“Satan is good!”
Twin Temple singer Alexandra James is praising the Great Horned One because, after three failed attempts, we’ve finally managed to sort the connection for this evening’s interview. We can’t imagine that The Devil himself ever envisioned his name being praised courtesy of a Google Hangout, but then again, we can’t imagine he ever envisioned something like Twin Temple, either.
“We never formulated this as a ‘gimmick’,” Alexandra later insists. “This is who we are and this is the band that we wanted to put out. I think, a lot of times, anything new and fresh that people haven’t seen before is a ‘novelty’, it’s a ‘gimmick’, because it’s brand new. But, I think over time, that idea will wear off.”
Among all the exciting young bands you’ll read about in this issue, the rise and rise of Twin Temple might just be the most unlikely story of all. They are formed of LA-based wife and husband duo Alexandra (vocals) and Zachary (guitar), plus a touring band that includes a drummer, bassist, keyboardist and a saxophone player. None of that is too outside the realms of heavy metal folklore these days – the likes of Ghost and Ihsahn have shown that even a saxophone has a welcome place in our world.
But this is something entirely different. For a start, Twin Temple don’t actually play heavy metal. They play doo-wop – the soulful, swinging, early strain of rock’n’roll that first emerged within young black communities in 1930s America, eventually sweeping the US’s biggest cities come the turn of the 50s. And, despite playing music that really isn’t metal at all, in 2021 Twin Temple stand as one of the metal scene’s most exciting young names.
“We were really excited that metal just opened their arms and their leather jackets and let us in, because we had no fucking clue who a Twin Temple fan would be,” Alexandra laughs. “It’s not like we’re fucking Slayer, laying down the heaviest, face-melting blastbeats. I’m glad that metal has welcomed us into the black circle.”
We shouldn’t be surprised. If there’s one thing metalheads appreciate almost as much as a big-ass riff, it’s music that is truly subversive: those rare bands who are able to connect with us not because they go as hard and heavy as possible, but because they capture the feeling of what metal is all about, eschewing the norm to blaze a trail born of the left-hand path. Twin Temple are a band that have been able to capture that vibe more than most, because it’s an ethos they live by. Alexandra and Zachary are devout Satanists, and their doo-wop jams tell stories not of broken hearts and romantic flings, but of liberation, defiance, sexual empowerment and blasphemy, all carried by catchy arrangements and Alexandra’s rich, jazzy vocals. It’s like listening to Amy Winehouse sing about Lucifer. And it’s all rooted in the same basic principles that have made rock’n’roll such an enduring, exciting form of expression across the years.
“A lot of metal draws from the occult, from Satanism,” points out Alexandra. “It’s subversive, it’s in your face, it’s not for everyone, it champions the outsider, and that really goes back to its roots in rock’n’roll. Tony Iommi wasn’t against the music that we’re playing – he wanted to be the fucking Beatles, you know? When you watch a lot of these pioneers of early metal, they’re listening to Elvis! The metal gods love rock’n’roll, so honestly, it makes sense.”
It certainly helps that Twin Temple look cool as fuck. Their stage gear sees them dressed in matching black and red evening wear, Alexandra donning a Winehouse-esque beehive, Zachary opting for a Misfits (or should that be Elvis?)-aping devilock. They look like members of a secret vampire clubhouse from the 1950s that you’d be dying to join. And theirs is a club that’s growing.
Twin Temple’s beginnings were innocuous enough. Both California lifers, Alexandra grew up in the Bay Area while Zachary moved around the Sunshine State as a youngster, eventually settling back near his birthplace of LA. They both had a solid musical upbringing – Alexandra’s parents liked “pretty good music, like David Bowie”, while Zachary’s were fans of Sabbath, Dylan, The Stones and other zeitgeist-capturing heavyweights – “my mom turned me onto Alice Cooper,” he notes nonchalantly. For Zachary, his love of rock grew when he discovered punk and metal – “edgier stuff like the Misfits and Slayer”, while Alexandra’s musical journey would ultimately lead her to early punk bands like the Ramones – “one of the first songs I learned on guitar was I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”. They’d eventually meet each other in the LA punk scene, finding kindred spirits not just in a love of alternative, subversive music, but in a shared rejection of societal norms, in the pursuit of personal liberation, of equality and the tearing down of the old ways of the patriarchy. It was a path that would eventually lead them to identifying as Satanists, even if they didn’t fully know it at the time.
