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A portrait of the artist as a free man

15 May 2023, 08:53

Adam McIlwee tells Rani Boyer about the pursuit for creative freedom that led him to double down and return to his roots for his new record as Wicca Phase Springs Eternal.

Entering into the world of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, the enigmatic solo project of Adam McIlwee, finds the line between fantasy and reality obscure.

The multi-instrumentalist has a thing about doppelgangers. He hasn’t met his—yet—but it’s been an ongoing fascination. Shrouded in mystery, he creates a new realm, with its lakes, mystic portals, black cats, and synchronicity; it’s all a little off-kilter. To enter into it feels like greeting your double, sharing whispered secrets behind opaque walls, the allure of a hand offered to pass right through. Everything feels almost tangible, if a little off-beat.

Gearing up to the release of his self-titled full-length, McIlwee doubles down on this entirely, returning to his roots in worldbuilding. “I wanted to build out the world of Wicca Phase, go back to what I was doing when I first started the project but with 10 years more of songwriting experience and a little bit more focus and maturity,” he says on the upcoming record, an introduction to this realm. “What I'm trying to do is describe this world wherein you can't pin down everything on a map, but if you were making a movie about it you could set the scenes.”


If we were to more explicitly set the scene: Wicca Phase Springs Eternal follows on from Full Moon Mystery Garden, an immersive mixtape released last year featuring an array of distinct collaborators (4evr, winter wells, and brody amongst others), and 2019’s Suffer On. Mcllwee, who departed from indie-rock’s cult outliers Tigers Jaw in 2013, has spent the last decade as Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. Since then, he’s weaved between genres, from witch house to more trap-laden ventures and EDM-infused stylings and all inbetween, continuing to work collaboratively in various forms—from GothBoiClique to ULTRACLUB4K and Pay for Pain.

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We catch up over Zoom ahead of the project’s release, where, after almost a lifetime of residing on the city’s outskirts, Mcllwee informs me of his upcoming move. A former coal mining capital, Scranton is the largest city in Northeastern Pennsylvania. It’s known for The Office, Nottingham Lace, and, from a Google deep dive, really not much else. “It's more like a city where there should be stuff to do. There should be good shopping, there should be good music venues, but they just don't last for whatever reason,” Mcllwee mediates. Gone are the days when every man, and his dad, was in a band. “I feel like I got lucky. A lot of these bands that I was in or my friends were in got successful, to some extent, and got signed to indie labels or stuff like that, and then moved on from there.”

Music was always a part of his life. From practising with bands in the basement of his grandmother’s funeral shows to playing DIY shows thrown by friends, he integrated into the music landscape of northeastern Pennsylvania. He studied English at a nearby college, and, with little plans beyond music, later took up an office job in marketing. It was here, in the hours spent trawling through Tumblr when work ran dry, that Wicca Phase really came to life. “I would just be on Tumblr for seven hours a day, meeting people and posting,” explains McIlwee, this leading to him crossing paths with a lot of the people he still works with today.


Kept largely underground, bringing Wicca Phase into the real world was a struggle. McIlwee admits it was a lonely process initially; at the time, few were doing anything similar, particularly in the area. Pigeonholed by the media and early listeners as “emo rap”, for the project to work it required forging an entirely new scene—something which increasingly feels harder and rarer. “It was through Tumblr that I met Cold Hart. We were just in the same circles and that's how it started. And I felt like any time I met someone, I would meet three other people from them. And that's how I met like Nedarb and Fish Narc and Mackned and døves,” McIlwee describes the early days of the project, and how co-founding GBC with Cold Hart came to be.

A kindred partnership between an assortment of outsiders, the collective was integral for pushing the project forwards—and the new scene they represented. Consisting of the late Lil Peep, Lil Tracy, and Horse Head amongst others, it became a way of propelling forwards each member and those adjacent. “It wasn't until I started playing shows with other GBC people where it started to feel comfortable,” he explains, having been booked initially as ‘Adam From Tigers Jaw’ and met with bemused reaction: “No one's coming to the show to clown on us or expecting something else there. They know what to expect.”

Recalling their first show, it’s clear they’ve always found their own way: “It was supposed to be at an 18 and up show at a bar. When we got there, the bar was like, no, this is 21 and up—and all of our fans were teenagers. There was a building next door for rent and we called the owner and offered him money to let us move the show next door. So we did that. It went until three in the morning, which was totally foreign to me at the time.” And so as the live came together, born viscerally out of sticky venues, DIY warehouse shows thrown by early curators like HamOnEverything, Wicca Phase—and GBC—bridged a gap between the digital and physical world.

