Winning the 'Rat Wars': How HEALTH pulled triumph out of "a purgatory of meaninglessness and death" | Revolver

Winning the 'Rat Wars': How HEALTH pulled triumph out of "a purgatory of meaninglessness and death"

From post-punk roots to Nine Inch Nails collabs to stunning new album
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photograph by Mynxii White

On a warm afternoon in Los Angeles, Jake Duzsik and John Famiglietti of the band HEALTH are thinking hard about Mexican food.

We're sitting at one of the best Oaxacan restaurants in the city, talking about tacos and spiced mole, but there are endless distractions. When a large platter is brought to a family at the next table, Famiglietti, long-haired and sipping a beer, nods thoughtfully and says, "Ah, they know what they're doing over there."

Beside him is singer-guitarist Duzsik, tattooed in a sleeveless black T-shirt, frequently checking his cell for messages. Duzsik orders a sampler of tacos for the table in fluent Spanish, which he learned during an immersive six-month trip to Spain years ago, watching The Simpsons there daily without the help of English subtitles. He now speaks with the confidence of Homero himself on Los Simpson.

Health water 2023 uncropped , Mynxii White
photograph by Mynxii White

Translating the music of HEALTH into words can be much harder. They've been calling their aggressive, forward-leaning sound "noise rock" since forming in 2005, but there are vibrant elements of industrial, electronic, post-punk, metal and avant-garde.

Their newest album, RAT WARS, is their fifth in a career of wild experimentation, critical acclaim and a growing international audience. For the band, categories matter a lot less than the creative spark.

"Unless you're virtuosic, almost everything in art is about experimentation and taste," says Duzsik. "That's what defines everything — because if you have incredible mastery of an instrument or your voice, it changes the way you view and interact with your art form.

"But if everything is just like, 'Man, I just want to make something cool that makes me feel good,' it's all this process of self-discovery."

Work on RAT WARS — the follow-up to their star-studded two-part series DISCO4 :: Part I and II, which featured collaborations with Nine Inch Nails, Lamb of God, Poppy, 100 gecs and more — commenced in 2022 once the COVID-19 pandemic had receded enough to reconvene.

Over the next year, the trio — Duzsik, Famiglietti and drummer BJ Miller — would get together for a couple of days to record at L.A.'s Venice Way Studios, then retreat to their home studios, and come together again for a few more days of work.

Lyrics again focus on Duzsik's preoccupation with his emotional life, intensified by the death of his mother, the worldwide coronavirus and becoming a father for the first time.

Duzsik suggests the new album is their "most fun — even though there were certain aspects in my personal life that were dogshit and are reflected in the record."

Famiglietti, the band's bassist and electronics wizard, adds, "It's better when you're miserable, Jake. Lyrics are better when you're miserable."

Duzsik agrees. "It's true. And the melodies are better. Maybe 'fun' is the wrong word, but it was effortless," he says, describing the album's dystopian, nightmarish atmosphere, which was the result of a "personal purgatory of trying to accept meaninglessness and death and inevitability [while still] trying to live an authentic and enjoyable life."

Grim messages aside, Duzsik and Famiglietti are good company for this mid-afternoon meal, settling in over guacamole with frequent wisecracks and blunt repartee. They talk of their music with an endearing mix of seriousness and self-deprecation, and then veer into a discussion of the 1995 movie Heat, a personal inspiration for both.

At one point, Duzsik gets up to take a call, and returns and describes his new life raising a 3 1/2-year-old. "His whole raison d'être is to hassle my ass," he says with a resigned grin.

"When you're alone with a toddler, they make you slowly feel like you're insane — because they're not sane." When the boy is asleep, Duzsik gets back to work. "I actually make way more music because I don't really have any hobbies. I'm just a parent and then I work on my craft, quote-unquote."

Categorizing the sound of HEALTH can be a challenge. But the band's relentless attack of noise and deep emotion can be clearly traced back into industrial territory, inevitably rooted in records by Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and Skinny Puppy, amid all the punk and grunge that Duzsik and Famiglietti heard while growing up.

