Sex, Cinema, Sound: Boy Harsher’s Gus Muller & Four Chamber’s Vex Ashley

Fans of electronic music know the sounds of Boy Harsher. The pair, vocalist Jae Matthew and composer Gus Muller have developed a signature sound that co-exists alongside an equally eerie cinematic universe. They make music that’s hard to define. On the dancefloor, Gus’s driving percussion delivers an EBM feel while Jae’s ghostly vocals speak Coldwave. Whatever you want to call it, it’s hard to forget.

That’s why when I first heard, “Taste of Metal” I thought it had to be a Boy Harsher track. But a few seconds in, I realized that missing from their unmistakable sound was the crucial component of Jae’s vocals. Despite having some of the key elements you’d expect, like sinister synth lines and hypnotic percussion, “Taste of Metal” isn’t a Boy Harsher track at all. Instead it’s one of the many scores for Machine Learning Experiments, an original soundtrack brought to us by one half of the duo, Gus. This latest release is the result of a collab between Gus and Four Chambered Heart a pornographic film co-op based in the UK. The soundtrack accompanies the films of Four Chambers including Hydra and Orgone Theory.

Lead by porn performer, director, and filmmaker Vex Ashley and her partner, Four Chambers makes porn that removes the line between art and explicit displays of sexuality. Their films are visually and conceptually stunning, which they describe as “magical realism porn.” These are films that could easily appeal to fans of art-house directors such as Gaspar Noé and David Lynch. On top of this, they really care, not just about their performers, but also about their production practices. You can find a detailed account of everything that goes on behind-the-scenes at Four Chambers on their website. And that’s because transparency is at the heart of everything they do, “when we began making films as Four Chambers … the aim is and has always been to center transparency as much as possible as a priority. Talk is cheap and language and buzzwords mean nothing without actions,” according to Four Chambers.

We had a chance to interview both Vex and Gus to talk about this collaboration deviously combining sex, cinema and sound.

Tell us about how you met Gus?

Vex: I was lucky enough to get to license a Boy Harsher track for a Four Chambers film and the day it was released I saw they were playing a show in a city close to me so they invited me to come down. We bonded in green room about wanting to make a Possession porn parody (1981 film) and so when I shot Hydra I knew Gus would be perfect to score it.

Why did you make the leap to the pornographic arts? And how was the experience?

Gus: I’ve always been interested in scoring. That’s how I got into music. I was making music and sound design for my video projects. I started working with 4CH after I met Vex at one of our shows in Manchester. I was already a fan and I offered to score one of her films. It was a great experience. Vex had a pretty precise idea about what she was looking for. We talked about references for a bit, then I got to work.

Orgone Theory and Hydra almost seem like they could fit perfectly into Boy Harsher’s cinematic universe. Could you describe what it was like collaborating with Boy Harsher & Gus? 

Vex: It was a dream, really. From the first exchanges I knew we were on the same page. I’d seen High Life and I wanted to harness some of that dystopian dread energy and Gus got exactly what we were going for straight away, and turned it out. For me, a great score for sex is about building the right energy and anyone who’s been to a Boy Harsher show knows that Gus is a master at that.

Could you describe how your approach differs when scoring a film versus making a Boy Harsher song? 

Gus: The biggest difference is working with direction. You get a set of guidelines (style, mood, duration) and you have to create something within that. It was really refreshing to have some more restrictions for a change. When writing a song (or an album) I can get lost in all the possibilities.

How has the public response to A Four Chambered Heart evolved over the last 6 years since you began?

Vex: I think we’ve always had a pretty niche supportive community. I’m not trying to make work for mass appeal and I’m focused on what’s most interesting to me not what will get the most clicks. When we first started the project it was really grown in the NSFW community on Tumblr. It was the first place I saw art and sex existing next to each other in that way. Once we were pushed out of that space we’ve had to navigate censorship and restriction on other platforms. We lost all of our income in 2018 when Patreon shut us down and we had to start building our fund entirely again from scratch, but through all that, we’re lucky enough to have a really dedicated community who support what we’re doing as an idea, not just a product, and they’ve followed and supported us through everything.

How does the overtly sexual subject matter of the Four Chambered Heart films play into your musical approach? 

Gus: The sex is there. I wasn’t really focused on accentuating that idea. I was responding to the emotion and rhythm of the films and trying to get the music to gel with that. With that said, the “cum shot” is always a pretty significant beat.

With the increasing popularity of cam sites like Chaturbate do you think the public’s perception of sex and sex work is changing? If so, how?

Vex: I think sex is both more accepted as an everyday part of life and also more marginalized. As our lives and our interactions move increasingly online the censorship of sexuality has also increased exponentially, we are shut out of using so many sites, payment providers and communities that it starts to move more and more underground. I think it’s fashionable to co-opt sex worker/porn branding or aesthetic to seem… rebellious? I guess? but not many people are actually prepared to engage with what that still means in terms of the stigma and the insecurity that comes with it. We still have a long way to go.

Cinema is an important through-line for Boy Harsher. Could you describe how your love of film has influenced your approach to making music?

Gus: Watching movies constantly expands your stylistic vocabulary. I was working on a synth line the other day that reminded me of The Beach. I’m not sure if that’s useful information, but it made me appreciate that particular sound in a new way. The reason I love film is because it lets you access emotions you didn’t even know you had. You can be scared and turned on at the same time, or euphoric and crying. Films create such distinct and tangible moods, and that’s something I strive for with my music.

Each film stems from a beautifully thought out concept. Could you explain how you incorporate FCH’s core themes surrounding technology, symbolism, mythology, and alchemy with sex?

Vex: Sex doesn’t exist in a vacuum, intersects with all other parts of our lived experience and culture. I think people see porn as this fixed monolith but really it’s just a medium like literature or film or comedy that you can use to say and explore different things. I like art bullshit with allegory and metaphor and getting to tell stories – I just use sex as the medium to do that.

Do you think you might one day co-direct a film with Jae as a side project (as it’s own release not connected to the band)?

Gus: Jae and I are always talking about our film dreams.  Probably not in the form of co-directing, but I know we’ll collaborate on a movie someday.

It seems like A Four Chambered Heart has grown quite a bit since its conception. How do you see FCH growing in the future? Are there special projects or ideas you’re working on in this regard?

Vex: Well, right now we’re all quarantined and unsure of what the future holds like everyone else! I feel immensely lucky to have projects to work on to keep me occupied and sane, we don’t know when we can return to shooting again. I guess we just have to get creative!

In the past, you’ve mentioned wanting to collaborate with the Safdie brothers are there other filmmakers that you feel you would love to work with and why?

Gus: Don’t tell OPN (Oneohtrix Point Never) I said that! If someone remakes The Stand, I would love to work on that. I think that could be an amazing series if done right.

Top 3 Favourite Films?

Vex: I can’t ever settle on these lists! totally depends on mood, emotion, how much I want to cry. Here’s 3 of my most recent favourites: The Duke of Burgundy, The Lighthouse, Under the Skin

Gus: That’s a tough one, here’s some I saw recently that I enjoyed: Life is Beautiful, Knife in Heart, Contagion.

You can buy Machine Learning Experiments online via Nude Club Records but due to the ongoing global pandemic, the physical release has been pushed to May 22nd.