How Elvis Depressedly Captured the American South's Conflicted Identity

The area's social polarity directly influences the duo, setting them apart as one of the most intriguing prospects to emerge from the Bible belt.

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Feb 20 2017, 2:45pm

Music can transport the listener to another place, like the memory of a long-departed romance, a specific holiday, or a really shit childhood birthday party. Or, if you're me, it can reflect the imagery or sense of South Florida, the place where I lived before I moved to the UK. There are certain artists that evoke this place, and when I hear them my entire teenage existence loops around in my head through the medium of American cinema's most wistful clichés: aimless driving in an old, dented PT cruiser, choking on Marlboro reds in car parks, feelings of removal from the things around you and fantasising about social stability.

When this happens, I'm usually listening to Elvis Depressedly – a band whose musical bedrock is built on the tensions and daydreams of the Sunshine State and, as a whole, the identity of the Southern US. The band is the work of South Carolina native Mat Cothran and it's name is something of a joke; Cothran often feels like a "bad comedian" because many people have associated his sound with sadness. But Elvis Depressedly's music is more nuanced than that: there's no sad or happy, no good or bad – just a journey along the spectrum between the two. Their dully-optimistic pop acknowledges the darkness of life, but retains a focus on the flickering light too. And in a way, they sound like the old world; drawing influences from Hank Williams, themes of religious mysticism and the tiring politics of the South.

Released in 2015, New Alhambra – named after a pro-wrestling stadium in Philadelphia that Cothran spent some time in growing up – is a culmination of years experimenting with the motifs of heaven and hell that litter the Southern states: creation and doom, the painful and the sublime. Strung together by samples from the wrestling shows and late-night televangelists that characterised Mat's upbringing, the album was made with outdated equipment and only one microphone. It is "an end-times prophecy," as they describe it on Bandcamp, that encourages listeners to "reflect on your life as we all prepare for the inevitable judgement of the world". It's some incredibly biblical hot shit. Then again, Elvis Depressedly are one of the most intriguing prospects to emerge from underneath the US' Bible belt.

"North Carolina is a good place for artists," Mat tells me upstairs at east London venue Moth Club. Before moving to Asheville, North Carolina, Mat and his bandmate and partner Delaney Mills still lived in their home state of South Carolina when they weren't touring. With a hint of warmth in his voice, he continues, "You can kind of just be a hermit in the mountains, and that's what we've done."

In his light blue basketball shorts, Mat is a mirror reflection of everyone I knew back home: average height, sun belt-tanned skin, with a strong Southern drawl that demands to be heard. Delaney is more subdued; chiming in only when she feels she needs to, spending a lot of time writing in her notebook and observing. They create a dynamic that thrives off balance.

Coming from one of the most deprived corners of the US, the social polarity of the area has directly informed Elvis Depressedly, musically and personally, in equal parts. On the one hand, it's fuelled feelings of dejection and restlessness. On the other, it's allowed them to isolate themselves and have the space they need to write – difficult things to achieve living somewhere like, say, Brooklyn, where bands of their ilk traditionally migrate if they didn't spring from there already.

Mat and Delaney both seem to harbour the same quasi-resentment a lot of people have when talking about a hometown they spent half their lives wanting to leave: feeling defensive when other people shit-talk on where they're from, while also being quick to point out its flaws. "It's hard to wake up somewhere and deep in your soul know you don't want to be there. You can't even wash the dishes without feeling like a failure in a place that you hate," Mat says, with a hint of exhaustion.

Last March, North Carolina came under fire worldwide for passing HB2 – a law that "regulates" access to public facilities and prevents transgender people from using the bathroom that suits their gender identity. That's not the only problem the local government is causing, the band tell me. "NC gets such a bad rep because of the horrible government. That entire bill was more than just a disrespect of trans people – it was wrapped up in a way that made the bathroom law also cover up for a minimum wage law," says Mat, referring to a subsection of HB2 that precludes local governments from raising the state's $7.25 minimum wage. "All of this is horrible because it puts people in danger but it's not just affecting trans people – it's affecting poor people, vulnerable people."

These issues wouldn't be out of a place in a really fucked up, dystopian Western film, and yet here we are. There's always been an eerie feeling when you walk down the streets in the South, like history is creeping up on you. It seems, in many ways, like we haven't yet truly gotten over the hangover of the Confederacy; we face fierce cultural stagnation in the form of extreme poverty, racial oppression and fundamental Christianity. These issues are at boiling point now, with Donald Trump apparently reviving the Southern Strategy – methods used by the Republican Party to gain political support in the South by playing on pre-existing racial tensions – to his advantage. "Most of these politicians are totally immoral – they call themselves Christian but they're not," Mat says, "I really love the South, but I probably won't live here forever. It's definitely part of my soul, or whatever..."

