It’s 7am UK time, 4pm in Tokyo, and Terre Thaemlitz is there on the Skype. Terre is an absolute idol of mine, producing work and playing records under the name DJ Sprinkles.
The work is extraordinary – unrestricted, freeform, sonically aware, made with intent and yet totally inclusive.
She does not assimilate into any industry norms, and by doing so makes work that stands high above it.
DJ Sprinkles is coming to London this Friday, November 7th, to play at Chapter 10 at Dance Tunnel.
And so she’s agreed to talk, via Skype.
As I turn my voice recorder on, I’m asking her what she’s been up to today, the day beginning where I am, the day nearly over where she is.
TERRE THAEMLITZ: Actually I’ve been working on some custom edits of tracks for Friday night.
ME: Oh amazing. Do you do that often?
Yeah, if I’m listening to something and I think it would be nice with a longer edit or something like that, I’ll just sit down and make it, and see if it works or not.
What are the edits of?
They’re kind of secret. On the dancefloor people will recognise what they are.
Is it new, or stuff that’s old?
Oh yeah, old stuff, often stuff from the 70s.
Tell me your schedule, how often are you there, how often do you travel?
I try not to travel more than once every two months or so. I don’t like to travel.
But you were just here recently right?
I was, I did a crazy weekend in Cardiff and Bristol. I just got back Monday and next Friday I’ll be going again. But that’s unusual.
How were Cardiff and Bristol?
Alright. I like playing outside London. Different social climate.
What’s the difference?
What do you think the difference is? Everybody in England knows the difference.
This was my first time in Wales and in Bristol, but for example if you go up north there’s more of a history of socialism and unionisation that gives a different climate. London’s like New York or any major megapolis where money shits through it, so that also creates a climate that has a different neo-liberal tension around it the whole time.
What do you mean by neo-liberal tension?
Well you know what neo-liberalism is, right?
Right. [To my shame I don’t]
There’s that climate of where that Right-wing ideological power base is connected to a financial power base in the most obvious ways. When you have big banking and big business and all that stuff you end up with a climate that makes it difficult to breathe.
I’m obsessed with time, and the length of things, and how time affects nightlife. I’m interested in how you skirt over time in some way. You can allow tracks to be long without being scared of them.
I think it’s important when you’re in a club context to get away from the notion of a “song”, and not be like, “oh yeah I love this song!” There’s that weird energy that people get around pop dance music. I like to get away from that, and one way to do that is to have tracks that go way beyond the length of a normal radio edit. Let time pass and start listening beyond that initial recognition of a track, and just experience it as time.
But there’s still also a dynamic inside the track, and a tension that keeps things going.
Well why wouldn’t there be? It’s weird that people are afraid of duration and length as if that’s going to create some sort of stagnant glue on the floor. Sometimes it’s ten minutes before you get into something. If you listen to classical Indian raga, it doesn’t even start until 20 minutes into it. Clubs are also like that, especially if you’re really in a club for all night. Different cities vary, but for example in Japan the subways shut down at 12.30am, and then you’re just stuck overnight until they start running again at 5.30am. When you have those lengths of time to play with, it doesn’t make sense to be changing records every two and a half minutes. Not for me, you know? I’d rather go this other direction, where it just lets time take its own course rather than pushing everything so hard. In a way, playing fewer longer songs can compress time and makes it seem to pass faster, if you allow yourself to get into the grooves and lose sight of the “songs.”
My experience of clubs over twenty odd years is about the constriction of time – that it’ll close at 2am, or 3am.
In that case you can play only four or five tracks and be done [she laughs]. The up side of short sets is that you can come back later and not repeat your previous set.
Have you ever just played four or five tracks?
Sometimes people put you on for an hour or 90 minutes. It’s rare but it happens. Since I make twelve, thirteen minute tracks, I’ll get four or five tracks in and I’m done. But I like that sometimes. It’s good to leave people hanging. It’s OK. It’s funny how out of that duration comes this feeling at the end of, oh yeah it wasn’t enough. The scale of time shifts. This person needed more time to play for it to make sense. Maybe I look at it like playing a bunch of short tracks in a short set is similar to taking a subway. You make a lot of quick stops, but you’re in a tunnel without much of a view. Playing long tracks over several hours is maybe more like being stuck on some freeway in the Midwest of America. You’re just going through nothingness forever, then you come across a town, but you pass through it before you realise it.
