Illustration by Esme Blegvad

Inside the Highly Strange World of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal

How an unlikely punk kid from Scranton began an emotional trap phenomenon in 'Gothboiclique' and how they move forward after Lil Peep's passing.

by Emma Garland; illustrated by Esme Blegvad
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Sep 6 2018, 12:12pm

Illustration by Esme Blegvad

It’s a hot, sticky afternoon in north London. The kind that makes your lips taste like salt and your shirt cling to your back. The air is heavy and the terminal chaos of Chalk Farm Road feels out of step somehow, like trying to sprint through sand. Cars are beeping; an upsetting blend of techno, industrial metal and The Clash is wafting out of Camden’s many vape and shoe shops; locals on a mission are dodging around pockets of overwhelmed tourists blocking the pavements. Sat on the floor outside The Camden Assembly are the sort of kids you’d expect to see at a My Chemical Romance show in the mid-00s – heavy eyeliner, fishnets, box-dyed hair. They look like me when I was 15, basically, and the crusade to the venue hours before doors with nothing but anticipation to occupy the senses feels familiar too. Considering the heat, this is the kind of unrequited love that goes hand in hand with fandom culture; a microcosm of the hype that surrounds artists from Brockhampton to Harry Styles.

It’s rare to see anyone whose style could be fondly described as ‘mall emo’ turn out to a show with so much enthusiasm in 2018 unless it’s for stalwarts like Fall Out Boy, but judging by the scene here you’d assume heart-on-sleeve lyricism about male heartbreak was making a return to form. Which it is, in a way – but it’s not being spearheaded by bands, and it’s not a band these fans have shown up six hours early to secure a prime spot in a 400 capacity venue for. They’re here to see Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, the genre-shrugging project of Pennsylvania singer-songwriter Adam McIlwee.

With roots in witch house and early 2010s Tumblr rap culture, Wicca Phase is a shapeshifting sound unified by a vivid aesthetic. It was initially a way for Adam to experiment with electronic music outside the indie rock circles he was already involved with through his former band Tigers Jaw – who, at the time, were outliers in themselves. Tigers Jaw naturally gravitated towards Philadelphia’s DIY scene, playing with their peers in bands like Balance and Composure and Title Fight, but never really ‘fit’. Something about the choppy structure and obtuse lyricism of their earlier releases was always a little off-kilter, a little darker. Opting to leave the band in 2013, Adam has since doubled down on that darkness and channelled it into Wicca Phase. Whether it’s a hype club album driven by icy synths, relatively straightforward acoustic-based tracks, or warm, melodic trap that lands somewhere in between, his music always has the same eerie identity.

“I always looked up to people like Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen or even Phil Elverum,” Adam tells me, leaning both elbows on the table in an otherwise deserted café. We both order coffee like Dale Cooper on holiday – iced, black, no sugar. “Very unique sounding singer-songwriter types who are able to keep their name throughout their career for the most part and release albums that sound like a million different things.”

Unassuming, relatively shy, and with a notable lack of visible tattoos, Adam is an unlikely luminary to emerge from the same online breeding ground that produced SpaceGhostPurrp, Lil Pump and Bones. He’s not even the most distinctive member of his own collective, Gothboiclique – a group of songwriters and producers that also includes Virginia rapper Lil Tracy and the late Lil Peep. While most of his contemporaries cover themselves in signifiers – splashed with colour or draped in brands and accessories – Wicca Phase’s presence gives little away. Usually found hidden away in some sort of plain oversized hoodie + jacket + jeans combo, he isn’t the sort of person you’d notice walk into a crowded room unless you were actively looking for him. While artwork, merch designs and music videos help connect Wicca Phase to a carefully curated selection of cultural touchstones in a visual sense, Adam’s own identity evades definition just as much as the music itself. On stage, his almost awkward presence and droning voice (which he knowingly describes as “weird”) cultivate an ominous atmosphere and draw you into it, trancelike.

Casting a wide net of influences (throughout our conversation, Adam references Das Racist, Twin Shadow, The Streets, Salem and Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame’s 2011 collaborative album Ferrari Boyz), each Wicca Phase release has been markedly different to the last. The earliest release “Bite My Ear”, featuring Tigers Jaw’s Brianna Collins, is lo-fi bedroom pop that wouldn’t be out of place on the Orchid Tapes roster, while Abercrombie & Me (2015) is pure emotional trap featuring a song built entirely around the hook from Ian Van Dahl’s eurodance 1998 rager “Castles in the Sky”. The Raw and Declawed (2017) and Shut My Eyes (2015) EPs are sparse and rattling campfire songs, while Stop Torturing Me (2017) and this year’s Corinthiax both feature fuller production and poppier melodies. His most recent single “Stress”, featuring Camp Cope’s Georgia Maq, is a continuation of the latter. It’s also Wicca Phase’s first release through the typically indie rock label Run For Cover.

