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Henry Derek Elis

Jun 11, 2019

By Katherine Turman

Child is the Father of Man

Photography by Reggie Thomas /// Words by Katherine Turman

“I held her down at knifepoint, buried the blade into her spleen / The flashbacks, 
they still come and go, I still hear poor Cindy scream.”  — “The Devil is My Friend”

The above lyrics are not the words of a young man who, in high school, worshipped Nickelback, was on the swim team, took AP Calculus, and went to the homecoming dance with his virginal girlfriend. They’re the words of “the weird kid, sitting at the lunch table alone, reading Edgar Allan Poe short stories. ” That kid—now a weirdly wonderful adult—creates beautiful, brutal, poignant and macabre Southern gothic Americana music on his solo debut.

Henry Derek Elis’ The Devil is My Friend is by no means the singer-songwriter’s first recorded foray.  He was musically intense in another, louder way—an extreme metal one. He sang, wrote and toured with two ex-members of Megadeth in the band Act of Defiance, and joined up with Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison in the band Scar the Martyr—among numerous other bands, albums and projects. 

The 10-song The Devil is My Friend features the purity that a solo outing allows. Elis was born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia, a town has a population of less than 18,000 but nonetheless boasts an impressive list of notable residents, including bluesman Blind Willie McTell and author Flannery O’Connor. Elis grew up literally in the shadow of the former Georgia Lunatic Asylum (renamed Central State Hospital) and it was this cultural stew that spawned the artist’s dark, atmospheric musical and visual mien.  ALICE spoke to Elis from his home in Los Angeles. 

You were mostly raised by your grandmother. How did that affect your musical listening as a kid? 

She was a character. She was a complicated woman, but simple in other ways; she never drove a car. My mom died when I was 5, and my dad struggled for a long time with drugs and alcohol, so my grandmother was the anchor.  With my grandma, we’d watch TNN… the Nashville Network. But I’d watch Headbanger’s Ball on MTV. I grew up in the church. My grandmother sang gospel; very stereotypically Southern, which I think is the biggest reason I wanted to rebel and listen to heavy metal. But she never judged me about that. She never gave me shit about wearing my Guns N’ Roses shirt to church. It was the Appetite cover, these skulls on a cross, in church. 

 Did you ever consider a career other than music?  

Not really. I hated everything else. Had I gone to college, I would have tried to major in something completely useless, like philosophy. I was interested in writing, but I had the music bug. My dad was an electrician, and he tried to get me interested. But I couldn’t focus. To this day, I can’t focus on anything other than music, creative things. I hate it. I took ADHD medication for a long time, but it just felt like I was taking speed. I started taking psychiatric drugs very young; I was a victim of circumstance. The weird kid, the sad kid. “This kid seems sad; let’s give him some medication.”  I think a lot of that did affect how my brain developed over time. I was like a guinea pig.

There’s a lot of family on this record. “Only Bones” seems to be a voice mail from your dad? 

“Only Bones” is a lyric from the intro of the album. My dad left me lots of voice mails and that was one of the last ones I actually listened to. He wrote me letters, some of them I never read. I can’t bring myself  to, even now. Eventually I will. That track was something I wanted to use to tie the record together, because I dedicated the album to my parents. It’s deeply rooted in memories of my childhood. I wanted to memorialize him in that way, also it’s a very real intimate message that I included for me, not so much anyone else, but it’s interesting to hear people who are touched by it. He struggled his entire life. He never got to travel; there are so many things he never did. Born and died there kind of deal. 

The cut that follows is “M.OM.”–”Madness Oh Mama.” It’s lilting and horrifying at once. The lyrics include “there was no peace to be found”… your peace or your mothers? 

Mine. I mean, I hope she’s found peace. That comes from a recurring nightmare. For years, growing up, I had quite morbid nightmares of digging up my mother. The dreams stuck with me, and I think there’s a this macabre sensibility about it that I enjoy, you know? In a way, it’s very simple: I clearly just wanted to see my mother one last time; so it’s not as strange or macabre as it sounds. I came up the organ piece last minute in the studio. I really wanted to go down the rabbit hole with the track. It sounds almost like a funeral in that way. When it comes to cemeteries and funeral homes, I’m no strangers to those. I figured, ‘oh it’ll be fun.’

Did you and your dad share book or musical favorites? 

My dad worked at Central State Hospital, the same psychiatric hospital we lived next to… he was an electrician there. He’d come home after a long day working at the building for the criminally insane and he’d tell me about this book he was reading and how he just met a guy that day who was exactly like Hannibal Lecter. That blows my mind to this day. We shared Stephen King, the Dark Tower Series; my dad recommended those to me. 

Any of the songs on the Devil is my Friend inspired by Central State Hospital? 

