Ghosts In The Machine

by | Jan 18, 2022 | MUSIC

Richmond duo Digital Hell makes distorted, foreboding noise and discusses heady philosophical concepts, but if you ask them, they’re really just making pop music.

I was greeted by a joyful character with a teddy-bear beanie covering her long black locs. “What’s good!!! You’re finally here!” she said, as she gave me a friendly hug. 

This is Chay. You can call her Lil Ophelia, the name she works under as a solo artist. She’s half of the group Digital Hell; the other half awaits us in the apartment up the stairs. I follow her through the dimly lit hallway into the living room. There I’m greeted by Jimmy aka itslolita, the other member of Digital Hell. He sprung out of his chair, shook my hand, which turned into a nice hug. Carlos, who records as DuctTape Jesus, was also in attendance, along with Chay’s younger brother Twan. A YouTube compilation of Family Feud clips was playing, and all of us started making guesses and throwing out jokes. 

“What if purgatory is just a repeating, long-ass game of Family Feud??” Chay asked. 

“That would low-key be kind of scary,” I said as Steve Harvey’s voice cut me off by asking a new question. “What animal do women like being compared to?” I blurted, “Vampires.” Chay began laughing, hard. “I love that! Vampires are my favorite animal now!” Chay laughed. 

Jimmy grabbed a huge mason jar full of weed so that he could roll the next blunt, which was huge. We continued watching Family Feud as the blunt passed around. “Would it be better if we did the interview in the studio?” Jimmy asked. “It’s less space but it is quieter.” With that, Chay, Jimmy, Carlos and I gathered our belongings and left Chay’s brother to enjoy Steve Harvey’s voice. 

Cover of Heaven Is A Traffic Jam by Digital Hell, via Bandcamp

The studio was less spacious than the living room, but felt entrancing nonetheless. Different types of musical hardware were scattered near the computer and microphone that made up the focus of the room. Posters, books, and random items were scattered across the shelves. I sat in the middle of a faded green couch against the wall, with Chay to my left and Carlos to my right. Jimmy scrolled around on Youtube until he found jazzy/classical music perfect to keep everyone at ease and of course, background music. I opened up my journal and examined my notes, flipping back and forth between two pages in my notebook. I felt a tad nervous, but tried to act cool.

I’ve always wondered how the dynamic of Digital Hell worked. As Chay and Jimmy explained, it began over social media. In March 2018, someone retreated Chay’s artwork onto Jimmy’s Twitter timeline. He was interested enough to buy some art from her, and that led to them talking more. After listening to some beats he’d uploaded to Bandcamp, Chay asked Jimmy to produce her first EP. This eventually turned into Digital Hell’s first demo, which actually came out before they had even met in person. When they needed a name for the demo, Jimmy texted Chay, who was playing a Silent Hill game. She was stuck on a level, and needed a sequence of numbers to get to the next one. When Jimmy texted to ask her what the name of the demo should be, she texted that sequence of numbers back to him. The result was Digital Hell’s first release, 204863.

The name of the group came about as an expression of their mutual interest in post-capitalist thoughts and ideas. Chay mentioned the work of English philosophers Mark Fisher and Nick Land, particularly their ideas about and use of the concept of “hauntology.” A term originally coined by Jacques Derrida, Fisher modified Derrida’s original concept of “hauntology,” in which present-day culture is unable to escape ghostly elements of our socio-cultural past. To Fisher, the most prominent form of hauntology present in our current culture is the ghost of futures that were foretold in the media of decades past, but never actually happened. It’s this sense of lost futures, ghosts of an era that never actually took place, that pervades the music of Digital Hell.

“I didn’t even purposely do that,” said Chay. “It just fits with that philosophy. When I started reading that type of stuff, I realized, ‘Well damn, Jimmy and I have been making music that’s based on hauntology.’ The philosophies just went with the name Digital Hell. It’s because we’re living in a literal digital hell. It’s like a hellscape of fucked-up technology and cryptocurrency, crypto-fascism, mixed with this electronic industrial dive.” 

“Product of the digital environment,” Jimmy added. 

Trying to describe Digital Hell’s music is interesting. When people make flyers for their upcoming shows, they try to fit them into set genres, or come up with crazy descriptions for them, but you can’t capture Digital Hell that way. They’re a dynamic group that does lots of different things, both stylistically and production-wise. “I think of it less as a specific kind of music, but more so about the creative movement,” Jimmy explained. 

Photo via Digital Hell/Twitter

All the hardware in the studio makes it clear that they really get into working with every point in the creative process. They strive to make their own music and see how they can push the sound further than what’s currently always available to people. For Digital Hell, taking their time with music is the point. “Creating a song is a process,” said Chay. “It’s good to come up with songs on the spot but you should definitely continue working on it for a couple of weeks, before you even drop it.”

