UK-based artist Kill Shelter has recently unveiled a beautifully melancholic yet powerful new album, “Asylum.” With influences ranging from alternative, post-punk, darkwave, and contemporary electronica, alluding to the classic sonorities of Depeche Mode, Sisters of Mercy, or New Order, Kill Shelter spuns into an even more fantastic creative direction. We talked with Pete Burns, the mastermind of the project, about this majestic album, the creative process behind it, and its musical legacy.
Hello, Pete! Growing up, was music always a big part of your life? Can you recall your first ever musical experience?
Hello! Yeah, music has always been a significant part of my life, both from a listening and playing perspective. My earliest musical experience was cutting my finger on a steel string toy guitar when I was very young – that clearly didn’t discourage me from playing though.
I started playing guitar when I was nine and I really started to take it seriously when my brother bought me my first electric guitar for my thirteenth birthday. I played that guitar religiously for years. I still have tapes from when I was really young trying to write my own material.
I never really learned to play by copying other people’s music and I didn’t have a guitar teacher. I listened to a lot of influential and innovative guitar players but I didn’t have the musical ear to be able to copy what they were playing so I just wrote my own riffs and songs instead.
How is “Asylum” any different than any of the previous works? What is it new that it brings to the table?
“Asylum” is a much “heavier” and darker album than my previous works but it still has moments of light and introspection. It also has collaborations with a wide range of artists spanning the last four decades of the dark alternative scene including Ronny Moorings from Clan of Xymox, William Faith (The Bellwether Syndicate, Faith and the Muse), Stefan Netschio from Beborn Beton, Agent Side Grinder, Antipole, VV & the Void and Ash Code.
With a unique track listing for each territory, the album is available on CD and vinyl in two versions via Metropolis Records in North and South America and Manic Depression Records in Europe and the rest of the world.
Signing to Metropolis has made a big difference in terms of distribution and awareness and I’m very grateful to have been signed by Dave Heckman, the founder of the label, who unfortunately passed away very recently. My thoughts remain with his family and the wonderful team at Metropolis Records.
I wear my heart on my sleeve and I’m not afraid to say what I think and express my feelings through music.
What are “Asylum”‘s central themes, and how would it be served best? What important messages are we missing as listeners?
The album itself plays on the duality of the word “asylum” and deals with themes of human trafficking, seeking refuge, exploitation, domestic violence, disillusionment, and mental health. Lyrically it’s not an overtly political album but there are threads that run through the overall narrative.
I like to have a strong concept for the work that I produce especially for albums with multiple collaborators as it helps to make them more conceptually cohesive. The lyrics work on a few levels too so there is room for the listener to interpret them in a personal way should they wish.
You’ve collaborated with so many inspiring artists on “Asylum”. Did you have these names in your mind before starting to record your album, or did you run into them and think, ‘this is what I need’?
I always plan ahead. I generally write the demo track with a specific person in mind. I’m very lucky to have had the chance to work with so many brilliant and talented people that I admire and respect – it’s their input and vocal interpretation that makes the output so special.
I love working with other people and find it a very inspiring process as it can take the music in a completely different and unforeseen direction for me. I also hear the tracks more objectively when I don’t do every part of them – there’s a big difference for me between the songs I write, sing and produce versus the songs I write and produce.
I do listen to a lot of music and there are quite a few people that I would really love to work with. “Damage” and “Asylum” are the first two parts of a multi-collaboration trilogy and I’m really hoping that I get the chance to work with some of them on the final chapter.
How difficult is it to not only write but to release material that seems so personal? Have you ever worried about how much of yourself you reveal to your listeners?
Writing is a very cathartic process for me. I hope that along the way some people will be able to identify with the words and feelings. As an artist, I think it’s important that you have something to say and some depth of meaning to the work you produce. I tend to write from a very personal point of view but I also think lyrics are always open to interpretation. When I write there tends to be a duality in the words and meaning and I’m sure other people will hear different things and add more than I originally intended. I wear my heart on my sleeve and I’m not afraid to say what I think and express my feelings through music… for me, that’s been a very useful coping strategy over the years.
Do you think that by integrating these dark themes into your work, your art allows you and your audience to deal with or better understand them?
I really hope so. I certainly process a lot of my feelings through my music. There’s a lot wrong with this world and it saddens me that we are here in 2022 and we are still fucking everything up. I would have hoped we’d be better than this by now.
I also hope that some people can take comfort in the fact that they are not alone when it comes to some of their darker and more personally destructive feelings. Sometimes it helps to know that someone else understands how you are feeling and that they have had those lived experiences too. I think we are all trying to work it out but I also know that there are things we could be so much better at on a humanitarian level.
I find early mornings to be incredibly inspiring, when no one is around and there’s a sense of seizing the day mixed with quiet solitude.
