Elle Gilliam has had ‘the feels’ mastered for a long time now. A proven guru of cerebral boo-hoo anthems. She was first mentioned on Necessary Evil when I declared the sublime song Novel by her previous project Helltown as one of the best songs of the first half of 2019 that you might not have heard. Dudes, it’s been more than three and a half years since then, if you still haven’t heard it, then I think you might be past saving, seriously. And the name of that surrounding Helltown album, ‘Picture Perfect Depression’ really describes the music that she absolutely perfected with the project: incisive and often devastating explorations of her own personal demons set to absolutely pristine (initially) acoustic gorgeousness.
Midway through 2022, Elle contacted me personally on twitter.com to inform me that she had retired the Helltown moniker and was now launching a new musical project under the ‘Efficax‘ alias. I made a really funny joke about this when the collection of Efficax singles/demos that I completely made up reached #39 on the best albums of 2022 list. I’m not going to repeat it, you had to be there. Oh, and that album kind of exists now? We’ll get into it. Of course, after I went to try trouble of making that album, she then released her actual debut album, ‘Destroyer‘, in late 2022, because she has no respect for what I do. Don’t worry, I’ve forgiven her now. I’ll never forget what she did to me, but I’ve forgiven her.
Changing musical projects wasn’t the only major adjustment that Elle had gone through recently. No spoilers, but check the pronouns on those Helltown reviews. I was, obviously, desperate to interview her, and said so in my Efficax review (“if you don’t see an interview with Efficax sometime early next year it means she hates me and by extension everyone reading this”). Luckily, Elle is obviously vulnerable to emotional blackmail, so agreed.
Fair warning, this interview goes to places. Remember how Elle is so good at articulating her emotional self through her lyrics and music? Yeah, turns out she’s really good at that in her normal voice as well.
Was Helltown the first time you’d recorded music?
Helltown wasn’t the first. I’d been in a few bands by then. Played in a folk punk band in high school, some hardcore, and I was in an emo/punk band called American Memories when I started Helltown. I just wanted another outlet to do the quieter lo-fi stuff I’ve always been into, so Helltown began through that want.
Did you ever release music with American Memories?
Yeah we have a full length and a bunch of EPs on Spotify and Bandcamp, we broke up like five years ago but it’s still the most successful band I’ve been a part of! Like most emo bands, we got more popular after we called it quits. Kids use our songs on TikTok for skate videos, compilations we were on still get new listeners, it’s pretty wild to watch the numbers grow each year.
‘American Memories’ is an absolutely classic emo band name by the BTW. Would you say the music is worth seeking out? If they were shit, you can just be honest, I promise I won’t tell the other band members.
I mean I guess it is, there are a lot of songs from that band I’m really proud of, I loved the last two songs we released – Rat and Plagues – but there’s also a handful that make me cringe a bit, mostly because of where I was at in my life when I wrote them I guess, not cause they’re bad songs. But yeah, I think it’s still worth checking out, there’s bangers in there.
What kind of cringe?
Like either drunken lovesick mess or broken hearted 22 year old cringe!
Was the band’s split amiable and are you still in contact with the other members?
Oh yeah, it was all amiable, still friends with everyone who was in it. It started as just a two piece with me and my drummer Trey, who is still one of my best friends today. We still collaborate on stuff together while trying to be an ‘online band’ to do more American Memories.
How old were you when you started recording as Helltown?
Shit, I don’t even remember, I think I was 21 or so.
Was ‘Helltown’ ever an appropriate name? Come on, you knew this question was coming.
I did know this was coming! I think it was in a way. I love weird spooky stuff and there is a place called Helltown in Ohio that’s an old abandoned town. There are a ton of rumours of it being haunted and all the standard weird stuff people attribute to abandoned areas. Originally I wanted to do more concept stuff about ghosts and things, so it was more fitting in idea rather than practice, cause I can’t help the whiny emo in me.
Describe the first 20 years of your life in the form of a rhyming couplet
Life was numbing and started too late,
Decades spent in sadness and hate.
