Having worked together previously in a cover band, bassist MJ Phoenix and vocalist Stephanie Stryker used downtime during the pandemic to launch their own original dark rock band, Amulet. Their debut album, House of Black + White, showcases a tightly arranged bass-driven sound with strong melodic parts and powerful vocals. In an email interview, the duo discussed how they came to form Amulet and the album’s making.
Could you discuss how Amulet came together?
MJ : We met at work and formed a band in response to a “battle of the bands” challenge from another office. Stephanie had recently started working with us and I asked if she could sing. “I guess?” was enough to see her hired. I had no idea just how good of a singer she would turn out to be. We pretty much slayed the opposition and this led to the formation of a cover band called The Black Rails that survived for around ten years until it dissolved in October of 2019. I was tired of playing other people’s music and wanted to write something original. The pandemic allowed us the time to write finally and Amulet was formed. Originally, we included the guitarist from The Black Rails, Gavin Shire, but Gavin’s music went in a different direction and we decided to go separate (amicable) ways. Gavin contributed a nice guitar line to “Ghost of You” so we did keep him in the project that way. He’s still a good friend.
Stephanie: I’ll add that MJ is a force of pure motivation and determination. I probably would have never pursued music if he didn’t have such a strong vision for Amulet. I’m very grateful for that! We work together magically so it was just natural for us to form our own band.
Were the members in other bands previously, and if so, does past work impact Amulet? (Either direct influences or perhaps Amulet being an outlet for previously unrealized musical ideas).
MJ: I have been in a few bands including a primarily funk outfit in Charlottesville, Virginia called The Secret. I played bass in that band and co-wrote some of the material. It was a fun band with a decent following and an excellent brass section but musically very different from Amulet. The funk and ska ideas from The Secret survived into “Gaslight” and “Where’s the Rain” and perhaps on “Falling Down” a bit – but the bands are really so different. I was in another band called Meat Party with guitarist and vocalist Carl Simon where I wrote “Valentine’s Day” and Carl and I made a demo of it but we ended up getting busy in our lives and never took the song any further. I’m glad we were able to resurrect it as it is a fun punky jam.
Stephanie: I had only been in The Black Rails before Amulet and we were doing covers of music I wouldn’t really ever listen to personally. I wasn’t a singer or musician before I started with The Black Rails, so I didn’t have anything else to draw on from that perspective. It has been a totally new avenue for artistic expression for me as I had only been a visual artist previously.
Who would you cite as influences, and are there specific things you set out to do differently from other bands with similar sounds?
MJ : I feel as though House of Black + White started from pretty much a blank canvas. My main inspiration was to create something that I thought Stephanie would be comfortable performing and would suit her vibe. A few songs into the project it still seemed like that was working so we just kept ploughing on with songwriting and then Steph joined in with that and wrote “Witchfinder” and “Last Ditch.” All of the songs were collaborative in some way though and it’s really a 50/50 project as none of it would have happened without both of us.
The one main driver of the songs really was the desire to keep almost everything in minor keys. For a good number of the songs I just jammed around on the bass using minor scales really just feeling what the instrument seemed to want to say and then recorded the best sounding lines. I used those to build melodies and write guitar and keyboard parts. Steph’s brother John Taylor, who is an accomplished lead guitar player, then added to my parts and took the solos and built on them. Only a couple of my original solos survived the production process (“Little Black Dress” and “Falling Down”) since John’s shredding is awesome and I’m mostly a bass player.
Stephanie: I love the fact that MJ started writing songs with me in mind. I didn’t know he was doing that until later down the line. He was still trying to get to know my musical preferences so we had an evolution throughout the writing process. It has been really fun to collaborate like that. I don’t think we have an intention to be different from anyone else. One of our biggest philosophies is “we do what we want,” meaning we don’t put ourselves in any boxes. For example, House of Black + White is more dark rock/goth rock, but we’re just about to release a lounge single and have been working on EBM and electronic tracks too. It’s whatever feels right and what we enjoy doing.
As I began singing and writing songs for Amulet, I realized that I have certain music inspiration baked into my DNA that expresses itself without my realization. Classic bands like Nine Inch Nails, The Cure, and David Bowie are always a subconscious influence. I also find I draw inspiration from Nick Cave, Underworld, and neofolk acts like Heilung and Warduna.
What made you choose the name Amulet? Were you concerned at all that other bands have used that name, especially in the age of streaming services (people potentially searching for the name/ending up with the wrong artist)?
Stephanie: Since I was a teen, I told myself that if I ever had a band, I would name it Amulet. I had been starting up DJing as a hobby and named myself Amulet, but that didn’t go anywhere (side note: that DJ dream may happen after all…). When I proposed the idea to name our band Amulet, there didn’t seem to be any active American bands with that name, and there weren’t any major acts elsewhere with the name either. My brother is also a musician and he goes by his real name (John Taylor) for all of his releases. I figured if he can do that with hundreds of other John Taylor musicians, we could deal with any confusion on the couple of other groups on streaming services since our genres are quite different from other acts.
What does the creative process tend to be like within the band?
