One of this year’s best post-punk releases, has to have been Kill Shelter’s Asylum, out on Metropolis Records (US) and Manic Depression Records (EUR). Edinburgh based Pete Burns has crafted an extraordinary album with beautiful guitar riffs, wonderful melodies and amazing guest artists featuring on many of the tracks. Asylum has given birth to two great singles with Agent Side Grinder and Stefan Netschio of Beborn Beton, as well as tracks with the likes of Ronny Moorings (Clan Of Xymox), William Faith (Faith And The Muse, Bellwether Syndicate, Shadow Project), Antipole, Ash Code and Valentina Veil (VV & The Void).
For me, the most noteworthy thing is the message behind the music, a reminder that many souls out there are looking for safety, searching for solace and finding sanctuary anyway they can from terrible circumstances. Human trafficking, political/war/famine refugees and those caught in domestic violence are just some of the examples. Music can move you, show you heaven and hell, speak of love and loss but most importantly tell us stories that need to be heard. This interview with Pete was started just before the release of the album, in a series of emails. He is both gracious and articulate, unfortunately catching the dreaded plague (covid), which has hit Pete heavily at the end. I am grateful for his time and forging ahead, so this interview is about his influences, friendships, music and the beating heart of Asylum.
Pete Burns, mastermind behind the dark, post-punk act, Kill Shelter, welcome to the mourning grounds of Onyx, where we enjoy a cup of tea with our maudlin.
Thanks so much for inviting me over. And thanks for the very kind intro. I feel at home already…
I must admit that I am flummoxed as to what a superb musician and composer, as yourself was doing before Kill Shelter, plus you have a name that if you google, you end up with a certain other Pete Burns. So, what were you involved with before this project?
I started playing guitar when I was nine and I always wanted to make music… it’s been a big part of my life. I’ve written music for TV, Radio and Film and have been signed to various independent labels over the years in various guises but Kill Shelter feels very different to me.
I had thought about adopting a stage name but I never settled on something that I liked or felt comfortable with. Ironically, Burns isn’t my birth name but that’s a long story so let’s not get into that! Changing my name now would feel a little bit pretentious and I’m okay with the associated anonymity as long as people get to hear my music.
You are based in Edinburgh and there seems to be a strong dark alternative scene there. Do you find the history of this ancient fortress lends itself to influencing your music?
I do love Edinburgh, I find it a very inspiring city. We have lots of green spaces and incredible gothic architecture. It’s quite a cosmopolitan city (especially during the festival) and I like the diversity and energy that brings. I often think that I should make more of my connection to the city through the work that I produce but it would need to be done in a contemporary, non-cliched way.
What led you to creating Kill Shelter?
I reached a point where, musically, I just wanted to be myself. Kill Shelter didn’t start with wanting to make a specific type of music or fit a specific genre… it’s a product of me being true to myself. There are sounds and chord voicings that I naturally gravitate to and that’s where I feel most comfortable.
I also felt I had things I wanted to say. Music has always been a form of self-expression for me and I started Kill Shelter at a very dark time in my life. It was, in some ways, a way to process things. You can really hear that come to the fore in the lyrics of “In Decay” or in the lyrical content of “A Haunted Place”.
For me, music, like art, should have purpose. The name Kill Shelter itself was designed to be provocative. My work challenges human behaviour, morally and ethically, and I think it’s important to highlight difficult subjects like injustice, domestic abuse and inequality alongside more existential themes, like mortality and the human condition. I believe that art should, in some way, make people reconsider their thoughts, actions and beliefs.
I gather you don’t think of yourself as a singer, as you have so many guest musicians on your tracks. Your 2019 album, “Damage”, has a plethora of talent on it. How did you end up connecting with all these people?
Yes, you are right. Although I wrote and sang all the lyrics on the Kill Shelter & Antipole album “A Haunted Place”, I don’t think of myself as a natural singer. Some people live for it and I’m always listening for those stand-out vocalists who move me in some way or other. You can’t beat the intensity of an amazing vocalist. With “Damage”, I wanted to work with emerging artists who’d already made an impact on me. Each one of those contributors had created at least one track which I would happily include in my “all-time favourite songs” or “wish I’d written that” list.
