If we’re nominating Peak Grimes Moments from a year full of Peak Grimes Moments, a strong case can be made for the opening shot from the music video for “Kill V. Maim,” the second single from Grimes’ latest album, Art Angels.
In that scene, the camera slowly zooms in on Grimes at the wheel of a hot-pink, Barbie-fied version of the G.I. Joe Dreadnok Thunder Machine vehicle, all while a half-dozen rainbow goth girls dance and gyrate across the vehicle as it zooms through a technicolour animé speed-racer-scape.
Directed by Grimes and her brother, Mac Boucher, those first seconds go a long way to establish a video that references the TV show Law & Order, animé and the blood rave scene from the movie Blade – all for a song that Grimes says is about Al Pacino’s role in The Godfather Pt. II, re-imagined as a gender-flipping vampire who can travel through time and space.
The song itself, with its spelled out cheer/admonishment to B-E-H-A-V-E and mind-bending subject matter, place it on the outer rim of the pop music universe. According to the synth-pop musician, trying to explain to people what “Kill V. Maim” is about remains… complicated.
“They seem confused,” says Grimes, explaining how people react to learning what “Kill V. Maim” is about. “It’s honestly fan fiction, musically. Like, when I was a kid, I used to write a lot of fan fiction. I think my whole album is, actually. I think all my art is fan fiction, in a weird way. Even in the sense that it usually fails in what it’s trying to do. I feel like Art Angels is sort of like a failed rock album, and it ended up being something different – since it ended up not being a rock album, since all the beats are electronic, and all the guitars are looped and auto-tuned. It’s not a legitimate rock album at all, but it’s my fan fiction rock album. ‘Kill V. Maim’ is sort of like the most direct song in that regard.”
“I enjoy stuff that’s really viscerally pleasant and has hooks. That’s real important to me.”
While the 28 year-old, born Claire Elise Boucher, may see Art Angels as a failed experiment, the outside world doesn’t. On 2015 year-end “Best Of” lists, the album was No. 1 on NME, Exclaim and Stereogum, No. 2 on Rolling Stone and No. 3 on Pitchfork, Billboard, Consequence of Sound and The New York Times. More important than Grimes’ critical praise is her cultural impact. Look around any college campus, and you’ll likely see a more than a few young Grimes-alikes, hair dyed in rainbow hues, dressed in convention-bending combinations of steam-punk retro-futurisms. Grimes has become both the patron saint to the Comic-Con set and a fashion icon, someone equally at home at a Star Trek convention and a Versace runway show.
And that’s where Grimes’ power lies. Her nerdish enthusiasms – Game Of Thrones, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, science fiction – are all completely genuine. It makes her seem like she’s just like one of us; a friend that shares our special interests.
“I try to keep staying excited about new things,” she says. FKA Twigs is one of her current faves. Lana Del Rey makes her “weep uncontrollably.” She “just got into The Avengers” and action movies.
Grimes’ music is the loaded, layered result of these special interests. Songs like latest single, “California,” approach the sweetest radio pop, but her live show – like her recent appearance at the costume ball/rave-up music festival Bestival Toronto – can occasionally descend into industrial-electro bombast, with Grimes trading her signature high vocal style for death-metal growls built atop cranking EDM beats. If this is “pop” music, it’s a unique kind of pop.
“I think it depends how you define pop,” says Grimes. “I think for a lot of people right now the term ‘pop’ conjures Top 40, and I think I’m pretty separate from that sonically, and in terms of how my music is made. Because my music is still made, functionally, in a pretty indie way.
“Coming up in Montreal, everyone writes, produces and performs all their own shit, and that’s something I feel pretty strongly about. But if you consider pop music to include The Ramones and David Bowie, then yes, I would consider myself pop music. I think it just depends on what you consider to be pop music, because people have different definitions. I’m hesitant to say, ‘Yeah, I’m a pop artist.’ I think a lot of artists who are rock artists, or electronic artists, are making pop music, and I think I’m just kind of in that zone. Like, I enjoy stuff that’s really viscerally pleasant and has hooks. That’s real important to me. Just because I need to enjoy making it when I’m making it.”
In a world where Beyoncé’s Lemonade album credits stretch more than 3,100 words long, the fact that Grimes writes, records and produces her music, on top of designing much of her album art, and directing her music videos, puts her in a rare place. Grimes says it’s not so much about having total control over her empire as it is a personality trait.
“I prefer to make my own music because afterwards I can know that it’s mine and not anyone else’s.”
“It’s not a super-intentional thing,” says Grimes about her independent creative streak. “I actually don’t work as well with other people. I’ve tried and it is a bit of a pride thing. So I think a lot of it is just functional, like I prefer to make my own music because afterwards I can know that it’s mine and not anyone else’s.”
It’s not like Grimes isn’t capable of partnerships. She says her favourite songs on Art Angels are “Venus Fly” and “Scream,” two songs where she sub-contracted out the vocals to Janelle Monáe and Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, respectively. And on the business side, she recently partnered with fun. and Bleachers member Jack Antonoff’s publishing company Rough Customer for Sony ATV Music Publishing.
“I had worked with Jack on a song called ‘Entropy’ [on the Girls soundtrack].” she says. “I’d had a lot of really bad experiences in the studio, and Jack was one of the only people I worked with who I was, like, ‘Wow, you’re actually not a total creep, and you’re pretty chill.’ I had kind of already been talking to Sony, but I was kind of stressed about how big they were and how small I am. I was, like, ‘I’ll be on the lower rungs of your company.’ But then I talked to Jack and he was, like, ‘I’ve got an imprint and they won’t forget about you because I’ll be here championing you.’
“So that makes me more comfortable in doing something like this. It’s just the fear that I would be forgotten about, and he assuaged that fear. So it’s just a little more comfortable doing something like that when you know there’s going to be a dedicated person looking out for you there.”
“Creeps,” of course, remain a problem. Independent, successful female music producers are still a rare breed and in many ways Grimes is shattering a glass ceiling for music technicians. The glass isn’t breaking easily, though.
“I still feel like I hear and I see a lot of ‘I tried to make a song that sounds like Grimes,’ and then they hired a dude [to produce],” she says, somewhat irked that people would try to imitate her sound when they could have the real thing. “Just call me. No one’s ever called me for a job, really. It’s one of these things where people call a dude to imitate me. I have a lot of concrete examples of this. And it bothers me because I’m, like, ‘Why wouldn’t you call me?’ And I assume it’s my gender or something.
“But I also think there are more great female producers. I think the door is opening. Especially because of things like Ableton, and software that you can use at home. It was harder before because to get into a studio was a pretty hard thing to do. But learning to do it on your own, the technology’s gotten to a place where you can affordably do that, which is a huge door opening for a lot of people. Especially women who want to produce.”
And if that door doesn’t open easily, there’s a fair chance Grimes will help bust it wide. It’ll be easy to tell it’s her. She’ll be the one driving the hot pink war machine that just smashed through the whole wall.