Elizabeth “Gazelle Twin” Bernholz’s new release UNFLESH trades in disturbingly sensual electronica inspired by body horror, puberty and high school sports classes.
“I started out with the specific aim of writing an album that used the body and mind as its landscape, almost in a purely factual and textural sense, but I ended up really carving out something deeply personal.” So says Elizabeth Bernholz, the Brighton-based artist who performs as Gazelle Twin. Her acclaimed debut album, 2011’s The Entire City, was a work of eerie, shifting electronica that took its title from a painting of the same name by surrealist artist Max Ernst and drew deeply on Bernholz’s love of the paranormal and 1980s sci-fi film soundtracks. “That [sci-fi soundtrack] influence has very much remained with the new record too, I think. I can never really get away from those influences that made an impression on me while I was growing up.”
Like The Entire City, UNFLESH feels both sublime and terrifying: an intense, humming bedrock of analogue synths, androgynous, otherworldly vocals that jab, soar and gasp. While The Entire City peered into the intricacies of a futuristic, claustrophobic metropolis, UNFLESH zooms in on the human body. “It occurred to me how much emotional and physical debris puberty and the whole coming-of-age process can cause us, and more importantly that there is rarely an appropriate time in adult life to reflect on or think about how that experience might have affected us for better or worse.”
Bernholz fed her songwriting process with hours of graphic medical documentaries, but the power of the album’s songs are mined directly from the trauma of her own formative experiences. “Unfortunately, I had a tough time so many of my experiences were deeply negative and distressing. Looking back, I began to realise just how strong the imprint of certain moments had been on my life, how much power there was to tap into with those extreme emotions and hormones. I wanted to try to give those things a voice, a channel of expression, and an identity of their own.”
The politics of the playground and the school changing rooms become explicit during adolescence – especially during PE [physical education], where the sexes are segregated visibly via uniform: girls in skirts or leotards, boys in trousers. It is during puberty that children are trained to perform strict gender roles – an excruciating lesson for “painfully thin and shy” tomboys like Bernholz, and the many young women who are “other”, outside the binary in some way. “You could view female coming-of-age like a process of shedding,” says Bernholz. “There’s the natural processes like the menstrual cycle, but then there’s the many engineered, socially-crafted routines that are almost impossible to avoid being affected by – endless shaving, waxing, plucking, and then the covering up … Those habits stick around. I still battle with self-confidence and self-criticism on a physical level and cannot believe how deeply these things go sometimes. Those gender roles embed themselves so early and can cause so many problems especially if, say, a child is not heterosexual or has been born into the opposite sex’s body.”
It’s these associations of shame and vulnerability that make Bernholz’s “uniform” for this album cycle – white ankle socks, black plimsolls, navy blue PE tracksuit with hood menacingly pulled up and a sheer, flesh-coloured mask – so chilling. They draw on our collective memory of shame and fear.
“In nearly all the interviews I have done for UNFLESH, most interviewees – male or female – have spoken about their own sports experiences at school and have similarly negative memories: either feeling forced to adopt that very masculine role of getting bashed about and being forced to be physically strong and courageous, or being made to wear very little or basically strip in public at the most self-conscious point in our lives. Women seemed to get the raw end of the deal in terms of feeling completely exposed, and men seemed to have memories of feeling emasculated for not being strong enough to smash someone’s skull in during rugby.”
Invoking those memories became a (literal) exercise in exorcising “the anger and weakness and resentment” Bernholz felt as an adolescent. “I really felt what I had to do was use it like a fuel with some creative aspect, and embody some of those powerful feelings. Funnily enough the music is very physical, so when I perform live I feel quite strong and almost do a sort of aerobic workout for every show. Oh the irony.” In fact, the latest Gazelle Twin video, for UNFLESH single Exorcise, is a “sort of return to the gym at school, with a dance routine and everything.” It follows the video for first single Belly of The Beast, in which Bernholz’s hooded protagonist uses her Carrie-esque powers of telekinesis to terrorise shoppers in a supermarket. Weaving the beeps and blips of the self-service machines into the song, Bernholz manages to take a familiar sound and elevate it to a sound filled with dread. “I’m interested in the idea that everything around us is alien, no matter how normal or everyday it might seem on the surface – the bare, natural elements of life, that we depend on and consume, and what happens when those things are out of context, or misplaced, when they become malign in some way, and strange.”
The potency of Bernholz’s music suggests that mining the horrors of the mundane is empowering in some way. Is that the case? “Yes there’s a lot of value in uncomfortable, jarring states. The type of horror I am drawn to, and like to explore, is not violence or gore, but rather the uncanny – the inherent creepiness of the everyday, and those places, people or objects taking on a malign or autonomous form. I enjoy seeing the reaction I create in others. There’s a kind of power in the unusual and unruly that I sometimes feel the audience tapping into and really enjoying, as sort of liberation. That’s the feeling I get too, and it’s extremely enjoyable. It’s a kind of rebellion, I suppose.” And empowering? “Yes. The process of doing this has been very useful and therapeutic. Not only did the uncanny inspire this album, but sparked some of my first decisions about identity and how I wanted to work with the self-representational aspect of being a live performer – specifically not to be judged on my attributes as a female human as much as possible. I’ve been criticised in the past for focusing on appearance in my project, for covering my face, as if it’s some sort of ‘weird for weird’s sake’ endeavour. But appearance has always been deeply important to me and is very much a statement about my views rather than an exercise in ego. In the past I performed with a band or did solo shows as “myself” and never felt comfortable, partly as I am self-conscious and self-critical, but also because I felt such an obligation to represent myself a certain way, as if I had to take my already tiresome daily routine of self-adornment to a whole new level. I couldn’t let go of the need to try to adopt an identity that included fashion, so in the end I just sabotaged the whole thing. I have never looked back.”
There’s a sensual dynamic at work in Bernholz’s unsettling aesthetic. Studies have shown the hormones that our bodies release during states of fear are very similar to the ones we release when we’re aroused. “There’s definitely a connection between them, and there’s the source of many a fetish, ha! The world is so sexualised, and sexuality can be so many things. I’m interested in uprooting the language around how sexuality is normally portrayed in the media, and certainly in music. I intended UNFLESH to have that aspect as well – to feel like a frenzy of sexual desire, fear, exasperation.” And does it feel that way on stage? “Yes, I feel able to really face the audience and get up close to them in a way that feels enjoyable and also relevant. I enjoy intimidating them one minute, then giving them something to hang on to – a danceable beat and an expression of being off the leash, so to speak. I can leap about, writhe on the floor, square up to people in the audience, and it all makes sense because it’s the same stuff I am expressing on the record, a kind of wildness that is hanging somewhere in between good and evil. The costume really does creep people out, and I know they enjoy that on some level.” UNFLESH is out now. To find out more about Gazelle Twin, visit www.gazelletwin.com.
Charlotte Richardson Andrews