I’m also interested in progress, and that there should be progress in dance music, or that it should evolve.
I mean most things that announce themselves as progressive or on the vanguard are the most regressive, right? You can’t get more old-school modernist than stating you’re on the vanguard of something. You still hear that language today, and people are still totally invested in it, but that’s dead over a half century ago, or more.
It’s the assumption that club culture has to be something new or at the forefront.
That’s the way it’s always marketed towards youth culture and this idea of the new experience. Here in Japan, a lot of the clubs are in a panic about the population decline, and from the marketing side asking how do you get the young people into the clubs. There is this dominant preoccupation of getting this new experience to the new crowd who haven’t experienced it before. But my ideal audience is 50 year olds.
I mean seriously. It’s not a joke.
Also in terms of queer history and gay culture – the assumption that clubbing involves progress.
I think clubs do play a particular role in the whole cliché mythology of queer immigration to the big cities, and the big cities are where the clubs are. You can’t get access to the music in a small bumfuck town. That whole thing of gaining access to a liberatory space, that’s all part of the role of clubs within this larger mythology of queer liberation and urban sexual ghettos.
When you say mythology, is there an alternate story, or is that the story?
An alternative story is the story of closets, that’s one alternative. Maybe alternate is the wrong word. It’s more simultaneous stories. All the different manifestations of queer existence in open and closeted forms that do exist constantly. The reason I call it mythology is because that is part of – when you grow up in these rural places… I don’t know where you grew up…
100 miles north of London.
So you know how the image of the big city functions outside the city, and the potential it promises to people in the countryside. That’s the cliché we absorb. From my experience of growing up in the mid-west and rural areas, the appeal of the big city was its offering of a space for the outsider and the misfit and the queer. Conversely, if you were a good old boy, why would you want to go to the big city? So there are counter mythologies in terms of who stays in the home town. Who would never want to go to the city? And then within that there’s a subculture of really die-hard farmer queers and shit like that. But by and large the mythology is, you escape the rednecks and you run like hell to some kind of sexual ghetto, where at least within that sexual ghetto you find some kind of solidarity, right? That’s the myth.
And it’s a more glamorous myth than staying in the country.
Depends who you are. It doesn’t mean you have to be a total asshole to want to live in the country. You don’t. It ups the ante, but it’s not a guarantee. And like I said also, when you’re in the city, you have all this fucking financial neoliberal agenda bullshit: careers, etc. That’s also part of the myth of urbanisation – the desire of having a good career – all that feeds into our clublife, doesn’t it?
A lot of the times clubs are entertainment for totally white collar jack-offs, basically. It depends what clubs, but the people who can afford to go to certain clubs are people who are at a particular state in their career. Or it’s a kid thing, blowing all your savings to go have the night of your life type of stuff.
Does that make your own relationship with club culture fractious?
It makes me an employee. And it makes it a site of labour. That’s also part of it, identifying clubs as a site of labour, not only a site of escape and blah blah.
Does that labour allow you to be creative on your own terms?
It’s one way of not working in an office everyday. We all pick our ways to try to survive. For me it’s not about achieving some sort of ideal, some sort of, “oh god I fucking love what I do!” It’s just work, you know?
But your work isn’t attempting to fit into a mass commercial frame.
Yeah but I don’t think most people’s jobs are, even if they have big dreams aspirations of “making it rich”. Most people’s jobs are enough to float them by, regardless of what industry they’re working in. There seems to be a culturally agreed upon asumption that if you’re a doctor you’re this super successful amazing doctor, the same goes if you’re a lawyer, and if you’re a musician you’re a fucking rock star. It’s just, most people aren’t Top Chef. Most people are working at McDonalds.
Do you think subversion still exists in club culture?
I think subversion exists in every aspect of culture, but in varying degrees and often in uncalculated ways. I wouldn’t want to answer that question in a way that could be misconstrued as the cliché, of “club culture is subversive” – I don’t really buy that. That’s a different proposition to how I would approach that question. In general, the answer is not really, but of course subversion exists.
