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Risk Spaces: Octo Octa In Conversation With Terre Thaemlitz

A lot has happened since Octo Octa (a.k.a. Maya Bouldry-Morrison) released Between Two Selves in 2013. The record worked as a kind of heavily coded autobiography that came out three years before she herself came out as transgendered. Its successor, Where Are We Going?, will be released this month on Honey Soundsystem’s HNYTRX label and resumes a similar theme with a direct and deep expression of queer identity through the narrative of sample-laden house music.

The approach bears an obvious resemblance to the work of Terre Thaemlitz, the transgendered musician, theorist and DJ whose releases as DJ Sprinkles and K-S.H.E. have played a major role in making themes of queerness and gender identity a central discourse in dance music. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the two artists have been in contact. Bouldry-Morrison first met Thaemlitz online, when she ordered records from her Comatonse website. Since then they’ve developed a friendship born from both an aesthetic kinship (Thaemlitz has re-edited and played Bouldry-Morrison’s tracks and vice versa) and also in their similarity of experiences as out trans musicians working inside the confines of a heteronormative dance music industry. Electronic Beats editor Derek Opperman connected them for a conversation that explores what it means to be a transgendered artist in the world today.

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Maya Bouldry-Morrison: It’s always weird to say this when the person is there, but Terre’s work has always been really important to me. Your music has been hyper-influential, and it’s some of my favorite music. And when I’ve emailed you in the past, you’ve been really nice to me and sent me guidance. I don’t know. I like you a lot.

Terre Thaemlitz: Yeah. I’ve also enjoyed sharing files with you and listening to your demos over the years. It’s always been a nice thing.

Derek Opperman: Terre, have you heard Maya’s new album?

TT: I haven’t yet. What’s it coming out on?

MBM: It’s coming out on Honey Soundsystem.

TT: Oh, that’s great.

MBM: It’s coming out on [their label] Honey Tracks. I met them here in New York and then in Dublin. They wanted to work together, so Jackie House and I have been doing this album for a while.

TT: Maya, have you ever lived in California?

MBM: No, I’ve only visited for a couple days at a time over the past few years.

TT: Better to keep it that way.

MBM: See, that’s how I feel! I’ll come, soak in some nice weather, have fun, eat some tacos and burritos, go to some nice clubs and then go back to my colder atmosphere where I feel more at home.

TT: I’ve talked about this before, but like, I lived in Oakland for four years. And I was trying to figure out why or what it was about the San Francisco scene that was so off-putting for me—thinking more specifically in terms of queer and trans spaces. And it kind of came to me that it’s the place where all the repressed Midwestern people go to come out. So in a way the space has become a parody of itself with all these non-local people living out the fantasy of what it is to be queer.

MBM: Sure. It’s like they go because they think, “This is finally the place where I can do this, because it’s where I’ve always heard I’m allowed to do this.”

TT: But what the “this” in quotation marks becomes is this Midwestern fantasy of what it is to be a leather boy or transgendered or this or that. My last year there I thought, “I think this is kinda what’s going on here.”

MBM: I don’t have much of a sense of it. The Honey [Soundsystem] party I played was really fun, but I felt like I was one of the few trans girls in the space. I mean, it’s not like, a safety issue or anything like that—everyone was super great there and it was really fun. But at the same time—and I’ve had this recently in New York and just the parties I go to—but I don’t necessarily see a representation of me necessarily in those spaces.

TT: Sure. Well, I think that’s kind of like queerness in the more traditional sense. Not in terms of the reconcilable PrideTM stuff, but queerness that is something about being in a minor position­. Like, even being in the midst of a trans ghetto or a gay ghetto doesn’t guarantee that PrideTM formula of seeing one’s reflection in others. I just think that even in “safe spaces,” not “seeing oneself” is okay in the sense that…because it resonates with an experience of actual queerness, as opposed to an experience of PrideTM. You know? But whatever. We still get lonely.

MBM: That’s true. It’s not necessarily a terrible thing.

TT: Yeah. My memories of San Francisco…I would like to think things have changed, although I doubt it. But I couldn’t get through a single conversation with another trans person without them saying something really sincere about their zodiac sign. What do you do with that kind of sincerity? You know what I mean? It just wasn’t the place for me.

MBM: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m not sure where you’re supposed to go. I’m just like, “Okay, cool. Thank you for this information. I don’t have anything to reciprocate. Cool.”

TT: Could I ask something, Maya? Does your album have a specific theme?

