For Post-Punks Model/Actriz, Confrontation Is an Opportunity for Intimacy 

The Brooklyn quartet want to make you weep with their hypersexed industrial cuts. 

One frigid Saturday afternoon in February, Cole Haden and Ruben Radlauer lead me through the halls of the American Museum of Natural History to an unsettling tableau. The mustachioed half of Brooklyn’s Model/Actriz, both self-professed science nerds, present a display case where a plastic boy mannequin sits, dressed in faded jeans, a tucked in button-up, and a Yankees cap. One pant leg is rolled up to reveal a lethal snake bite. Haden takes in the bizarre sight, and then fires off the first of many perfectly-timed barbs of the day. “He looks like he’s playing in Mac DeMarco’s band,” the singer says. “This is what they don’t show you at Coachella.”

Winding through glass vitrines of lizards and amphibians, they stop before a hulking Komodo dragon. Radlauer, the band’s drummer, confesses that he used to be “a reptile kid.” As a boy in west Los Angeles, lizards were his go-to Halloween costumes for years. To simulate a blue-tongued skink, he stained his mouth with hard candy. When he couldn’t decide between a cobra and a rattler, he invented a hybrid. “A cobra-Radlauer?” Haden asks, his weighty voice dragging a little. 

They were weird kids, to be sure, nothing less than you’d expect based on Model/Actriz’s feral sound. Haden grew up in rural Delaware, in an especially cramped town where gossip seemed to be printed on every milk carton. “One time I invited my friend to go see Lady Gaga in concert, and some lady from her church found out and wrote a letter with like 40 reasons why she shouldn’t go,” he tells me. Gaga is Haden’s patron saint, and he invokes her by name on “Crossing Guard,” an early single from Model/Actriz’s exhilarating debut, Dogsbody.

Dogsbody melds dance music with industrial and menacing post-punk, but it shares DNA with more filigreed forms; Haden plays an opera diva, a vaudeville clown, a silk-draped chanteuse. His lyrics are lush and sanguine, sung in heaving baritone. On the pummeling, hypersexed “Mosquito,” Haden trembles as a sweet feast spills from his lips: “Frothed milk, honey butter in my/Fortified cherry reduction/Over cakes, après-dîner.” Each morsel feels three-dimensional, swaddled in ruby velvet and served to you on a silver tray.

Along with its smorgasbord of Dionysian imagery—food, flesh, fabric—the album is also filled with allusions to ancient Greece itself. Haden depicts carved stone columns and “verdigris-covered faces of the divine.” The titular “Crossing Guard” is in fact Charon, the mythological ferryman who led souls across the river Styx into Hades. When I ask Haden what intrigues him about Greek mythology, he swirls into an elaborate meditation on the act of remembering. He tends to speak either in loping philosophical paragraphs or curtly trimmed phrases. Eventually, he explains that Greek mythology offered a setting to explore his own memories with different characters. “I didn’t want it to be a diary,” he says of the album. “I wanted it to be like theater…like building the stage. I am aesthetically and emotionally drawn to the Greek ilk. I love the drama and the multi-generational vendettas and love stories and infidelities.”

Model/Actriz formed after Radlauer and guitarist Jack Wetmore witnessed a 19-year-old Haden performing “a Laurie Anderson-type electronic opera” in a Boston basement, as the singer once put it. They were in music school at the time. “Our secret is that we all went to Berklee, though it’s not really a secret,” Radlauer tells me, a spiky T-Rex skeleton arching over us. “There’s baggage that comes along with that. I felt very unstimulated there. It was a lot of ‘music for musicians’ and fusion and jazz, just things that felt like academia.” 

The original lineup—which featured a rotating cast of bassists—eventually disbanded, and the project wasn’t resuscitated until everyone moved to New York. They enlisted bassist Aaron Shapiro, a fellow Berklee alum, and began shaping new material. “When we reformed I think we all came into it wanting to express joy, sadness, sexuality, love with earnestness,” Radlauer says. “Cole felt more comfortable baring himself rather than hiding behind a veil of a character.” In 2020, Model/Actriz released “Suntan,” a stormy synth-pop cut that erupts into an industrial assault, heralding the arrival of the refocused group. 

After scanning the shark exhibit, we arrive at a display of Colima Dogs, the short, squat clay statues placed in ancient Mesoamerican tombs. Radlauer reads from a text panel: “‘A small dog was thought to guide a person’s soul to its proper place.’” Haden jumps in: “‘Small fat dogs are especially engaging…’” 

He bends his head slightly right and observes an egg-shaped protrusion under the dog’s tail. “The treatment of the anus,” he muses. “It’s distended.” We ponder the function of its shape for a moment, before Haden shifts into another gear. He’s thinking about Lady Gaga again. 

“Part of what really allured me at the time of Bad Romance was that it felt really illegal to like her,” Haden says. Was it too revealing an interest for a teenage boy in the sticks? “Yeah, I was not super keen on the idea of my sexuality at that point,” he says. “It took a lot of mental hurdles for me to be able to enjoy Lady Gaga the way I did while maintaining a grip on the reality that I wanted, which is that I wasn’t gay.” 

