MusicMusic Features

True Lilith Builds an Art Rock Sanctuary

Charlotte alt-psych-goth foursome devoted to spreading message of inclusion

True Lilith plays a show at The Milestone
True Lilith plays a show at The Milestone. (Photo by Kenneth Brown)

With Chloe James’ snaking ’60s spy movie guitars and Anna Spurrier’s clambering new wave synths, True Lilith kicks off its latest single “Urban Decay” with a sense of shivery delight. James’ ethereal vocals evoke a sensual succubus luring listeners in like a Venus flytrap.

“Solemn affair (solemn affair)/ Breathing in, angel air (angel air)/ So I wait patiently/ Down and out (down and out) / Drown it out…”

Then Clay Case’s stalking sub-stratum bass and Jared Stone’s skittering yet swinging drums launch the tune into overdrive, as James’ vocals suggest Dracula’s brides recast as a ’60s girl group, launching a blood spattered assault on a shouted apocalyptic chorus.

“I hate this/ And I hate that/ My my fate is/ Obliterated…”

Galloping drums and buzz-saw bass pause for a swampy psychedelic guitar line that entwines and tangles around a deceptively sweet sounding bridge.

“Oh the audacity/ Where is your empathy?/ Decayed reality/ Our rights are melting…”

With that unsettling message, Charlotte alt-psych-goth rockers True Lilith gallop to the finish line of the single, which dropped in April. The band plays the tune along with its considerable catalog of songs at The Milestone on June 10.

“Urban Decay” is the group’s best work yet, but what is it? Alt rock, goth rock, or something else?

It’s clear True Lilith approaches musical genres as suggestions rather than boundaries. Shoutouts to inspirations are as likely to include New Orleans R&B legends The Neville Brothers as alt-art-rock icons Siouxsie and the Banshees.

“This genre where we sit is so liquid that I didn’t know what we were writing,” says bassist Case, who counts punk rockers NoFX and Rancid among his inspirations. Despite that, his playing evokes the rocket engine roar of Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, and the heavy labyrinthine runs of Yes bassist Chris Squire. Like Squire, Case plays with a pick and not his fingers.

“You really hear it on the bass solo [on ‘Urban Decay’],” he says. “It’s heavy … like a chainsaw revving up!”

Inspired by her jazz drummer father, Spurrier was working on blues-based music when True Lilith recorded its latest single.

“I remember I was playing along with this bluesy Meters song, and there was this riff in it,” Spurrier tells Queen City Nerve. “It sounds similar to what I’m playing in ‘Urban Decay.’”

Spurrier cites her father as an inspiration, as well as her grandmother, who taught her to play piano when she was only 5 years old.

“It was before my first show with the band that Chloe showed me the [guitar] riff,” says Stone, who was captivated in middle school by the “grandiosity” of Green Day’s American Idiot.

“I liked [James’] weird direction, but I was like, ‘I could probably go in an even weirder direction.’”

At the time, Stone was listening to R&B artist Anderson Paak.

“I liked his style of drumming [and] … implemented that kind of drum beat into the song. It ended up fitting better than I thought.”

Prior to recording “Urban Decay,” James wrote the verse and chorus of the song on guitar, but it was a bare-bones version of the creepy and funky juggernaut it is today.

“I love early Pink Floyd, and it’s actually a direct shoutout to [Floyd’s] ‘Lucifer Sam,’” James says. “Syd Barrett is a massive influence.”

Pink Floyd’s insane genius, however, is not James’ only inspiration

“Joy Division is probably my favorite band. They’re a massive influence, [as are] Bauhaus and Souixsie and the Banshees,” James says, adding that she’s also into indie rock. “[Listening to] The Strokes, learning both guitar parts and how they interweave, really helped me learn guitar.”

The band is young, with oldest member James aged 23 and Case, the youngest, at 19. Except for frontwoman and founder James, all other band members joined in mid-2022, first Stone and then Spurrier. Case came into the fold in September. Despite their youth and their fairly recent inclusion in the band’s current iteration, they play with cohesion, confidence and what seems like a telepathic interplay.