MBM: Sure. The last album I did in 2013, Between Two Selves, was a coded queer trans message because I wasn’t ready to come out at that point. Where Are We Going? took forever to finish because I like the idea of a nice, packaged narrative with a bunch of tracks that actually work together versus one where it’s like, “Here’s the two hit tracks off my past two EPs, and I’ll throw in a bunch of whatever transitions.” It took a long time to get something done, but the point of it was for it to be at least a bit more, uh…not coded

TT: Overt?

MBM: Thank you. An overtly queer message with the narrative built around it.

TT: How did you go about doing that? Is it like a title game? Are there samples?

MBM: Yeah, it’s always a little bit of a title game. I have a track in the middle called “No More Pain (Promises To A Younger Self)” that has a wailing vocal sample with a break over it and a Kenny Bobien vocal attached to it. I’m trying to reference myself when I was 14 or 15 years old and not sure what was going on. There’s heavy pop references, but I was also listening to a lot of drum & bass. The trajectory of the album starts very sparkly and nice, and then I have to cap it with like, two very dour, sad tunes to try to express that I don’t know what the fuck is happening right now. This was also right before Trump, so, you know…It feels like more poignant of an insight into what was about to happen—because what the fuck is happening right now?

TT: It’s really hard to figure out how to get themes to work in a club environment. I think it’s really with an album, from the consumer side, that one has more of a chance to think. People are more likely to sit down and think deeper about things in a headspace that’s not so chemically altered and socially distracted.

MBM: Yeah, but it’s still tough to send emotional content just through instrumentals. I’ve been trying to move away from using vocal samples as much as possible unless I’m the one creating it or I’ve asked someone to do it.

TT: I don’t have such a memory of you ever really using so many vocal samples.

The only thing that was affected by me coming out is that I got more comfortable DJing. I feel much more free now to play whatever I want and also to have fun in the booth and dance around.

DO: Do you think even instrumental samples can still carry a specific emotional message?

TT: Well, yeah. I’m all about using samples in a footnote kind of way, and also using them to get away from originality and to get away from these gestures of expressing the self in some sort of one-to-one, pure, coming-from-the-heart musician’s bullshit via “original compositions.” In the end, even if you’re attempting to mediate affect and convey a strictly emotional message, that’s still really heavily coded through musical structures. It’s not pure emotion. You’re using social languages of music and genres to convey signs of emotions. So for me, yeah, samples are really a deliberate way to minimize that conventional belief in the “authentic” musician’s gesture behind the tracks.

So that’s why I’m wondering, Maya—because I know a lot of producers reach this kind of turning point where they get more invested in musicianship, which I can understand because the technology is oriented towards live performativity and improvisation—but do you also think there’s a conscious or unconscious correlation there with using fewer samples and a sense of coming into one’s “authentic self” through your transitioning process? Or is it more just about audio production and learning how to use music technologies through experience and technique? Or is it just random? I mean, there may be no connection at all between less samples and transitioning. But I’m always into using media that metaphorically reflects certain relationships to strategies around gender and sexuality, so that’s why I’m asking.

MBM: Specifically for producing, transitioning didn’t necessarily change things I was doing before. As for scaling up and being a better or worse producer, I’m all super self-taught. I have no background in anything, so it took me about 11 years before I had a first record out. My scale of learning and actually getting better at stuff is very, very slow. But as for comfort and being better at doing music stuff post-transitioning, I think the only thing that was affected by me coming out is that I got more comfortable DJing. And I don’t know why there’d be a correlation between the stuff I would choose to play, but I feel much more free now to play whatever I want and also to have fun in the booth and dance around. I had a friend point that out to me. He said, “You seem a lot more comfortable than you were a few years ago.” And I was like, “Oh, thanks.” And he was like, “And you’re a better DJ now.” And I was like, “Okay, cool. I guess that’s related.”

TT: And part of that can just be getting older. Actually, if you don’t want to talk about it, we can make it off the record. But you’re like, early 30s?

MBM: I am turning 30 in two months. 29.

TT: God, you’re a baby! So we’ve got like, 20 years between us. It’s a different thing.

MBM: Oh, I know. It’s a large gap to have. I think our youthful experiences were radically different. I don’t think there’s as much shared background for where society is coming and going. But that might also just be me not having as much knowledge because I wasn’t alive back then.

TT: No, I can imagine our experiences were quite different. I think you also grew up on the east coast, didn’t you?

MBM: Yeah, I grew up in New Hampshire. I was born in Chicago, but I left when I was nine. It’s really funny when people are like, “Oh, I saw—because I looked you up online—that you were born in Chicago. I can really hear that Chicago sound.” And I’ll be like, “Mmm…if you mean me being with my grandma when I was eight years old going to Bally’s Total Fitness and listening to La Bouche in the car…”

TT: That’s totally there.

