den-mate makes moody electro-pop to help herself heal
On her deeply personal album 'Loceke,' Jules Hale turns a traumatic life period into narrative songs that strike right at the heart.
Photography Lauren Brown
It might have taken Jules Hale until her teens to discover that making music was within her wheelhouse, but the DC-based artist has always had music running through her veins. Sitting down for breakfast the day after her band, Den-Mate, played a show at Brooklyn venue Elsewhere, she immediately showcases her encyclopedic knowledge of 2000s alt-pop. Naming Alice Glass, Pictureplane, Björk, and Nick Zinner, she explains how their music entered her orbit when she was a teenager living in relative solitude near the Shenandoah River in rural Virginia.
Between sips of coffee and mouthfuls of potato gratin, Jules explains, “I would stay up until 2am, because between 2am and 6am we had unlimited downloads. I got super into blogs [and] I would download as much music as possible. It showed that you could be anywhere and have access to this incredible music. If I didn’t have that, then I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
But Jules didn’t just absorb the music she was exposed to online, she took inspiration from it and created her own space within the indie music canon. In 2013 she self-released her first LP — a collection of scrappy darkwave songs with obvious nods to Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Crystal Castles, and Björk — and in 2017 she put out an EP named Entropii , which NPR said displayed “a sharpening of Hale’s production skills and zeroes in on the darker, denser side of Den-Mate’s sound.”
While those releases occupied space and gained Den-Mate a cult following, Jules was at work on a more expansive and deeply personal Den-Mate album. “I call it a death and rebirth type of album,” she says, “because I went through an entire identity crisis of who I was.” Titled Loceke, the album traces a period in Jules’ life when she was battling and then recovering from uncontrolled epilepsy, drug addiction, and an eating disorder. “When I started writing Loceke, it was during a transitional time of [figuring out] who I was, which was someone I didn’t particularly think highly of, to being someone who I wanted to be,” she explains.
Jules was born with epilepsy, but wasn’t officially diagnosed with the illness until age 14. She remembers being sensitive to things that other kids weren’t, like light and sound, but without a proper diagnosis, she had no idea why. “I always noticed that I was obsessive with media, to the point where I’d be with my friends and I’d be really obsessed with a song. I’d just be listening to it over and over again, and it was a little odd to them,” she says of living with what was then an undiagnosed illness. It resulted in confusion, stress, and isolation, and Jules says it was a very traumatic time. “I was like, why am I experiencing these things that other kids aren’t? Why am I blacking out in class and not remembering what I’m learning? [It] made me super confused and super stressed at a very early age.”
Sadly for Jules, the eventual diagnosis led to further abuse of her adolescent body — albeit a different kind of abuse that is perhaps far more prevalent in America. On the song “Country” she begins to speak about her experience of being medicated, and in conversation she goes even deeper and pours scorn on the pharmaceutical industry, which she says “[is] fucking over so many young kids.”
“That song follows a narrative of how I perceive the government, and how I perceive that it personally fucked me up,” she says. “Between pharmaceuticals for serious medical conditions like epilepsy, putting a cocktail of antidepressants, antipsychotics, any type of sedative, on a 16-year-old is dangerous. I honestly believe that’s why we have a heroin epidemic. It’s why so many people are dying of Fentanyl. It starts with the pharmaceutical companies.”
Part of Jules’ recovery has been to eradicate pharmaceutical drugs completely from her life — including those she was taking for epilepsy. “I just had to run away from all that it caused me, because I didn’t think I was going to make it to 19,” she says with gut-wrenching honesty. “I went to NA, I did some hardcore therapy, I’ve been in and out of hospitals and treatment facilities, and once I got off the cocktail that they were giving me I felt so much better,” she says. She now self-medicates with marijuana and CBD, which is legal to grow and possess in DC.
As Loceke progresses, each song peels off another layer and exposes more of Jules’ story. It’s both cathartic and soothing; an important reminder that music can be therapeutic for both its creator and its consumer. “Light” is about dating someone while having uncontrollable seizures, and giving them the option to either stay or walk away. “Sick” dwells on self-love and not losing sight of the future, no-matter how difficult the path to recovery may be. Final track “Still Life” is about witnessing a fatal car accident and feeling an uncontrollable outpouring of grief.
Speaking about “Still Life,” Jules says, “A mother died and I saw it happen. I was in my car. I heard the contact, and I came back and saw two children sitting on the sidewalk crying. I couldn’t speak that night, it broke my heart to know that that is those kids’ life now. I wrote the song that [same] night because it was the only way I could handle what I had just witnessed.”
Despite the heavy subject matter that dominates Loceke, there have been many happy moments in Jules’ musical journey, too. One that she recalls vividly is an interaction she had several years ago with a girl on Tumblr that gave extra special meaning to a band she admires. “There’s this one band that I really love, the textures, the beats, and the sporadic sounds, they’re called Micachu and the Shapes. They have this album called Never, and when I heard it I was like, this is how my brain feels having epilepsy. But what’s interesting is, through my Tumblr community at the time, I found someone who had the exact same seizures that I did and she was a huge Micachu fan, and she felt the exact same things. Those types of relationships are very complex and it was cool to find someone who understood what I meant by that, because I feel like if she didn’t have epilepsy she wouldn’t have understood what I meant by it.”
Now in her mid-20s, Jules’ epilepsy no longer defines her (that role now belongs to her music), but she says it was important to tell the story of what she went through to get here. “I think the only way for people to stop being weird about it is to talk about it not being weird,” she says. “You can have a debilitating disorder and still fucking rock it.” On stage she does just that. Drawing inspiration from one of her idols — Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O — Jules stomps across the stage and stares down her audience like a lion. All she asks is that you pay attention and maybe lose your cool for a few minutes. Then you can go back to staring at your phone.