Wicca Phase’s music exists in the middle of a Venn diagram charting the interests of 20-somethings who grew up with post-punk and hardcore, experimental rap crowds, artsy loner types, and teens who write “I love you Daddy” in the comments section. He dips comfortably in and out of several music worlds – appearing on bills next to Code Orange and Turnstile one month and touring with Nothing,Nowhere the next – without fully submerging himself in any. The only place Wicca Phase fits perfectly is within the self-defined realms of Gothboiclique, which is arguably true of all its members, whose current count sits at nine.

Trying to give a potted history of Gothboiclique is as hazy as trying to explain how your friendship group came together – and, to be honest, probably wouldn’t sound that different. Adam got the ball rolling on Wicca Phase by linking up with producers on Tumblr, trying to establish a network of collaborators so the project didn’t always have to rest on hitting up people he didn’t know for beats or features. “Gothboiclique” was the name of a beat Cold Hart (who uses the alias Jayyeah for his production) sent to him. Adam tweeted “RT if you’re goth boi clique” jokingly, and it caught on. From there, it came to define a group of likeminded songwriters and producers that also shared members with Thraxxhouse – a similar but much larger collective based in its co-founder Mackned’s hometown of Seattle.

Despite growing up in different states with different backgrounds and different pathways into music, the members of Gothboiclique are drawn together by a mutual punk ethos and a shared pool of influences (Blink-182 being the most common) that acts as the through line for all their projects, both individual and collaborative. They communicate via group chat and work as a band would – vocals, production, someone playing guitar, someone programming the drums. These days, Adam says, they’re “learning how to make songs that are structured more like traditional rock or pop songs, rather than just getting a beat and working with it” – a sentiment that’s certainly true of the Gothboiclique sub-group Misery Club.

The idea was to make Gothboiclique something of a “goth-y boy band”, although it’s just as accurately described as a tag. “It’s a licence to print money,” he explains, “It doesn’t have to be anything other than ‘this is permission to put this logo on your album art and your t-shirts and no one else is allowed, and that’ll help sell it.”

More than anything, Gothboiclique is an aesthetic. A set of touchstones that shapes their sound, their lyrics, their live performances, and sets them apart from other artists who might be doing something similar. Although Gothboiclique is a more subcultural (i.e. unconventional) iteration of a now mainstream sound, they remain distinctive because they share a language, shout each other out, and pull from the same lineage of 90s/00s emo bands for samples. It’s like they’re reading from the same text and laying down their own personal interpretation of it. Lil Tracy and Mackned lean more towards Southern rap flows with liberal use of autotune, Horse Head has a deliberate pop punk influence in his vocal melodies, and JPDreamthug’s sound is colder and more futuristic. Cold Hart is open to being more light hearted, especially in his music videos, whereas Wicca Phase Springs Eternal is serious in every aspect besides the name.

Stills from the video for "Corinthiax".

“It suggests that it’s something that was done as a trend and then grew out of control and became something that people would remember,” Adam explains, “So it was kind of a joke, but at the same time I was reading a lot of Grant Morrison comics, a lot of Alan Moore, and also starting to learn more about the occult and conspiracy stuff. It was like I found a way to bring my personal interests into my music in a way that, at first, was very heavy handed and not done particularly well. But I think I got better at it and learned how to incorporate them without being too gimmicky. I figure if I keep singing about myself and digging deeper and coming to truths about myself there’s no one that can imitate that. Unless they’re a doppelganger of me.”

As far as calling cards go, Wicca Phase is defined by evocative words (“passion”, “silhouette”, “cold”), occult imagery, and the name “Corinthiax”, which he has previously described as “an evil, romantic entity that tortures me and makes me emotionally restless.” Like Lil Peep, who was always singing about cocaine, and Lil Tracy, who was always singing about switchblades (two fascinations they immortalised in the now iconic chorus: “switchblades, cocaine”), the language and imagery used by Wicca Phase became his insignia – a way for people to recognise his music, but also pure self expression. Speaking on Lil Tracy, by way of exemplifying how they all operate, Adam puts it like this: “It’s a gimmick to an extent, but it’s also who he is – and now people identify him with that so it’s successful. It’s not like we’re wearing makeup. We’re not KISS or anything.”

After Gothboiclique and Thraxxhouse became too disperate and difficult to organise in tandem, GBC branched off and now includes: Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Cold Hart, Horse Head, JPDreamthug, Mackned, Yawns, Fish Narc, Doves, and Lil Tracy. There are artists like yunggoth who could realistically be involved (“I mean his name is yunggoth, of course he’s perfect right?”) and affiliated artists, like producers Foxwedding and Nedarb, who have been integral in terms of networking but aren’t officially members. At this point, Adam says, if they make concessions they risk collapsing into disorganised chaos. Their final addition was Lil Peep, who joined in late 2016, locked the deadbolt, and rapidly became the group’s most identifiable member along with Lil Tracy.