MBM: Right. But it’s like, I guess that’s the “Chicago sound” for me? I mostly grew up in New Hampshire, a small state where people would listen to punk and hardcore and awful funk bands. I was the weirdo who’d be like, “I got this Total Science mix CD,” and people would be like, “Cool, I guess?”

TT: I think the drum & bass connection is a really big generational difference. I never got into drum & bass because it was so associated with techno in the hetero, white techno sense. The divide between techno and house only really came into place in the early ’90s. I was in New York at the time, and techno and house events just had such different crowds. And so from techno it went into drum & bass and that whole trajectory, and I never really got it.

MBM: I heard it first when I was just starting to be a teenager. It was rebellious, aggressive music, and I didn’t like punk, but I heard this other thing that was really intense. And when I hear dubstep now—like Skrillex or something—I have no interest in it, but when I think about it, I think that it would be everything if I was 14 years old.

TT: Yeah, I can imagine that if I was born 20 years later I might have a totally different reaction. I kind of have to situate my reaction to drum & bass as something really located in that time and place in New York and what was going on with social divisions as the genres came into being.

MBM: Also, I came into it with a total lack of context. In New Hampshire at 14, I wasn’t going out to drum & bass nights at local clubs. There were no local clubs. There was no scene or places to go to understand it. Instead it was just sitting and listening to stuff on the internet. I feel like there’s a bunch of people my age who also had the same experience. A bunch of people I’ve talked to at various house and techno shows also kind of grew up with drum & bass. They talk about how they ran drum & bass forums and websites. It’s a very solo, sit-down-in-front-of-a-screen experience.

TT: I remember visiting my parents in Missouri once, and the local Chevy pick-up truck dealership was using drum & bass in their TV commercials, and I couldn’t help think of how the locals had no other context for those sounds, as well as the marketing research that must have been behind it. Like, it was certified redneck background music.

DO: I imagine your experiences transitioning and coming out are very different due to your difference in age. Maya, what is it like to transition and come out under the scrutiny of social media and the press?

MBM: It feels like a very atypical experience, I’m sure. But “atypical”… What’s typical? So far, people have been really sweet. I’m really happy that people seem okay, but I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop constantly—especially now that I’m doing more stuff and have been out longer. People are very nice, and that feels strange because that’s not the narrative I grew up with necessarily.

TT: Yeah, I think you’re also lucky to be—well, we’ll say “lucky”—but you’re working in a field that is more open to it than doing nine-to-five office work.

MBM: Yeah, of course. I’m not a CPA or something like that.

TT: You’re living in Brooklyn. So that’s all kind of on your side.

MBM: My wife and I are planning on moving back to New Hampshire in the summer. Part of me is excited to be out of the city and to save some money, but at the same time, I don’t know how it’s going to be going back to a non-liberal space. But then also, as much as Brooklyn wants to talk about how liberal it is, of course it isn’t on the surface.

TT: There are still risks everywhere. Here in Japan, I often say that one of the things I like is that even if people hate you, the worst they can do is ignore you—as opposed to America, where they lash out. And coming from that context, silence becomes golden, right? Though if you’re raised in Japan, that silence is as aggressive as spit in the face. Last year I moved out to the Japanese countryside. I don’t own a cell phone. I do email and I have a website, but in some ways I’m still a little deliberately off the grid when possible. So I didn’t think about the fact that, when I moved here, the neighbors would start Googling me, you know? I’m basically surrounded by Japanese farmers in their 70s. One day I was out in my yard just doing some yard work, and the guy from across the street came up with a smartphone and was like, “Oh, is this you?” And he had the Where Dancefloors Stand Still mix on his smartphone. I was flustered for a minute because I didn’t know how deep he’d gone in terms of his searches, and I didn’t know if I was out as trans yet, and I didn’t know if, like, he’d seen the Japanese texts I’ve written that clearly put me on the left against the longstanding right-wing Jimintō political party. I didn’t know how deep it went, and I still don’t know. And then I was like, “Oh fuck, people are Googling me. These people are definitely checking out my website.” But it’s been okay. There’s been no positive or negative reaction. Except there was a positive reaction from that guy, actually. I said, “Yeah, that’s me.” And he was like, “Oh.” He went out into the field, and when he was driving back to his place later that night, he rolled down the window of his pickup truck and shouted, “House music!” I thought it was a good sign.

MBM: I worry about going back to New Hampshire. I think the state likes to think of itself as a country hick area. But it’s also a fiercely libertarian state. The Free State Project moved in years ago, and it’s tried to influence local politics to be either separatist or just totally libertarian. As much as I don’t like their politics, I do like the “Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you” ideology. It makes me feel a bit better about going back, but still. I don’t know.