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After Lil Peep's untimely death in late 2017, the underground music scene he was a part of experienced a dramatic shift. Typically late, the industry, particularly major labels, reared its head, honing in on those involved with GBC. “I was meeting with major labels in the weeks after Peep died who wanted to just grab the next thing,” he reflects, looking back to the rebrand one had proposed. “It just didn't interest me like that because it doesn't feel organic and it doesn't feel fun. It just seems like you're trying to serve other people.” If anything, it solidified McIlwee’s relationship with indie stalwarts Run For Cover, who’ve been working alongside him throughout Tigers Jaw and WPSE. “At the end of the day, I was like, listen, I could sign with Columbia Records for a million dollars and I will never make them a million dollars,” McIlwee reflects, “or I could sign with Run For Cover for less money. But in the long term, I have more ownership and authority over my music and my branding. I know what kind of business they run and it makes sense to me, it feels good to be a part of that.”

McIlwee met Run For Cover long before Wicca Phase materialised, their paths crossing at a basement show in Boston. Jeff, who runs the label, had stopped by to watch Title Fight, who Tigers Jaw were supporting. “I remember leaving that show and being like, that Jeff guy hated us. He could not care less about us,” McIlwee laughs, “and then a month later, Jeff emailed us and was just like, hey, you guys want to sign to Run For Cover? And it was that easy.” Over a decade on, Run For Cover has continued to help bring Wicca Phase into the world (and he still cannot read Jeff: “I think we might be opposite star signs”).

Inherently a little on the restless side, gravitating towards a solo project only felt natural. “I’ve always felt like I've had so much music in me, so many genres,” Mcllwee says, having in turn struggled with the pace of things around him. “It's not a problem that was specific to Tigers Jaw, but my problem with being in a band was that it just moved too slowly,” McIlwee reflects on how his goals have solidified as his solo project developed. “Early on, my initial goal was just to do whatever I wanted. I'll have some bad songs, I'll have some missteps, whatever. But at least I have this freedom where it's not a reflection of anyone else but me. That has not changed and that is still largely the guiding thing for me is just having the freedom to move within the music world as I want to,” he says, not wanting to put any form of ceiling on his work. “That is still my goal really, it's just total freedom, and a freedom in ownership over every aspect of the project.”

"There's a difference, I think, between a listener being surprised at a direction you've taken and being blindsided by a direction that you've taken. You don't want them to lose their trust."


Whilst there are telltale motifs and a distinctive way of songwriting, the world of Wicca Phase is boundless. “Musically, there's no area that I think is off limits for me. I just want to keep it interesting. I don't want to limit myself to what I'm able to do,” he says, the new record expanding on this. “Within all of this, I also want it to make sense to the listeners. I don't want to throw anyone off. There's a difference, I think, between a listener being surprised at a direction you've taken and being blindsided by a direction that you've taken. You don't want them to lose their trust. So I think it's just a matter of continuing to do things in an honest way, in a logical way. With creative steps forward, that shows progression and maturity as an artist, while still remaining true to who I am.”

“I feel like the day I start writing songs for other people, or with other people in mind, is the day that I'm going to lose interest. I know as long as I write stuff that I think is good I'll be okay. So that's really my goal; to just keep everything on the table, to try not to box myself into any one genre or get stuck in any sort of world while also keeping some sort of cohesion—I also try not to think about it too much, because then I just get really in my head about it.”

McIlwee first started working on Wicca Phase Springs Eternal in 2021, the first song written, “Who’s Watching Me”, closing the album. Collaborating with Darcy Baylis and Ben Greenberg, the project was brought together via back-and-forth emails, Baylis on opposing time zones in Australia, before being alchemised in Greenberg’s studio in New York. “He always knows new music before I know new music. He has a good sense of what is coming up, what's next to hit the scene,” he comments on Baylis, having worked together previously on McIlwee’s 2020 EP, This Moment I Miss. “I would send him all my files. He would either make a whole new beat from scratch or he would take some elements of my album, or my songs, and incorporate them into his version.” Each would upload their stems and send them to Greenberg—”he's the person that makes it all make sense”.