Whilst working on “Damage”, although I had a fair few connections and friends in the emerging scene, some people had, unsurprisingly, never heard of me. I always write demos with specific people in mind, which is a very different process from just having a demo and thinking “who could I get to sing on this?”. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with some extremely talented people on the Kill Shelter releases and I really don’t take this for granted. I’ve also made some great friends along the way for which I’m eternally grateful.
I find it interesting that there has been such a resurgence in the post-punk scene, which is quite delightful for us that love this genre, that took flight from the late 70s/early 80s. Who or what, do you think is to thank for this breath of fresh air?
Well, they say if you keep a suit long enough it comes back into fashion (laughs). I also wonder whether the resurgence of so many genres and subgenres of music is linked to the accessibility of music and musicians. Community is so important when sustaining interest in what can quickly become a niche genre as people’s tastes and attitudes evolve. There have been waves of interest in post-punk over the years, with the last major underground wave starting to peak around 2018, following the 2011 revival when certain bands helped pave the way for others, notably The Soft Moon, She Past Away, Lebanon Hanover, Soft Kill, Drab Majesty, Trentemøller, Boy Harsher… the list goes on.
There was a lot of very good music being produced at that time and, I think, the diversity of influences helped broaden the sound and widen interest in the genre itself. I believe this, in turn, helped rekindle flames of interest in older listeners whilst providing something alternative for a younger Hip Hop-fuelled generation. Scenes can go stale very quickly so it’s important that new music feels fresh, inspiring and exciting, otherwise it just won’t sustain itself. There are mainstream and larger magazines that won’t touch post-punk bands anymore, regarding it as passé. However, some bands continue to have longevity, retaining a strong following through the peaks and troughs of the genre’s popularity and there will always be innovators who care about pushing boundaries despite listening numbers which may not seem significant in the grand scheme of things.
Recently, you released the brilliant single, “The Necklace”, with Agent Side Grinder, but this is not the first time you have recorded with the Swedes. Can you tell us about the track “The Necklace” but also your relationship with Agent Side Grinder?
Thank you. I’m really glad you liked it and thanks again for the review! I’m a big fan of ASG’s work and they’ve been brilliant to work with over the years. “Into the Wild” was my second remix and was a big deal for me. I love the original track. Similarly when they dropped “Doppelgänger” in 2018, I thought it was outstanding and was very keen to work with them more formally. I wrote the demo for them and chatted to Johan about a high level concept for the track aligning with the theme of Asylum (which remained undisclosed at that time). He wrote the lyrics then sent a draft with his guide vocal in place to give me a sense of it ahead of the studio recording. The vocals on the final track are a blend of Johan’s and Emanuel’s voices – which combine incredibly well. With the vocals in place, I restructured and re-arranged the track accordingly, checked they approved and, with everyone’s agreement, we had The Necklace.
Likewise, for the video, we discussed the approach and ASG enlisted the help of Jacob Frössén to shoot their scenes in Sweden. I filmed and edited the incidental footage, including shots of myself, here in Edinburgh and looked after editing and post-production. Again, we shared everything from the “work in progress” to the completed stage to incorporate everyone’s feedback. I know it’s a big ask to shoot footage for the video in addition to being involved on the track at a fundamental level, so it was massively appreciated and was a highly collaborative experience. They are an incredibly professional outfit to work with and I’m absolutely delighted with the result.
Pete, you mentioned that your latest album is based on the theme of ‘asylum’ which is indeed what it is also called. “The Necklace” is about domestic violence and finding an inner sanctuary. Can you elaborate more on this theme and why you chose it?
When working on full length releases with multiple collaborators, I like to work with a strong narrative idea to help glue the various elements together. With these releases, I always have the title and concept in place ahead of recording. The word Asylum itself can be interpreted in various ways and it perfectly encapsulated a lot of the thoughts I was having at the time of writing. Domestic abuse has risen over 30% in the past two years and I find human injustice hard to ignore. These thoughts permeate my work. People will always interpret lyrics differently but there are underlying themes of human trafficking, domestic violence, seeking refuge, disillusionment, sanctuary and personal mental health on the new album. I find the abuse of any type of power abhorrent and there is a further subtext that runs through the lyrics on the album too.
Do you feel music is a type of asylum, so to speak?