Do you think it’s something that could become more apparent?
No I think it has to do with context, and that makes it against the mathematical odds. Of course, it depends what type of subversion people are talking about. Maybe the most boring club to you or I would still be considered subversive to someone like my dad. To me, subversion would be something else entirely. I am specifically thinking through lenses of queerness, transgenderism, poverty and things like this… The sites where those struggles occur and are branded subversive are going to be small in number, in the same way that with any queer factor of any context you’re dealing with a subset of any audience, a subset of any public, a subset of any group. That’s just how queer subversion works. It’s not like you have one massive club that’s utterly subversive. It’s about subversion occurring in different ways and in different contexts. Some contexts can be more extreme in their relationships to these issues and manifest themselves in more challenging ways. That’s where places become sites for social organising and communal organising. The people who nurture those spaces, they organise themselves not only around music but also in terms of how to survive hetero-normative culture. That for me would become a site of subversion or resistance. But it’s going to be rare, and it’s going to be some place that’s not going to have funding, it’s going to be the kind of place that’s not going to be able to bring me from Japan to DJ, you know what I mean?
So actually subversion isn’t the co-opted word in a cliché club way of how do describe a mass body, but it’s more personal and individual, probably unknown and probably really hard for that individual.
Subversion implies discomfort. If the majority of the industry that we’re talking about is pleasure based, then finding spaces where discomfort is actively present – not only in terms of people being so shitfaced that they’re puking on themselves, but a different level of cultural discomfort – those spaces are going to be few and far between, and they’re also going to have much more to offer in terms of educational and cultural organising value.
And also as gay culture becomes more hetero-normative in terms of marriage being the goal.
Aligned with career, owning your own home, child-rearing.
Has it always been clear for you the difference between gay culture and queer culture, in that gay culture has the desire to please heterosexuals.
That would be too broad of a statement, because I think it depends how one approaches that term “gay” – how you approach “lesbian”, “gay”, “homosexual”. If they’re invoked in a predictable LGTB mainstream way, which involves trying to sell ourselves as amazing people about whom straight folks can say “they’re just like you and me”, that sort of stuff to me has always been really alienating, because it appeals to acceptance in dominant culture. It’s like seeking the love of an abusive parent, instead of culturally moving away from the corruptions of family. At the same time there are other forms of exclusion that have to do with transphobia, and the imposition of this strictly homosexual model of gayness that excludes the fact that homosexuality and heterosexuality instantly fall apart if you’re trans-identifying, and you can’t identify identical or counter sexual object choices. If you can’t specify your opposite gender or your same gender, then instantly this very traditional and heterosexually bound category of gayness becomes something quite meaningless, oppressive and limiting. It really depends on how people approach the term “gay”. Some people are pretty relaxed about their definitions and say “gay” when they mean “queer” in a more open sense. But usually it’s the opposite, where people say “queer” when they mean “gay” in the conventional and limiting sense. It just depends on where people’s minds are. For the sake of our conversation we can give people a little credit and say that “gay” is not always so anti-queer, but there are definitely quite oppressive LGBT appeals to mainstream acceptance and power sharing that I find disturbing.
Is the history of queer culture in clubs separate from the mythology of gay culture?
For me, what differentiates queerness from mainstream LGBT language is that queerness is always very much entangled with conditions of harassment and persecution. Even if you try to be “proudly queer”, it’s still a derogatory term. It still comes with this homophobic connection to violence and harassment. That has always been a part of the development of lesbian and gay culture through modernity. Of course the violence and the homophobia have affected people no matter how religiously or loosely they related to a strictly defined homosexual identity. So in that sense queerness is always present. It’s that displacement of not being able to find a safe space. Fifty years ago, maybe you went to a club in search of a safe space, but they were still dangerous. You could be spotted there by somebody and outed. You could be spotted going in. It could be raided by police. You could be arrested and have your name in the paper. There were all kinds of harassment bullshit. Every country has their own harassment stuff. Britain was particularly horrible to people in the 70s.
That for me is queerness, not something that’s just an academic rejection of the hetero/homo binary, but it really goes beyond that rejection to something that originates in violence, and in experiences of violence, and in an urgency and panic of what to do amidst that violence and harassment.
