In 2013, Adam McIlwee left the beloved emo-punk band Tigers Jaw and immersed himself in an online world of eerie hip-hop production, occultist Tumblr communities, and mystical alternate personas.
It was all different, but also very much the same. Tigers Jaw galvanized sensitive suburban punks during the early “emo revival” years; under new solo moniker Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, McIlwee conveyed the same cathartic confessionals over dirgey beats that could only have manifested from this new online realm.
McIlwee forged bonds with kindred spirits and formed Gothboiclique, an online collective of like-minded vocalists and producers including Brooklyn rapper Lil Tracy and frequent Wicca Phase beatmaker Døves. In Sept. 2016, they closed off membership after adding their tenth and final comrade: 19-year old Gustav Elijah Åhr, better known as Lil Peep. That same year, McIlwee released his first Wicca Phase album, the ominous, promising Secret Boy.
In the year that followed, Lil Peep became a cultural phenomenon and greatly boosted the profile of Gothboiclique in the process. McIlwee toured with him and the pair went from online buddies to real-life friends. They collaborated on two songs, including the last Lil Peep released while he was alive. On Nov. 15, 2017, one of music’s most exciting young voices died of an accidental drug overdose. Gothboiclique grieved, yet remained a vital presence.
Today, McIlwee releases Suffer On, his sophomore album as Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. It’s earthier and more organic-feeling than past releases, the first Wicca Phase project composed entirely by McIlwee. He’s simply singing and playing acoustic guitar through much of Suffer On, evoking Dashboard Confessional at its most minmal and dire, over a smoky, trap-influenced low end. It’s also the first Wicca Phase release on Run For Cover Records, the former label home of Tigers Jaw. As is much in McIlwee’s universe, what’s different is often very much familiar.
Billboard recently spoke with the singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist about the evolution of his music, why Gothboiclique considers itself a boy band, and why it’s important for artists to speak openly about difficult mental issues.
Last year you released two EPs, Corinthiax and Spider Web. How did they lead to the headspace you’re in on the new album?
That was around the time I decided to work with one producer at a time, instead of getting beats from as many as possible and trying to piece together some sort of coherent project. Earlier, I was trying to figure out what worked in terms of delivery, recording process, recording quality, song quality. When I released my first EP last year, Corinthiax, that’s when everything started falling into place.
And leading up to Suffer On you released “Stress,” a single featuring Georgia Maq, frontwoman of the punk band Camp Cope. How did that one come together?
That was a suggestion from Run For Cover: collaborating with someone from outside my world would help bridge the gap between Gothboiclique and signing with Run For Cover. Camp Cope is signed to them, too. Georgia is a fan of mine and I’m a fan of her’s. She has a Wicca Phase tattoo!
The lyrics have a really interesting male-female dynamic.
Yeah, she’s good. I knew that that would work because it’s just not a traditional boy singing about a girl and then girl singing about a guy, back and forth. I’m trying to figure out the best way to put this but… no one comes out looking weak in that song, whether it’s Georgia and I or the man and the woman. You get two sides of the story and both come out looking equally strong, weak, or however you want to interpret it.
Let’s talk the new album — you composed everything on it, right?
Yeah, so I would write everything on guitar, record it to a click track, sometimes put a rough beat over it, and then send it to Døves, who’s in Gothboiclique. He’s just better with drum production that I am. I’d send it to him and he’d send it back. I’d finish one song and then figure out where I wanted to go musically and lyrically with the next song. I was able to do that ten times, for ten songs. The plan was always to do my first real album that way: to write it myself the way I was writing songs when I was in bands, because it’s the only way to really put yourself into the project, determine where it goes.
Normally I record at home [in Scranton] but they were doing work on the house so I was going up to my grandma’s house every day for a few hours. She has no wi-fi and I was in her basement so there was no phone service. That’s what it was like eight hours a day, just sitting with the music and my own thoughts, going from there. It was an intense month-long period.
What keeps you living in Scranton, as opposed to a city with more of a music industry presence?
I don’t know… I feel no need to move to L.A. or New York. I’ll go for a week and every time I think it’s too much, like it seems too easy to get wrapped up in some sort of social scene. You’re going out every night, you’re around so many other personalities that your own gets lost.
I’ve lived here my whole life and it’s helped me figure out who I am. It’s an anchor. Through art, music, or whatever I can explore an venture into more weird aspects of life. It just seems a little overwhelming to be in a bigger city. I’m easily influenced, too. If I’m around a person for a certain amount of time, I start to talk like them. I don’t need any more of that in my life.