Cringe as fuck I know, but off the top of my head it’s what I got.
What was the most important music to you growing up?
Probably Bright Eyes for me. I listened to a lot of whatever my older sister listened to and she was really into a lot of the older indie emo bands which informed a lot of my tastes.
He put out an album of all his old recordings from when he was a teenager and a lot of the lo-fi home recordings really just hit me with how raw they were and it’s been in my brain ever since. Songs like Saturday As Usual and Falling Out of Love At This Volume are still influential to me
Give me your hottest musical take: who are the most overrated artist of all time?
Oh that’s easy, The Beatles. Mostly because I just can’t get into it lol.
What’s the biggest animal you’re confident that you could take down in a fight?
I don’t think I could take down any animal bigger than like a possum. Maybe in my younger days, I’m pretty passive now.
I’d probably just let whatever rip me apart after trying to run away.
Which Helltown song are you most proud of?
That’s tough cause I put out soooooooo much music with Helltown, but there’s a few that stick out and that are probably tied for me. Prom Night from ‘Living Well’, God in this Chilis from ‘Picture Perfect Depression’, and Always Fucking Up from ‘Bleed’ take the tie.
Isn’t there an Efficax song that references ‘God in this Chilis’ or did I just imagine that?
Oh yeah there probably is a reference somewhere and I did a re-recording of it as well cause I really like that song. It holds a special place in my heart so I wanted to redo it just for fun and threw it on an EP.
[EDIT: I Can’t find the song I was thinking of! Lesser writers would just delete this part. As would better writers. I’m right in that sweet spot]
Is there a wider context that makes it such a special song for you, or is it just because it’s an absolute bop?
It was just like a song that kinda came to me really fast. All of it was just there one night when I was working a job as a security officer (which I hated) and a lot of it was partially inspired by life at the time. There’s a lot of gender stuff, religion, all written in it that even I was surprised made it in so fluidly and easily. I remember going home late and fiddling on guitar and just feeling the whole thing out. I was like insanely depressed when this was happening, so that song was a kinda nice little escape from a dark time because it felt like I knew what I was doing while putting it together.
Good chance to clear something up for the British fans: Chilis is, like, a restaurant, right?
Yeah it’s just a kinda shitty chain restaurant, not fancy at all and I don’t know what the comparable British restaurant would be! But they do have these like chicken strips that are actually pretty good.
Here’s a deep ‘Helltown Lore’ question: who’s the female voice on Novel?
It was an old friend of mine Amanda. We were hanging out one day, she’s a really talented singer so I asked if she’d want to do some vocals for a few songs and she agreed. It was great because they really made it work and sounded so good.
The last (?) Helltown album was a bit of a drastic move away sonically from what you’d previously perfected. Was this change in styles associated with other changes in your life?
Maybe a little bit in the sense of I really just wanted to move away from the usual and try something new. I love sitting down on guitar and working songs out, but I’d never really sat down and gotten the hang of adding electronic elements to anything. I really wanted to learn more about that and try to do more with it, so it was a conscious decision to stray further away from the original kinda sound of older stuff and move into a new direction. Lyrically the same, tried being a bit more personal, but with lyrics I feel like things always slip through cracks and are up for interpretation anyways. I wasn’t really out to anyone in my life at that point, besides my partner and a few friends, but the people I’d show songs to never mentioned anything about them!
Is that person still your partner today?
Oh yeah we’ve been together almost 4 years I think – I always forget because I’m awful with time – but still together and doing great!
Your lyrics often go to very dark places, does this ever concern your partner or do they just consider it an artistic statement?
I mean, I hope it doesn’t. I know she listens to it every once in a while, and for me a lot of it does come from a place of truth, but more of a ‘what if’ scenario than what’s happening in the moment. Lyrics have always been a good way for me to kinda process and get out all the ugly emotions I keep hidden in me so it can get pretty messy. I also have pretty severe depression and anxiety so like it’s a common theme in all my music, the worries of worst case scenarios and all that.