Absolutely. Music is an escape for many people. It can transcend the everyday and provides a sanctuary and a personal place for people. It allows you to dream and experience different things, to explore your feelings, reflect and connect – it’s an immensely powerful thing. Making music has always been a cathartic process for me. When I start to write it’s always a direct reflection of how I’m feeling at that moment but it can help me process deeper stuff too. I have lots of cyclical thoughts when I write but that can also cause me to go to very dark places which can be hard to pull out of sometimes. Making music is a very emotional journey for me and I always put my heart and soul into my work. It would feel meaningless to me otherwise.
You seem very prolific. What do you think drives you to create?
It’s complicated. Sublimation is a big part of what I do. I take a lot of really negative, destructive thoughts and feelings and try to make something more positive and life- affirming with them. And hopefully the output is something that some people will relate to. “Euphoric melancholy” is a phrase that I’ve used before but I think that it’s so much more than that. The word prolific scares me as I always associate it with a lack of quality or self control. I’m always busy and have a lot of creative projects on the go at once… that’s my idea of contentment and how I distract myself. If I’m not doing music then I might be designing or creating art in some form or finding some other outlet for self-expression. You might be quite shocked at just how many projects I’m working on, not including the numerous archived demos that I don’t think are very interesting. I also feel like I’m very rapidly running out of time and that’s a huge motivation for me to try and capture something or achieve some sort of unrecognised personal ambition before it’s too late.
The newest single is “In This Place” which features Stefan Netschio of Beborn Beton on vocals. It has this beautiful serpentine flow to it and Netschio’s vocals absolutely bring a dark quality to the track. Why did you choose this track as the next single?
Stefan has an incredible voice and he did a masterful job of capturing the essence and sentiment of the lyric for In This Place. The song deals with the inhumanity of human trafficking and we were keen to make sure that the subject matter was treated with respect and handled with dignity. I really love the track and, even though it’s not necessarily an obvious single, it does have a strong message and it’s indicative of the album as a whole. Stefan’s voice is incredible on it. It’s getting a lot of airplay at the moment and it is currently sitting at No 5 in the Deutsche Alternative Charts which is amazing. I think it’s fair to say that we were both shocked and delighted by that.
I had the pleasure of meeting Stefan recently. They say never meet your idols but in this case you won’t be disappointed. He’s a really smart, funny and talented person and we got on really well. We have plans to work together on a few things going forward so I’m really looking forward to that. He’s become a great friend.
William Faith is the featured vocalist on “Cover Me”. The track struck me as reminiscent of early Mission (UK) with wonderful flourishing guitar work and singing. What was it like working with Faith and was The Mission a band you were drawn to?
William was fantastic to work with and I feel really honoured and grateful that he gave his time to the project. His vocals really soar on “Cover Me” – it’s a very compelling performance and he interpreted the lyrics beautifully. I couldn’t believe it when I got the vocal tracks back. He’s another legend that I’ve been lucky enough to work with and it was another great experience for me.
Musically, there was no conscious decision to create pieces that sound like other bands but the early Mission (UK) is not a bad comparison! I think Wayne (Hussey) has done some great stuff over the years from his work with Dead or Alive and the Sisters and then onto the Mission (UK). He’s responsible for some very iconic pieces of music. I read his autobiography relatively recently and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think there was a decade between 1979 and 1989 that had some incredible music. I’m still exploring it and I’m enjoying rediscovering things that I’d forgotten about.
Pete, what was your childhood like? Was music ingrained into your DNA or were you the black sheep of the family?
I was probably a bit of both. I don’t think I was an easy child and I was definitely what you’d call an outsider. Growing up, all I wanted to do was play music – I wasn’t interested in being academic and I literally spent every hour I could either playing guitar or pursuing other creative outlets. My brother was a huge influence on me musically, he bought me my first guitar when I was nine and through him, I grew up listening to and being influenced by a lot of innovative and cutting edge music. My world was guitars, effects, drums machines, vinyl and cassettes. I’m not naturally musical, I don’t have perfect pitch and I’m not a great guitar player either but I love creating music. I’d say my passion and drive overcome my proficiency deficiencies.
It seems like the post-punk/industrial/goth scene is where musicians have a connection to everyone. Do you think of them as community and family in a way, especially with you having these amazing artists, you can call on?
The dawn of the internet changed so many things and even though it threw the music “industry” into a state of flux it has also brought a lot of people together and has allowed like-minded people to connect and for communities to form and flourish. I definitely feel connected to the scene for sure. There’s a lot of people who share that love and interest for dark alternative music and culture and there’s a lot of mutual respect and support which is great to see. There are some very toxic musical genres and associated cultures and clearly we’re not without our flaws, but overall I’d say there’s a lot of camaraderie which is very positive.
