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.~

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New Sounds Battling the Fear of Queer: Planningtorock

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 Louise Brailey talks to Janine Rostron aka Planningtorock. You can also read interviews with Terre Thaemlitz and The Knife as part of the 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.

 

How do you define misogyny?

It’s the act of hatred of women and girls, that’s basically what it is. But of course it has all these layers and all its manifestations.

Why is it on your mind now?

It’s more that it’s something in my life. I brought out a track last summer which was the beginning of my being more direct in how I feel, and also experimenting with being more political, or bringing my politics into my music… which I’d never really done so literally before. But this time I just thought “Fuck it, I want it because it’s in my life so much, and I can’t keep those things separate anymore. Why should I?” I brought out a track last summer called “Patriarchy Over and Out” and that experience, as well as getting into dance music and discovering the beauty of dance music, was really a great vehicle for me to communicate really intense messages—although I don’t think these messages are actually that intense at all. Actually, they make absolute sense. But for a lot of people they’re just like “Wow, that’s really direct”. It was the beginning of an experiment where I was really thinking a lot about how to deal with these topics without people feeling under attack. So I just started to think about really just dealing with the subject itself; that patriarchy and misogyny are just these inventions that the world should try and get rid of. We could do without them, to say the least.

Not all the recordings that I’m doing are the same nature and set-up because I still want to have fun with music and be flexible with it. But so far I’m really enjoying it, it’s kind of a liberating experience to bring these topics into your work and also educate yourself and instigate discussions with my friends and my community here in Berlin, which I really depend on, to be honest. Yes, it is very topical but I think that’s also because it’s something that’s really affecting our lives, it’s always affected everybody’s lives. Also I think the birth of a new generation of young journalists, female journalists, people finding their voices within journalism, feels like—and I might be wrong—a change in the last few years, which is really exciting. I get a lot of feedback, which is really helpful for me and really rewarding, from a lot of new female journalists. I think it is in the air.

Do you think misogyny exists within queer spaces, too?

I would say misogyny exists everywhere. You’d actually be surprised how many people don’t even know what the word means, and have asked me. That’s the other thing about language: even if they’ve needed to engage with that as a reality, they won’t know the word for it. It exists everywhere in all shapes and forms.

I know you’ve worked together with The Knife in the past, who’ve also taken a similarly political turn in addressing issues of gender prejudice. Have you been mutually influencing one another?

It’s difficult to say because we are old friends, we’ve known each other for eight or nine years now. I must admit we’ve had our conversations… But the thing that’s informed my thinking the most was just making and touring with the last album. I’m very proud of W and I still enjoy performing that album, but I came to a bit of a crisis point where I was like, “What is the purpose of my music?” There is so much music out there… not that it determines what I do, but it does affect me. I was wondering what else I personally can get from this. And also touring with an all female band played a role: even in the coolest places you can have quite horrible experiences being all female, sound technician included. After a while it was like “Gender politics are happening to me twenty-four-seven!” I needed to deal with it in a constructive, creative way. For me to stand on the stage with Hermione Frank and Joy Lee Joseph as women and then me actually sing about issues that are actually happening to us right before we go onstage, really helps me deal with that topic.

What sort of things were you encountering?

You can occasionally come across male technicians who just sabotage you. They don’t want you there, and they have big problems with the fact that you’re a professional. Or you play at festivals and then another band will come onstage and completely erode your soundcheck. I still find it shocking that even now it still actually happens. There are so many amazing female producers and DJs, but it is rampant. And also a lot of the times I’ll play at festivals and be the only female act, which I find unacceptable. It feels quite rad to be able to say, “Patriarchy, fuck off!” Having played for so many years, I’ve been full circle in the sense that I totally understand now that in order to create or achieve equality there has to be separatist movements where we as female producers and performers and creative people have to cut out an alternative because it won’t automatically be given to you. That’s also the reason why I started [record label] Human Level: to support female producers. There’s so many amazing female producers doing great dance music who need to get their music out. It’s also important to do events that are predominantly female rather than trying to convert festivals that are so male dominated and also run by men.

One thing that’s always annoyed me about how people have approached and written about your music is how often it gets called “gender bending”.

I know. It’s such a limited language that people use about it, that I’m trying to sound like a man. For me my voice is an instrument. I just like to be playful with it. It’s more of a musical decision. Of course, I’m playing with gender, yes, these old fashioned terms…

How does the music relate to your lyrics? You mentioned the pitched down vocals. There’s a deliberate evasiveness in terms of identity within the music itself.

I use how one deals with transgender issues but in vocals. Now that feels massively cheesy, but it’s kind of how I am when I’m making music and recording, because of how I identify myself as a queer person. That comes through my vocals and my music production. I have to say I feel so fortunate to make music because it’s such a great language to explore and to express yourself and also communicate. You can communicate so much with it. My recent tracks are quite direct, but there are other tracks that I’m working on that are a bit different to that. Certainly, being playful with vocals is something that feels like it’s really happened in the last two or three years, like the famous remix of Destiny’s Child “Say My Name” where the vocals have been completely pitched down. People have really caught onto it. It’s exciting, I think, that people have stopped being precious about vocals and seeing them only as a direct, truthful representation of whatever. It is a form of musical expression and it can be pulled around in many ways.

I always feel your music seeks to go beyond male and female. There’s a manifesto that comes with The Dirty Diaries, the film Marit Östberg [director of The Knife’s “Full of Fire” video] was involved with: “We don’t believe in a fight between sexes, we believe in the fight against sexes.” I find that very pertinent to your music.