When I showed her some of the songs off ‘Destroyer‘ I remember her just being quiet and telling me it was really “sad and dark” but it’s what I was going for so I took it as a compliment!
I don’t want to sound so glib, but how long had you been thinking about transitioning, and was there any real moment of clarity? Was it something you’d been putting off for a while or was it something you realised you needed to do and so made a start as soon as possible?
It’s something I’d put off for a very, very, very, very long time. I always had a vast uncertainty surrounding gender, but I grew up in a small conservative town and transitioning just wasn’t a thing I knew of. In my early to mid 20s I spent a lot of time distracting myself with projects, drinking, and doing anything to outrun the feelings. It definitely informs a lot of my songwriting, those kinda really sad and dark times, but I knew at some point it was going to catch up with me. Now, as much as I wish I’d just listened to myself and talked about it sooner, I’m not sure I could have mentally done it beforehand, I just wasn’t in a good place then.
The real clarity moment was after like months of severe depression, I’d go home and stare at the ceiling just in my head weighing options. Then finally blurted it out one night to my partner, who was supportive, got back into therapy, and went from there. It all felt very fast even though it was a long process.
What’s the best way you could describe to a dull cishet like me the experience of being assigned the wrong gender at birth? Do you even think of it that way?
I honestly have like no idea, dysphoria is different for everyone who has it, I can only really speak from my own experiences. For me, a big part of it was just a constant feeling of being distant from myself. Like there was always something off, I was being seen one way and feeling completely the opposite. After so many years of just going with the motions it just became a kinda numbness that followed me around. Doing music and working on film projects were kinda what kept me going because I never thought of them as being gendered in any way. so they were spaces that I just felt I could do things as a person. But the rest of day to day life just kinda felt like my spirit was getting crushed slowly day in and day out.
Has transitioning had a noticeable positive effect on your mental health?
Oh, of course! Like, it isn’t a fix all solution, don’t get me wrong my mental health is still fucked!
Transitioning brings its own set of obstacles and anxieties but the overall change has been huge. It’s an insanely comforting feeling that I am finally able to sit with myself and not have that questioning feeling anymore. I can finally just do me and feel good about it, which is something I was really lacking before.
I often read your lyrics as looking upon your transition as something negative or shameful (“I’ve done something bad”), is that just an embarrassing misread from me? Or is it more artistic licensing?
I think it’s more artistic licensing, I don’t think of transitioning as bad or shameful in any way. A lot of the time it’s kinda me processing the internalised transphobia when it comes to songs about it. Like how I’d feel back when I thought it was something I couldn’t do, and how ashamed I’d feel over the fact I couldn’t do it for myself when I really needed to in those moments. Shame is just a constant theme in my songwriting cause it’s a familiar feeling for a ton of reasons for me, so it comes out in a lot of different ways but not to be read as being ashamed of transitioning.
It’s honestly the best thing I’ve done for myself because I never have felt the kinda inner peace I have since transitioning.
Who’s your favourite professional wrestler?
I haven’t followed wrestling in a long, long time. When I was a kid it was The Rock but he’s kinda annoying now, so these days I’d say maybe the Undertaker. I like his whole dark goth gimmick.
How often are you misgendered, and how upset do you get?
It happens, I work my day job in retail management, so I deal with the general public 40 hours a week and it happens most days. I used to get more upset about it but now it’s just kinda an annoyance.
At the end of the day, it’s just dumb people who don’t pay attention or see others as people. It doesn’t happen with the people I care about and that’s what matters more to me, so I can brush off the usual misgendering in daily life.
On ‘Destroyer’ you said that you hadn’t told your Dad, is this still the case (or was it ever)?
It was the case at that time!
I wrote a few songs about the anxiety of telling him, because I really didn’t know how he’d take it and that was a big worry for me. But since then I have told him and we haven’t really talked about it much, but it all went fine so that was good. I never really did a massive ‘coming out’ text or post or anything cause I dumped all my socials when I was in a bad mental space, so now it’s kinda just like people tell other people or I tell people when I talk to them. But talking to my Dad was a massive worry that dominated a lot of the writing of ‘Destroyer’.
