"I see a lot with PC culture where people just want to be accepted by everybody. I'm the complete opposite," says Salem Vex. "Like I don't give a fuck — if you don't want to accept me then fuck you."
Vex is addressing his striking androgynous looks — which often include shaved eyebrows, white-out contacts, black tutus, fishnet shirts and o-ring chokers. But his provocative fashion choices are just the tip of the iceberg. The 23-year-old's entire identity is built on a foundation of defying expectations and rejecting boundaries.
Vex is the architect behind Bloodbather — a rising industrial-flavored metalcore duo in the line of genre-pushing acts like Code Orange and Vein. He also loves "dancing at 4 a.m. to Sisters of Mercy" and, pre-pandemic, hosted goth club nights. He's an African American bisexual skater kid who enjoys shooting his Smith & Wesson pistol at the firing range, and a DIY visual artist fascinated with "obsolete" technology. He's a songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist who cites the Cure, Bring Me the Horizon, Harm's Way, Nine Inch Nails, XXXTentacion and Bolt Thrower among his eclectic influences.
He's also a Florida native. Born and bred in Broward County, and proud of the northern Miami-metropolitan area's lineage of innovative outsiders — from shock rocker Marilyn Manson to controversial rappers like Kodak Black and the late XXX. Vex is determined to carry on that button-pushing, heretical tradition with Bloodbather.
Since forming Bloodbather, Vex has led the group — whose current lineup includes vocalist-bassist Kyler Millo — by sheer IDGAF will, and the band's relentless "grinding" has started to pay off. After building a grassroots fan base and scoring some high-visibility shows (including opening for Whitechapel and playing Warped Tour 2018), Bloodbather caught the attention of Rise Records. The label signed them in 2019 and will be releasing their crushing six-song Silence EP later this year.
Bloodbather is an evolving entity, and — much like Vex himself — ready to embrace and absorb new inspirations as they arise. There is a refreshing fluidity in this approach. But throughout our conversation, one core theme emerges as the binding agent for both Vex's musical expressions and multi-faceted persona: his fierce "fuck you" ideology.
This philosophy took shape early in Vex's life. Informed by equal parts nature and nurture, he knew at a young age that his path was not going to follow a traditional course. "You have your god, your wife, and you do the same old bullshit for the rest of your life," he says of the conventions he witnessed growing up. "I never wanted to do that."
"I was raised in a Christian home ... and grew up super poor," Vex continues of his childhood in Broward. His older sister was his gateway into metalcore ("she liked the funny scene bands") and, unbeknownst to her, also enabled Vex's first forays into non-binary gender expression.
"When I was a little kid, I would wear my sister's dresses and steal her makeup," he says. "I never told anybody [about it]." When his "super Christian" mom eventually saw him wearing makeup a few years later, she definitely "didn't get it" — but ultimately stuck by her son. His father was a different story.
"Me and my dad were never close," reveals Vex, who says his father left the family when the boy was just five. "He was super not into anything. He would call me a faggot, so I already hated him."
Vex's mother enrolled him in a local Christian school, which only furthered his feelings of alienation. "They had no black people there, none …" he says. "It pushed me even more into the direction of fucking hating people because people are so ignorant."
He found solace in skating and music — two communities that allowed him to express himself more freely and "try to find some actual real joy in life." He started going to metal and hardcore shows at the age of 12 and would regularly catch a train or bus down to Miami to hit the skate spots with his friends.
Around 10th grade, Vex felt a pull to "dive deeper" into his creative expressions. Inspired by the bold genderless looks of Prince, David Bowie and "weird outsider art people" like Klaus Nomi, he began openly wearing makeup and "dressing alternative."
"I do like cross-dressing," he says. "I'm not personally alternative gender. … I am bisexual. I guess that plays a part into it, but I don't think it affects it as much as people would assume. It's just a play on what I think is sick: the whole aesthetic of … no boundaries."
Vex also decided it was time to join a band. By 2016, he was in two. The first was a "Sworn In–worship" group called Deviant, but their gigs weren't generating enough money. So he came up with a "ploy" to bank more cash. "Bloodbather started so I could have another band to tour with," he says with a laugh, "so we could make a guarantee that would be enough to [keep us] on the road."
Soon after, they released their demo EP, Justified Murder, "just for fun." But Vex's side project quickly became his main passion — a place for him to explore the range of his influences. "I started getting into Skinny Puppy, Front 242, Psyclon Nine," he says. "Industrial is so primal sounding and matches so well with heavy music. … I wanted to add crazy synth lines that follow the guitar and play with [that] dynamic ..."
The industrial influences are apparent on Silence's noise-spiked lead single "Disappear." Vex points to the song as representative of the EP's overall theme, which explores "the fragility of life and not letting power being stripped from you." When asked about the brutal lyrics ("Pieces of your face/Dirty on the floor/And now there's more of you to love") and repeated screams of "bitch," he laughs. "A lot of people took it in the deathcore way, like we hate women. But the song's not even about a woman — it's about a guy," he reveals.
Growing up in South Florida as a black gender-nonconforming skater, Vex was no stranger to violence. "I got bullied as a kid and when I was 10 going skating … Seeing people getting robbed, getting robbed myself."
When Vex came of age, he bought a gun for protection. "Someone in my neighborhood got all their shit stolen and I was like, dude, I gotta take this shit serious," he says. "I know guns have a bad rap, but if you're responsible with it and know how to use it ... I think it's fine."
Our conversation takes a sharp turn to the issue of violence against people of color in America, and the February 2020 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed black jogger killed by two white men in neighboring state Georgia.
"The tension in America is just getting insane right now," says Vex. "It's finally coming to the point where white people are finally listening to us when we tell them like, 'Yo, this shit is still happening. It's not this isolated incident — it keeps happening.'"
"People bring back the rhetoric, like, 'Oh, look back in 2017, this same guy shoplifted,'" Vex continues of the rationalizations and spin that often follow in the wake of these killings. "The rhetoric that the person, the victim, is always to blame is so stupid. If I ever fucking died or got shot by a cop, they would use a picture of me in a dress, or with a gun. … They'd be like this guy is fucking weird. He was mentally ill."
Vex is frustrated — with good reason — and he's done tempering his opinions, looks and lifestyle. He's dead set on turning his anger outward and shaking people out of their comfort zone. Bloodbather is the instrument for his rage. "Fuck you" is his modus operandi.
He brings his point back home to the birthplace of his defiance, Broward County, and his local hip-hop brethren Kodak Black and XXX. "Rappers just don't give a fuck," he says. "I think more bands should be like rappers. More bands should have the attitude of 'fuck everything, I'm going to do what I want.'"