As a band, their initial aims were largely influenced by post-punk, says Miller. "It wasn't until we started playing these bigger festivals where people would be like, 'Oh, you guys are an industrial band.' And it dawned on us: We are an industrial band. It's just a modern industrial band."

RAT WARS' opening track, the sprawling prog composition "DEMIGODS," sets the stage for the dramatic soundscape that follows across 11 more songs. Clocking in at nearly six minutes, the song moves from atmospheric to melodic to supercharged metal riffs, as the vocal pushes back against a higher power: "You demigods/Either lift me up or let me burn."

"We would never call it, openly, a concept album," says Duzsik. "The least interesting part of concept albums to me is actually the lyrical throughline. I love Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, but I am not really following the story. What I like is how all the pieces fit together."

While none of the trio's current members are originally from Los Angeles, HEALTH's story could only have happened there.

Famiglietti came from San Diego and the local underground rock scene there epitomized by the Locust, the Gravity Records label and the Che Café. He landed in L.A. to attend film school, and at 19 got a job working on crafting shows on HGTV.

But his tastes were more bohemian than commercial, and he was ultimately drawn to the city's cutting edge. "I was so excited about it," Famiglietti recalls. "I'm like, I just need to be in the scene. I gotta make a band or just do something. I want to be part of this moment."

Duzsik came to Southern California from Seattle to attend the Claremont Colleges, 30 miles east of Downtown L.A., then moved to the city hoping to meet like-minded musicians.

He got a job at Guitar Center's flagship store on Sunset Boulevard, which he found frustratingly "old school, conservative and butt-rocky" — until a coworker played some crazed noise rock on the stereo.

It was Famiglietti, who shared many of Duzsik's tastes for classic California hardcore, like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys, as well as certain kinds of avant-garde rock.

"Jake's like, 'Hey, you're not a douchebag. Do you want to make a band?'" says Famiglietti now. "I was like, 'Yeah, OK.'"

They formed HEALTH in 2005 with the goal of playing The Smell, the city's most committed DIY venue for indie rock and noise. They got a nearby practice space adjacent to the Arts District of Downtown L.A. and recruited Miller, a drummer inspired by Nirvana's Dave Grohl and Tool's Danny Carey.

The new group was originally a quartet that included guitarist-synth player Jupiter Keyes, who Duzsik met in college. (Keyes remained in the band for their first decade.)

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Jake Duzsik
photograph by Mynxii White

HEALTH leaned hard into the noisy and experimental, fixated by stories of vibrant rock scenes from the past, including the first wave of New York punk in the late-Seventies and the atonal No Wave movement.

The Smell was their main venue — in the years before redevelopment transformed much of the area into luxury condos. After dark, Downtown L.A. was still mostly homeless people on the street.

"We had eclectic tastes, but what was exciting about the moment we started playing music in Los Angeles was there was a downtown scene that was very much antithetical and a rejection of any industry," says Duzsik.

"It was just kids playing noise shows in warehouses. It was the farthest away you could possibly get from any sort of aspirational music."

Their first shows were in 2006. And the excitement came as much from the physical sensation of playing as from any intellectual ideas within the noise and Duzsik's agonized vocals.

A YouTube video from one of their shows at The Smell captures HEALTH on the small stage — Duzsik bent over his guitar, groaning into a mic, while Famiglietti stands in a white T-shirt smeared with color and grime while pounding a single drum — as the four players mingle with layers of noise from synths and sequencers.

Outside of L.A., HEALTH's early DIY tours had them playing hardcore basements far and wide, reverberating in whatever concrete spaces would have them. Los Angeles and Baltimore were "the two cities that had the most vibrant underground scenes," recalls Duzsik. "There was this magical thing happening."

For their 2007 self-titled debut album, the band were handed the keys to The Smell, where they recorded free of charge when the club was closed. The cavernous space was both familiar and fitting for the band's challenging blend of noise and high drama that Duzsik now says was "barely fuckin' music."

But there was emotion and subversive melody within the cacophony, and a sense of humanity in the vocals and the crashing drumbeats. At barely 28 minutes total, the album was discordant, dissonant, strident — and meant to be heard in a bunker.