With its mélange of alt-, indie-, psych- and post-rock, True Lilith’s sound cannot be reduced to just goth, but the genre is still central to a spirit of inclusion the band has adopted. Much maligned even during its 1980s heyday due to fans’ preference for black clothes, pale makeup with industrial levels of eyeliner, willowy “tree in the wind” dances and enough hairspray to punch a hole in the ozone layer, goth has been a genre that has welcomed all — gay, trans, nonbinary and bullied — throughout its history.

“Our music is trying to be our personal safe space for anyone who wants to listen,” Stone says. “I hope [people] will feel as accepted in our fan base as I’ve been accepted in this band.”

While punk bands like The Clash attacked issues like climate change in “London Calling,” long before they became topical, goth-rockers like London’s Specimen focused on creating community by launching hot spot the Batcave in the early ’80s. Meanwhile, other goth communities welcomed society’s outsiders and diminished members. Even cock-rocking goths The Cult extols the power of the feminine in “She Sells Sanctuary.”

From divine feminine to Femme Fest

True Lilith was born in Belmont in Gaston County, when 7-year-old James received an unwanted video game for Christmas.

“I got a Wii Guitar Hero 3,” James says. “I didn’t want it, but I ended up being the only person to play the game and beat it.”

She turned from Guitar Hero to a real guitar. Drawing on the game’s setlist — especially enthralled with The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” — James taught herself to play guitar and ventured into songwriting at age 15.

“I didn’t know how to write songs, so I was test driving it, trying to copy Nirvana as everyone does,” James says.

An early iteration of the band was a garage-rock power trio, very heavy on guitar. At the end of 2019, that lineup released the four track EP Wilt, which James calls a collection of the band’s bare-bones early work.

Chloe James of True Lilith plays guitar and sings into a microphone
Chloe James of True Lilith. (Photo by Genevieve Moore)

In the meantime, James scoured internet forums and sites, looking for inspiration for a band name. She struck pay dirt with True Lilith. In Hebrew mythology, Lilith was Adam’s first wife. She refused to submit to Adam, so she was cast away, and ultimately remembered as a demon, James says.

“The coolest part is she was just being herself and saying, ‘Fuck societal norms,’” James offers.

James was heavily into astrology at the time, where Lilith is associated with the dark moon, a time to process everything that’s going on in your life and declutter your mind and heart.

“Lilith’s placement in a person’s chart represents their subconscious, deeper, maybe taboo, desires that they want to ignore consciously. It’s stuff that might not be socially acceptable,” James says. “It’s tapping into the true part of you that is unfiltered and unaffected by society.”

In addition to invoking the feminine force, James also embraced its power.

“I am very much a feminist,” James says. “I’ve experienced during my time in the [music] scene, a lot of misogyny. I [would] get, ‘You’re pretty good at guitar for a girl,’ all this demeaning stuff and back-handed compliments.”

In 2020, True Lilith provided a manifesto on feminism and misogyny with the single and accompanying video for roaring rocker “Trash.” Amid scorching psychedelic guitars, hissing hi-hat on drums and bubbling rubbery bass, James delivers a take-no-prisoners recitative: “I want to take you out ‘cause you’re trash…”

“[‘Trash’] is an anthem for me. Getting my frustrations out of things that I’ve dealt with [regarding] men and people giving their unsolicited advice,” James says. “I’m a pretty sensitive person. I wasn’t born with a thick skin, but I’ve developed it to the point where now I’m very strong and confident.”

She characterizes the tune as “turning negativity in a positive, productive creative thing.”

The video for the tune satisfyingly depicts James giving male stalkers and scumbags their richly deserved comeuppance. It’s directed by Viky Leone, then the bassist in Charlotte band Wilma. Leone’s brother, Wilma guitarist Matthew, plays a Chad who stalks James. (The Leone brothers subsequently disbanded Wilma, and moved to Virginia where they play as Orbweaver.)

“We had a loose concept, and we wanted to visually display everything we were talking about in the song, just men being creepy,” James says.

In addition, True Lilith played their first benefit show for Femme Fest, a fundraising nonprofit organization that advocates against domestic violence and sexual assault, in 2019.

“Just to help support that is really incredible,” James says. “It’s great to not just say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re feminists,’ but to actually contribute to something.”