“We were definitely feeling the same feelings and thinking the same thoughts, I just don’t think we had the vocabulary [of Satanism] yet,” says Zachary. “We weren’t calling ourselves that, we figured that out later. But it was just that disdain for authority, knowing that being a creative individual, there’s nothing wrong with that; you should be able to do whatever you want to do.”
“Yeah, and also just the delight in subverting cultural norms,” adds Alexandra. “A desire to burn down the old guard and all the stale-ass authoritarians telling you ridiculous dogma and who you can and can’t be, and who you’re ‘supposed’ to be in society.”
If it sounds like the duo are taking an opportunity to dish out some self-righteous posturing, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Alexandra and Zachary are a pleasure to talk to: friendly, charming and easily likeable. Alexandra is by far the more animated of the two; she’s breezy, talkative and enthusiastic, her Californian drawl occasionally punctuated by quirky Brit-isms courtesy of her English mother (at one point she calls a corner shop an “offie”). Zachary is no less pleasant if a little more reserved, his deep, relaxed voice often expanding on Alexandra’s thoughts and answers. They clearly have great chemistry, so it’s not surprising that they ended up taking their relationship into the workplace; on Halloween 2016, they officially formed Twin Temple – a brand new vessel where their shared loves of rock’n’roll music, heavy metal culture and the progressive values of Satanism could fully flourish. It all made perfect sense, even if there were plenty of challenges ahead to get their new project properly moving.
“Zach and I always had a burning desire to create something,” Alexandra says. “But there are so many hurdles to starting a band – ‘I need a bass player’, ‘I need a guitar’, ‘I need a car to get from point A to B…’”
Plus, once they managed to get all that admin sorted, there were other hurdles to try and clear – such as exactly who in the blue hell would want to listen to a doo-wop band singing about Satan?
“We honestly thought there wouldn’t be any Twin Temple fans,” Alexandra admits now. “Flat out, [people in the] industry told us, ‘You will have zero fans, you’re going to alienate literally everyone who this is for. There’s a vintage gospel/soul scene, but you can’t bring Satan into that! That’s Christian music!’”
But to criticise Twin Temple for not fitting in is to miss the point entirely. The true spirit of rock’n’roll lies in its history as music made by outcasts, for outcasts – the rebels, the misfits, the underdogs. It’s in the genre’s DNA; while Elvis was still learning to walk, Sister Rosetta Tharpe – a black, female guitarist from Arkansas – was busy innovating the style of music that’d shape his career. Without her, we’d have no Little Richard, and without him? No Motörhead. For Alexandra – a mixed-race woman living in America with an English mother and a Korean father – rock music represented one avenue where her outsider status suddenly made sense to her.
“I had my first death threat at age six over the fence from my neighbour, who said he was gonna fucking kill me and my ‘gook dad’,” she tells us. “I had to run in and ask what a ‘gook’ is and why they wanted to kill me. That’s scary as a kid, and it really informed my perspective as feeling like an outsider. As I moved through life, I discovered art and writing and different ways to express myself, and then also discovered Satanism and all these different, empowering ways of taking back your identity. I’ve always resonated with things that are subversive.”
Undeterred by the cynics, Twin Temple ploughed on, playing local shows and earning a reputation as one of the funnest, most unique young bands in the LA rock scene. Their gigs, featuring Satanic sermons and bloody rituals, became a place where people of all walks of life could come and feel safe, welcome and empowered, all while dancing their asses off. There were sincere messages at the heart of it all – messages of feminism, equality, empowerment and celebration of the self – but it was all in the name of having fun and not taking life too seriously. After all: you can only take yourself so seriously wearing a beehive and dousing someone in blood while your saxophone player looks on, right?
