Few people talk about dance music with quite such incision and precision as Terre Thaemlitz – best known for her work as deep house operator DJ Sprinkles.
Thaemlitz’s output veers all over the place, ranging from austere electroacoustic works, through piano covers of Kraftwerk records, to the longest album of all time. In these quarters, she’s best-loved for her essential deep house releases – of which the real keeper, 2009’s Midtown 120 Blues, is about to get reissued. She’s also one of dance music’s most rigorous theorists, with many of her records arriving with long essays on gender politics, social power structures, and the deficiencies of club culture. When she speaks, it’s well worth listening – for a fuller survey of her work, point your rudder towards our The Essential…Terre Thaemlitz feature.
FACT writer Alex Macpherson pinned down Thaemlitz for an (extremely) thorough, often revelatory interview on the complex politics of clubland and music-making. Given the precision and scope of Thaemlitz’s answers, we’ve decided not to truncate or fillet their discussion. Instead, we’ll be presenting the complete interview in four parts, presented chronologically but roughly partitioned by theme. You’re unlikely to think about dance music in quite the same way again.
To start with: clubland ideology.
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Monica Mugler outside Sally’s II, 1994 [via Sally’s Hideaway]
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of the club as a site of escapism – particularly for minority groups. But when this is discussed now, it seems overly historicised – as though this aspect applies less than it did when house music was nascent. How do you see this? Following on from this, what kind of differences do you see when you play to a crowd of mostly white, mostly straight clubbers in the west, versus clubs specifically geared to queer audiences? Does this affect what you play to them?
Well, I hate to start off the conversation so oppositional, but I’ve always found the idea of clubs as sites of escapism incredibly boring. At their best, I think of clubs as possible places of refuge, and how they function as safe spaces. That is something very different than a place of escapism. “Escape,” yes, but not “escapism.” Like, you would never call a safe house for battered women an “escapist house.” And, although it may not have been the majority of clubs, there certainly were venues that acted like safe houses. That is part of the whole language of the club as house, of transgendered houses, and that whole family model of trans-socializing around the house father, mother and children, right? Totally capitulatory language, but it has this connection to the ideal of a “home” as a safe space. Of course, this is more than ironic, since many house children were runaways, disowned, and otherwise homeless. And within those spaces, the “escapism” you speak of was there, but I think it’s vital to situate it in relation to context.
I mean, I don’t know what histories or discussions you’re talking about, and in my mind “escapism” is still the dominant language of the day when people speak of clubs, but… if what you’re saying is a thing, I would imagine part of that has to do with drugs and chemicals heightening emotions within clubs, while most discussions about clubs happen outside in a moment of sobriety? In my case, I know I’m weird. I never drank or did drugs – not even a beer – so I’ve been looking at these things with a kind of brute sobriety for decades now, which is why I have always been sensitive – maybe over-sensitive – to that link between context and the invocation of affect. Because for me, those deeply felt emotions people are dying to drown in just seems so obviously formulaic to conjure. Like, cheesy colored lights and mirrors, loud noise, bad air, and chemicals. I just find that whole aspect uninteresting. Only the larger dynamics of how certain spaces come into being, and the roles they play for disaffected people, are interesting to me. And, like I said, those particular spaces are few and far between. Like, I doubt I will ever play a context as interesting and complex as [New York transsexual sex worker club] Sally’s II, ever. Definitely not night after night as a resident! I accept the rarity of that experience, and continue to learn from it precisely because of its rarity. I really don’t expect to actually learn things from most sets. And I guess it is because actual learning is so scarce that it has such a deeper impact on me than self-centered moments of emotion and affect.
A lot of my sets these days focus on my own tracks, or remixes I’ve made, so that is a huge difference between the kinds of sets I play now versus the ones I played back in the ’80s and ’90s. And all of my tracks are made through a kind of historicised lens. To be honest, I feel like it’s a form of lecturing about a past. It’s definitely about remembrance. And mourning is a part of this, as well… how HIV devastated a generation of dancers. How gentrification and poverty scattered communities. Again, I don’t know what histories you are thinking of, but I can imagine those very specific and real dynamics of the past are also part of why experiences of escapism would be contextualised in relation to social crises – not just focussing on the feelings of escapism themselves. This, to me, is obvious. And necessary.