It’s interesting because queerness has a certain posh softness to it.
Yeah I don’t know exactly what the linguistic gap is. I think most British people recognise that Americans use the term “fag” in a derogatory way. There are differences in language, and I’m speaking as someone who was conditioned in the American English language so maybe sometimes these things I’m saying don’t resonate properly.
Oh no they resonate.
In the US the term “queer” has definitely been coopted by academia. It’s become very institutionalised. A lot of people in Queer Studies programmes wouldn’t feel or sense the inherent contradiction in saying “queer pride”. They’re instructing queerness through a pride-based model, and to me that’s just so fucking backwards and insane.
Like the word’s been gutted.
It’s been ripped of contexts where lives are more informed by shame than pride.
And also not seen as a day to day individual reality.
Yeah and I think this goes back to forms of sexual ghettoization. I think the arts and academia are “big city” places where a lot of people run to. There is definitely migratory mythology around that – “my queer migration into academia”. I think that whenever you have these kind of enclaves that are seemingly and systematically granting a kind of safe space to people, it’s easy to forget that it is still a process of ghettoization within the wider culture. People lose sight of violence in a way, and internalise their newfound sense of safety to the point of ambivalence toward certain things.
It’s interesting you say “safe space” about things. It’s like people yearning for comfort, or assuming their life involves the goal of comfort.
Well I do think the LGBT movement has reframed the urgent need to escape persecution as a quest for comfort, reconciling that with standard right wing neo-liberal agendas of seeking pleasure and seeking relaxation. That’s “safety” in the way you just invoked it. I am not speaking of safety as a quest for comfort. For me, safety is about not getting punched, not getting spat on, not getting disowned and kicked out of a house and made homeless. That for me is safety. That’s the level I’m thinking on. I do think that through the mainstreaming of LGBT agendas, this kind of urgency has been reframed has hopes and dreams and good ol’ folks who share the same dreams and ambitions as everyone else. Of course that’s partly true because we’re all fed the same bullshit aspirations from childhood onwards with Sesame Street and all that crap. But one’s relationship to those, and what relationships we’re socially allowed to have or denied as a result of issues of sexuality, gender, etc., can result in quite different experiences of social conditioning around those expectations.
Were you always fearless?
It’s funny. I always think of myself as afraid.
Yeah as soon as I said the word “fearless”, that’s what I thought you’d say.
And again, there’s this way in which dominant culture wants to frame things as heroic, wants to frame things as about being in some sort of vanguard, with the fucking wind in your face and yeah you’re just so fucking tough. No it’s totally about acknowledging being really fucked-up and fragile and lost. That’s a different kind of isolation than the heroic model, that for me resonates with queerness and not with the whole pride movement stuff. The whole Pride movement shit is totally reconciled with all this vanguard modernity, face-the-future, go-for-it bravery shit. For me that’s the language and the style and the aspirations of the people who were kicking my ass as a youth. So I’m like, fuck that. It doesn’t click for me. It’s not interesting to me. It’s not helpful to me. It’s stopping me from identifying the material bases for my cultural alienations, which is a prerequisite for social agency.
Were you always allergic to the thing that felt wrong, rather than assimilate to it?
Oh no I was desperately trying to fit in, of course. I think that’s the normal thing, to be so fucking desperate to fit in, especially going through youth. Youth is a nightmare, wouldn’t you agree?
Would you ever want to go back?
No. Literally never.
Never, never want to go back. Getting older is the best fucking thing that ever happens to people. And that’s really difficult to talk about in a cultural climate that’s so fixated on youth.
But it’s interesting when you realise only you as an individual is going to live your life, so live your life and make your own choices.
Again, you’re invoking this modernist language of individualism. I mean I think it’s important to always have active language that keeps a person from buying into the lie of those choices being a wide breadth of choices. In the end, the majority of people never overcome the class barriers that they were born into. That’s just a statistical fact. The reality of what choices we’re allowed to make are very limited, beginning with most people not being able to step out of male or female, not being able to step out of a singular hetero-/homo- sexual identity. Once we internalize these things, then even if we feel like we’re really making choices, the range of our choices are so few, very few. Culturally, we’re given just enough choice to psychologically squeak by. Dominant cultures don’t forgive choice, don’t forgive difference and diversity.