I ask Haden if he still seeks out art that feels dangerous. He nods. “When I recognize something that feels like more of a challenge, that feels gratifying to engage with. Like when Lady Gaga was doing Born This Way and The Fame Monster, she started talking about Marina Abramović. I could talk about Lady Gaga because that was a cultural figure that everybody knew, but if I tried to explain [Abramović] to my parents it would feel like a cult. Like showing them a picture of her in a burning star on the ground or showing her doing the knife challenge and cutting herself—that was what I would delete my history on my computer about.”

Radlauer mentions an Instagram account he stumbled upon that posts photos of rotting animal carcasses. “I was immediately like, ‘no no no,’” he says. “But then, I don’t know why, I got into a zone scrolling through it and appreciating it as a tribute to the decay, and the appreciation of that life cycle.” Haden welcomes the parallel. “If you’re repulsed by something, it’s an opportunity to ask why,” he says. It could easily be the Model/Actriz doctrine.

A little while later, the full band assembles at Joanne Trattoria, an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side owned by Cynthia and Joseph Germanotta—aka Lady Gaga’s parents. Surrounded by framed family photos, Model/Actriz tuck into hearty plates of seafood pappardelle and sausage linguini while discussing fate, performance, and vulnerability. 

Pitchfork: Do you think about creating a level of discomfort in your music?

Cole Haden: Yeah. I think this album is the culmination of a lot of pain for me. When my mother would tell me, “everything happens for a reason,” the reason was never apparent to me. When the album was done, it felt like it was made at the right time because I understood my first 25 years of living were leading to this point.

Do you believe everything happens for a reason?

Haden: Yeah, I’m a mystic. I read a story once, the point of it being like, “I’m living through my eyes right now, but I’ve lived through your eyes at some point.” Because as a physics nerd, time isn’t real. So that is what gives me the patience that I need in a daily sense. Like, I’m not the Dalai Lama every day, but when I’m lying in bed at night, that is my om with the universe.

Ruben Radlauer: I like to take a mystical view of the opposite. I don’t think anything happens for any reason but I think there’s beauty to be observed in that. I take comfort in nothing mattering and having to imbue life with your own meaning and find something that makes it matter. I don’t think it’s sad that nothing matters. I don’t feel like a nihilist.

Haden: I’m a grouchy optimist. I’m that song, “I’m a bitch/I’m a lover/I’m a child/I’m a mother.”

In the song “Amaranth,” why choose an existing plant to portray an imaginary, magical flower that never fades?

Haden: I came upon the word “amaranth” by way of Enya’s 2005 song “Amarantine.” I used to drive to high school blasting The Very Best of Enya in my car. Parking in the student lot while the chorus from “Anywhere Is” played felt like a serve. “Amaranth” did somehow become the most similar to an Enya song, lyrically at least, in the sense that the song is set in a strange yet familiar wilderness.

J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway is invoked in a similar way to Lady Gaga on “Crossing Guard.” What intrigues you about that painting?

Haden: The J.M.W. Turner painting, like Lady Gaga, is something that through its boldness helps me give permission to myself to trust my instincts. It was made in 1844 and I think the way its textures and mood—which would later become more popular with Impressionism—feel more like a risky artistic decision in that painting. When I’m trying to find my own voice, I look to people who have found theirs as a way to boost my confidence in doing the same.

Can you talk about some of the objects and textures that inspired the composing process for Dogsbody? A train passing, a trash can, a car revving, etc.

Radlauer: The car rev was an accident.

Haden: That was just a blissful moment of someone revving their engine while I was doing a vocal take. It was a reverb chamber with a microphone placed in it, right next to the road. So it was the most beautiful synchronicity that was unintentional. But that’s just being God’s favorite.

But do you also try to mimic certain nonmusical sounds with your instruments?

Jack Wetmore: Yeah. It’s been a huge part of the instrumental thing for a long time. One of the first songs we did was “Heavy Breather,” which is just trying to sound like a train.

Many articles have described your shows as “confrontational.” Do you feel like that’s accurate?

Haden: It’s just because I’m getting close to people. It’s not singling people out. I think I see it more like I’m giving them a private moment of a show only they’re seeing.

Aaron Shapiro: Cole’s really good at reading body language and knows a person who wants to be within their own space and doesn’t want to have that moment. And to them it is confrontational. I think it’s cool that someone can be like, “The idea of Cole coming up to me caused so much chaos in my brain, that made the show feel aggressive.” But the reality is that Cole probably is not going up to those people. For the people who Cole is sharing those moments with, I don’t think those are the words they would use to describe it. I feel like it would be a lot more like, “tenderness.”

Haden: Or often, “crying.”

Like a Marina Abramović moment?

Haden: Yeah. I mean, there are memes about The Artist Is Present, but I’m just envious of that performance. I’m choking up about it right now, but it’s just so rare that you can share that with somebody. Performing is such a gift, and a bodily experience for me. It’s the one time that there’s nowhere I can escape because I have to be there. I can’t distract myself. I have to be there in my body. And it’s always astonishing to me, the beauty you are able to conjure in that space with another person.