"I went to a Machine Girl show and basically it was a 65,000-year-long rave in 30 minutes and I overdosed a thousand times a second until I collapsed into a tesseract and got my ass eaten out in the fourth dimension."
It's impossible to know if that quote was ever uttered in earnest, but at one point you could buy a shirt with those words on it from Machine Girl's merch table. And yes, their music is as much of an assault on the senses as the phrasing implies.
Their records sound like an extraterrestrial grindcore band is hacking into your computer to transmit the battle cries of an interstellar Antifa. Their new album, U-Void Synthesizer, doesn't so much split the difference as it does violently mash punk, death metal, noise and various electronic subgenres (footwork, jungle and breakcore) into one flaming cyborg of sonic intensity.
In person, vocalist-producer Matt Stephenson and drummer Sean Kelly appear human, but they perform onstage like their cosmic forms are thrashing and writhing to escape from behind their fleshy exteriors. Kelly drums with unrelenting and unearthly speed while Stephenson spends most of the set screaming into the mic, leaping savagely into the crowd and/or contorting himself in knots on the floor of the pit.
Believe it or not, Machine Girl are from this planet. The Pittsburgh via Brooklyn, New York, duo are a couple of 29-year-old Long Island expats who grew up hating everything about their whitebread suburban surroundings.
"I think from a young age I was miserable," Stephenson says in between bites of cereal.
He and his bandmate are sitting at the kitchen table in their house in Pittsburgh. It's mid-March, but hanging above them is a grim reaper Halloween decoration dangling next to a large promo poster for the psychedelic Matthew McConaughey film The Beach Bum. Stephenson's outfit conveniently reflects the same spooky/stonery dichotomy; Cannibal Corpse sweatpants and a tee emblazoned with an epic collage of howling wolves. Besides their residual accents, everything else about them feels like a searing Hadouken to the banal elitism of their place of origin.
"My dad wanted me to be a jazz musician or something that feels like it has more of a career [that] normal people would respect," Stephenson says while describing his upbringing. "Instead, [Machine Girl is] me jumping on people and spitting blood at them."
Stephenson and Kelly were misfits in the metalcore-obsessed town they grew up in, and in early high school they bonded over Aphex Twin and other bizarre electronic producers that no one else they knew had heard of. The two of them played in a handful of bands in the years that followed, but none of them took off because they were busy with college in New York City. Stephenson studied film editing and Kelly majored in music education, and when they graduated, they worked in those fields for a few years while living in New York.
"If you saw any SlimFast commercials from 2015 to 2017, I helped edit that," Stephenson says with a smirk.
Toward the end of college, around 2012/2013, Stephenson started the Machine Girl project as a solo endeavor. Back then, the sound was all-instrumental electronic music that sounds remarkably tame compared to their later rabidness. After establishing a decent online fan base with a handful of releases, Stephenson asked Kelly to join, and the identity of the band changed drastically. Kelly describes that era as Machine Girl becoming "two things at once."
"It was Matt DJing and producing dance music, and there was this fucked-up electronic punk band under the same name," he says.
Stephenson says he always wanted to start screaming and adding live drums over his music, but that it was just a matter of finding the confidence. Their 2017 album, titled and stylized ...BECAUSE I'M YOUNG ARROGANT AND HATE EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR, was their first foray into the grindy, electro-punk mayhem that they've moved closer to perfecting on recent records. The aim is always to channel sensibilities from beyond our atmosphere.
"I want it to sound like alien music," Stephenson succinctly puts the duo's mission statement.
There's no one other band quite like Machine Girl, but their main influences are relatively apparent. Lightning Bolt, Melt Banana, Boredoms, Dillinger Escape Plan, Aphex Twin and anything Zach Hill has touched (Death Grips, Hella, his solo work). However, the band are particular about not calling their music "noise" or "industrial." They're open about being influenced by the palpable textures and live energy of the former — just not its off-the-cuff production quality. Stephenson makes the beats and all of the electronic sounds for Machine Girl and he labors over the production in a way that many noise artists don't. They realize the industrial tag is somewhat inevitable for a heavy electronic act but insist that they don't listen to any industrial artists and aren't trying to cater to that world.
"Industrial, to me, is very goth, and very black and white," Stephenson says. "And I always want my music to be a lot more colorful."
Although Stephenson sometimes wears corpse paint and the band were set to hit the road with Code Orange this spring before the tour had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, their overall aesthetic has less in common with metal than it does with video games and anime. Many of their bonkers album covers (Stephenson designed all but one of them) could be mistaken for screenshots of Japanese cartoons or cut scenes from wacky first-person shooters. That type of imagery plays into another important aspect of the project: Machine Girl is Stephenson's persona.
"I feel like a lot of Machine Girl is me trying to distance myself from myself," he says. "It's almost this idealized version of myself. All the weaknesses and shortcomings and insecurities I have — Machine Girl doesn't have any of those. It's a much stronger, supernatural force."
The actual name of the band is borrowed from a hyper-violent Japanese action flick called The Machine Girl, which is about a vengeful orphan girl with a machine-gun arm. But the name also represents the "female energy" that Stephenson wants the character to embody.
"It's not something that has a super deep meaning, but gender is definitely something that I feel a little bit of fluidity with, and Machine Girl early on was definitely one way of exploring that," he says. "I think also when I was a lot younger playing video games, I would always specifically be picking female characters and avatars. Machine Girl was almost another way of doing that. Expressing myself through this female form."
That idea of transformation is a potent lyrical motif in many ways throughout Machine Girl's catalog. Their recent music, especially, has a clear anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist bent to it that Stephenson and Kelly want to resonate on a global scale. When touring across Asia in August 2019 and playing shows in Mexico, they were taken aback by how universal those revolutionary sentiments are and how empowering it can be to use them to connect with others across languages and borders. They also want their music to inspire growth on a personal scale.
"I think a really important message for everyone is that we all have the power to change, and if you're not happy with who you are now, you're not always going to be that person," Stephenson says. "When I perform and when I'm really into making something, it's transformative for me. Because, especially onstage, especially when it's a really good show and I'm going crazy, it does feel like I'm someone else for a brief period of time."