“Peep seemed like such a natural fit and he was also a fan,” Adam told me when we first spoke over Skype back in Autumn 2017 – a few months before Lil Peep tragically passed away due to an accidental overdose of Xanax and fentanyl on tour. “I kind of took for granted that artists might be influenced by us because we’d been doing this for a few years already. I really didn’t think anyone was paying attention except a handful of people, and Peep was one of those people. He moved to LA and I think he was living near Horse Head. They got to know him and really liked him as a person, and obviously his music fit. He was getting so big I knew that when he joined it would – not blow up, but that people would notice more and want to be a part of [GBC]. I just figured we had to cut off [accepting new members] then.”

Lil Peep’s tragic passing also flung an unwanted spotlight on Gothboiclique as a whole. Just as they were gaining momentum on their own terms, the group – some of whom were on the tour bus with Peep – found themselves grieving a friend while also navigating sudden attention from major labels and publications, who noticed the overwhelming outpouring of sadness over Peep’s death and saw dollar signs.

“I personally feel very guilty anytime there’s any sort of minor success that comes along with this, because I don’t want it to be off of his back,” Adam says now, reflecting on the time since we first spoke. “It was the end of November when we had people try to sign [the group]. I had people offer me deals and offer me contracts, press, whatever – not because they knew who I was, and not because they knew who Gus was. These people are saying ‘well, his obituary did 30 million views and Petty’s did ten million, and we don’t know who he is and now we love it.’ And I’m like, of course you love it... Everytime anything like that happens I feel guilty and slimy.”

It’s a horrible position to be in, especially for someone who tends to shy away from the spotlight in the first place. Despite founding GBC, Adam is one of the few members not currently living in LA. He lives in a house (with a yard, he’s keen to point out) in a residential area of Scranton, where he grew up, and “likes being away from everything”. Although the unofficial ringleader by virtue of being its founder, Adam is wary of assuming any sort of authority over the group. He frequently talks about his work in terms of what he’s “trying” or “attempting” to do, and attributes the success of Gothboiclique to others – “I started it, but a lot of the popularity comes from what Tracy did on his own and what Peep was in the process of doing when he joined.” It’s no wonder, then, that when it came to signing with a label he went with a trusted name in Run For Cover.

“Obviously we wish Peep was here, and there was a lot of music that we would’ve loved to have made with him. Luckily there’s a lot of music he made that isn’t out yet but will come out and I’m very grateful about that. He was so into these new songs that he had, like the stuff with Makonnen. He’d just be playing the same three songs over and over on the bus, and fans would be outside and he’d be playing the music so loud because he loved it so much.”

It’s hard to circumvent the fact that a lot of people are now discovering other members of Gothboiclique because of Lil Peep, who many knew independently or not at all, but the fusion of emo and trap had already broken into the mainstream. Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Lif3” was one of the most streamed songs of 2017 in the US, Lil Xan’s “Betrayed” entered the Billboard Hot 100, and the New York Times called Nothing,Nowhere’s debut album “one of the most promising pop albums of the year”. That all happened before Peep died; he was just poised to be next. So while it puts Gothboiclique’s members in a uniquely uncomfortable position, it’s no wonder that Wicca Phase has gone from playing to five people in Scranton to doing a largely sold-out tour of Europe in the space of 12 months, even if he is an acquired taste within an already acquired field.

Having spent most of this year working on his forthcoming album with Doves – a process he describes as “ugly” and involving “a lot of pacing back and forth, and sitting in front of the keyboard playing minor chords for hours” – Adam is now in a position where he’s doing music full time for the first time in his life. Until December, he worked in marketing at a collage, making him the only member of Gothboiclique who fit music around a regular job. “I never felt emotionally drained or creatively exhausted until the past few weeks,” he says, “I noticed I was miserable more so than I ever was [in a job], to the point where I’m apologising to my girlfriend. Like I’m trying to explain that if it seems like I’m working for ten hours a day on music, eight hours of that is getting into the headspace, which has become really draining.”

Still, with a UK tour lined up with Turnstile followed by a series of headline dates in November, Wicca Phase is pushing forward in its own direction while the creative multiverse of Gothboiclique unfolds in a group chat. “I want to do a GBC acoustic album and I want to do a full band album that’s just super heavy,” he says, speculating again about how Mount Eerie releases dance along a spectrum ranging from stripped-back singer-songwriting to black metal. “My biggest fear is that we’ll be considered the same way people consider scene bands now – like screamo or metalcore bands. So I’m doing everything in my power to stop that, and releasing an acoustic record might be the first step. I hope we can shed this weird ‘new emo’ label, because that could doom us.”

Try telling that to the fans outside The Assembly, though.

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Wicca Phase Springs Eternal will tour the UK in November. Head here for tickets.