I don’t really change what I play based on a crowd’s demographics. I mean, I may think nasty shit in my head, but I don’t really change my selection. I basically look at DJ-ing, or performing, or lecturing, or whatever other kinds of appearances, as work. As labour. So my main concern is delivering on my end of agreements with organisers. I take that quite seriously. At the same time, I really don’t care about the audience. I think their pleasure has more to do with a kind of agreement between the organisers and their audiences. That all involves a lot of stuff that is not in my job description. If the audience is happy, sure, great. If not, also, sure, great. I’ve never equated a crowd’s discomfort or boredom with my not doing my job. Sometimes discomfort is a kind of proof of work, you know?
But even in this distinction between “escapism” and “escape,” do you think drugs are part of that, and not necessarily in a bad way? My original question didn’t really have drugs in mind, but to me they’re an inherent part of club culture. Not always positive, of course, but they can play a tremendous role in self-acceptance (speaking from personal experience).
Clearly drugs were a part of that old club context, and continue to be a part of it now. My friend Mark Fell once said something about drugs in the ’80s and ’90s UK scene that holds true to what I saw in the US as well. Basically, people were really miserable within society. So when they took drugs, and entered this completely “other” social space with massive sound and lights, you could say they felt transported into some other world. But the problem was that for many people being on drugs just felt so much better than when they were off drugs – which is not about drugs being awesome as much as society being shit. And that is when drugs can really take a person over and destroy them.
Within transgendered communities, and particularly in the US where the absence of socialized medicine made access to health care impossible for many, there was a lot of self-medicating going on. Black market hormones were sold by the resident coke dealer. I knew many queens who took women’s birth controls out of desperation to alter their body chemistry. And to make matters worse, they couldn’t afford to buy the hormones with regularity, so they just took things whenever they could. Or they bought one hormone pill off one friend, then a few days later a completely other type off someone else. Their bodies were utterly deregulated. It was also quite an intergenerational scene, so I saw the emotional and physical effects of this ongoing deregulation over time. In fact, witnessing and understanding the real necessity for financial stability and access to health care when transitioning – and not knowing what my own life might bring – was one of the major factors in my own decision not to go in that direction, and instead pursue a non-medically mediated relationship to my own body. So the drug issues at play in some clubs were not always just about recreational use.
What was behind your decision to steer clear of drink and drugs, especially in an environment like this? Were you ever tempted?
In a way, my experience as a youth was pretty much like what Mark described, about being miserable within society. I felt that I had no control over my life, how I was being codified by issues of gender and sexuality, etc. I think I felt like I had such a thin grip on reality that something like drugs might be the last straw that made me totally lose touch with reality forever. And I definitely didn’t see drugs, alcohol, or religion, or any other “transcendental devices” delivering on their promises of happiness to those around me. To the contrary, it just seemed to bury them deeper in poverty, and an inability to socially function. So by the time I was spinning in clubs, and a coke dealer would try to tip me with a snort if I played his request, there was zero temptation. I had absolutely no interest in anything “transcendental,” simply because I was always in such a struggle to get in touch with reality, in a kind of brute way. It just seemed that the entirety of society was focussed on preoccupying people with distractions and alienations, and those obsessions with illusion were what I personally wanted to escape from.
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I guess when I talked about “escape” I was thinking mostly in terms of identity (LGBT or racial), but I totally agree with your emphasis on tying it to social crises. When you remember HIV in your sets, is it as a kind of warning as well as a remembrance?