Jimmy agrees. “I think there’s something to be said about the quality of recording you get when you spend the time to make a demo of the song before it’s finished, take time to listen to it, then come back and finish up,” he said. “Because you’re going to hear stuff that you’ll want to change.”

Their music is catchy but in a way that defies the rules capitalism imposes on musical consumption. You might start to get into it, but then the capitalist in your head will have you thinking, “Actually, this is pretty weird.” 

But weirdness is not all Digital Hell has to offer. “The songs start off with a wall of feedback and a bunch of crazy distorted bass. People listen to that, and they’re like, ‘What the fuck?’” Jimmy said. “Then if you give it a chance, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is actually a pop song.’” 

Chay giggled. She’s the one who brings pop to the group through her melodies and catchy harmonizing. She enjoys listening to artists like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo. Jimmy on the other hand finds sound itself interesting. He feels easy connections with the instruments they use, the guitars and drums. The pop melodies he works with come through in the production. Jimmy often samples, then distorts pop and contemporary music. “It’s a way to make the music resonate more with people by sampling contemporary sounds that people are familiar with,” said Jimmy. Chay and Jimmy are really just music nerds, which is a big part of their music and their friendship. 

A good example of the way they work comes from “1612 Havenhurst,” a 2021 single. It has a beat that Chay and Jimmy collaborated on. Chay says she was listening to a lot of Project Pat at the time, which helped out with her flow on this song. The beat started with one that Chay had been working on previously, but ended up sampling that beat and slowing it way down. They were also playing around with a bunch of different instruments, and ended up recording the song onto a cassette. They actually can’t perform it live now, because they didn’t save the beat. If they wanted to play it live, they’d have to make a whole new version of it.

Another fan favorite “Cleo From 5 To 7,” the closing track on their 2020 EP, Bleeding Virginia. They’ve recorded it in several different versions. At the time it was written, Chay was obsessed with the 60’s French film, “Cleo From 5 to 7,” and was watching it constantly. This Agnes Varda film focuses on a singer, Cleo, during the hours that she waits to learn whether she has cancer. The dragging beat and wavery sample (Jimmy can’t tell us the source, for fear of lawsuits) capture the ominous lyrical mood.

When asked how they feel about today’s music, there is a long pause, followed by Chay saying, “Uhhhh…” To Chay, her is extremely commodified. The sounds and artists all sound the same and blend together. Everything now is consumed so quickly and barely thought of again. This concerns both members of the group. “People can’t even be schizoid in the way they consume media, so how are they going to be schizoid in their daily lives to beat capitalism? People can’t think critically or nuanced about things,” Chay said. She looked at Jimmy. 

“Unfortunately, the state of music in general is tied in with the state of consumer culture,” said Jimmy. “The easy access, Amazon Prime, Spotify age turned the way people consume any form of media into something they can digest in 30 seconds, [with] no real thought. If you’re listening to a song for like 10 seconds to see whether you are going to like it or not, you’re going to hear our song and say no. You’re not even going to bother listening to it.” Digital Hell does believe that’s slowly changing, though. More people are starting to stream music independently from streaming sites, or going back to their iPods and MP3 players, which they see as a positive thing. 

Last February, Chay and Jimmy posted up in a creepy, slightly dirty motel in Richmond to record an album they finished in two nights. They’re currently planning the rollout for that album, as well as some related t-shirts. They work on music separately as well. Chay is working on projects with other local artists, and Jimmy is constantly dropping beat tapes. 

They’ve also got an as-yet-unreleased collaborative album with DuctTape Jesus, which Jimmy offered to let me hear near the end of the interview. He put the album on and I could tell my ears were in for a real treat. Chay’s flows were very poppy and straight to the point, while DuctTape Jesus complimented her flow with vivid metaphors and melodic ad-libs all across Jimmy’s unorthodox, experimental beats. 

At the end of the interview, an impromptu session broke out. Jimmy began playing beats. Chay and DuctTape Jesus freestyled back and forth. “I think I’m going to hop on this beat. Are you hopping on, DuctTape?” Chay asked. “Hell yeah!” he confirmed. 

Then Chay turned her gaze at me. “You want to hop on it too?” I responded nervously. “I like this beat… I think I could come up with something.” And with that, Carlos and I got to scribbling bars in our journals for our verses. Chay was already repeating the chorus she was about to lay down. We all laid down our “skeleton” verses, as Jimmy would call them. Just the outline of the song basically. It had a smoking blunt in a dark alley kind of vibe to it. 

A lot of elements go into making Digital Hell what they are. Sonically pleasing sounds interjected with hauntology. Aesthetics of the cultural past, mixed with pop melodies. Staying ahead of capitalism, and enjoying the fun of creation without being boxed in. They are constantly expanding, pushing their creative mindset. The cutting edge of music is sharp, but if you’re tough enough for it, that’s where you’ll find Digital Hell, lurking and creating.

Additional reporting by Marilyn Drew Necci. Top image from cover of LP2 by Digital Hell.

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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