Many songs in Elvis Depressedly's back catalogue use spiritual imagery as padding, yet some speak to religion in ways that feel almost like direct rebuttals to Bible belt values. On 2011's Goner EP, lyrics like: "Jesus rots inside his grave / He can't be saved / Sex has ruined our children / Tell me does Jesus still love them?" emphasised questions that riddle the South on a daily basis. But Mat's own relationship with religion is one that didn't involve church. As a child, his grandmother raised him on Bible prophecy shows like Hal Lindsey Report and Jack Van Impe Presents, which is where most of samples on New Alhambra came from. The title track opens with a warped segment of a TV preacher fervently chanting "God is all around us, all it takes is a thought / Wormwood falls from heaven / Consuming sinner and Satan alike / Who will be" over a sea of rapturous applause – something that is then counteracted by Mat's fuzzy, gentle crooning. Like many of their songs, it balances god-fearing with rebellion; obedience with hesitation; the everlasting with the transitory.

"I felt a lot of [religious] guilt for a long time and didn't know how to handle my feelings about it – I still don't, really. I was presented with a side of Christianity that wasn't so focused on judgment – it was more about the beast with seven heads that's coming out from the ocean with blood in the future. It was a lot more metal," Mat says, laughing. "There are definitely parts of me that feel connected to a spiritual source, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Bible. Evaluate things with your mind first and then your feelings."

Whether it's navigating feelings of guilt, sadness and hope or navigating the music industry, self-reliance is the essence of Elvis Depressedly. They have been going it alone for years and still do. Despite being signed to Run For Cover – one of the go-to independent labels for alternative music – their struggle to release music hasn't eased up. Mat and Delany's living situation made writing difficult, which began to put a strain on their relationship beyond the band. Delaney also doubles as their manager and I ask her if it's hard to know when to switch off, especially when they're at home.

"It's crazy and sometimes I want to cry. I've worked jobs where you go and work eight hours a day. It was great to be able to just leave work and be done," she says. The huge commitment of bringing your work into your home allows you to run the risks of your safe space becoming an arena of stress and anxiety." But Delaney has found her serenity in the form of list-keeping. "I read a book and the author said that keeping lists was a method of self-preservation and self-defense, which really struck a chord with me. I decided I was going to write everything down."

It's a precarious situation to be in when one wrong turn can land you thousands of pounds in debt, which is exactly where the band has found themselves in the past. "We're a lot smarter now, but I have taken a lot of wrong advice and ended up getting screwed over. I had a situation where someone was illegally using my music and essentially took $10k off me," Mat says. In the past he's been very vocal on Twitter about the dark sides of the music industry, from dishonesty to classism. "So many managers will try to take all your money and convince you once you've had a bit of hype that you need a manager. Then you sign a record deal and the manager gets a huge cut. What has the manager done? The record is what got you a deal and the internet got you a deal." In a sea of sharks, they don't condemn success, or the many paths to success. "We're just figuring it all out. DIY bands aren't just bands who play DIY venues. The process entirely comes from you, but you should aspire to do more."

Success beyond the realms of Bandcamp has allowed Elvis Depressedly to be full-time musicians, but Mat tells me he prefers to occupy a space at their level. To them, success is simplicity. "Just being able to pay my bills for as long as possible to me is the ultimate dream," Mat says. "My friends and I used to say real dreams come true – if your dream is within the realm of reality, it's going to come true if you work at it. Then you move on to the next bigger dream. Keep yourself honest."

A week after their show in London, I meet up with Elvis Depressedly again. Their UK tour has run smoothly, and they feel as nurtured by their fans here in person as they do online. Mat admits they were freaking out about it, considering they've never left the US – even for vacation. "I'm glad we're readjusting here rather than the US because it's a different scene and it's more supportive. We're starting from brand new." It's their last day in England and we spend it sprawled out on my living room floor eating oven pizza, smoking weed and watching vape trick videos. We laugh about the fact that this is exactly how we spent 90 percent of our time in high school, and how maybe people never let go of the habits they develop while searching for serenity in their youth. We speak about the current state of the world, and how people look for comfort in religion in the face of bad news – something the past year has brought more than its fair share of, politically speaking.

As they're packing up their gear to leave, Mat looks over at me. "Everyone talks about Judgment Day as if God's going to show up like your drunken stepdad and scream at you," he says, "Maybe God shows up and says, 'Hey, you guys did the best you can, I gave you a shitty world, sorry about that, but you did really well despite it.'"

You can find Rachel on Twitter.