We spoke to Adam McIlwee AKA Wicca Phase Springs Eternal ahead of his show at Camden Assembly.
Somewhere near the start of the 2017 TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Ricky Whittle and Ian McShane — as Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday, respectively — discuss the nature of air travel. During a particularly turbulent spell the pair consider whether, rather than the tenuous physics of Bernoulli’s Law, it’s the collective will of the passengers that really keeps a plane in the air.
Granted, sitting upstairs at the Camden Assembly as a grizzly-hot day begins to unwrap itself from the throng of bodies outside on the streets of London is a far cry from Bryan Fuller and Michael Green’s imagined cross-country flight. But, as Adam McIlwee — better known these days as Wicca Phase Springs Eternal — seems to understand better than most, everything is connected if you look hard enough.
As a member of GOTHBOICLIQUE and a close friend of Lil Peep, who sadly and unexpectedly passed away on November 9 last year form a fentanyl-xanax overdose, McIlwee has always stood slightly apart from his peers in terms of the tone and the subject matter of his music. As Wicca Phase, he eschews much of the hip-hop influence that infuses Peep’s work and — despite having been a founding member of the band Tiger’s Jaw — with elements of Witch House and other electronica, approaches the 00s emo influence in his sound from a more obtuse angle than some other GBC members. (You won’t, for example, find him quoting both Taking Back Sunday and Rilo Kiley in the same song a la Horse Head.)
Where his friends riff on more obvious real-world topics — depression, love, sex, longing, fame, money, etc. — McIlwee deals in more esoteric, though in his view no less tangible, concepts. For Wicca Phase, magick and the occult intertwine with everyday life. Although his adopted moniker isn’t as much of a key to decoding those interests as you’d think.
“Because of my name — it was a gift, it might even be a troll, by way — people assume that I’m some sort of genius when it comes to that stuff. But that’s just not it,” he explains in a warm Pennsylvania drawl that serves only to highlight an open, permanently-affixed smile. “I’m not someone who’s going through life with a regimented magic routine or anything like that. My interest started solely at fascination — trying to figure out what it is — and that’s largely where my interest still is. Except,” he pauses, looking at what seems like nothing in particular for a second, “I think it works. I think there’s stuff you can do, even if it’s just some form of positive thinking. Just willing stuff to happen by believing that the what you’re doing is going to make a difference.”
But there’s always been something a little otherworldly about Wicca Phase — something that comes in part from the almost somnambulant quality of McIlwee’s vocals; somehow seeming to teeter between waking states without ever losing a sense of urgency — but it was only on 2018’s Corinthiax EP that these elements of his music shoved their way more obviously into the light.
“Today I’ll write about my cat / sitting in my kitchen”
Not only is the record’s title track itself seemingly a kind of spell, verses delivered like incantations, but it contains allusions to the paranormal so clear-cut that they come across more like statements of fact: “Esoteric god, Aramaic texts / Lighting candles up / Make a pact while you light another cigarette,” not so much a question of “fascination” but an invitation.
Even with these concepts more towards the fore, it’s still a record of contradictions. Domesticity, banality even, is given equal billing: “Today I’ll write about my cat / sitting in my kitchen” and “I tore through the fabric of love in four dimensions / in song I say your name in casting your ascension” bookend ‘High Strangeness’ as almost polar opposites, giving that unmistakably Lynchian feel of domestic bliss as a shroud for outright weird truth of things.
“Obviously I love David Lynch. It wasn’t like I was thinking about that going into it, it was more that my day-to-day life — when I’m home — is really routine. And when I was writing that album I was working, just a regular job, forty hours a week: it just wasn’t genuine to go fully dark and chaotic with it because that’s just not where I was at that point,” McIlwee confirms, still smiling. “My life is largely domestic. All of the weird stuff is just how it relates to my life in that way. It’s slightly romanticised, but that’s what songwriting is, you know?”
In making connections with his music, though, there are much less Delphic lines to draw. “As I play more shows and I release more music, my crowd has become way more varied. It’s still mostly teenagers because, I don’t know, it’s “cool” music — the material is maybe dark, the beats are cool, they knew my old band or it’s cool to like GBC — but increasingly I find there’s parents who come to the show. People who say ‘My kid got me into you — he’s not here tonight, but I am.’ And then when I ask them why most people say ‘because I used to listen emo’ or something like that, you know?”
It’s the same reason a lot of people of a certain age — people who lived through the black hair, eyeliner, and skinny jeans of 2003-6 and now find themselves in their mid-twenties — liked, or still like, Lil Peep. People in search of something that brings disparate elements of their life together. “And he did it in the best way,” McIlwee nods, a palpable respect obvious in the tone of his voice. “Bubblegum melodies and the coolest aesthetic, all under 3 minutes, and it was so natural.
“Before I met him, I wasn’t so sure — my gut is to assume that it’s never natural and that it’s some sort of forced aesthetic. That’s just me. But, when I met him — when I saw him work and even just from the first conversations — I was like, ‘Oh, this is him. This is who this music is.’”
“…Occultism is just hidden knowledge, right? I think that is enough to attract people to it. A non-physical thing that people say has physical consequences, from which you can derive physical results — that’s really something to a lot of people.”
By this point, McIlwee’s smile is wider than ever, it’s clear how much love and admiration he has for his friend and the way he talks about him — about who he was and what he could have been — is nothing short of heartwarming. “Even with him being a larger than life celebrity — and for us, he is to these kids he is — none of it was a put-on; it’s jut who he was. He didn’t really care about anything else. He didn’t really care about school. He was totally fine with being broke in LA and just moving out there to do it because he was confident that he’d make it. It was all genuine.
“The first time I met him was at a GBC show where we were just billed as GBC — something which really didn’t happen that often, but this was kind of an open invite and they just wanted everyone. It was like our first big show together and he knew the words to every song; he was backing everyone up on every word. He was bigger than all of us at that point — but it was obvious it meant so much to him. You can’t fake that. He knew every word when sometimes even I forget them, you know?”
As we finish speaking, moving to smoke from an open window with the heat outside still lashing as hard as it ever really does in London, McIlwee looks up. “I guess the ideas of magic and occultism aren’t really physical things. Occultism is just hidden knowledge, right? I think that is enough to attract people to it. A non-physical thing that people say has physical consequences, from which you can derive physical results — that’s really something to a lot of people. Who are we to say otherwise?”
On the street below, kids — either in GBC merch or decked out like its members — have been lining up since well before we arrived and older fans now free from their day jobs are starting to show up. Perhaps in a sense, McIlwee’s music is itself a kind of magical thinking: a way of making those connections, between people, between genres, between generations, into something tangible. And, as the show ends some hours later — McIlwee surrounded on stage by singing fans as he plays “Absolute in Doubt,” his collaboration with Lil Peep — it’s clear that bonds remain unbroken, the plane very much being kept in the air for the foreseeable future.