A lot of my family worked there at some point. My grandmother was a nurse there. Interestingly enough, on my 18th birthday, I admitted myself into the hospital. That was kinda my birthday present to myself. 


At that point, I was already really fascinated with that place, not only that place; psychology and human behavior. I don’t think it was an experiment; it was more of an experience. I stayed like three days and I was like, ‘this is terrible, I have to get the fuck out of here.” It wasn’t like the first experience I had in a psychiatric hospital, which was almost accidental, on my father’s behalf. I think I was 15, my father caught me drinking at a house party, one of those dumb things that kids do; ‘no I’m not coming home, I’m having fun with my friends!’ I didn’t come home the next morning, and he found me, I don’t know how, I was in the middle of the woods. He wrangled me up and took me to this place called Charter Lake Hospital in Macon. The first week I was crying, I thought I was going to die in there. I thought I was suffering. But really, the truth was I had rules, regulations and some stability for the first time in my life. After a week, I told my dad, ‘fuck you, I’m staying, never come pick me up, this place is paradise on earth.’ There was a lake, it was like a resort. I had a guitar, they took us to the mall, I was like, ‘what is this?’ That was like the only vacation I can remember as a child, which is fucking depressing. I mean, other than going to Six Flags. I think the whole Central State Hospital thing was derived from that. I was trying to maybe relive that–being surrounded by black sheep and feeling that there were other people who were like me. I wasn’t an outcast. 

Any songs directly about your time in those institutions? 

Not directly. But definitely inspired by people I met, characters throughout the South. It might seem cheesy, but even this literary Southern Gothic… it really is that type of thing there. Shady characters and this really small town with a dark cloud looming over. 

You moved to Atlanta, in the mid-‘90s, then to Los Angeles, for music. 

There were some heavier bands in Atlanta, but I was trying to do something very European sounding; the Gothic Metal Dark Doom stuff, some Black metal influences.  My band put out three records and did some touring. We were being courted by a lot labels at the time. I remember playing CBGBs. Long story short, it didn’t pan out. I was pretty devastated at the time, but I picked up. The reason I ended up in LA is an A&R guy referred me for a project with [guitarist] Rob Caggiano, who was on his way out of Anthrax, and was auditioning singers. I went to NY, recorded some stuff, stayed in Manhattan and it was a great time, then went to LA because Rob was there at the time. But the whole thing fell apart as soon as I moved to LA., and I felt it was time to make the change anyway. So I stayed. 

You’re clearly as talented in metal as you are in this dark/gothic Americana style. Do you love one genre more than the other?

There are many layers to my personality, but as I get older, I appreciate a lot of the roots, the country, the blues… I appreciate it more now than I ever had. It has a purity about it that’s very honest in a way that rock music can never be. Especially nowadays, metal, the problem I have with a lot of modern metal, it’s the nature of the beast, but you have to struggle at the end of the day to find some real honesty because everything is perfect, on the grid, on a click [tracks]. There’s something about a style of music where you don’t have to apply rules, and in fact you can break rules and do what you want. I like that idea.  

The album artwork is amazing; the dog with the hand in its mouth in front of the church. Sort of Carnivale with some Alice in Chains and old dustbowl sepia photos. Where did that come from? 

I’ve had that image ingrained in my mind for a long time. I described it to Travis Smith, and even provided him with some of the images, that’s how it came to be. It goes back to growing up in small-town USA in the South; I spent a lot of time in graveyards. The title track, there’s a connection there. I was trying to get at some Biblical, Old Testament thing, ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ sort of thing. The back was originally supposed to be the three-legged dog, but that didn’t come together. 

I think the lyrics to the title track are controversial: “I robbed her of her innocence, she promised not to tell.” The scenario you sing about conjures up rape at knifepoint, yes? 

That’s exactly what it is. 

And have you had blowback? 

I’d love to get some criticism. It’s a murder ballad. It’s fiction. It’s a story. One of the things I love about traditional folk music is murder ballads are so prevalent. I have a fascination with those kinds of vagabond character and serial killers who roam the earth doing those kinds of things. So that’s where it comes from. 

The album is so visual and cinematic. What film director would be most aligned with this album? 

That’s a difficult question, as it depends on the song. The “Sing for the Deadman” video I did want to reference the classic Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western films. In a less obvious way. But the main influence for me was Hungarian director named Béla Tarr. The last film he made was called The Turin Horse (2011), loosely based on Nietzsche. All of his films and black and white, and they have stark contrasts. 

You’ve gotten comparisons to Tom Waits and Alice in Chains… 

I think, partially because of the voice; the harsh tonality, I think another reason is it has a classic atmospheric yet folky sensibility as well. It’s always fun hearing those [comments] because I never really know at any point what the hell I’m doing. I really have no clue. I wish I did; it might make things easier. It’s probably better that I don’t. 

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