And then as we get older, we solidify those gender differences ourselves, so that our idea of female is defined by make-up or appearance.
Yeah, about ten years ago I stopped wearing make-up when in femme drag, in feminist solidarity against the tyranny of the cosmetics industry. Make-up is so fucking expensive, and I know so many women who are really at the poverty line blowing so much money on the labour of looking feminine. And it really is labour. Similarly, within trans communities, that’s part of the labour of passability. That is a heavy duty work load, and I don’t have much skill for it, especially as I get older.
I’m not one of those people who feels comfortable when I’m in femme drag. I’m feeling uncomfortable always, in male or female clothes. So I just stopped doing make-up, but then people comment about how I’m too lazy to shave. It’s like, I do shave, as close as I can. I’m just not piling foundation on, and I’m not taking hormone treatments, and I’m not paying people to do laser hair removal. I’m trying to have a non-medically mediated relationship to my body as trans. That’s a very unpopular thing that brings a lot of hostility, not only from transphobic assholes pointing out what a mess I am, but also people within trans communities pointing out what a mess I am. My attempts to divest of certain representational procedures involves a completely different kind of trans labour that doesn’t have much visibility around it, as opposed to the labour of trying to pass in a more conventional way.
Do you mean the labour of coping with the reaction you get?
It’s a lot of work to maintain oneself, and sometimes I get lazy – by which I really mean exhausted. Like what I’m wearing right now – my lazy clothes are my boy clothes and part of that laziness is they grant me a gender passability that is less questioned than when I’m in femme drag, even if it’s casual femme. I don’t mean gala stage queen stuff. I generally don’t do that. I generally try to wear more everyday, standard femme clothes – which is as much about the fear of creating a spectacle that results in being spotted and harassed on the street, as it is about rejecting clichés of MTF campiness. But choosing clothes also has to do with where my mind is. Am I in the mindset where I have the patience to deal with the looks and the stares when I’m going to the market? Especially since I am already a racial spectacle in my neighbourhood. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I really don’t. And that affects how much labour one is able to put into it. It’s work to dress, no matter what you’re aiming for.
It’s interesting that it’s your body, your hormones and DNA that make you you, so why would you want to add hormones.
I don’t know. I really think that the whole discussion of hormones and DNA… if you really get to that level, if you really want to talk about biology, you really have to get into such detail that genders become non-quantifiable. And that’s the point where you leave conventional western science, because conventional western science relies on quantification, dismissing the minor percentages and going with the bulk percentages, and making sure you can identify things by counting them. And that is how we culturally justify what is real and what is not, what should be funded for research, what should not. This makes it difficult to speak about non-quantifiability and the fact that, really, if you want to get pissy about it, every single person has a unique gradient of gender going on. So that makes the active discussions around DNA and hormones and stuff more problematic. It doesn’t make them totally useless, but it often makes them unhelpful when thinking about social organising in relation to harm reduction and violence reduction. Because in that case the organising really has to do with a social capacity to make decisions and engage in choices that will reduce violence. If you limit the conversation to the realm of biology and medical treatments, your choices are made for you, and there is no room for language of personal agency. Neo-liberalism loves that, they love to legislate rights around “I can’t help it, I was born this way” rhetoric. Because that’s totally in line with feudalism and aristocracy: that your rights are bestowed to you based on the blood in your veins. It’s a completely conservative and familiar argument, and the fact that western democracy continues to legislate around “what can’t be helped,” DNA and blood lines, all this stuff is a sign that we have never really entered democracy at all. In the same way there’s never been a communist society, I would argue there’s never been a democratic one. The gap between the ideals of democracy and how rights are actually legislated around the body is so obscene and feudalistic, that gap for me is as big as the gap between communism and Stalinism. It really is that broad for me, but most people won’t feel it as that broad.
Do you have any hope that there will ever be the right legislation or the right protection against violence, or is it just getting by with having to deal with what’s there?
