Collective Unconscious: Pupil Slicer on Musical Catharsis and Pushing Boundaries

“It was just a fun side project to start with, and now we’re signed to a label and doing all this crazy stuff, with something that basically started out as a joke.” Drummer Josh Andrews is explaining the casual, almost accidental formation of Pupil Slicer, the mathcore/grind crossover trio he plays in alongside guitarist/vocalist Katie Davies and bassist Luke Fabian. The threesome are on the brink of releasing their debut album Mirrors, a record sure to be one of the most lauded of 2021. Having only released an EP and a succession of splits up until this point, Mirrors feels like a statement of intent from the band, a representation of who they truly are and the music they’re setting out to make. Ahead of the record’s release, Astral Noize sat down with Katie Davies and Josh Andrews to discuss their goregrind beginnings, trans rights and pushing musical boundaries.

Even if you’re yet to hear a note of their music, the absurdly gruesome name Pupil Slicer immediately brings to mind the more caustic, aggressive and angular side of metal. It’s the perfect fit, but it turns out even the band’s name originated from a joke. “Me and Josh were in another post-black metal band to start with,” says Davies. “Then me and the bassist of that band wrote some grindy songs and were thinking of funny grindcore band names. Pupil Slicer was the funniest we could think of and were like ‘well, we can’t not use that band name now’.”

Their first EP was written in little over a week, and once the band started to have gigs lined up, they installed Andrews behind the drum kit. This incarnation was short-lived, however, as the original bassist and vocalist moved away, leaving leftover ideas for Davies and Andrews to work on whilst pondering the project’s future direction. “Because originally we were just playing goregrind with a bit of Converge and Nails thrown in there, we thought ‘now we can do whatever we like’,” explains Davies. “We were thinking about what music we both liked, bands like Rolo Tomassi, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Deafheaven, and were thinking let’s just play the music we want to play, lets not limit ourselves.” 

The pair soon added bassist Luke Fabian to the lineup and around this time the mentality shifted – Davies began to see the band as a serious project, were they to move away from their goregrind roots. “Once we realised we could do this properly, we put a lot of effort into it,” she says. “We thought let’s do an album, make it properly and spend time writing these songs.” 

The resulting progress of this shift in mindset is evident on Mirrors, their most varied release to date. Song-lengths alone range from 48 seconds to six-and-a-half minutes, but there are also epic peaks and troughs in the album’s intensity levels, with quieter interludes balancing out the bedlam at its core. “I paid a lot of attention to how I wanted the album to flow,” notes Davies. “Like, originally we were going to have ‘Stabbing Spiders’ as the opening track, but it just didn’t have the same feel as ‘Martyrs’. We also tried to be very careful where the interludes were placed, to pace the album well.” 

“We’re still finding our writing process,” adds Andrews. “I think that might be a reason why the album is so varied in style and track-length. Not only do me, Kate and Luke like lots of different kinds of metal and have lots of different kinds of influences, we also wrote these songs in so many different ways. ‘Martyrs’ and ‘Wounds Upon My Skin’ came from me and Kate just jamming in our practice space, whilst ‘Collective Unconscious’ sort of came from a jam, but with Kate piecing it together much later.”

It’s clear that each member has their own input, but as Andrews is keen to testify, “A lot of the ideas come from Kate, it’s Kate’s brainchild.”

Davies’ contributions are certainly front and centre, with the crushing music acting as a vessel for the intensely personal lyrics that steer the album. It’s hard to believe that when Pupil Slicer first started to forge the ideas that would become the songs on Mirrors, Davies was new to lyric writing. On the band’s previous releases and splits, their former vocalist penned the words, so Mirrors became an opportunity for Davies to step forward, favouring a more personal approach and delivering introspective and brutally honest lyrics. “I hadn’t written the lyrics for anything we’ve released before,” Davies explains. “I did the vocals on the last split but obviously that was still basically left over from the original vocalist, kind of silly goregrind stuff. Even when we began to make this album, we were sort of thinking of maybe continuing in that way. The first song I began to write lyrics for was ‘Martyrs’ but I got halfway through, scrapped them and decided to make it more personal, make it more into metaphors, and then I kept with that approach writing the rest and consciously made it very personal.”

It’s evident that for Davies, especially from a lyrical viewpoint, the writing and recording of Mirrors became a cathartic experience. Speaking about her favourite track on the album, the emotive closer ‘Collective Unconscious’, Davies confesses, “I was crying in the studio after that one. I’ve got a lot of stuff to talk about, like anxiety and depression, so I just thought ‘I’m just going to let it all out’.”

The album isn’t intended as a deliberately uncomfortable listen however, as Davies herself is keen to stress: “I wasn’t trying to make it a horrible depressing listen, these things are being expressed in a positive way I think; I’m not just being dour.”

Not all the tracks on the album are completely introspective, Davies also moves her focus outwards, examining the injustices prevalent in the world around us. “‘Panic Defense’ is about gay and trans panic defense in the US,” Davies tells us. “About how you can kill someone and be like ‘oh I didn’t know they were gay, I didn’t know they were trans and that’s my defense’. It’s also about issues surrounding mental health care not being available to people, and specifically about trans healthcare not being available to people. There’s so much systemic stuff baked into society and it ties into these things being in the collective unconscious of people growing up. It’s not even questioned and it should be.”

Asked whether the band will continue to touch upon political and social themes on future releases, Davies isn’t sure. “We’re not Dawn Ray’d,” she laughs. “We’re not setting out to be a political band, I’m just trying to talk about them from my perspective and I like drawing attention to these things. We’re not an activist band, it’s just these are the sort of topics I feel passionately about and these are the issues that are important to me.”

