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DJs In Exchange: Francis Harris In Conversation With DJ Sprinkles
- Francis Harris

In Fabric (UK), Posted in Interviews on Thursday 28th November, 2013 by kirsti.



Scissor and Thread is a label that we've been in appreciation of since its very inception in 2011. Helmed by Francis Harris (who also releases technoid house as adultnapper) alongside Anthony Collins, it's the perfect platform for his heart strung connected grooves. This month has seen the release of Harris's latest single 'You Can Always Leave' which features a remix by Terre Thaemlitz otherwise known in the dancing world as DJ Sprinkles. The 12 minute exploration of Harris's soul infused original is just the tip of the iceberg of this producer to remixer relationship with further remixes planned for when the LP this single stems from is released in the New Year.

The approach to this record is just one of the topics discussed when we invited Harris to interview Themlitz on the blog ahead of the next Scissor & Thread venture into Room Three this December, making the most of the insights that only the experience of being a DJ can bring. What came out of their email discourse is a compelling exchange which, while also offering an advanced level of insight into the process that resulted in the aforementioned track and Harris's soon to be released album, is also a sharp witted critique of some of the issues that are passion points for not only DJs but listeners today. Yes the old vinyl vs digital debate rears its ugly head again but we don't think anyone has really managed to nail it with this level of affirmed depth before.

Harris: In light of this little tour we are doing and this is probably the most indulgent of questions, do you buy a lot of new music or is most of the music you play in your DJ sets from your past collection? Does your collection continue to grow? If so, how do you find your music these days?

Thaemlitz: No, all of these questions are actually hot buttons for me these days. You know, I've collected vinyl records since I was a kid, and have a few thousand by now, so it's really a burden to carry them forward in life - especially with space being such a premium in Japan. But my record collecting has also seriously tapered off in the past few years, not only because I don't have any room left, but because once a collection reaches a certain size you realize there's not much else out there in the world. A lot of people would surely disagree, but for my particular tastes in audio, I find a lot of contemporary music is just recycling things from 20 or 30 years ago, and not really adding much to the conversation. And as a collector, that revelation was a relief. [Laughs]

Actually, being bombarded daily with horrible online promos is what led me to realize how little there is going on out there. The quantity of things out there is exponentially greater than in the past, but the occurrence of interesting projects has not grown along with that quantity. It's kind of like how the recent increase in people with Masters and PhD's in Fine Art have not increased the incidents of interesting work in that field. So - listen up, distributors - actually, you could say online promos have killed my music consumption. Online distribution and marketing has created a kind of "force feeding of your favorite food" environment that made me say, "Enough!" It has also completely detached us from the physical search of interesting materials. There is no longer any physical relation, memory or sensory experience of sight and touch involved in discovering music - I mean physically discovering it, in a particular physical space. Today, people don't have physical relationships to their music. That has been supplanted by their relationships to their pads, smart phones, computers... That shift has already changed the social function of audio in ways people have yet to acknowledge.

Of course, every now and then I'll train spot a nice track from some other DJ I'm playing with, and then track down the release, but it's rare. These days I'd rather spend my money on some cheap, used gear than on records, I guess.

Do you follow much of what is considered house music today? Do you connect with it on any level?

I only follow it loosely. But in a way, that has always been the case. I've always been really fussy about what I considered to be "deep house," which has always been a kind of minor sub-set of what most house DJ's bought. Even back in the '80s I would often walk out of a DJ record shop empty handed, because I didn't hear anything I liked. As for socially, today I really don't connect with it. I mean, I could probably count the number of explicitly queer parties I've played in the past 10 years on one hand, and transgendered presence at those was near zero. And, outside of Japan, it's been forever since I played a house party where people of color outnumbered white people. I'm quite serious when I say DJ-ing house in 2013 is not much different than being an "oldies DJ," like Wolfman Jack or something.

Speaking of record collections, I am always torn when thinking about records. I love them, both in the way they sound and as a physical archive but I also know there is a level of exclusion that plays into record collecting. Clearly this is a privilege economically. Given the fact that you have become quite iconic with record collectors, do you find yourself at odds with the reality that economic conditions often limit a fans ability to hear your music in intended format?

Limitations of audience are a precondition of any minor audio practice. I've spoken many times against this crazy idea that fringe audio practices should attempt to reach a broader audience, etc. That is capitalist bullshit speaking. It's greedy. It shows an utter disconnect from understanding the non-standard workings of minor material contexts in which we produce. Of course, standard capitalist socialization, especially "American style," has everyone conditioned to be willing to spend more for successful things or big names, and expect the poor to give away everything for free as part of their climb to fame and recognition... Reality is the absolute opposite! If you run a small label - or just press up something on your own without a label - the per unit cost of that small pressing will be way more than some major label cranking out tens of thousands of copies of Lady Gaga or whatever for pennies each. So, of course, they cost more. But the distributors won't pay more. The consumers won't pay more. As consumers, we need to restructure our brains and think about what it really means to invest - both culturally and economically - into fringe media.