MJ : Usually one of us will come up with an idea, record something and then share it with the other. Since I was in DC and Stephanie was in Dallas, we didn’t get the chance to work together in person as much as would have been ideal. Some songs came easily and others took longer. “Little Black Dress” was finished in about 48 hours, start to finish. The accelerando section in “Witchfinder” took ages and had several iterations. I tried about 50 bass ideas for the main part of that track too and ended up going back to absolute basics which ended up being the right idea.
Stephanie: Since I don’t have a musical background and don’t play any instruments, it has been more difficult for me to express my ideas. MJ does a great job reading my mind. I have written a bunch of lyrics and come up with melodies, and usually we will discuss any musical ideas and MJ will try them out on instruments. On “Witchfinder,” I actually made a musical skeleton using loops in Logic (as well as lyrics and melody) so that helped to steer the direction of the track in the way I envisioned. I have actually begun to learn very rudimentary keyboard so I can express my ideas in new material, so that will be a fun process!
Are songs fairly complete/demoed when the other musicians get involved?
MJ : We pretty much wrote and produced the album and then started to invite others to form a band to perform it with us. We are now starting to try to figure out how to include others in the creative process since we got into a real groove and learned how to work effectively as a team. We are about to go into the studio to cut a new track with our live band drummer Thomas Grothe. The track “Secrets and Lies” ended up as a sort of dark lounge feel played on a fretless bass with just drums, piano, and saxophone. No guitar. The song just flowed that way. It is quite different from most of our material but still has a bleak, dark vibe. Stephanie’s mom is a professional pianist and has done some of the more complex piano parts for us and will fill in on this one too.
Stephanie: MJ and I have a psychic connection when it comes to music. We formed the pieces and then asked experts to come in and embellish on parts we weren’t as proficient at. Now that we have a 6-piece band, it will be fun to experiment with others getting in on the writing process!
Did you have a clear sense as to how you wanted House of Black + White to sound going into it? Did it change or evolve in any specific ways during the process of making it?
MJ : I knew I wanted to write a concept album with a dark feel with a melodic aspect to it and a lot of iconic rhythmic bass lines. I think we mostly accomplished that – the two tracks that Stephanie really did most on had a similar but slightly different vibe. “Last Ditch” is my favorite track on the album – Steph sent me the entire vocal part and asked me to drop music to it. It was in G#m and the bass and guitar parts just seemed obvious. It took no time really to write the music in. There’s a funny thing with songs the way they emerge from your brain and are so personal at first but over time morph into something that feels as though it was always going to exist and you were just a channel for it to emerge at that time. Like your job was just to chip away the bits of stone that don’t belong so the sculpture can emerge. That’s what writing the music for “Last Ditch” felt like.
Stephanie: I’m used to albums from the 1990s and early 2000s that have 13-18 tracks. I didn’t feel like we were done until we got to at least 13 tracks. We ended up with 16 tracks, about 75 minutes. We could have added more, but these were the tracks that were meant to live on this album. Some of the later tracks ended up giving a lot of depth to the album, last being “Clear Blue Sky” which is a heart-jerker.
Does Amulet perform live, and if so, could you describe your stage show?
MJ : Yes, we are starting to. We are pretty energized when we play and move around a lot. We like to dress to impress and Stephanie is a great front person. I’ve performed with a lot of singers – it is one thing being good in the studio where you have as many takes as you like and Melodyne if you need it, and quite another to consistently deliver a powerful in-tune melodic performance while interacting with a crowd and dealing with the vagaries of stage sound. Steph sounds like the recorded track when she sings live. It is impressive. We will be using a lot of lights, fog, video etc., for our regular shows that start up on February 11, 2022 at the Public Bar in Washington, DC. It is a great multi-level venue with an excellent sound system and great lights and video capability. It is going to be an awesome show.
Stephanie: Aw, you’re too kind, MJ! I love to bring in the visual element to our shows. I have a degree in fashion design, so that’s a big part of my personal expression for a show.
I mentioned that I take Nick Cave as inspiration and one of the biggest ways that unveils itself is in live performance. Anyone who has seen him live knows the near-spiritual experience. I love the connection that happens between him and the audience. That’s my goal when I perform: to have an emotional, energetically interactive show so we can have a very experiential moment that everyone shares together.
Is there anything that you’d like to add?
MJ : We’d love to give a shout-out to our main sound engineer Devin Spear and mastering engineer Conrad Osipowicz. Also, Caleb Gilbreath who laid down the drums on the album. Our live lineup in addition to Thomas is Bob Carr and Mark Schramm on guitar and Alison Frane on keys. We have been lucky to find such great musicians and also good friends.
Stephanie: Yes, thank you so much to all the amazing musicians and friends on this journey with us! One thing we didn’t mention is MJ and I are photographers, videograpers, poets, and models. Really just any creative outlet, we’re into it! Check out our Instagram for near-daily content that complements our music.
We are currently planning shows for 2022 and we are always working on new music, videos, and photography. Keep up to date with us on social media @amulettheband on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, YouTube, and at amulettheband.com.