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In Halcyon (US: halcyonline.com), July 15 2012.
Even in music, an area filled with distinctive personalities, Terre Thaemlitz, widely known as DJ Sprinkles alongside an array of lesser-recognized aliases, easily stands out from even the oddest of the lot. Whether discussing background, ideas, views, music, or pretty much any aspect of her art or personality, Thaemlitz has emerged as a rallying point for those that are looking for more diversity in dance music due to the depth of her outspoken ideas and the breadth of her musical output. Transgendered since adolescence when she was still struggling for expression and the liberation of her queer identity in Minnesota, by the very beginning of the '90s Thaemlitz had already made a name for herself as a DJ in New York's notorious transsexual clubs. The sheer extremeness of the environment caused Thaemlitz to change her DJ gender identity to the male drag of DJ Sprinkles, but it was this incidental choice that would prove lasting as that alias became Thaemlitz's best known.
Even as her production career began to take off in the mid-'90s with album releases on famous labels like Subharmonic and the era-leading Mille Plateaux, her DJ career ground to a halt in New York as the heavily queer New York House scene was stamped out by a combination of attrition from AIDS and governmental repression of clubs and parties. The downward spiral eventually led to Thaemlitz's relocation to Japan in 2001 after only a pair of releases as Sprinkles on her own Comatonse Recordings. Though she left the Sprinkles alias dormant for 7 years after that, she continued to release House tracks under the name Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion K-S.H.E as well as one-off projects; her solo album production also remained strong throughout the 2000s as she continued to pursue her political ambient, electroacoustic, and electronic jazz and keyboard music as well as lecturing on gender, sexuality, class and other identity politics and the socioeconomics of artistic and musical production. With the release of the DJ Sprinkles album Midtown 120 Blues in 2009, she attained her greatest level of popular recognition yet and was thrust back into the international DJ circuit, eventually landing back in New York last year for the first time in over a decade. Always mindful of the role political and social commentary plays in art, Thaemlitz's musical and verbal expression of her own experiences and critiques of the broader cultural movements she has participated in, provide a challenging and heady contrast to the often superficial goals of contemporary dance music. halcyon was proud to have the opportunity talk with a celebrated New York expatriate to gain some insight into the motivations that sustain her ongoing artistic and political energies…
halcyon: Hello, what have you been up to lately? I saw that Soulnessless had been released along with the new record on your label, but what else has been taking up your time?
Terre Thaemlitz: At this very moment I'm actually in the midst of a little "labor experiment" at Bard College in upstate New York. I'm here for three weeks as part of their summer MFA program, as faculty in the Music Department. In an academic setting I am more used to quick in-and-out lecture situations - similar to doing in-and-out performances. In fact, that's exactly what I did here last year when I gave a talk as a "visiting artist." They asked me back this year, and with "Soulnessless" now being done I thought it could be a nice change of pace for a few weeks… a different way to pay some rent.
Of course, academia and fine art are both labor contexts I have great reservations about - just like commercial audio. So like everything else I do, it is flooded with skepticism and concession - the usual reservations most everybody deals with in any kind of job, but which people in "creative fields" are not supposed to fess up to. We're just supposed to feel lucky about "doing what one loves," etc. It results in a context of production that is very alienated from its own processes as labor. I tend to see this alienation as an impetus for formalism. Art and music continue to emphasize the production of rarified objects and compositions that presume the inevitability of the gallery space, all the while being terminally reluctant to frame that inevitability in relation to a kind of mediation with, or concession to, cultural systems of domination. Decades after texts like Douglas Crimp's "On the Museum's Ruins," the notion of addressing the gallery space as deliberately as any other material in a producer's work still remains an oddity. The result is a fascination with formalism that imposes a touristic relationship upon the viewer/listener - the museum visit, the formal concert, the unexpected installation in a public space… It's all kind of like Disneyland in that it portrays itself as offering a world of surprises, but each surprise is contextually mediated by a very peculiar and heavy-handed plasticity. And like fans of Disney, fans of art can walk around in this world without the sense of grotesqueness felt by most others.
My problem is that, for me, this entire planet is Disney-grotesque…
h: The collaborative record with Mark Fell came along as somewhat of a surprise given that the DJ Sprinkles records have all been solo recordings before. How did this collaboration arise?
TT: Well, Mark and I have been good friends for many years, and always shared a common interest in House music. Although the kinds of audio we produce are very different, many of the influences are oddly similar. So Mark said, "Hey, next time you visit let's make a House record," and we did. It's not the first time, actually. Back in 2001 or 2002 I did some tracks with both Mark and Mat Steel (snd), under the project name You Speak What I Feel. Even though I play two of the tracks regularly in my DJ sets and they work great on the dancefloor, the tracks never got to a stage that Mark and Mat felt comfortable with. They eventually ended up remixing what we did into one track they approved of, which ended up as an snd remix on the "Below Code" compilation from Comatonse, but the remix was sonically quite removed from the more directly "House" things we did together. In a way, the Complete Spiral EP was similar. Even though I think the B-side in particular has a nice balance between Mark and my approaches, I think it was too straightforward for him. So then he took that B-side and started remixing it, or fixing it, which eventually led to the materials for the first Sensate Focus release… and because of manufacturing schedules, the "Sensate Focus EP" came out before the "Complete Spiral EP". It's a really funny collaborative pattern. I still want to try and get those You Speak What I Feel tracks into a shape Mark and Mat will feel good about, but it's also kind of nice to just keep them as my own little DJ secret weapons.
h: Clearly your relationship and history in New York is complicated, and for a very long time you didn't play here either, but now you're making regular appearances. Do you find some sort of anxiety or anticipation in returning to a place that you've had such history with?
