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New Sounds Battling the Fear of Queer: Terre Thaemlitz

Electronic protest music? In this three-part feature from the Spring 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, we speak to three contemporary electronic music acts challenging traditional power structures through this most unlikely of musical forms. Here, Rashad Islam Endicott interviews to Terre Thaemlitz. You can also read interviews with The Knife and Planningtorock as part of this series. 


In western pop, it’s been a minute since the classic protest song has worn anything but the musty perfume of canonization, wafting a relevance more historical than contemporary. But don’t blame it on apathetic youth or lack of international example. While music became one of the most important platforms of protest during the Arab Spring of 2010 and Occupy movements went global in 2011, 2013 has seen a revival of music with a message in the unlikeliest of forms and in conceptually less charted waters. The predominantly instrumental domain of electronic music has become a medium for topical songs on queer culture and the destruction of patriarchal norms in the context of broader social change. Recent releases by The Knife (Shaking the Habitual), Planningtorock (“Misogyny Drop Dead”) and Terre Thaemlitz (Soulnessless), connect the morphability of sound synthesis with thoughts on the fluidity of gender identity, albeit in very different ways and to varying degrees of reflection. Here, in three parallel interviews, a conversation emerges on the virtues of inauthenticity, gender equality, and finding the political in the personal.


2012’s Soulnessless is a hydra of different kinds of political critique. Can you explain how you connect the (superficially) disparate issues of gender-identity, the devaluing of musical labor, anti-religiousness and immigration policy? Would you say that conceptually, one of these issues is more important than the other in terms of the focus of Soulnessless?

For people where those issues collide, how do you disconnect them? That demand for thematic singularity is very tied into Western notions of individuality and the singularity of the self, and it didn’t emerge from monotheistic cultures by chance.  This is what I attempt to dissect, first and foremost, within myself. And giving visibility to everyday multiplicities, hypocrisies and contradictions is a part of my strategy. It becomes a strategy in itself. I would say the umbrella theme of Soulnessless is a critical rejection of spirituality and religion, but my hope was to do it in a way that did not simply boil down to Liberal atheism. My model of atheism is very much attuned to the fact that I do not believe the oppressions of religion and spirituality, including secular spiritualism, will ever disappear or be overcome. Globally, most non-believers are forced into closets and left without language to process their disbelief. Specifying one’s religion on a job or housing application is not that uncommon, globally speaking. Even in the US, in a poll asking people who they would not want their daughter to marry, atheists outranked both African-Americans and Muslims.

Even beyond atheism, I think the main form of “disbelief” revolves around inter-faith disputes and how someone who does not believe in your god becomes a non-believer, even though they may actively practice some other religion. Like when my Catholic parents relocated our family to a radically Baptist town in Missouri, I recall my mother having real difficulty finding work because she was Catholic. So a kind of conventional and non-disparate approach to the theme of disbelief doesn’t really make sense to me, in the same way a discussion on “gay men” is very different from a discussion on “men who have sex with men.” The latter includes many men who may not identify as gay at all—which may seem superficially disparate at first, except the global reality for sex between men is more likely to involve at least one person who does not self-identify as homosexual. I find that what at first appears disparate is, in the end, sometimes what is most crucial to facilitating a different discussion on seemingly old or familiar themes.

Do you consider your music—both the electroacoustic stuff as Terre Thaemlitz and house stuff as DJ Sprinkles—to be protest music? How does it compare to, say, Pete Seeger or protest music of the civil rights movement in the sixties?

“Protest music” conjures a very specific image. I probably think of what I produce more as analytical discourse. I would say the biggest difference between my approach and a political folk music approach is my criticality towards musical mediums themselves. Folk is very much infused with a kind of “anti-industrial authenticity”. Perhaps in the same way musique concrète is inseparable from the political complications of futurism and constructivism, so is the American protest song inseparable from the political complications of the various reform movements back in the early 1900s. It’s very tied to a specific brand of patriotism. It also involves a very different and idealist concept of how music and community function. I don’t share that generic optimism about music “bringing people together.” I mean, a big part of my “protest” involves taking constant issue with the cultural mechanisms of music itself.

So, why is it important for you to address issues of gender-identity in your music?

Audio is simply a form of language, so I feel like anything intended for an audience should address some issue. My primary relationship to music is economic—both as a consumer and producer. My affinity for audio production as a strategy, especially sample-based and electroacoustic audio production, is because I feel the act of sampling audio has a metaphorical connection to transgenderism as a form of cultural sampling gender models. I am only really interested in audio and music that is not rooted in authenticity, authorship, “coming from the heart” or “soul,” etc. I think of audio sampling as a way of establishing reference points, like footnotes in a book. Unfortunately, the cultural climate around sampling legalities makes it impossible for producers to be open about the connections we wish to make. Even if someone has the budget for clearing samples, there are also thematic restrictions upon usage.