TT: That’s such an old theme. I think of bluegrass songs like “Nobody’s Business But My Own”—stuff from the ’20s. I think for whites, a big part of that was about the escape from Europe: “Don’t fuck with me; just leave me alone.” Trying to get away from people. That’s part of the American psyche I would say, but it also turns into this weird aggressive flip where people can get in your face really quickly, too.

MBM: Yeah, I hate going to Boston. Boston’s the nearest city to me. In college, immediately within 10 seconds of parking my car and walking out, I would have someone screaming “faggot” out of a car at me. They’re not wrong; they’re right. I am a faggot. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily need that called out.

TT: When I was in England in January, I was with this taxi driver who was clearly in the wrong profession because he was seriously road raging the whole time. He was going off on the car in front of him like, “Come on, you faggot,” and stuff like this.

MBM: I had that happen in Portland recently.

TT: It’s still a part of the world, for sure.

MBM: Right, yeah. Last year, I was walking by a car in Brooklyn wearing jeans and a crop top and someone said, “What the fuck does that dude think he’s doing right now?” Like, not screaming it at me, but still saying it loud enough so that I could hear it. They have that aggressive tone, and people say, “Oh you live in Brooklyn, everything’s good.” And it’s like, “Mmmm, kind of? I guess.”

TT: The same thing happens in Berlin, too. I don’t know if you’ve had similar experiences, but I’ve had experiences like that in Berlin. People there can’t believe that anybody could possibly think anything strange, but, like, Berlin is also like that. It’s not as open as people think.

MBM: I always just walk around with headphones on almost constantly listening to podcasts or audiobooks so that I can disengage as much as possible to get from space to space. I get tired of the looks and the stares and the comments…you know? I hate to use the term “micro-aggressions,” but…

TT: Just “aggressions.”

MBM: Yeah, exactly. It’s just aggressions. Exactly! That’s what bugs me about that term so much.

TT: It’s the new way of saying “passive aggressive,” I guess, right? I mean, just like we can’t say “harvest moon” anymore; we have to say “super moon.” Everything’s a catchy soundbite.

If society was safe, you wouldn’t need a safe space, would you? The idea of seeking a safe space is proof that things are not safe.

DO: Terre, what were your experiences in Berlin?

TT: Mostly stares on the street, sometimes comments. I just think, in general, every place has its tensions, and that a lot of the spaces that we think are going to be—or that are billed as—safe still tend to also be places that are strange and risky. We were talking about San Francisco earlier and Brooklyn and Berlin as well. When you’re in those spaces, you also kind of develop immunities to certain levels of aggression. You become accustomed to the tensions around you until you don’t feel them anymore. And when you go to another space or another context or another city where the way that those tensions manifest is a little different, you suddenly feel and hear them in a way that you didn’t locally because you’re just kind of immune. You build up immunity to a particular style of aggressive tension.

Like, I’ll never forget when I was taking part in the Intersex 101 exhibition in Berlin a few years ago, where almost all of the participants were some shade of trans. Del LaGrace Volcano and her partner had the unfortunate experience of having someone kind of stalk them on the subway, ultimately pull a knife out, and they got off the train to escape that person. But even that experience was just kinda mentioned in passing, and still didn’t really disrupt the larger Berlin vibe that “we’re all free here.” Clearly not. I found it a very Berlin moment, in that denial of danger.

DO: Do you think safe spaces are something of a mythology then?

TT: Well, yeah. If society was safe, you wouldn’t need a safe space, would you? The idea of seeking a safe space is proof that things are not safe.

MBM: I think that’s what we were talking about with liberal cities. There are areas that you can consider safe spaces, but that doesn’t mean that the location as a whole is much different than any other area.

TT: Yeah, and a lot of the time that’s about ghettoization too. You know what I mean? Like finding the “queer ghetto” and staying in that neighborhood as much as possible. That becomes the space where—as long as you’re within those streets—everything’s hunky-dory. I think I only realized how strongly western notions of identity are entwined with ghettoization after moving to Japan. Over here, you don’t really have ghettos, and you also don’t have a culture that values individualism or difference in the western sense. It was after several years here that I started thinking about how the kinds of economic exploitation that lead to internal social separatism, segregation and ghettoization are also the material conditions that give rise to the western sense of the self as “socially other,” like “individual.” I think that amplifies feeling like one only is at home in certain neighborhoods or within one’s local community and stuff like that.