Are lines like “Wash away the sins/From the father unto the children’s’ upbringing” just a turn of phrase or more literal?
I think it can be taken both ways, but for me it’s more literal. When I wrote it, I was referring to how my Dad and I never really talked about anything serious, it felt like. And not being open about things got passed down to me. I felt like that’s just how I should be and stayed very closed off for a long time, which really wasn’t good for me at all. It felt like a trait that’s gets passed down from parents to kids, like the lost leading the lost or something
How has your transitioning affected the way you think about your music, if at all?
It hasn’t really, besides I don’t have to shroud things under the guise of a narrative song or use anything to kinda mask whatever it is I want to write. There were songs before that I’d be pretty blatant about how I felt, but I’d erase them or change lines here and there, just because I was worried about it. If anything it led to a much more carefree approach which has been fun, now I like trying new things like adding in more elements of poppier stuff and just having a less serious approach to it all.
Are there any pieces of art that you feel genuinely reflect the experience of being trans or transitioning to you, or that helped you through your own process?
I guess for me it would be more literature that really helped me. I was 25 I think and read ‘Tranny‘ by Laura Jane Grace when that came out, which really helped me get a better understanding of everything. Then ‘Whipping Girl’ by Julie Serano and ‘Nevada’ by Imogen Binnie. Film wise there is the classic, The Matrix lol, which is funny to me because it’s been my favorite movie since I was a little kid when it was released, but still holds up. Then with music there are so many amazing trans artists out there, Wyatt Smith is a favorite, with Snake being a song I have on a constant rotation. Estelle Allen is quickly becoming another artist I really like. I’ve gotten added to some trans artist playlists on Spotify and have been finding a lot of bands im really enjoying listening to!
Isn’t it funny how The Matrix has become like a core text for both trans people (correctly, according to The Wachowskis) but also for neofascist men’s rights groups?? Did you see the latest Matrix movie? (Oh, and we all know that Laura Jane Grace is an absolute icon)
Oh my god yeah! I hate how those groups tried to take that, it was sooo stupid when they started using the red pill for their bullshit! I saw the new one the day it came out with my partner, we’re both big Matrix fans and we both loved it, I was glad she did something different that was really fun and entertaining while poking fun at the studio systems and all that.
LJG is a legend, such an amazing person. I remember seeing Against Me on their tour for ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ cause they’d play through my shitty small town I was from. Afterwards I thanked her and told her that I was so happy she played because we don’t get bands like that there, but really I just wanted to talk about gender stuff. But I was too shy and drunk, so she just gave me a hug then I cried about it when I got home that night. That’s an embarrassing memory!
Rate yourself out of 10 as you were as a man and as you are as a woman. I’m only talking about raw sex appeal here, so don’t give me any of that ‘good personality’ shit
We’ll defiantly a 10 now as a woman!
Before, maybe like a 7? I don’t know. I was scrawny, weird and shy. Like the dumb dark mysterious type!
Have you considered joining any female sports leagues to see if you make it onto Fox News?
Lol, I’m not a big sports player regardless, so that’s out of the question for me. I’d probably have a nervous breakdown if I saw myself on Fox News at any point in time, especially in todays climate where all they do is push their culture war bullshit to the brain rotted conservatives.
I’ve heard on the grapevine that you’ve actually got a day job!? Does your fuzzy bedroom pop not earn you enough??
It earns me like a few Taco Bell meals here and there, but yeah, I’m not one for a lot of promotion so I don’t really push it out there besides a few TikTok posts here and there.
A lot of the music I do started just as something for me. But then it would just sit never played on my hard drive, so I just figured I’d throw it up on the internet and see what happens.
Has you ever seriously considered giving up making music?
I think one day might come where I just kinda feel done with it, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s always been a nice stress reliever and emotional outlet for me, but I’ve definitely gone stretches of not being able to write anything. Then I’ll get inspired by something and just kinda starts the itch to make stuff again.
What was the main thinking behind Efficax, both the name and the project? What was the itch that started it?
