Death in June: Allure, speculation, and unease
Douglas P. reflects on a legacy of conflicting emotions and timeless music
Since 1981 Death in June has remained a source of perpetual allure, tension, and speculation. Culled from the ashes of London's left leaning '70s punk outfit Crisis, Death in June's long-standing member Douglas Pearce (Douglas P.) has spent a lifetime building a provocative musical legacy. For more than 30 years Pearce has pushed the boundaries of many rich and esoteric musical forms, from bleak post-punk, new wave, and industrial dirges to playing a key role in defining the neofolk genre — an experimental musical style that blends acoustic folk songwriting with noise and modern classical. Pearce's guitar melodies and impressionistic voice and lyrics overflow with contradictory sentiments: triumph and misanthropy, aggression and melancholy collide in his songs, sometimes all in the same hook.
The pitfall, however, lies in his unsettling appropriation of imagery and lyrics that are often perceived as nods to fascism. Allegations that Pearce is a Nazi sympathizer have circulated since the cover for the group's 1983 debut LP, The Guilty Have No Pride, featured an unmistakable totenkopf — the skull and crossbones that can be traced back as far as the Thirty Years' War but is more often associated with the Third Reich. Protests have formed at Death in June's shows, but Pearce's agenda is never clearly defined save for a phrase etched onto the vinyl of the group's 1985 LP Nada!: "We aim to please with constant unease!"
Pearce remains open to interpretation of his work, but when reactions become confrontational, it's of little concern to him. "The yapping dogs of this world rushing to the gate to bark at the stranger in strange dress walking by are too stupid to see or hear the real danger breaking in at the rear of their property," he says in an e-mail from his home in Australia. "All they can hear is the sound of their own barking. I keep on my path and that yapping noise soon disappears into the distance."
Accusations of fascism aside, Pearce has proven himself to be an accomplished musician, continually distilling new musical styles with Death in June's cryptic and always passionate sound and vision. By now, he has so clearly established the project's ever-shifting musical milieu that his latest offering, 2013's The Snow Bunker Tapes, an acoustic rendering of 2010's Peaceful Snow, seems like a refined next step. But taking a reductionist's approach to his songs reveals a timeless quality in his writing. With so much attention paid to Death in June's image, the beauty of the songs can be overshadowed. But Pearce continues on his own terms. Whether he's simply pushing buttons or reconciling a darker side of his psyche is unclear; Pearce isn't one to start explaining himself.
The unease carved into Nada! still resonates louder than ever, and there is no sense of peace in sight. "That 'unease' extends to this day in my life and psychological make-up," Pearce says. "It's never not there. I don't believe you can be an 'artiste' or creative individual of any worth without it. Writing some songs in particular or entire albums can be a cathartic release and the experience is a good one to have behind you once it's complete, but it's been decades since I felt 'a sense of peace.'"
What binds Death in June's early songs, such as "State Laughter" from The Guilty Have No Pride and "She Said Destroy" from Nada!, to more recent songs such as "Cemetery Cove" and "The Scents of Genocide," is an ineffable disharmony with the world threaded deep within the music. "I'm not sure if I ever did feel a sense of peace about anything except perhaps momentarily after orgasm with men I've loved in my life," Pearce adds. "Then a feeling of 'oneness' can descend and perhaps that is a major part of existence — to feel 'complete,' to feel 'whole' but, at peace? That sounds like someone who is totally blind to the ways of the world, or dead!"
Pearce points out that his experiences as a gay man fundamentally resonate with some listeners. But like everything in the group's canon, finding meaning is a matter of how much of themselves listeners project onto the music. "For years I've pointed in some directions of inspiration and I've codified some songs and imagery so that if you are gay you could appreciate them on that level, and therefore heighten your appreciation of whatever it is," Pearce says. "It adds to Death in June. It gives it broader depth. Naturally, you don't have to be gay to like Death in June. But it does give it an extra edge. But heterosexuals are also welcome in the Death in June congregation — we try to be a broad church of acceptance."
Drummer Patrick Leagas and bass player Tony Wakeford filled out the group's original line up. But with the 1986 arrival of The World That Summer, Death in June became Pearce's outlet. The list of collaborators reads like a who's who of industrial culture provocateurs: John Balance (Coil), David Tibet (Current 93), and contentious rabble-rouser Boyd Rice (NON) have counted themselves among the group's ranks.
Pearce retired from performing live in 2005 but returned to the stage in 2011 to honor Death in June's 30th anniversary. Sporadic performances in Europe, the U.S., and Mexico have been a continuing part of that celebration. Each show unfolds over backdrop of an American flag marked with a grinning totenkopf. Pearce, wearing a spectral white mask, takes lead dressed in European combat garb.
For the Death of the West Mk III Tour, the lineup is pared down to Pearce and Slovakian piano and accordion player Miro Snejdr (Lounge Corps).
The two met when fans on the Internet pointed Pearce toward Snejdr's work. They connected in 2010, and have since fashioned wholly new interpretations of much of Death in June's catalogue. "He's given me the opportunity to not only do the Peaceful Snow album in a completely different way to what's usually expected from Death in June, but also have him reinterpret many of the Death in June 'classics' via the Lounge Corps albums and the Neo Kabaret material we now do live," Pearce says.
The setlist includes everything from the group's debut 12-inch, "Heaven Street," to more recent material from Peaceful Snow and The Snow Bunker Tapes. Currently there are no new songs to play, but that will soon change. "My next priority after touring will be to start recording new material," Pearce says. "I've fought that urge for a while but I know it's time to start considering What Will Become of Us, which is the working title of the new album. If it's any good I can set the release of that to coincide with my 60th birthday in 2016."
And thus begins a new chapter in Death in June's saga of perpetual allure, tension, and speculation.