In complete contrast to the in-your-face nature of the band’s music, Davies is, by her own admission, quite an introverted individual. “I’m really sheepish.” she says, laughing. “I hate confrontation so I don’t want to put it out there that we’re trying to make a point of these things, I think if someone was to get into an argument with me I’d probably let them walk all over me.”

In addition to her powerful and honest approach to lyric writing, Davies also gives Pupil Slicer their distinctive guitarwork. Listening to Mirrors, you’d be mistaken for thinking that she has been playing for decades, but the vocalist has only been at the six strings for a mere five years. “I played violin first, so I guess that’s cheating,” she says, grinning. “I had that musical experience playing violin in a local youth orchestra. I never enjoyed it really, my mum made me do it.”

Like many, her musical epiphany came when she was a young adult. “When I was at uni, that’s when I got into metal. Deafheaven were the band that got me into metal, listening to Sunbather I was like ‘I want to do that’. I had this little cheap acoustic guitar for years that I never learned to play at all, and I tried to play Deafheaven on it and couldn’t, at that point I couldn’t even play an F chord. So at the end of uni I bought an electric guitar and got a couple lessons on how to do the basics, stuff like how to hold it properly, how to use a pick and then I was like ‘that’s it, now I’m learning Deafheaven songs’.”

The progression Davies has made from playing post-black metal material in her first band to the guitar gymnastics on display throughout Mirrors is impressive, as her bandmate Andrews is eager to testify. “I’ve been playing guitar for about two years now and I’m still really bad,” he says. “It literally took Kate about six months to overtake me and her progression has just been getting better and better. I’m so excited to see where Kate is in another three or four years time.” 

Davies has nothing but praise for Andrews too. “Josh was a sick drummer when we were in the post-black metal band,” she says. “But now, he’s leagues ahead of that.” 

Aside from the stunning guitarwork, lyrics and vocals from Davies, Pupil Slicer come armed with a truly formidable engine room in the rhythm section of Andrews and bassist Fabian. In terms of his own progress as a drummer, Andrews talks about the importances of breaking out of limitations and continually challenging yourself. “I had my blastbeats down just from playing seven-minute black metal songs,” he says. “But all this technical stuff and the odd time signatures we’re doing now, I’ve definitely got a natural feel for it. That’s all playing is really, getting used to it and your muscle memory improving. It’s very nice to be in a band that’s always pushing ourselves to the limit and not just doing the run of the mill stuff you know?”

Indeed, the last thing that could be said of Mirrors is that it’s run of the mill. So, just as the band gets set to unleash their debut onto the world, they reveal that behind closed doors, work has already begun on album number two. The big question is of course: Where do they take their sound next? “We already have people saying things like Mirrors is similar to Calculating Infinity-era Dillinger and ‘is the next album going to be like Miss Machine?’ and honestly, that probably is the direction we’ll go in,” admits Davies. “There was a lot of experimentation on Mirrors and I wasn’t too sure about doing cleans, there’s some on maybe two or three songs, but honestly there’s going to be more clean choruses next time.” 

For any fans fearing they’re heading in a more simplistic direction, fear not, the emphasis is clearly on expanding all elements of the sounds found on Mirrors. “There’s parts I’ve written that I don’t even know if it’s playable on guitar, but that’s a future Kate problem,” she laughs, before adding, “I want to make the weird bits weirder, the groovy bits groovier, just dial everything up a notch in a sense. Maybe more catchy bits and riffs that come back. And we’re playing in drop A on the next one too, I’m already really excited. Josh is also a lot more involved in the writing of the drums too, I think there’ll be more creative input from everyone in the band.” Similarly, whilst Andrews also admits he’s noticed a few more 4/4 parts dotted around in the new material, he reassures us that “there’s crazy, mathy parts too, don’t worry.” 

With the ongoing restrictions in the UK, it’s sadly quite unlikely that we’ll be seeing Pupil Slicer live anytime soon. “We love playing live,” laments Davies. “We had plans to really start upping our live game once the album came out.” 

But whilst live plans are on hold and the band are over halfway through writing the follow up to Mirrors, the trio are already looking ahead to next year. “We’ve already been picked up by Atonal Music Agency,” reveals Davies. “They have some really sick bands on their roster like Ithaca, Conjurer and Car Bomb. So hopefully we’ll get to support some bands like that next year.” 

Andrews is equally as optimistic. “I think 2022 is when we’ll aim to get a string of shows together with another band,” he says, passionately stressing the importance the live experience is for musicians and fans alike. “It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to be in a band really, especially metal. It’s such a release playing live, to give out that feeling and get it back from the crowd. We play a niche kind of music, so when you do meet people and interact with them at shows, it feels great to be around like-minded people. Even if you end up chatting with someone and then never see them again, it’s just great. I think the UK metal scene has improved so much since when I first started going to gigs. It feels like in the last three or four years there’s much more of a community feel to things than there was before”.

When the UK finally emerges from lockdown, many of us will revel in being able to reconnect with that sense of community that only the live setting brings and Pupil Slicer, armed with their stunning debut album and passionate verve to push boundaries, will be there ready and waiting. “We’ve been playing these songs live for so long but without anything to promote,” says Davies. “The EP wasn’t reflecting what we could be but now we have a sound that we’ve been looking for; now people will have an idea of what to expect from us. This is Pupil Slicer.”

Mirrors is out via Prosthetic Records on 12th March and can be purchased here.

Words: Adam Pegg

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