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When I ask McIlwee what he’s learned through the album, it all comes back to the songwriting. “The album does not necessarily sound like I thought it might sound when I was writing the songs. Not for better, or for worse, it's not a judgement thing,” he adds, the process fluid. “It doesn't really matter that much that the production is not what I expected, that's part of a good thing. What matters is that the songs are good. The songs can take any form. I can rerecord all of the songs as a full band or as an acoustic album or whatever; they're not defined by this production. But what is important is that the lyrics are good and that the melodies are memorable and that people will remember them. They'll get stuck in their head, or they'll think about a line and be like, I wonder what that means. That is the stuff that will stay forever and that you can't really change once it's out.”

With Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Mcllwee was particularly inspired by 60s and 70s folk, gravitating towards how artists such as Pentangle and Fairport Convention could capture and convey emotion and landscapes. “Even though musically this album does not sound like a Fairport Convention album, the spirit of it is in there,” he adds, alongside artists such as Phil Elverum of Mount Eerie. “I can kind of see the world that he's painted with his music and I can feel like I'm there. That sort of ability is my main thing. I want that.”

That’s what the record strives to do. There’s no forced narrative; instead, it feels like more of a world to inhabit, a feeling to sit with. “I sent my friend the lyrics to the album before it was recorded, and he made a one-issue comic of it. And he was like, what is the story with this album? And I was like, you know, there really isn't any,” says McIlwee, instead more moved by a sense of mystery and secrecy. “Any sort of story where the focus or the resolution is vague will hook me. And that's why I have a lot of the same influences now that I did 10 years ago, just because I'm still trying to get to the bottom. I'll watch Twin Peaks now, for the fifth time or something like that,” he says. “That level of difficulty for me is so intriguing. I don't want to be told things are this way. I don't like things that are neat and have a clean resolution or something like that.”

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The allure of the occult has always been a point of intrigue for McIlwee. Recurring symbolism features throughout the record, from black cats to shadowy portals. Rather than the practices, it's the rise of the phenomenon itself and those who gravitate toward the otherworldly viewpoint which resonates. “My interest is largely just in how something so strange as the rise of cults," he tells me. "It's just so fascinating to me that from the outside these things obviously appear to be cults, which has a negative connotation but for some reason they're able to attract all these people.

"It's more the historical factual aspects of it that really fascinate me because there are so many charismatic figures there,” he explains, referencing the de Grimston’s who ran the process Church. “What fascinates me most is the idea that there could be people that are super successful in their careers, bankers or whatever, who are also after work seeking out these alternative schools of thought.

“I also think that fandom in general has kind of replaced that. It's so easy to dive into anything that you're a fan of, be it Marvel movies or something way less mainstream and find a whole community of people that are into it,” he adds, looking to more non-traditional congregations. “I guess it's kind of like a modern day cult.”

It’s something the artist has come face to face with, too, and has seen around him: “I have rabid fans and I have fans that hang on to every word I say, but it's nothing compared to the Lil Peep fans and to a slightly lesser degree, the Lil Tracy fans. It's more so the Peep fans. Some of them are changing their appearances, getting matching face tattoos, stuff like that.”

He hesitates: “I feel like I'm a little bit different, my personality is different. What am I trying to say here? I try and discourage that sort of behaviour. And I think a way to do that is to just not feed into it so much. A lot of artists don't want to show humility at all—or to appear human. I would love to not appear human but I am human and so I find that it's important to let people know you're really no different than them.”

Navigating the role of an artist in today's world is a multifaceted and unpredictable endeavour. For Mcllwee, the most challenging aspect is ensuring that it doesn’t slip away: “It's a double-edged thing. I think about how fortunate I am that I'm able to do this and that it's been successful. And I also think how do I make sure I don't lose it because I know that if I lose it, it's going to be more devastating than I'm even taking into account,” he expands, running through this with urgency daily.

As a musician, he’s required to always have one foot in the future. “I have to use my expertise and my experience to anticipate and let that guide my songwriting, my online presence, my merchandise, everything, right," he concludes. "And that's difficult because there's no one to tell you if there's a right way to do it, And every artist's success story is different, largely. There's definitely no guidebook for it or anything like that. And there's no structure either. There's no real organisational structure, it's kind of all up to me. With the label as help, and with my business managers as help and booking agents, but, ultimately, it's me. And that is a constant struggle of when will I ever be able to rest? Will I ever want to rest? Right now I don't want to rest, ever, I am not good at relaxing, I'm not good at doing anything that's not Wicca Phase-related or music related.”

Wicca Phase Springs Eternal is released on 2 June via Run For Cover Records

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