How much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
Setting and context are hugely important but I think music can transcend cultural differences. In one way music is a universal language although some of the subtleties and nuances can get lost. I’m sure that I write from a very British perspective but I’d like to think that the themes and feelings are translatable and transferable.
I don’t consciously make creative decisions based on a need for global acceptance but I like the idea that my music is played in clubs and on the radio around the world. I think my audience is very niche and they understand my sonic vocabulary and then to others, it will be perceived very differently from what I originally intended.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you?
I’m always thinking and I have a notebook crammed with ideas, concepts, album and song titles, lyrics, and emotive words. I find early mornings to be incredibly inspiring… when no one is around and there’s a sense of seizing the day mixed with quiet solitude. Listening to other people’s music is incredibly inspiring too. I love the way that listening to music can transport you somewhere else – it can open your mind, spark creativity, and also offer a break from normality. I find working with others to be a very inspiring process, it definitely helps me to raise my game and push myself.
What supports this ideal state of mind, and what are distractions?
Travel and new experiences definitely help to propagate feeling inspired. Any break from routine refreshes my outlook and can lead to a more positive state of mind. Alcohol is very counterproductive for me so I tend to avoid that. I find that my creative process can lead to obsessive and cyclical thinking patterns so it’s good to get off that train every once in a while. I try to find ways to reset and lose myself in other things. I love films and documentaries, especially so they can be a very positive distraction. I don’t need to be motivated to work but I definitely need assistance to stop.
Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I find being creative is my norm and if for whatever reason, I don’t have the time or space to express myself then things can get really difficult for me. I’m at my least productive when stressed or anxious and that can quickly lead to depression so I know what the really bad triggers are for me now. It’s taken a long time to understand that properly. When things start to move that way, I try to be kind to myself and work through some coping strategies until those overbearing feelings pass.
Despite the events throughout history, humanity hasn’t learned much about behaving for its good. To what extent can art improve the world as long as it seems it’s losing its authenticity?
Art can help raise awareness of important issues and, done well, it can make a statement that reaches a lot of people. Banksy’s arresting pieces on consumer culture, the excesses of capitalism, and corruption for instance are powerful statements and achieve global recognition. When art breaks through like that it’s culturally significant and demands that the viewer reconsiders the world around them even for a short moment.
Art is a catalyst for thought and change and I believe that art can be differentiated by intent. The thought process and the depth of thinking are where art begins, then it’s the articulation and skill to bring that idea to life that results in interpretive meaning. I think if you are true to yourself and your intentions are aligned with your personal beliefs then that’s where authenticity lies. Change has to start somewhere and passion and commitment drive change.
Do you ever consciously think about the art you leave behind after you have died?
I obsess about mortality. I worry that I won’t have properly articulated my thoughts and come close to my vision for my music before my time is over. Every piece I write is a step on that journey but it’s not always progressive or linear. I would like to feel that at some point I was satisfied with what I had written – it’s difficult when you are your hardest critic.
I don’t think I’ll ever be significant enough to leave behind an indelible mark on the history of music. I’m insignificant in the larger scheme of things. It would be nice to think that I had made a difference to someone’s life along the way through. To write something that really meant a lot to someone else would make it all worthwhile. I can’t imagine anyone talking about my musical legacy once I’m gone and that’s not what motivates me to create.
Do you have any specific reference tracks that drive your productions?
I tend not to use reference tracks although I know a lot of artists that like to do that. I have a certain balance that I try to achieve when mixing but every track is different in reality due to the inherent complexity of the frequencies and the timbre of the sounds. I don’t set out thinking “I want to sound like that”. I always check the tracks on a lot of good and not-so-good systems and adapt the levels and balance where needed. It’s important to try and listen to your production work as other people might so I always upload it privately to something like SoundCloud then listen to it on the phone, in headphones and earbuds, across laptop speakers, etc to hear exactly what happens to the listening experience.
Looking to the future, what’s next for Kill Shelter?
I am really lucky to be so busy. I have two further full-length releases planned, one of which is the third and final part of the multi-collaboration trilogy. There are a few exciting EPs pipelined too and I’ve started a different project (not Kill Shelter) with Cliff Hewitt (Modern Eon, Apollo 440, Jean-Michel Jarre, Schiller, etc) – he’s an incredible drummer and I’m really excited about working with him. I’m hoping the results of that will see the light of day in 2023 but we’ve just started working together so we’ll just see what happens.
Karl from Antipole and I have started working on the follow-up to “A Haunted Place” but we want to take our time with that release – there’s no pressure on us to make the record and I think that’s a good thing creatively for both of us. I’m also starting to think about a live set and what that might look like for 2023 and beyond. I’m doing a fair amount of work mixing and mastering at my studio, The Shelter, so yeah, lots of exciting things to keep me busy.
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