I’m really lucky to have made so many great friends in the scene and I don’t use that word lightly. I’m eternally grateful to have had the chance to meet and work with so many incredibly talented people that I genuinely admire and respect. I think that speaks volumes about the scene itself.
For the music nerds out there, do you have a favourite style/brand of guitar and synths you really love the sound of, and you use often?
I’m fortunate to have a lot of guitars, basses, drum machines and synths. I’ve collected them over the years and use a lot of them during the writing process. My go to instrument is my cherry red Parker Fly Classic which is a beautifully built studio guitar. They are unlike anything that was produced before or after. They’re not made anymore which is a great shame but I love the tone and feel of it. Definitely my guitar of choice.
I’ve also recently acquired a Yamaha SG (a classic post-punk guitar) and have started collecting vintage drum machines… as if I need another obsession. I use a lot of “in the box” equipment but I love the Model D, it’s an immediate and great sounding synth. I’ve got a virtual version of that which I’ve modded that I use a lot too. I’m also an effects junkie but that’s a whole other story…
What bands and musicians drew you into the post-punk/alt scene?
The late seventies especially were full of innovation and I think you can map my interest in post-punk and the art rock/alt scene by a series of albums from the seventies and eighties. In no particular order…
Systems of Romance – Ultravox
Fiction Tales – Modern Eon
Quiet Life / Gentlemen Take Polaroids – Japan
First and Last and Always – The Sisters of Mercy
JuJu / Peek-a-boo – Siouxsie and the Banshees
Music for the Masses/ Violator – Depeche Mode
I’d also call out Are Friends Electric by Gary Numan. This seemed like a monumental sea change single at the time and definitely fuelled my passion for electronica.
Of course there were other early stand out singles like A Forest by The Cure and Alice by the Sisters followed later by Spiritwalker and She Sells Sanctuary by The Cult that I still have a fondness for and that remind me of that time.
Japan was my favourite band at the time and I was lucky enough to see them live a few times. They were fundamental in shaping the way I thought about music, sounds and songwriting.
You have been asked to pick your favourite songs to do a cover album of ten songs. What do you choose?
That is a very hard question and I’m not sure I could ever really do justice to someone else’s song, especially ten songs that I love. Instead, this is a list of “songs that I’d wish I’d written” but this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg…
I’m Undone – Nitzer Ebb
Ghosts – Japan
Fall in love with me – Japan
I dream of wires – Gary Numan (+ Robert Palmer version)
Ashes to Ashes – David Bowie
Waterfront – David Sylvian
Whirl – Soft Kill
Pharmacy – Ascetic
Better Learn How to Swim – Ultrviolence
Europe After the Rain – John Foxx
These are all songs that have moved me in one way or another and that I never tire of listening to.
What is in the future for Pete Burns and Kill Shelter?
I’ll finish the third part of the multi-collaboration trilogy that I set out to do in 2018. That album will complete the set along with “Damage” and “Asylum”.
I’m working with Antipole on a follow up to “A Haunted Place”. We have no hard deadline on that release and we plan to take our time. I have the title and working concept and we have a couple of rough demos already. I’m keen that we don’t do “A Haunted Place II” just because we can – I’m keen that it is a progression and something different from what we’ve done before.
I’ve been working on a non Kill Shelter project with Cliff Hewitt (Modern Eon, Apollo 440, Jean-Michel Jarre etc) which is starting to take shape. He’s amazing and I’m really excited about it but more on that next year!
I have a few EPs and tribute’s planned for various labels and I’m busy mixing and mastering other people’s work at my studio, The Shelter.
I’ve also started planning for playing live in 2023/24 and plans are afoot for that.
I caught Covid really badly recently so it’s thrown out my schedule by a couple of months but I hope to get back in the driving seat soon. As well as the various works in progress that I’ve outlined, hopefully there will be some surprises coming down the line too…
Thank you for being a wonderful participant on this ghost plain of human existence ❤️
Asylum [European Version] | Kill Shelter (bandcamp.com)
Asylum [US Version] | Kill Shelter (bandcamp.com)
Manic Depression Records & Events | Facebook