I just had no idea what to call it, and in very long Google searches stumbled across the term ‘Efficax’ in relation to witchcraft. It means like testing the efficacy of herbs, which doesn’t relate to the band but, I liked how it sounded so I went with it!
I wanted a clean start from Helltown. I’d put out a lot under that band, a few albums did pretty good with sales and running out of downloads from Bandcamp, but I felt stuck and wanted a fresh start. So one day I just decided to stop with that and move onto something new.
One of your first songs released as Efficax was N64, which is obviously in my wheelhouse. Can you talk us through the lyrics to that song? It sounds like it’s directed to the actual games console! What does it represent?
It actually is kinda about a game console, haha!
When I was a kid we had one at my Dad’s house and I’m pretty sure it’s still there in my old room. That was written amidst the anxiety of telling my Dad I was trans, so I wrote it pretty literally as the game console watching that conversation unfold. Sitting there for years seeing all the childhood stuff that happened, and now that conversation. Was one of those weird songs where I just was kinda like “oh yeah I wrote this so fast and it’s good enough”, so then I just released it as a single.
Obviously, by law, you now need to tell us the five best ever N64 games
Goldeneye takes all five spots. I guess actually maybe the first three cause it’s that good, then Mario Kart and Legend of Zelda.
What’s the greatest video game ever made?
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It’s the best, still sad to this day that the series is over, I’ve always loved those games.
You turned ‘Boyhood Spirals Into Exile’ into an official collection on Spotify! Do I at least get an executive producer credit?
Lol yeah I can add you to the credits on there!
I liked that idea of combining them that you mentioned in the yearly roundup, so I figured I’d just do that when I changed distributors and had to reupload everything. It keeps it a little cleaner than having all the EPs and stuff.
What are your feelings now about these earlier Efficax recordings?
I still like them. They’re different and a bit messier than what I’ve been doing now, but it was fun to not put as much care in and just kinda do what felt right for the songs. I was writing a lot of them kinda lyrically as I was doing the music and it all just was flowing together. So it was a fun time making them and to have that edgier, fuzzy sound was interesting to mess with more at the time.
Why was Boyhood the only song that made it to the debut album proper?
I don’t really know, I just felt really strongly about it. I wrote the guitar, setup my mic and had no lyrics, so I just winged it all through a one take recording and it all just worked so well. Then my good friend Angie was helping me finish the album with additional vocals and keyboards and she did a bit at the end of that song. That really brought it to a new level I thought, because she is so talented that I had to throw it on there.
Have you considered rerecording or rereleasing Smiling and Sad? It’s one of the best early songs you did.
Lol, I actually have a re-recorded version of it finished that I’m gonna put on something eventually, it just doesn’t fit anywhere right now.
You’re American, can you explain why the Manic Street Preachers never really broke that country?
I have no explanation. You mean the like crazies with the signs about God and Jesus that are everywhere ranting about religion and the devil?
On Mr. Pissed you say you’re “Haunted by the past by what I have done”, are you able to talk about what this refers to?
Yeah, I refer to that kinda stuff a lot. It’s more about just not being able to change things, how there’s always those kinda decisions that could’ve changed everything and the wishful thinking of the what could’ve been if just small things had been different. It’s nothing specific in that song or anything really, but more the of the past being such an absolute because there is no way to change it; it’s always a piece of what made the present how it is.
What exactly is the ‘one trick pony’ that ‘O.T.P’ refers to?
One Trick Pony is actually just the song! It’s the same chords over and over, but with different distortion and picking. So the whole idea was to make a song that’s repetitive but make it interesting. I did all the instruments and then when writing lyrics that term ‘one trick pony’ popped in my head and I just went with it and figured it would be a kinda up for interpretation kinda song. But really for me it was all just a kinda experiment to see what I could do with three chords, some pitch adjustments, synths and drums to keep it simple but sound more interesting
What’s the best Prince album?
I actually haven’t ever listened to much of Prince, so I’m just gonna go with the one I know and say ‘Purple Rain’!