Suffer On features a lot of themes of depression and anxiety. I realize these might be sensitive subjects — so whatever you feel comfortable sharing — but how did those themes shape the album?
I am naturally an anxious person. When people meet me at shows, they expect me to be more miserable and more outwardly depressed than I really am. It seems to throw people off that I’m not like that when they’re talking to me. But there are specific periods of every day… I wake up filled with dread and anxiety for whatever reason. Then it goes away around noon and I’m okay for most of the day. Then it comes back right before I go to bed. That’s what the album is. The album is trying to get those moments out on paper, on record. Trying to manifest them physically and sonically, and be done with them.
It’s interesting how the concept of being an outsider boy band helped bring Gothboiclique together in 2013. A couple years later, Brockhampton formed and embraced the boy band title, too. Why do you think young male musicians are finding it appealing?
I liked it because I wasn’t really aware of any sort of grassroots boy band. All of us in Gothboiclique came from punk backgrounds: playing in bands, listening to punk music. I really liked the contrast. It works with Gothboiclique because we’re all vocalists. When you have so many personalities, putting them together kind of creates a boy band naturally. That’s what I was going for.
With very pop-oriented groups like the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, the imagery was very sugary and even the bad boys weren’t even that bad. With Gothboiclique, you have nine, way different personalities; they’re complex and have depth. I think that is the appeal of that renaissance of the boy band. You can have individuals in the group with whom you can actually identify. I don’t know how many people would look at someone like Justin Timberlake and be like, “Oh I identify with him.” But they might look at someone like me, or Horse Head, or Lil Peep or Lil Tracy and see where they came from and be like, “Oh I do identify with that. I had a similar upbringing. My musical tastes are the same.” Something like that.
ILoveMakonnen recently shared his Lil Peep collab “I’ve Been Waiting,” which is part of an entire album recorded with Peep he’s now shepherding out into the world. Do you have anything similar planned?
No, we don’t have anything. We only did two songs together. “Absolute in Doubt” was an early one and then we did “Avoid” — that was the last one Peep released when he was still alive.
Has Gothboiclique considering doing some kind of Lil Peep retrospective?
There is a documentary coming out, but it’s not ours. It’s a First Access Entertainment documentary that I was interviewed for, and I think everyone else in Gothboiclique, too. That’s pretty much it.
We were never that organized, so right now Gothboiclique is just working on some business stuff together, whether it’s tours or finally working on another album. We’re in meetings every week trying to figure out the best course of action.
How do you think Lil Peep will continue to influence culture?
When he was alive, I thought his personality was too big to stay underground. Being around him, I got the impression he was going to be a major pop star any minute. And he wouldn’t have to change because he wrote catchy songs very naturally.
Now I think you’re already seeing his influence if you turn on the radio and hear Juice WRLD, Post Malone… it’s pretty much everywhere in mainstream music. Not that they’re a direct result of Peep, but in the way he put that honesty and emotion at the forefront of his music, with a backdrop of catchiness.
Moving forward, man, I don’t know… you’re going to see a lot more people with face tattoos. Peep wasn’t putting on any sort of front. People are gonna look at him and think they need to build some sort of persona in order to be popular, which is already happening. I get messages every day from SoundCloud kids who say, like, “Hey, I’m so influenced by Gothboiclique and Peep, here’s my music…” It’ll have the same sort of mix he used, same sort of themes of heartbreak and emotion.
The thing I can say about Peep is that it was genuine. I think he was naturally charismatic and naturally larger than life. Before I met him I thought it might have been an act; the first time I saw him, I realized it was not a put on. That was who he was. I think it would be a good thing for music, especially mainstream music, if that sort of honesty continues to be pushed to the forefront and rewarded. That might be a pipe-dream of mine but I’m hoping that’s his legacy.
Why do you think it’s important for young men to see artists openly expressing feelings like loss, depression, and anxiety?
I don’t know life any other way than through those lenses. And I can’t imagine other people aren’t the same, no matter how much they try to hide it. I think the alternative is to regress into some sort of macho, super masculine persona that is more of what someone wants to feel, wants to be viewed as, rather than just being honest.
I think it’s harder to be honest about your emotions. I think it’s harder to be honest with people and publicly put out how you’re feeling, whether you’re depressed, you’re heartbroken, whatever. And I think because more artists are starting to express themselves that way now, fans see that it’s okay to put yourself out there. I feel like a lot of our fans are in high school, which is the prime age of dealing with all that sorta stuff. It’s probably a relief for high schoolers or people of any age. I’m 29 now and it’s a relief for me to hear someone being honest about how they feel in their music.