In a way, yes, there is a warning to be heard – because HIV is on the increase again, particularly among heterosexuals, who make up most of the crowds I am asked to play for these days. IV drug use is also back in vogue, it seems. But HIV is not the same kind of death sentence that it used to be. That peculiarly violent cultural link between the lack of medical research and those most affected has transformed to a degree in the West. By no means completely, but things today are significantly different. And that difference also effects how people hear warnings, or how deeply they feel impacted by them. So when I speak of remembrance, all of these factors of time and context contribute to the difficulties of finding meaningful ways to remember. Remembrance as distinct from nostalgia. It’s kind of a generational thing, more pertinent to people in their 40s, 50s or 60s. When they are not part of an audience, that communal remembrance is not possible for obvious reasons.
“Remembrance as distinct from nostalgia”: a phrase I really like. Do you think there’s been an increase in a culture (and industry) of nostalgia in recent years – maybe in parallel to the economic crisis? From the UK perspective, I’m referencing things like “keep calm and carry on” posters, an obsession with the Blitz spirit, all this rhetoric straight out of World War II wrapped up in a twee vintage-fetishising package that’s somehow meant to encapsulate Britain. Nostalgia as a vehicle for conservatism. You might not be familiar with the UK angle, but I was wondering whether you’d noticed this in any other forms.
For sure. One of the ironies of capitalist globalization’s viral spread is that it exploits local patriotisms, so it suddenly becomes a matter of “local pride” for, say, a city in an impoverished country to be able to build a “modern,” Westernized shopping centre. The mall gets praised for offering local employment, empowering locals, improving local lives, demonstrating that the region is globally competitive, etc. That’s how the rhetoric flows, right? Although in reality, it’s a selling off of the “local” – quite literally. The ideological craft behind post-colonial capitalist imperialism is unbelievably sophisticated when it comes to making social processes appear as the complete opposite processes. And nostalgia provides the “false memories” that make those processes appear grounded in traditions that are both timeless and immutable. For those in power, nostalgia provides proof of one’s culture being on the right historical path: “The good old ways got us where we are.” Meanwhile, for those who are undergoing ongoing cultural decimation, nostalgia might revolve around desires to reclaim something lost. Something that is disconnected from the here and now.
Either way, nostalgia is generally about rallying around a memory of power, past or present. Here in Japan, it’s always nostalgia for samurai – images of which are used to sell westernized crap from beer to the national baseball team. And as one of my Japanese feminist friends points out, this incredibly elitist image of the samurai persists despite a history of hard fought indigenous struggles to break free of those old systems of injustice. Struggles that were surely influenced by the forced opening to the West, but did not solely emerge from contact with the West. So the Japanese public today agrees to forget how millions wanted out of that samurai era. The UK public today agrees to forget that millions wanted out of that vintage packaged era you speak of. And it’s easier to forget those hard fought struggles of the past, simply because nostalgia is standing by with surrogate memories to make us feel comfortable where we are today. To make us feel at home within our current alienations. That comfort is a tyrannical thing.
Few other house DJs or producers are as conceptual or academic as you. What I like about your music isn’t just how you weave samples into the sound in a conceptual way – but how you do it to just the right extent where it’s evocative and meaningful, but never didactic. When it comes to educating people about ideas and theories, do you have any rules you follow? How do you balance out the importance of your ideas and the importance of the sound?
I understand why you phrased your question with the terms “ideas and theories,” but I’m really not about ideas and theories. I’m interested in the material realities of domination, discrimination and violence – with the objective of reducing violence. This is not theoretical or rhetorical stuff. If the kinds of analytical language I use at times read as “theoretical,” I think people have to consider that the systems of domination being discussed are so incredibly refined and finessed that, of course, any serious discussion will become complex and multi-layered. I mean, if we are talking about trying to understand the social processes by which we internalize traditions around things such as gender, sexuality and race, to the point that they feel “natural” or “instinctual” to us on an essentialist level, then we are entering the realm of social deprogramming, and the discussion will go on for a while. For example, if most people have internalized a female or male identity, and even accept those categories as scientific fact to the exclusion of other physical gender realities, how does one even begin discussing transgenderism so that it can be understood in terms other than feeling or psychosis? In other words, in material, non-theoretical terms that are not simply dismissed as delusional “ideas and theories?” So this is why I feel immediately compelled to address that phrase “ideas and theories.” That’s something different than what I try to talk about. I’m talking about attentiveness, vigilance, and self-defense tactics in response to dominations.