But vinyl is a bastard, isn't it? I mean, people who have never pressed vinyl - even massive collectors - seem to have no clue about how much is sonically lost in the mastering process. Spectrally, stereoscopically, it's a nightmare. And the signal-to-noise ratio is awful. But since we live in an age where people seem satisfied ripping lo-fi MP3 audio off YouTube videos, it's hard to find people who actually know how to "listen." It's a lost skill. Johnathan F. Lee, who had a release on Comatonse and teaches at Tamagawa University, often tells me about how the current generation has almost no physical relationship to bass frequencies because they do most of their listening on headphones. So even when they are in a club or some other space with massive bass hitting their bodies, they approach the experience of "hearing" that bass on a strictly tonal level rooted in headphone conditioning. The physicality does not factor into the act of "listening." They actually ignore the physicality, like they can't even hear it. And I think he's right. So all of these factors make it rather nonsensical to become really defensive about one particular format being better than others, since peoples' relationships to formats have also changed with time and generation.

For me, the major loss is graphical. A record sleeve's size, the feel of the paper and other materials, the space for images and notes - these are major losses, because they really constructed individual relationships to the listening experience of each record. With digital releases, the experience is always the same, graphically mediated by the pad or device you hear it through.

I recently read your account of a debacle with YouTube. I find it interesting how any criticism of streaming services or file sharing is immediately labelled as a defense of authorship and/or a loss of sales, but not often put into a different context. Would you argue that easier access to music signifies a democratization of the medium, allowing more access to more people or are you weary of this categorization?

The argument that access to commodities is tantamount to democratization is the very argument deployed in the defense of globalized capitalism, and the colonial export of Western culture around the globe, so I would definitely distance myself from that stance. And, based on our own cultural privileges, we become numb to the exclusions faced by people who can't keep up with the latest OS, etc. I mean, I still run Mac OS 10.5.8, and that is causing me increasing problems - particularly when viewing the web, because my browsers are "out of date." I mean, there are lots of people out there - particularly in Third World countries - still using really old computers that can't handle all these pointless upgrades to Yahoo! Mail or whatever. But nobody talks about it. Nobody thinks about it. Often times, even when it affects them personally. That is the big ruse of democracy via internet access. It really displays the inherent classism and willing blindness to poverty that most people engage in.

If an American had to pay the equivalent of $10,000 - $15,000 for a computer, maybe there would be more outrage. Yet, that kind of purchase parity exists for people in other countries where annual income is less than a low-income American's monthly income. So let's keep it real... well, too late, isn't it? The entire IT marketplace revolves around this rhetoric of democratization. And it has been successfully sold around the world. Amazing. Crushing. Disparaging. What can I say? This topic really upsets me. It illustrates so much of what I despise about capitalism, and the cultures it breeds. Capitalism works best with slavery. Not with unionization. It is not about equal distribution and access. It is absolutely about offering the golden ring to a chosen few - and every fucking Disney and Pixar film is programming kids, particularly boys, to believe they are the "chosen one." Who's teaching kids about social cooperation? Who's teaching them about more open models of gender and sexuality that don't revolve around the heteronormative family unit, and the gender-biased dominations that comes with (which includes things like the two gay dads on "Modern Family," etc.)? It encourages people to want as much as they can get their hands on - including free MP3 files - with no willingness or ability to share in constructive ways. By "constructive," I mean sharing in ways that amount to more than giving other people more junk to collect. It means sharing in terms of experience and interaction - not commodity exchange. Access means nothing if people have no tools for understanding how that access relates to power and domination. It means even less if the social processes one enacts for access mean replicating the very dominations one wishes to overcome. Distancing oneself from the obsessions of wealth is another important aspect of "democracy," and it is a skill to be learned. It is not inherently pro-capitalist. It is not inherently free market. Today's world of Western global access actively discourages learning such skills. It teaches people to actively unlearn democracy.

I wanted to thank you for the wonderful work you have done with the remixes coming on my next LP. In thinking about these remixes, I am brought back to something you said with regards to music as a medium that reflects specific contexts, relations, environment etc. Given your knowledge of the specific subject of “Minutes of Sleep", was your approach to the remixes impacted differently than usual? Does the process differ in remixing as DJ Sprinkles and as Terre Thaemlitz?

Well, we've talked about this some, and you know that I really enjoy remixing your tracks because I find your recording process and the sounds you use really nice to work with. And the remix process is helped by the fact that your work, especially as Francis Harris, deals so much with mourning - even though I think we approach that theme from different vectors. I would say you deploy more private poetics and affect in relation to personal histories, whereas I am concerned with an explicitly public performance of mourning in relation to less individual-oriented social histories. For example, the ways in which your albums address family experiences is very different from how I addressed them in projects like "Soulnessless" or "Lovebomb." But there's something in that gap that I find quite workable.