From ‘Celestopia’ to ‘Urban Decay’

True Lilith had been playing gigs at venues like The Milestone and Skylark Social Club when the COVID pandemic reached Charlotte in March 2020. Some members left the band, which ultimately went on hiatus until quarantine ended, at which time James recruited new band members and True Lilith returned.

In the summer of 2022, the band released its debut full length album, Celestopia. The LP also introduced a new sound for the band: a fleshed out, more space-rock soundscape with an influx of sinuous synthesizer textures.

“My tastes had changed a bit,” James says. “At first, I was into grunge and garage rock and I wanted it to sound really raw. Then I started listening to different kinds of music that were more electronic and synth-based.”

The synths, courtesy of Abby Stewart, deliver outer space whooshes over James’ swooping guitars on one of Celestopia’s stand out songs, “The Tower.” Here, James’ vocals are by turns childlike and sinister. The chorus deliberately mentions masks as an analog to the masks worn during the height of COVID.

“What’s behind the mask?/ So afraid to ask/ What lies underneath/ Unsuspecting teeth…”

“‘The Tower’ was written about COVID, just feeling so beat up and dragged through the trenches, being mentally and physically exhausted,” James says.

Celestopia boasts many highlights, including the buzzing giallo-style synths on “No Exit,” and the stuttering and grinding “Calypso,” but the strongest track may be the gossamer and ghostly “Graveyard of Stars.” Here, True Lilith anchors its spidery needle-guitar alt-goth sound with sing-along girl group vocals and the sassy 1970s glam rock attack of Suzi Quatro. Meanwhile, James trades vocals with Stewart in what appears to be a battle between the material world and its spirit counterpart.

“There are two girls,” James explains. “They’re both young, and one has died. She feels like her life has been robbed. There is a living girl that she becomes fixated on.”

In alternating verses, Stewart takes the part of the dead girl: “I’m terrified I that I know/ Faking death was easy/ living never pleased me/ The afterlife’s intriguing/ Do you really see me?” Then James sings the role of the living girl, who loses possession of her body to the hungry ghost: “Her ghost stole my body/ waiting and finding/ deleted memories and/ now they’re distant daydreams/ My reflection’s fading…”

Like “Trash,” True Lilith’s Celestopia was recorded at The Knothole in Weddington in Union County by the studio’s technical director/owner Boo English.

“Not only will [English] tell you if something needs to be changed, [he suggests] additions that make the songs sound cool,” Stone says.

“He’s easy-going and nonjudgmental,” says James. “He lets you steer the ship.” English subsequently recorded “Urban Decay.”

James praises English’s patience with her, describing herself as picky and self-critical about her music.

“I’ll talk myself out of doing something, because I have really bad anxiety that I struggle with,” James says. “A lot of the songs are about that and depression.”

Members of the band True Lilith pose together in the green room at The Milestone
Clockwise from left: True Lilith’s Chloe James, Anna Spurrier, Clay Case and Jared Stone at The Milestone. (Photo by Kenneth Brown)

True Lilith, however, is on an upswing. The band has undertaken its first tour, which it kicked off in New York City in May. Based on “Urban Decay,” the bandmates are pleased with the direction their music is taking.

“The synth part adds a good layer to the song,” Spurrier says. “After we recorded it, I find myself adding even more things.”

“I feel like this song was a team effort,” James says. “We all worked together and fed off of each other’s ideas.”

The band is committed to reworking its sound to be more dancey and punky, she adds, continuing in the direction of “Urban Decay.” At the same time, the band is devoted to spreading its message of inclusion, an idea that often gets lost in the grind and roar of punk and grunge.

“I want a range of emotions,” James says. “That’s why our music has ups and downs. We don’t just go all heavy.”

James says it’s hard not to notice the surfeit of testosterone in hardcore punk music.

“It’s cool and all, [but] I want to bring that feminine energy and even gender-neutral energy to music, and show that music is not better just because it’s heavy. You can be soft and vulnerable and powerful.”

James hopes True Lilith listeners will take away a sense of their own personal empowerment through the vulnerability and struggles that thread through the band’s music.

“Our music is about empowerment,” she says. “It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to be human, and it’s okay to not give a fuck … in a good way.”

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