I think there’s been a real deliberate backwards trend since Reaganomics and Thatcherism that has lead to a global reinvestment into the privilege of individuals and ownership, privatisation and getting away from state projects. Even though we keep the language of democracy, socially we’re moving further and further away from state projects, we’re going more and more into privatisation – our healthcare and things like the postal service, the power companies and all these things that were built through our taxes are then sold off and privatised to people who are free to then just make billions, which they do. Especially now, since we’ve exported so much of our labour and manufacturing to places and cultures where they really have far less issue with openly exploiting the labour classes on a slave level than in the west, it really allows the west to feel like, “oh yeah, we can still talk about freedom and how we’ll get there someday and things are getting better.” Fuck no, everything’s going fucking backwards, we’re just totally in shit. Capitalism works better with slavery, people in power know it, the wealthy know it, and that’s how we get into all this privatisation shit.
And capitalism works even better when the slavery’s somewhere else so you don’t have to look at it.
Yeah, that’s a huge part of it. That’s part of the whole western agenda of marketing pleasure: to obscure and obfuscate the actual practices of labour required to sustain our privileges – even if that’s the privilege of living in the lower classes in the west. We’ve just got to hide all that shit so people can live in their delusions. That’s classic capitalist alienation and reification in extreme.
I’ve got to run soon, but I’m interested in how we keep coming back to language, and the limitations of language, or the way language defines things in a way that feels separate from the truth.
Language is oftentimes enslaved to expressing the inversion of material conditions. Dominant cultures cultivate language, especially in an era of mass communication. Of course language is the main means of explaining and justifying the imbalances of power. Language is fucked up, and we’re all fucked up by it [she laughs].
The loveliest thing about your thinking and you is that the work you create is so warm.
Well I think people buy into a very monochromatic model of what warmth is. That includes presuming warmth and happiness are aligned. A lot of times they aren’t. A lot of times warmth has to do more with a capacity for sympathy and empathy rather than actual pleasure or joy, and I think that’s a big mistake that people make. I think they also make the mistake that if you acknowledge your sufferings and oppressions in an attempt to step into a space where you can start to react to them on a material, organisational level, then you’ll be trapped in existential crisis. You’ll just be paralysed, you’ll have Sartonian nausea, you just won’t know what to do. No. There’s all kinds of mobility out there that are fuelled by negativity. I mean important kinds of mobility rooted in urgency, not the luxury of hope. People are taught that “negativity” breeds the “bad things” in life. But what morality does that reflect when you as a person are branded a “bad thing” to begin with? What does it mean when most of the fag-bashers I grew up with were socially accepted as positive, athletic, god-fearing role models? Most people would categorize fag bashing as a negative thing, but for me its horror is a reflection of the “positive,” the plusses, the praised, the excesses of systems of cultural domination. For me, all of this destabilizes one’s perception of warmth and coldness, and creates false expectations for where we might find such things.
I always think about Hush Now, and how it’s so warm and bouncy, and then the “Silence = Death” chant comes in, and it so amazing the way the two are connected, and it’s like the perfect delivery for that.
That’s a reworking of something from the Archive Of Silence by Ultra-red. That project was very much around how silence functions in relation to the history of HIV and AIDS activism, and how we’ve re-entered a period of silence. So that “hush now” is in a way the hush we have now, and it’s also an order – “hush now, be quiet”. So having the track transition from the phrase “hush now” into the old HIV/AIDS activist chant “silence = death”, reinvoking that chant today, was the gesture I was going for.
Here’s that work, Hush Now.
I’ve included this YouTube clip, and not others, because it was posted by its record label.
For years I’ve wanted to get her 2008 CD, Midtown 120 Blues.
It’s one of those ones that goes for £££ on Discogs.
She’s just released a special edition on Boomkat.
Here’s a sampler – click on it to buy.
My copy turned up over the weekend.
Some of the sleevenotes:
“The audio on this CD is identical to the 2008 first edition and subsequent represses on Mule Musiq. There are no plans for a vinyl edition because the bass spatialization effects that give many of these recordings their sonic character are incompatible with vinyl mastering techniques.
Featuring Comafidelity Multi-Channel Sound. No fucking-sucking-licking-sticking without latex. Clean your works with bleach and water. Do not attempt usng any part of this product as a safer sex device.”