"The first album is pretty atonal. When I look back, I'm like, we were really out of our mind," Famiglietti says with a laugh. But it was about to be heard by a lot more people.

One song, "Crimewave," had already been informally released as a CD-R single and made it to the experimental Toronto electronic duo Crystal Castles, who remixed it into a track that collided singer Alice Glass' stuttering vocals with Duzsik's.

It became a dance-floor sensation in the U.K. and brought HEALTH some unexpected attention. An audience was now waiting when their album was finally released.

"We had all of this press and goodwill and people super-interested for this atonal 27-minute shenanigans album," Famiglietti recalls. "We were put in all these spaces where we never should have been, and we booked all these huge festivals. We were this hype band despite making complete nonsense."

Miller recalls being on one of the band's first European tours when an email arrived from their manager offering them a tour with Nine Inch Nails: "I still remember that coming up ... like, What?"

HEALTH had somehow landed on Trent Reznor's radar, an early vote of confidence for a mostly unknown young band of noise rockers, and a total surprise.

"I'd like to think it was just our stellar performances and our drive, which we were going pretty hard at that time," Miller adds. "We hit the ground running in many ways from that first meeting in downtown to our first tour, [which] was maybe five months."

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John Famiglietti
photograph by Mynxii White

The "Crimewave" track with Crystal Castles also appeared on 2008's HEALTH//DISCO, the first of HEALTH's ongoing series of collaborative remix versions of each album. Their second studio record, GET COLOR, followed in 2009 and their momentum kept accelerating.

That September, they opened for NIN at a special show at L.A.'s 780-capacity Echoplex. After the performance, Reznor tweeted: "HEALTH were amazing tonight. Watched from the side of the stage with Gary Numan and were both blown away."

Two nights later at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, HEALTH joined NIN, Numan and Eric Avery of Jane's Addiction for a grinding, stretched-out cover of Gang of Four's "Love Like Anthrax."

HEALTH's connection to Reznor and NIN has continued over the years, most recently with the 2022 collaborative track "ISN'T EVERYONE." The bands performed it together for the first time last year at Hellfest in Clisson, France. Duzsik is typically humble about it.

"I always joke about the Nine Inch Nails thing that because we've continued to have these little flirtatious involvements ... I'm like, I feel like we're letting them down by not getting bigger," he says with a laugh.

In another career twist, GET COLOR got the attention of Rockstar Games, makers of Grand Theft Auto and other groundbreaking titles.

"They met us in New York and very bizarrely asked us to do music for Max Payne 3," says Duzsik. HEALTH ended up creating the entire soundtrack for the third-person shooter game, adding brutal sonic texture to the cinematic story of an alcoholic ex-cop at war in South America.

The band worked on that for more than a year, pulling all-nighters to meet deadlines and writing more than seven hours of music that they realized would be heard by millions of obsessive gamers.

"Before, it had killed us to even squeak out 28 minutes for an LP," Duzsik says. "Suddenly we had to write so much music; it forced us to grow up."

The game would ship 3 million copies in its first week. "In retrospect it seems fucking crazy that we were a noise band and we did the entire score for this gigantic video game title that put us in front of normal-ass people."

Out of that immersive Max Payne 3 experience followed DEATH MAGIC, their third album, which was more song-based and electronic, incorporating melodic ideas into the heavy mix along with Duzsik's existential lyrics.

It was their first for Loma Vista Recordings, but soon after its release in 2015, Keyes left the band. He wasn't replaced. Even so, the album represented a meaningful moment of evolution for HEALTH.

"As a musician, I'm very naturally melodically inclined. I love pop and Depeche Mode choruses," says Duzsik.

"For the first two records, it was hard for me to figure out how to sing in the band, because there's things that are very atonal ... Then we made this huge shift to the third LP where we were experimenting — ironically — with traditional song structure.

"It just took time to figure out the balance of how to incorporate those things fluidly in the same body of work and not have it feel disjointed or forced."

In 2019, HEALTH released the bleak VOL4 :: SLAVES OF FEAR, named to satisfy Duzsik's love for Black Sabbath's Vol. 4 (and his favorite song of all time "Supernaut").

