Teen obsessions have a tendency to stick around. That was the case for the Olympia, Washington-born Alex Konschuh, now better known to his adoring community of fans as Malice K. Once a promising skateboarder drifting around the Pacific Northwest streets, the underground punk and hardcore scene on his doorstep began to mean absolutely everything.
Joining NME on Zoom from his dimly-lit Brooklyn apartment, the songwriter and illustrator casts his mind back to the escapism offered by those DIY nights in a tranquil town in Seattle’s shadow. “Most of the bars would close early and the place would go to sleep, but these house shows were happening and it was the only thing to do. In high school I’d sneak out at night to bartend at them so I could get free entry and really feel part of something.”
Though he’s taken more of a lo-fi acoustic approach recently, the lessons learnt in those formative years remain firmly evident in his output. Konschuh’s sound appears reclined, but it feels at home in gritty underground venues, flickering brilliantly between disarming ‘Figure 8’-era Elliott Smith grandeur into feral garage rock. The only constant, perhaps, is his sardonic lyricism which channels all of life’s beauty, pain and chaos.
On the recently released ‘PHD’, a romantic ballad coated in scuzz, he reels through Gen Z’s intray, from mental health battles to addiction: “Jump on your head to cure your sickness, my baby / I put some spice in your meds to cure that ADD / And this is not a perfect world, and I am not a perfect person.” The accompanying video is awash with nostalgia as a grainy VHS montage captures basement parties and wild nights out.
It’s a compelling taste of his upcoming debut album. Given his unique sprawling sound and a candid lyrical approach, it’s easy to see how Konschuh has already found cult fandom. His underground project is untethered from the grungy sensibilities of his peers on NYC’s guitar scene like Been Stellar and Geese, with Konschuh seemingly more aligned with Pacific Northwest giants he grew up romanticising like Bikini Kill, Elliott Smith or Kurt Cobain.
For Konschuh, it was LA-based art collective Deathproof, a community that champions underground creatives and “embraced hood culture, punk and trap”, that helped realise his vision. “It was one of the coolest things I’d seen. I met them when they came through Seattle for a show and it totally blew my mind, it was breaking so many barriers.”
The Malice K project was born in early 2020, shortly after moving to LA to work with the label on mini-album ‘Harm Or Heck’. Birthing the alter ego not only offered an outlet to house both his music and illustrations but came as an opportunity to lay waste to some of the personal trauma that had followed him since childhood.
“My life experiences have given me mental stamina”
“It was me arriving at this decision to not be apologetic about the way I am. I’m not too put together. I remember being in trouble a lot through school. I went to a lot of different psychiatrists and was on this antipsychotic medication.” He pauses before finding his thread. “As I went through life, I always felt I needed to get better at being somebody acceptable. Malice K was me rejecting the notion that there was anything wrong with me.”
That sentiment dominates ‘Harm Or Heck’s standout track ‘Beautiful People’, which has amassed over two million streams on Spotify. A sweeping outsider anthem hidden among the record’s more abrasive moments, it’s painfully open: “I misunderstood / You say I’m no good / You don’t know the first thing about me at all.”
“After I finished writing that song I felt so morbid or even guilty,” he says. “Like I’m not supposed to feel for myself in that way.” For Konschuh, it was an enlightening experience. “That was a really cool learning-curve for me and I’ve been following that pathway ever since. I’ll always look for that feeling of being cringed out by myself.”
The release, along with a live streamed show from LA’s infamous West Hollywood venue The Roxy in early 2021, proved a game-changing moment. “Shortly after that show I lost my place to stay in LA but then I got a call from a major label in New York who wanted to fly me out,” he says. “I got my plane ticket a week later, I just had a guitar and some notebooks, I went back to my place, grabbed my shit and flew the next day.”
Though it was hard leaving behind the underground scene that shaped him, Konschuh remembers initially having fun in The Big Apple. “They put me up in this big fancy hotel and I looked like shit,” he laughs. “I knew they had to pay for everything so I opened up all of the bottles of alcohol in the minibar and ate all of the chips, then they offered to take me to all the fancy restaurants and go shopping, but I just asked for some cigarettes.”
It’s a testament to his own self-belief that such an industry set up jarred with his own creative vision; willing to bet on himself, he turned down the offer of a major record deal. Not only that, but labels competing for his signature actually reaffirmed his own independent pathway. “It made me feel more like myself because I was in a position where I didn’t have anything to lose, but so much to gain. I was already who I was supposed to be and being here was proof of that.”
“People ask if I’m excited but I’m just relieved, thank God that people don’t have to worry about me”
He continues: “It was a crazy time because I didn’t know anybody here, I was just meeting people in the park and becoming their best friend. I wasn’t worried about anything or sleeping anywhere, I made all the rules. I was exploring the entire city, doing something every night. I’d be at these rooftop parties, I wasn’t worried about creating, I was living the art.”
Although it was invigorating at first, a lifestyle of sofa surfing invited its own turmoil. “I was developing a pretty severe drug and alcohol problem,” he says. “I wasn’t playing music or recording. I lost myself and my vision, I had negative sixty-nine dollars in my account. I was becoming someone strangers didn’t want to sit next to on the subway, it was getting to that point – and then I snapped into it and realised it wasn’t going well at all. It was adding up to a pretty boring story.”
After focussing on his recovery and holing up in the apartment he’s speaking from today, Konschuh managed to recapture his creative spark and finish 2022 mini album ‘Clean Up On Aisle Heaven’. Even though he finished the release for his own pride, that material ended up propelling him into a bright new chapter. It wasn’t long before a dream offer came in from the celebrated label Jagjaguwar [Bon Iver, Unknown Mortal Orchestra].
Given his unique journey, does he see himself as an outlier? “Sometimes I feel like the freak or something,” he muses. “I know that people don’t think that about me personally but I don’t identify with a lot of music on the scene today. Most people I talk to finished school and went to college, haven’t been homeless or taken a chance on something.” He suggests there is a certain disconnect at play. “People are very nice and friendly but I think there’s a certain naivety and obliviousness that comes through.”
He continues: “The situations I’ve been through in my life have definitely contributed to the integrity of sticking to what I’m doing. My life experiences have given me a mental stamina to be myself in the face of a pretty distracting and corrupt industry to be in.” He admits certain inevitable comparisons do frustrate him. “I’ll be grouped in with Alex G or other indie acts to the point that I really don’t relate to them, but we’ll get compared because they play guitar.”
Approaching a bigger body of work, it feels like the possibilities are wide open, but Konschuh is really just grateful to be here. Even his Ralph Steadman-esque illustrations paint a vivid picture of the trauma he’s survived in the last few years. A recent Instagram post depicts a tattered love heart grinning with decaying gnashers, spiked with a multitude of syringes and safety pins. He explains, laughing: “Everyone will always ask if I’m excited about what’s happening but I’m just relieved, thank God that people don’t have to worry about me.”
It’s easy to get starry-eyed thinking about what lies ahead for Malice K, which includes a headline show at London’s Stone Nest tomorrow (January 30) and a set at Brighton’s tastemaking festival The Great Escape in May. But despite such milestones, you get the feeling he’s grateful to have some stability.
“I’ve just been hurtling through space since I was a young teenager. It felt like nothing was ever going to work out, but everything that’s brought me to this point has been important,” he says.
“I’m just trying to calm my mind and body because it’s been a really rough ten years. I’m learning to enjoy where I’m at now, and it really feels good to see a future in what I’m doing.”
Malice K will perform at London’s Stone Nest on January 30
Listen to Malice K’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music
Words: Rhys Buchanan
Photography: Chris Buck