“That’s exactly it, and I think that’s what it boils down to for us,” agrees Alexandra. “We don’t take ourselves so seriously – we take what we do extremely seriously. This is our life and our love and our passion project, and we treat it as a part of ourselves because it is. However, we’re definitely not afraid to take the mick out of ourselves. In fact, we make a point to make fun of ourselves as frequently as possible – we know what we’re doing is ridiculous, and it should be funny. Music, at the end of the day, should be fun.”
Twin Temple’s shows weren’t just fun – they were an absolute riot, and while a 2017 single, Let’s Hang Together, helped further their profile, the demand for a full album to soundtrack the gigs became too much to ignore. In 2018, they released a studio full-length, Twin Temple (Bring You Their Signature Sound… Satanic Doo-Wop). It was a raucous 35 minutes of groovy doo-wop bangers, recorded in a day and a half and released in a limited physical format of just 666 copies. It sold like Satanic hotcakes, and the band were invited to reissue the album on Rise Above, the label founded by Cathedral and Napalm Death legend, Lee Dorrian.
“We were so excited,” says Zachary. “We’ve loved so many records he’s put out, and obviously his own bands…”
“Yeah, we’re a big fan of his artistic output and his ethos with Rise Above,” adds Alexandra, “so when he was interested in re-releasing the album with Rise Above, he seemed like the obvious choice to go with that record – especially since he was like, ‘We’ll do exactly what you want!’”
The legend of Twin Temple continued to grow, ably helped along by shows across the US and Europe and a fabulously scandalous, strictly NSFW video for Sex Magick, featuring nudity, buckets of blood and a shedload of seductively subversive imagery (seriously, don’t watch this one on your company laptop). The gigs got bigger, funner and more extravagant, and the merch began to sell out. Soon, the people who rejected the idea that Twin Temple could be a success started looking all the sillier; in the summer of last year, the band signed with metal management megaweights The Rick Sales Entertainment Group (Slayer, Ghost, Gojira).
While the pandemic put the brakes on many of their 2020 plans – “we were just so fucking excited about the tours we had lined up,” bemoans Alexandra – they still managed to stay on the radar and grow their cult that bit more, performing live sermons and streamed shows (including one starring puppets, obviously) and even releasing a live album, Stripped From The Crypt. After all, you know what they say about The Devil and idle hands…
“The way we’re looking at it is just an opportunity to explore some different things,” Alexandra says. “I think it’s a painful time, but I’m excited to see what spawns from this time.”
One thing that will hopefully spawn is a new Twin Temple album. They’re currently between labels, but you can almost guarantee they’ll have more time, more support and more resources to bring their visions to life. But how far can doo-wop music about Satan really stretch? Is there room to evolve?
“We’ve been working on some new stuff,” offers Zach. “It’s been a different workflow given that we’ve just been locked away together. I think people can definitely expect a different approach to the music once it’s released. It’s also inspired by what’s happening around us. That’s constantly changing, and that inspires us as well.”
Ultimately, the core of what Twin Temple is all about isn’t just timeless – it’s born of infinite possibilities. Hammer saw the band at a sold-out Jazz Cafe in London last year, and it was one of the most wholesome heavy metal experiences we’ve ever been a part of – not really a sentiment you’d expect of a gig that included Satanic verses and blood being smeared across the foreheads of the entire front row. It felt as all great gig experiences should feel – an event, a coming together, an absolute blast. Plus, past the expectation that was hanging in the air, the rabid responses from the crowd and the huge merch queues, it really felt like the start of something: the arrival of a new and vibrant force in the rock scene, a force that Alexandra and Zachary are prepared to see out to its fullest potential. As far as they’re concerned, this band isn’t a novelty or a ‘wacky’ distraction in dark times; in fact, they’re just getting started. And while the music may evolve, the message will always stay the same.
“I mean, to me, the reservoir of music that’s come before us is so deep and vast and inspiring,” says Alexandra. “There are so many incredible songs and sounds to be inspired from, and I see the same with the occult – you’re never at the same path on your journey that you were a year ago. So, I don’t think it’s ever gonna be exactly the same. But am I still a Satanist? Yeah. Do I still wanna see equal rights for women? Yes. Am I still positive about my body and sexuality and magick? Yes!”
“But…” adds Zachary, “…it’s still gotta be some evil shit that bops.”
Published in Metal Hammer #344