There was another DISCO remix album, and other collaborations, like a cover of New Order's dance-floor synth classic "Blue Monday" produced by composer Tyler Bates, and more work with Rockstar Games.

"That's continuously allowed us to find new audiences," says Duzsik of their ongoing work in the video game world. "And as any band [will] tell you if they've been around: You find new people, or your fans die off; they age out. You need to find ways to engage with new music listeners."

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BJ Miller
photograph by Mynxii White

Like the rest of the live music universe, HEALTH's touring plans for 2020 were derailed by the arrival of COVID-19, and they got to work on the next edition of their DISCO series.

While 2020's DISCO4 :: PART I was made of collaborations created prior to the pandemic, 2022's PART II came together during a season of real dread in the world.

It was recorded at the height of pandemic panic, pre-vaccines, with the streets of L.A., New York, London, Paris, etc. bizarrely empty, except when there were protests and riots over police violence and coronavirus quarantines, or an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Through all that, Duzsik was a new father desperate to protect his baby from the virus spreading outside. He kept sane by working, even as he watched the daily death scroll of bad news on his phone.

"We just wanted to keep making music, so we used that opportunity to make it with all these other artists that we looked up to," the singer says. "Everyone's available: 'I know you're home, asshole!'"

With artists scattered and isolated from one another, HEALTH collaborated virtually to create DISCO4 :: Part II. The most powerful tracks included "DEAD FLOWERS" (with Poppy) and "COLD BLOOD" (with Lamb of God), along with the NIN collab "ISN'T EVERYONE."

On that one, Reznor was a fully engaged partner, his voice rising from the electronic murk, biting hard on the seething lyrics: "I'm gonna watch you drown/I will light the match that burns it all down."

With RAT WARS, the band once again enlisted some notable guests — including Lamb of God guitarist Willie Adler ("CHILDREN OF SORROW"), Youth Code's Sara Taylor ("FUTURE OF HELL," "CRACK METAL") and Street Sects' Leo Ashline and French synthwave musician SIERRA ("HATEFUL").

But HEALTH also explored collaborations of a different kind, grabbing samples of other music for inspiration. One day, Famiglietti was driving across town and cranking up random music when he discovered an intense EBM artist named NEXY.

"It was the most avant-garde thing, this white-noise snare," he says. "I'm like, our next album has got to be something just like this. I hit him up: 'Hey man, would you do a song with us? This song is blowing my dick off!'"

NEXY wasn't available to collaborate but sent over the track to be sampled for the HEALTH song "FUTURE OF HELL." Likewise, "SICKO" was built up around a sampled loop from Godflesh's Streetcleaner standout "Like Rats."

"Basically, we kind of pulled a Drake here, or a Kanye," Famiglietti says.

RAT WARS is officially separated into an A Side and B Side, with a moment of pure silence in between, while all the other songs run into each other.

"If you listen on Spotify it's gonna cut off, which we'd never done: 'Oh, it's the streaming age,'" says Duzsik mockingly. "We're like, fuck 'em, dude. Who cares? We'll make the record exactly how we want to make it."

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photograph by Daniel Roland Tierney

In 2023, HEALTH know there is an audience already waiting to hear the album exactly as intended. They may have started as a band toiling in underground obscurity, but the guys have seen their music travel not only far, but deeply into the lives of fans reacting to the songs of pain, frustration and understated rage.

"People very earnestly, repeatedly, tell us things like, 'Hey, I was feeling like I wanted to kill myself last winter, and I listened to this record and it made me feel like I could get through it...'

"My knee-jerk reaction is to feel uncomfortable that it would occupy a space so deadly serious in someone's life," Duzsik shares sincerely.

The music and messages of HEALTH are clearly connecting in ways he never would have imagined back when they were just a bunch of fledgling boho artists at The Smell.

"After enough times, you have to respect it, and take it as meaningful," he continues of the profound fan reactions. "We try to do that, but also still have fun."

HEALTH appear on one of the collectible covers of Revolver's new Winter Issue. Order a copy, plus an exclusive, limited-edition vinyl variant of RAT WARS, at our shop.