I’m really glad about that. Doing this track about misogyny, I mean, I don’t believe in men and women, but when you’re dealing with a topic like misogyny you have to deal with it within your own world, within your own community, dealing with this topic, living this topic. When it’s about your life you can be very articulate, you are very aware of it. But the bigger picture, totally not. It depends on who you’re talking to and what particular elements of gender topics you’re dealing with. I would say I don’t believe there is a male or female, but in a sense, when I deal with this topic I’m going to have to talk in these terms.

Are you afraid the conceptual and discursive nature of your music might make people think the message doesn’t apply to them and ignore your music?

To be honest, when I’m making music, I can’t think of what people will think of it. If I’m excited about it and I’m feeling good about it, then I’m doing it. As a listener I completely understand that sometimes artists go through periods of making a kind of music that’s not your cup of tea and that’s totally fine. But luckily there are people really into it and I can share that with them. I played at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London for the Meltdown Festival that was organized by Antony Hegarty where I performed “Patriarchy Over and Out” for the first time there and that was just incredible: people standing on their seats, dancing in the aisles, sharing that moment and that message. It was just like, fuck, yeah, we’re all on the same page. We’re dancing and enjoying this and the message is pretty clear. Again, that’s the nice thing about music, there might be a bunch of tracks that are extremely direct and not beating around the bush, and then there are other tracks like, “What the hell is she talking about?” and I’m happy to have both. Right now I’m really enjoying communicating how I’m feeling quite clearly on a political level. It does feel a bit risky; it’s either take it or leave it. But on the other hand I thought, who would disagree that misogyny shouldn’t fucking drop dead? Who would disagree with that? ~

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New Sounds Battling the Fear of Queer: The Knife

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 talks to The Knife. You can also read interviews with Terre Thaemlitz and Planningtorock as part of the 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.

 

You’ve said you were both influenced by political texts when putting together your new album, Shaking the Habitual. Can you elaborate on that?

Karin Dreijer Andersson: When we were making this album, we wanted to find an equal base to make it since we hadn’t been working for so long. And we also thought it would be fun to combine our political interests with making music. Olof had been doing gender studies at the University in Stockholm at the time, and his courses had a great literature list. There were texts by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Frantz Fanon, Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, as well as Swedish writers writing from a post-colonial view about Sweden’s colonial history.

The title of your new album is taken from a quote by Michel Foucault where he argues that the role of the intellectual is to “re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking”. Applying that to the role of the artist, how do you see the connection between the album’s more explicitly political lyrics and the way these are expressed musically?

Olof Dreijer: For us there is a connection, but for others the connection might be more far-fetched. I think we’re playing around with authenticity and the way we’re doing that is by trying to make sounds that are difficult to pinpoint where they come from—acoustic, electronic, an animal, a voice. We record acoustic sounds and try to make them electronic, and we record electronic sounds and see if they can pass as acoustic. This can be one way where I think we can provide a world of sound where we don’t think one sound is more “authentic” than the other. And I think that is one way where it connects to what we’re doing conceptually. I also think it’s the result of the process of long jam sessions this time, as opposed to constructing the songs with the computer.

So in a way, how you’re playing with concepts of identity and authenticity in sound mirror your thinking about identity and authenticity in gender. Does a progressive political message have to be communicated in progressive musical formats?

OD: I think it all depends on what you’re trying to say. If we try to make something with a certain political content, we try to think about the best way of communicating that with instrumentation and sound. In some cases that should be an easily consumable pop hit, in other instances it should be more emotional.

KDA: At the same time, we’ve been making music together for a very long time now and we need to do things together that are challenging. To do a Deep Cuts album again wouldn’t have been any fun for us. I mean both of us think that it’s fun to learn new instruments and techniques and give yourself challenges.

Your video for “Full of Fire” includes various androgynous characters, handicapped FTMs, public sex, and women peeing in between parked cars. The song ends with you shouting the lyrics “Let’s talk about gender!” What do you want to say about it?

KDA: Well what you see in the video aren’t things you see everyday, and we wanted to show ideas and thoughts that need to be discussed. We wanted to question why it’s like that.

OD: I think there are so many things going on in the video, but I think it mainly shows people that are searching for things that feel right for themselves to live their lives. They are finding ways to live life. It sounds vague, but it’s important in a society in which heteronormative ways are so heavily promoted. And showing these different parallel and subjective experiences is important.

As background info for this interview, I received a comic strip about aid-workers humorously discussing the capitalist compulsions of the extremely wealthy. The characters discuss, amongst other things, how to heal the rich by redistributing their wealth and planting trees. What does this have to do with your album?

OD: To give a little background of the comic, we were thinking about how to go about the album cover and we thought about this comic writer Liv Strömquist who does great feminist, socialist comics. We met and discussed the issues that we address on the record and found common interests and we both wanted to do something about feminist analysis of finance, and I think her initial idea was to move the focus from presenting poverty as the problem to showing wealth to be the problem. And this is the comic strip you received separate from the album. The irony in the comic strip for me is always the parallel response of the European aide workers in Africa. This is the way that it’s close to us—thinking, for example, that planting a set of trees would solve any serious problems. I think that, sadly, the cartoon is a bit humorous.

Is this an album of protest music?

OD: I think it can be seen as that. That’s our past, we grew up with these Swedish protest songs. I think we were wondering how to adapt the idea of protest music to today.

KDA: I think it’s an interesting question—how music can be protest music now a days.~

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