So I think this comfort of safe spaces and familiar faces is also a kind of internalization of the boundaries of one’s lack of social mobility. And this is behind how the west has come to define the relationships between the self, identity and community. Like, the ghetto is not only a space of economic strife, but also a space where particular immigrant groups or whatever will stick together. On the one hand, it’s to help each other because there’s a familiarity of how to work together, but on the other hand it has to do with being excluded from dominant culture. It’s the same thing with queer ghettos, too. You don’t end up with something like the Castro district [in San Francisco] without there being a serious lack of acceptance elsewhere that pushes people into these particular groupings.

I guess, maybe in the current age, as more and more stuff is happening online and we see a kind of decline in dedicated queer spaces, you end up with more mixed spaces, but they’re also “mixed” within certain heteronormative parameters. I was having a conversation with a guy at a Japanese club here just the other night—one of the organizers at Unit. We were talking about this stuff, and I was talking about the lack of perversity in Japanese clubs. He was talking about how he felt that today’s clubs were more mixed, and for him this was a kind of progress compared to the old-school way of having like, a dedicated queer club or a trans club or a drag bar. But still, I said, the vibe at these supposedly mixed events is still very straight, you know? And if you are going to be out in these mixed spaces as something other than straight, then you will only be tolerated if you are out within certain heteronormative parameters, like a certain type of accepted gayness or a certain type of accepted transness—usually one that panders to straight audiences, or is comprehensible and morally acceptable to them.

And I think that that’s kind of the world we’ve stepped into: one where, like, because so much contact and communication happens online now that you don’t have that physical necessity to go out and find those risk spaces. The old clubs, fucking in the parks and all that stuff, was about the inevitability of risk spaces and hidden spaces simply to make human contact. There were no other ways to openly connect. Now people can openly connect online without even stepping outside. So when they do step out, they do so with this whole other kind of vibe of acceptance going on—a vibe I would say is self-deluding, but…I think that kind of frames this discussion we were having about how people see certain spaces as safe, but they’re only safe in relation to a certain kind of normalized perversity and difference, you know? Like mainstream LGBT.

DO: The idea of risk spaces as a foil to safe spaces is something that never really occurred to me. It seems to me that nightlife or clubs in general are spaces of risk.

TT: How do you see that in clubs today? What do you identify as the risks?

DO: The risks often come through drug use and sexuality. You could overdose in a club. You could contract an STD.

TT: But that’s more about risk behavior—risk behavior spaces. Like, people putting themselves at risk. I was talking about risks from society outside.

MBM: Yeah, risk behavior spaces. Not necessarily out on the Chelsea Piers or something like that.

TT: I didn’t grow up in Europe. I’ve only been exposed to European clubs through my work, and that’s always been a very limited interaction. It’s a fly in, take the money and run kind of thing. But it seems like, in the European scenes that I get hired into, the risks are usually just about straight white people wanting to preserve the right to party. It’s like a “fight for your right to party” rock anthem mentality. So I don’t know. From a kind of angsty teen perspective, I get it. It can make sense as a response to a kind of general social unhappiness. And I’m sure my views are limited by the fact that the weird underground European queer trans events don’t have the budget to fly in people from Japan or wherever, so that’s why I end up playing for these straight mainstream audiences. I wonder how my exposure to that specific type of European crowd has skewed my ability to see different types of things happening. I wonder if everything really is as totally heteronormative as I think it is. Maya, do you find yourself booked into queer spaces much? Do you have a take on this?

MBM: So although I came into my sexuality and began identifying as queer at 16, I’ve been mostly seen as straight because I have a wife or had a female partner. And I really wouldn’t talk about it publicly. I’d talk about it to friends, but I wouldn’t do any press based on it because I wanted to do the thing where I talked to my parents first. So this past year, when I came out as trans publicly by basically saying, “Attention, internet: Here’s the news,” I’ve begun to play a lot of queer spaces, whereas I didn’t get to play them before. So I am looking for and playing at more queer parties now. Typically those crowds and parties are more fun.

TT: And there’s less bro-fists coming into the DJ booth.

MBM: Oh absolutely. I love to purposely play smaller parties and super-low-budget things that are local and that I can do easily. Those events don’t typically have the dudes coming up into the booth asking for whatever. Though these days I get a lot of girls coming up to the booth asking me to play techno. It’s always a bit strange, especially when you look up and it’s like, “There are 200 people dancing right now. They seem pretty happy with what’s happening. Maybe we’ll get to that later? I’m not sure?”

TT: People who make requests are really amazing.

MBM: It’s also always their birthday, apparently.

TT: It’s always somebody’s birthday somewhere.

Read more conversations on Electronic Beats here.

Published March 22, 2017.