I don’t have fixed rules, although when working in dance genres I do often limit what I try to say, out of a kind of hopelessness that comes from understanding how limited the terms of discourse can be. Especially within a club environment, where most people are chemically detached, and the loudness makes it hard to clearly understand spoken words in the recordings. Depending on the country, there can also be linguistic barriers. So my own expectations for communicating explicit ideas on the dancefloor are low, which I guess is ironic in that most people wish to associate clubs with a freedom of expression, and of expressive possibilities. But the possibilities are few. And this is why that familiar metaphor of the club as church takes on negative meanings for me, because I think any social space that declares itself “open” and “all accepting” is instantly suspect, and engaging in ideological production.
I mean, I grew up as a non-believer in a religious family, within a differently-religious community that was hostile towards my family’s religion, so before I ever got into club music I had already developed some tools for coping with the contradictions of finding oneself buried in conservative – even dangerous – rhetoric. As a realist, I also strongly believe languages of escapism and transcendence are part of the ideological production resulting from conservative contexts. Such language generally doesn’t offer ways out of that conservatism, but serves as a means of distraction from one’s continued participation in those systems. Of course, that distraction is a coping mechanism for dealing with the reality that we rarely have the privilege to simply walk away. It is a hard reality, especially when one is coming from a position of disbelief. Like, the hurdles of the Black Atheist movement in the US are totally brutal. I realize a lot of people need spiritual rhetoric to keep their sanity – this includes music scenes – but it has the totally opposite effect on me, and totally does my head in. So for me, the more useful alternative to escapism is strategic refusal. Non-cooperation. Boycott. Like, refusing to adapt languages of spirituality within a club, or any musical context. Or twisting it against itself, like in the K-S.H.E remix of ‘Rosary Novena for Gender Transitioning’.
Several of my house releases were accompanied by poems printed on their covers, but the topic was always materialist. This was a kind of sarcastic twist of the dominant rhetoric of poetics and spirituality in dance music. Conversely, most of my electroacoustic and piano solo projects were accompanied by rather lengthy, analytical texts. However, they were not about embracing academic language, but providing a contrast to the idiotic level of discourse in commercial audio. They were a response to record labels who wanted to dumb down content as much as possible for easy sales, and music press who were adamant that audio producers simply generate “sounds from the heart,” wherein any decoding of content in those sounds was the domain of journalists. So, I don’t have rules, but you could certainly say I am always selecting language in strategic ways, based on the conventional rules of the industry itself.
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The Knife, performing in 2013.
I find what you said about hopelessness and the pretense of openness really interesting, and am tempted to agree with it – I certainly do agree with your suspicion of spaces that claim themselves “all accepting”, which isn’t too far away from “I don’t see race”-style elision of difference – acting as though we live in an ideal world and thus abdicating responsibility to change it?
Yeah, the classic thing for people of my parents’ generation (now in their 80s) was to say, “I don’t care if you’re skin is green or purple…” and then go on to make some totally racist generalisation about whatever category of people of colour they just said they don’t care about. And of course that kind of denial has been around for centuries, so by now it has gotten quite finessed in the form of Neo Liberalism.
What would you say is the ideology of the club? And what attracted you to that environment in the first place – and motivates you to keep working in it?
Unfortunately, I would say the predominant ideology found in clubs ranges from centrist to rightist liberalism. Part of this has to do with the cruise, and a conformity to particular conventions of the body – even in queer and trans spaces. Sometimes especially in queer and trans spaces.