Some of your recent songs seem to use pitch shifting on the vocals, was this a conscious effort to sound more ‘feminine’?
No, it’s not about sounding more feminine, I think it’s more of just what’s been inspiring me more lately. Alex G has always been a big influence and I love the vocal effects he uses. So I’ve been messing with that as well as the same kinda sound used in hyperpop, which I’ve also been enjoying recently. It’s more of just trying to find a place for those kind of effects in the style of music I like to make.
Fade.jpg seems to have a lot more more electronic influences like latter day Helltown. Who are your major influences at the moment?
At the moment there’s a lot from Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. I’m really not super into the whole emo rap scene, but a friend beat me down into listening to them and I’ve found a lot of songs I really like. It’s a fun sound to mess with to try and recreate elements of. Then I’ve been on a Charli XCX kick, random hyperpop stuff from Spotify playlists, and I get real inspired by my friends’ music. Angie, a good friend who did vocals and keyboards on ‘Destroyer’, has been working on some songs and sending them to me and they’re so good, so hearing what she’s doing has been a big inspiration.
The lyrics to Fade.jpg are, again, a bit of a bummer. Who or what are they directed towards?
Aren’t all of them a bit of a bummer?! It’s kinda just about like fading out of peoples lives, it’s funny how easy it is and not even done like intentionally so it’s kinda about that. I have old friends who I don’t talk to, but they run into people I still do, they get to talking and find out what’s going on with me and then never follow up or anything but I hear about it. So it’s kinda about just that feeling of that distance that grows and grows.
Where does Efficax go in the future?
Probably the same place. I have like no plans of playing shows – I used to play a lot of them with American Memories. but that’s because I loved the energy of that kinda music live and it just doesn’t translate for Efficax songs for me. If anything, it’ll stay my little bedroom project, probably jumping between more electronic stuff and stripped down acoustic songs because that’s what I’ve been having fun with: the differences between the two and the processes of making both styles.
What’s the best joke you’ve ever heard?
Fuck, I have no idea, it was probably a 9/11 joke or something. You got any good ones?
I really need to hear your 9/11 jokes
I don’t really have any, but my friends have the same kinda dark sense of humor, so I hear a lot of them. Like one of them has a cat named Nina Leven, which I found to be absolutely hilarious.
Finally: honestly, is it as terrifying as I imagine being transgender in 2023?
It depends where you are. In the US right now it is. The legislation against trans people has been so scary to watch. So many awful bills being put into place all across the country to basically make being trans a felony is severely disturbing. I’m lucky to be in California, which is basically a sanctuary state, but it’s terrifying and sad to see it all turned into such a political issue that has led to real violence.
I used to be really plugged into all that stuff but had to take a step back and just live my life advocating where I can, cause my mental health was taking a big drop focusing on the far right scum who perpetuate all this hate.
But it’s also hopeful in a sense, cause I’ve connected with a lot of really sweet and beautiful trans people who have become friends and we’re all just here trying to get by, which is nice to see in the world that’s so filled with disdain and hate.
I really feel for the trans youth, they’re getting the brunt of it and it’s so unfair and saddening to watch it happen.
And then, after three and a half hours talking, delving into issues and lived experiences that you’re simply unlikely to broach with your average ‘bedroom bullshit’ artist, the interview was over. What struck me most about Gilliam was how adept she is at interpreting emotions, and how – unlike a lot of you boring little shits – she has a lot to say and none of it is pointless or frivolous. Reading the interview back, there are so many moments where I’d asked more questions to get her to elaborate on other topics… but then I remember that time is not infinite and we all have shit we need to do. ‘Destroyer‘ is a fabulous record that I’ll delve into in more detail on NE2023 (though I trust the motherfucker will fuck me over again by releasing her next album in late November), so that gives all of you bozos plenty of time to buy it and study the contents hard. There will be a test.
The biggest takeaway? I hadn’t heard of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, but while researching for this write up I realised that they do Darby Allin’s AEW theme!
Yeah, right, Elle, “Haven’t followed wrestling in a long time”?? We see you…