, highlighting the extent to which The Cure and Sisters of Mercy were part of Gambit’s aesthetic all along. Nostalgia doesn’t weigh the record down though. Instead it seems to free the band up to mope with a purer energy. “And the light…fades out/And the light…fades out,” Gambit declaims over the echoing, driving throb of “1988,” a song that sucks the blood right out of the heyday of goth and licks its vampiric fangs with a completely unironic wink.
“We weren’t trying to create a big expression that we were going to labor over. We’re three musicians who are friends and we wanted to have some fun and crank out a record,” Gambit says. And while Gambit, Wilson, and Mickle aren’t pop musicians, Gambit says he is “a big fan of hooks.” Wilson’s main project is death metal band Intestinal Disgorge; the music is very fast and distorted, Gambit always heard a bunch of catchy melodies buried down there in the gurgle and roar. “So I figured if you slow that down and you really highlight some of the genius riffs he writes—he might write two post-punk albums worth of riffs in one death metal song.”
Just as Gambit can hear pop hooks in death metal, so he can hear post-punk in alt-country. One of the most surprising tracks on the record is a loving cover of Scud Mountain Boys’ “Freight of Fire.” The original is a country folk strum, all wistful lonesome harmonies and exhausted regret. “Love it came like a burning freight of fire” is a resigned acceptance of inevitable pain in the Scud Mountain Boys version. But Executioner’s Mask turns it into a booming embrace of immolation. When Gambit sings “Love it dies just like three days without water,” he makes dying in the desert sound like the best revenge.
“Freight of Fire” is actually the first song Executioner’s Mask ever recorded. Gambit was obsessed with the Scuds’ Sub Pop Early Years compilation, and was listening to it over and over on headphones when Wilson sent him the first skeleton track for the album. “And all I heard in my head was, ‘Love it came like a burning freight of fire.’ It’s the same melody in my head. Stylistically it’s worlds away. But in my head it’s the same song.”
Gambit’s love for the Scud Mountain Boys is all of a piece with the love for sad bands and desolate emotions that suffuses Despair Anthems. Gambit writes about death and suicide and depression in such an open-hearted, enthusiastic way that wretchedness becomes a kind of solidarity. On the pounding industrial “Bury Me a Grave,” he sings about “drinking breakfast/dodging sunlight,” before viciously spitting out, “Short a bullet I will stay/No one makes it anyway.” All of us pale blear ectomorphs are stuck here ‘till death comes, and as long as that’s the case, there’s comfort in knowing no one escapes. Sad people can have great tunes too. Executioner’s Mask is music for those who know that if you’re going to groan, you might as well groan together.