Electronic music on a nice sound system is the main appeal for me personally. Not much else. A big part of my interest in electronic music, since childhood, has been it’s rejection of the rock-stage, and an emphasis on studio production. So I really dislike performing, and only do it because economic survival within the audio marketplace demands it. If I could live off record sales, and never tour, I would. This is why my “live” performance strategies, particularly with electroacoustic projects, have always been about denying the concert experience. For example, being at a music festival, and starting with a 15 minute lecture, then simply hitting the ‘play’ button on something completely fixed, and following it up with audience discussion. This is also a way of rejecting the conventional camp of the transgendered stage. Agitation of the audience is a part of that process, but it is not simply ‘taking a piss.’ I am interested in conveying detailed and explicit content, which requires planning and precision, and in that way the performance of my projects would be hindered by improvisation or mishaps. Most other electronic producers I meet at events can improvise because they are pretty much formalists, and not so invested in content. They lose little through the clouded poetics of improvisation. So my interest in electronic audio simply lies elsewhere, and I place it in line with a different history of constructivism and socio-materialism. Not expressionism. Not futurism, with its links to fascism.
Re: the rejection of the rock stage and your dislike of performance. Do you have any thoughts on The Knife’s recent tour? Their show for their latest album was explicit in its subversion of the established live form: an emphasis on choreography rather than an illusion of “creation” by prodding a laptop; lip-syncing as a device to make a political point (lyrics about gender coming from the mouth of a mask of a Swedish right-wing journalist) and so on. Also, do you see any future for the kind of musician who rejects the necessity of live performance? The most famous example would be Kate Bush, who has refused to perform live for 35 years – and of course even she’s given in to the demand for it this year…
I’m not so familiar with The Knife, but what clips I have seen of their shows were all totally spectacle based. The relationship between stage and audience seems completely standard. And things like a predominance of choreography and lip-syncing – which have been staples in drag performances for nearly a century (if not more), and were by no means “invented” by drag queens – have done little to undermine dominant models of performance until now. So I don’t see how it’s not just more pomp and circumstance, although within the realm of pomp and circumstance we can perhaps say it is unusual for someone in a certain genre to publicly address certain social themes. Still, I’m not particularly impressed by the style of performance itself. But to be clear, I would never expect myself to be impressed by performances.
You mention Kate Bush. I also think of Harry Nilsson as a rather unusual example of a conventional pop artist who actively refused to perform live. And it’s worth noting that both of them withdrew from performance as the result of traumas, so I am not sure if Kate Bush’s return to the stage indicates a real change or compromise in personal ethics. Hearing she was going to perform on stage did not disappoint me like, say, when I first heard about Kraftwerk’s decision to leave the KlingKlang studio and go on tour back in 2002 or whenever that was. I would never want to see Kraftwerk live because I simply don’t understand the point of it. They were all about the records. But I think it is really important not to confuse those kinds of audio producers with someone like myself, who operates on a small scale that they would all likely dismiss as inconsequential. Unfortunately, in an economic sense, it is difficult for producers on my level or poorer to reject the necessity of live performance unless they are supported by a “day job,” or they are already independently wealthy. So any future I see – at least any immediate future – is the same as the current reality, which is one of compromise and hypocrisy.
Those of us who absolutely despise performance, yet do it anyway, are numerous. The audience simply doesn’t want to hear that we’re just doing our performing jobs with the same minimum of enthusiasm they bring to their own jobs. Performers are like used car sales people. We have to appear enthusiastic to make the sale, and we can learn to muster the energy required to make the customer feel good. But what is more tragic than a used car sales person who actually “believes” in what they do? A musician, that’s who! The upsetting thing is the cultural pressure for people like me to feel shame or fraudulence about failing to believe “music is who I am.” What horrible double standard of capitalist ethics is that, when an audience requires such a thing of performers, while they themselves don’t feel that love towards their own jobs? Of course, on a propaganda level, today’s “artists” embody the potential for from-the-soul harmony between labour and the self under capitalism. That really makes music performance about an ethical double standard, which is performed by both those on stage and off. It is a double standard I can only engage with criticality and disgust. My personal objective as an audio producer is to make these hypocritical processes more visible, and speak of them openly.
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