We really live in an era where we are taught the only socially acceptable and legal relationship one can have to sound is that of ownership. But at what point do we, as consumers subjugated to an endless barrage of pop crap, come to “own” our own cultural experiences and relationships to those songs society will not allow us to escape from? This is not so different from the ways in which we are unable to escape prescriptions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, etc. And music is so often a part of how we construct identities, especially in our youth. So I think it’s already a familiar medium for dealing with something like gender identity. It’s just about escalating the directness and depth of discourse. Basically, turning it up!

How and why did you become an atheist? Is it an identity, too?

I don’t feel I “became an atheist” as much as deprogrammed my relationships to faith and spirituality. So for me it’s more about an “unbecoming”. I am not interested in atheism as an identity. To define oneself as atheist is more about a strategy of disassociation from dominant religious and spiritual ideologies and practices. I appreciate the expression “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.” Personally, my relationship to atheism is one of hopelessness. I am definitely not of the “we shall overcome religious ignorance” variety. Even if religion fades, such as in contemporary Europe, the specter of secular humanist spirituality remains. Humanism—a belief in a shared human experience—is the reified god of contemporary Western cultures.

How good of a vehicle is music in conveying political ideas?

It’s awful.

But it’s been a pretty good way for you to express your contempt for authenticity in music and art.

Well, this ties back to the sampling issue I talked about earlier, for sure. Authorship, individualism, creative ownership—these are things that stop us from discussing, or even conceptualizing, more complex relationships to the social and cultural functions of audio and other media. The notion of authenticity also has a very particular relationship to patriarchy, and the processes of being “named” within patriarchy.

Are there other musicians whose work is political that you appreciate? What about musicians whose political stances you have a problem with?

When people ask me that, I always mention Ultra-red, of course—even though they are not specifically doing much audio production in recent years. Otherwise, I have to pull out rather old references like early Laibach or Test Dept., before both of those bands went industrial-techno. And Nina Simone, of course. Realistically, if you’re really interested in culturally critical content, music is a pretty bleak landscape. That includes not having many people whose political stances are open enough to have a problem with. The biggest problem I see among audio producers is our general passivity with the ways in which audio industries function, and how our works are distributed.

Like the “cleansing” of house music’s queer roots? How does that happen?

Pretty much in the same way disco was cleansed, right? I mean, any non-mainstream genre that gets marketed to a broader audience becomes decontextualized and transformed, usually to the disservice and alienation of those earlier contexts. As a genre becomes more established, everything becomes repackaged to appeal to the sensibilities of who it is being marketed to, as opposed to who is producing it. And over time, if the marketing is successful, those become the same thing.

Do you remember the first time you were attacked for your sexual identity? How did you defend yourself?

I think most people would hear that question and think about physical attacks and bashing, and whether or not I physically fought back. But if you ask about my first memory of such a thing, it’s actually more sublime than that. My memories of being harassed and ostracized predate any sense of sexual identity. There are so many subtle forms of violence we deal with every day, starting the moment we are born. I was given this Spanish woman’s spelling of my name “Terre”, which is my legal birth name, not a stage name or French for “earth” or anything artsy. My parents are not feminists or particularly gender sensitive, so growing up I never had any reasonable explanation for why I wasn’t given the usual US male spelling “Terry”. I think it was really just their crazy Catholic way of referencing that they named me after St. Therese of the Roses, and not after St. Terrence, without giving me the standard US female spelling “Terri.” They probably felt that was neutral and safe enough. And the fact that “Terre” rhymes with “fairy” didn’t help either. For the first twelve years of my life I was “Terre the fairy.” Then the name calling got more sophisticated as my classmates’ vocabularies expanded.

As for defending myself, I was strictly into passive resistance and non-violence. I never physically fought back with punches. This also had something to do with naming, since my middle name is “Martin”, after Martin Luther King, Jr. So I was raised to honor that idea of non-violent resistance. At the same time, my parents’ response to my problems with bullying was, “Just ignore them and they’ll go away” which is a tactically similar, yet ideologically inverse, way of passively engaging with oppression. [Laughing]

But I fought back in other ways. In my teens, that had a lot to do with appearance, freakishness, gender-fuck… It also had to do with studying the best I could in school as a way of getting myself a ticket out of my hometown through out-of-state college scholarships. So much of education is utter bullshit, but if a young person can muster the strength to think of it as a way to create options in life—as limited and stupid as most of those options will be—it’s better than nothing. But that’s hard to fathom as a young person with such limited life experience. A lot of my friends were not able to study because the insane social dynamics of school life in the US preoccupied their lives. Some friends even joined the military in that typical “lost American teenager seeking direction” kind of way. I always found that devastating. How could anybody apply for a job where one of the requirements is that you might have to kill another person? It was heart-crushing to see people who were dear to me and who I know shared pacifist beliefs feel they had no other options or directions in life. Pacifism and anti-militarism are almost as taboo as atheism, when it comes down to it. Especially after 9/11.~

Published May 09, 2013. Words by Rashad Islam Endicott.