On the technical side, the process for doing a "Sprinkles" house remix is totally different than doing a "Thaemlitz" electroacoustic remix. The sounds for electroacoustic tracks use totally different software and filtering strategies. Samples are used to process and generate completely different sounds, and then the remix is built around those new sounds, layering some of the original source materials back into the new stuff. For the house tracks, it's inside out. The style of sampling is more straight forward, with the original source sounds forming the track foundation, and then layers of new sounds are added on top. That's an oversimplification, but kinda how it works...

But getting back to the more interesting stuff, this subject of loss was actually something I wanted to ask you about as well (assuming this is something you speak publicly about - you brought it up in your question, so I assume it's okay, but if not, you can ignore this bit...). Of course, there is a very established history of commercial music rooted in themes of private loss. And it is usually spoken about in terms of the musician's need for personal catharsis - but this is, of course, an odd performance of the "private" in "public." And I get the sense this contradiction is a bit awkward for you - like, it's the thematic center of your work, yet you also try to play it low-key to protect some sense of privacy. I was wondering if you would be willing to talk here about this tension some?

In my first solo album Leland, the theme of private loss was worn much more on my sleeve. When I go back and listen to it now, it feels almost childlike, not in a pejorative sense, but in a way, it seems almost silly to me, as it in no way really captures the complexity of emotions attached to the events surrounding the death of my father. When I wrote this album, there wasn't any intention to write a requiem. It simply fell on the calendar as I was beginning to write an album under the moniker adultnapper, so consequently, there was some (bad) luck with it happening this way. In general I find that any attempt to transcribe moments of grief is doomed to an immediate failure, as for me, they elude transcription if only for the fact that the cycles don't ever stop. So in approaching the new LP, having been through both the experience of writing Leland and losing my father, and now my mother, I retreated further away from the public as you point out to a place of difficulty. This difficulty is precisely the failure of communicating moments of private loss. If we were to bring this down to the basics of signifier and signified, the question becomes, who's signifying? Grief itself? Which poses a problem, as it then seems like a metaphysics of loss, which, of course, I would run away from in an instant. Thus, the tension of this impossibility becomes the central theme of "Minutes of Sleep." In my mind it’s an open ended question, not a resolution in the slightest. The album goes between moments of ease to moments of extreme tension, which was the best way to put into a form the constant experience of re-discovering the sadness I feel with the loss of my parents.

Yes, I think most "public" rituals for mourning and death - especially funerals themselves - are so outdated and unsatisfying, and re-banish acts of mourning to the "private" sphere, the isolation of which brings the allure of metaphysics scratching at many peoples' doors. I like that your album - as a "public" act, and an act of labor - alludes to the sound of that scratching, but keeps the door shut.

In my mind, very few producers, especially in electronic music, and more specifically with a reach into house music, concern themselves with idea of music production as work by definition, demystifying the idea of the artist in a sense and bringing it back down to the nuts and bolts of labor relations. Your fans, however, I'm sure have a very emotional response to your music. I know I have. Does this then pose a problem for you when having to speak of your own production in that the resulting impact is perhaps out of context with your intentions?

The fact that people would have emotional connections to a commercial audio release is not unexpected, so I understand that is actually a likely precondition to any conversation I wish to have about labor. We are all encouraged to internalize consumer praxis until it appears to be nothing but emotional affect. I find that most people fear music will lose its "enjoyability" if the affect-dependence is broken - kind of like religious people who think a person without faith would be inherently absent of morality. But that's just not the case. And in fact, I find that stronger kinds of responsibility and ethics emerge when one is accountable to real human beings interacting with each other through conscious decisions. Like, if you make someone else suffer, there is no psychological retreat into a belief that one's cruelty was justified because one's god(s) demanded it of them. To the contrary, "belief" becomes the escape from moral responsibility, although it is represented as doing the exact opposite. The religious analogy isn't so far from music, since we're talking about questioning what most people would define as a "spiritual" relationship to sound. So the same argument applies to the "spiritual" or "emotional" consumption of music. I think it's a smoke screen that conceals cultural processes of consumption rooted in economic domination and violence that actually betray those very feelings of intimacy and caring most people associate with music. There are deeper connections to be had through the deployment of sound, including emotionally, and they require a bit of deprogramming of one's consumer impulses.

You have mentioned in past interviews some of your original influences both theoretically and musically (not mutually exclusive). Are there any musicians, writers, activists that are informing or inspiring your current work?

I think a lot of the "informing" is not about agreement or a kind of one-to-one sharing of interests that most people would associate with "inspiration." In that case, influence is more like homage. I'd rather look at influences as being more about dialogue with people who don't necessarily share like-minded ideas. That doesn't mean they are so necessarily far or oppositional in views, but I think the act of learning happens through mediating differences. Not simply absorbing and regurgitating in agreement. I think my best experience of this past year was at the Arika festival, where I was able to spend several days with members from New York's current vogue scene, the Ballroom Archive and Ultra-red's Vogue'ology project. It was a very important re-connect for me. But it was also really important to use that time to really speak frankly with each other, and push each other a bit - like an ideological vogue-off, with plenty of shade, actually. [Laughs] But it's important to see other peoples' styles, and how they ideologically and socially move, and that informs one's own repertoire and moves as well.