It’s a cutesy trope used in romantic comedies. It might evoke eye-rolls from perpetually single friends. But in a caricature of coupledom, there’s a standard measure of closeness between two lovers–their ability to finish each other’s sentences. Noel Heroux and Jessica Zambri are that sort of couple, but their conversation is a musical one; as husband and wife, they’ve put to tape brilliant glimpses into their daily dialogue under the moniker Mass Gothic, though it’s not all sunshine and kittens and heart-eyed emojis.
Rather, on their self-titled debut, Heroux writes boldly about his struggles with depression, positioning Zambri as something like his savior – or at least, as a saint for sticking things out through that fog of melancholia. Writing the record was like an exorcism, Heroux says, and in the absence of those demons, there was Zambri, the only person Heroux felt comfortable relinquishing control to in order to collaborate.
“We’d have to go out of our way to avoid it at this point,” Zambri explains. “Music has been this tiny thread that’s been sewing us up and down for as long as we’ve known each other. It’s sort of a way for us to communicate, really. It’s sometimes the easiest part of our relationship.”
“Jess was playing live in the first few months of the Mass Gothic thing, and we eventually were like, why not join forces? It’s been a dynamic that we’d sort of been flirting with forever, since we’d met,” Heroux said. His rise to popularity as the frontman of Boston-based experimental rock band Hooray For Earth had evolved side-by-side with the success of Zambri’s eponymous synthpop duo, formed with her sister Cristi Jo.
By 2015, Zambri and Heroux had founded Killer Wail, a digital-only record label, in part as a vehicle for Zambri’s solo release as Solvey. “We both get psyched on each other’s songwriting and ideas,” Heroux explains. “I was running the show with Hooray For Earth [so I] was totally ready to open some space up for us to work together.”
Heroux had already ended things with Hooray For Earth, playing a final show during Glasslands’ goodbye run at the end of 2014; there were a variety of reasons, he says, but first and foremost was the creative slump and crushing despondency he was suffering from. But with encouragement from Zambri, his moods gradually shifted and Mass Gothic poured out.
“Everything comes really fast, like too fast. It’s all just kind of crashing down on top of itself so I have to struggle and get it out of my head,” Heroux says of songwriting. “But there’s always a magic loss between what I first hear and what I end up with on record. [Jess can] grab the hull when I can’t do it anymore. [She finds] this tiny little missing link that makes the magic stay.”
The intensity of Heroux’s writing process is evident at every turn on Mass Gothic, which came out last February on Sub Pop. It does a fair amount of genre-hopping, which confused some critics, and the darkness of the band name (a play on Heroux’s Massachusetts roots and his favorite Denis Johnson book, Already Dead: A California Gothic) and the lyrical themes seems, at first listen, at odds with some of the more pop-driven, euphoric sounds–particularly on tracks “Every Night You’ve Got To Save Me” and “Want to, Bad.”
But the underlying frustration they express as Heroux grapples with such heavy emotions feels acutely genuine to anyone who has experienced depression, or, like Zambri, loved someone who has. The push and pull of wanting to reach out for help versus the tendency to isolate drives even the sonic dynamics of the record; often, Heroux will trail off and let fuzzy guitars or distorted synths explode his own exhausted thoughts. These climactic solos act as an answer to the unanswerable questions Heroux keeps asking, like an earthquake relieving pressure at a fault line.
“The lyrics come from the lows, and the music comes from the wild, manic highs that I can never really even fathom how you describe with words,” Heroux explains. He says a lot of people have reached out to him to say how important the record has been in terms of dealing with their own mental health, from drug abuse issues to suicidal thoughts.
“Listening to some of those lyrics, to me anyway, wasn’t all sad. There was something about it that [was] comforting in a way,” says Zambri. Not only did it represent a creative reawakening for Heroux, it helped Zambri understand what Heroux could not express to her directly. “Music can do that for us–you can have these insanely high moments where you’ll say or do something that you can’t in a more conversational way,” she notes.
On “Subway Phone,” the last track on Mass Gothic and one of its most uplifting, Heroux sings the lines, “Give me time, babe; It’s easier today.“ As Heroux emerged from the depths of making the debut record, this is the coping technique he’d taken to heart. “I think the most important thing to be reminded of is that tomorrow is a another day,” Heroux explains. “I had a bad day yesterday. And I was like, ‘Just get through the day, tomorrow’s gonna be different.’ And I woke up today, just like, generally sort of normal. When it lasts for two years though, that’s a very, very troubling thing.”
For now, Heroux and Zambri are keeping the demons at bay with a new EP, Sup Goth, slated for release 8/5, a stopgap between their debut and the follow-up they’re currently working on that will include a mini tour with labelmate Kyle Kraft, and they’ll play Mercury Lounge 8/11.
The five tracks crackle with staticky, blown-out textures, and there’s more of that crucial interplay between Zambri and Heroux, their vocals given equal footing. Its brevity makes it more unified than the debut, but that wholeness also comes from the duo finding their direction. On album standout “A Run,” that direction is clear; it’s expansive and positive and shimmering and anthemic, coming from a brave place populated by two people for whom love really does conquer all. Listen to the track exclusively below.
“I feel lucky to have music as a way to communicate,” admits Zambri. “Honestly, at the end of the day, it’s a way to connect. You’re so intensely in the world that you’re creating [in the] present moment. [Now] we’re in another moment, another present state, not looking back. I think you learn from what you do and that’s what you take forward.”
Mass Gothic is out now, get it here. Sup Goth is out 8/5 via Sub Pop.