TT: I don't know if I'd call it "regular appearances" quite yet. [Laughs] Last year I DJ'ed for Sound Noir and performed at Issue Project Room, kind of bundled together into one trip with that Bard lecture I mentioned earlier. But before that, the last time I played in New York was more than 10 years earlier in 1999.
I was supposed to play this year at the Marcy on May 4, but my flight was cancelled by the airline last minute, and there were no possibilities to get me to New York that same day. It was one of those things that nobody could do anything about, but I still felt really horrible about it. So my set at Sound Noir will be a kind of "revenge." I had a good time last year, and I like what Andrey and Jacob are doing with Sound Noir, so I'm looking forward to it.
Of course, I don't really feel any connection to Williamsburg and everything that has sprung up there. I don't relate it to the places and histories I intersected with all those decades ago. And Sound Noir is not an explicitly queer or transgendered party, so in that sense the old connections are not conjured for me. But none of this is a surprise.
h: Given the party-focused nature of dance music, the lack of conspicuous intellectuals in the area isn't very surprising, and in this aspect you definitely stick out. Although I won't constrain you as only a dance music producer, do you find that your stance creates friction as regards your interactions with this culture?
TT: For me, not really. I mean, in reductionist terms, I basically only interact with people as an employee. They invite me to perform or whatever, with a certain idea of how I will fit into their framework - be it a club or concert or festival - and I try to do what is required. The relationships and connections that emerge out of those interactions can sometimes be more personal, intense or complex than experiences I've had with conventional full-time and part-time work, but they still revolve around that economic connection. For those who believe in "living the life" as a musician or artist, my openness about economics can be taboo and cause friction. However, in those cases the friction usually arises so quickly that it never results in a gig or chance to meet in person. It ends on the level of emails or something like that. Most of the people I deal with in person are forgiving of my approaches in the same way I am forgiving of theirs, and things go smooth enough.
h: It's understandable that your music focuses so much on gender issues, and given that it was such an large part of the early House scene it was natural to include it. This focus has unquestionably diminished in the music though… How do you perceive the continuing relevance of such commentary in this particular musical style?
TT: Of course, relevance cannot be judged in relation to a topic's visibility. Just because people don't talk about something doesn't mean things are resolved or no longer of interest. It usually means the discussion is happening elsewhere. And I think that is true of House music, as it has become something increasingly familiar and widespread - background music in shopping malls and airports… As a result, someone like Moodymann wishes to reclaim some location of authenticity that has been lost. He is always looking for this thing that is increasingly unrecognizable to him. I think my House projects also have this melancholy about loss and unrecognizability. But for me, the quest for authenticity - particularly an authenticity informed/distorted by nostalgia - is suspect as a part of that entire process of appropriation through which things that were once familiar become unrecognizable. That's why I try to always position the nostalgia I carry for House music in relation to the contemporary systems of production and distribution by which they have been co-opted, betrayed and abandoned. The language of "originator" only functions for me in a deliberately referential way, such as on LFO's debut album with "We Are Back." I refuse to believe in the mythologies woven around music cultures. I direct my attention to the ways those mythologies are constructed, and how they are lost.
h: Expanding upon this, club music in general has drifted dramatically away from its beginnings as sexually charged music of liberation or suffering towards something that alternates between calculated sonic experiments and neutered party mentality. To me this loss of the emotional basis of the music has also cost it much of its urgency. Could you comment on this?
TT: Even at its peak, the language employed by the "House Nation" has always been deceptive, and filled with decoys of acceptance that were more about desire than observation. Super-fierce, overtly politically-savvy House tracks are rare. It's more about a genre's contexts. As contexts change, so do the ways we interpret genres. Over decades and generations, that also leads to producers working from completely different bases of experience. So this is all kind of unavoidable. Of course, like you, I do not feel ambivalent about this unavoidability. It saddens and upsets me. It also saddened me decades ago, such as my issues with Madonna's "Vogue" when it first came out. But even back then, those of us who felt outrage were certainly not a majority. Most people I knew were either ambivalent, or thought Madonna was amazing. So again, here and now we are confronted with a kind of nostalgic distortion of how that urgency functioned in the past in a more socially cohesive way - as though urgency somehow saturated the entire "community" (community being another suspect concept). This nostalgic generalization is perhaps framing our discussion today in a way that overlooks the fact that you (through your question) and I… and Moodymann… are all pissed off about different things amidst a lot of ambivalence… So the fractured presence of urgency in this genre here and now is maybe the only thing that hasn't changed!
h: In spite of the above, I feel electronic music is actually in a pretty good place right now so far as new sonic ideas go. You've gone on record speaking about your disconnection with the scene per se, but have you heard much new music lately that has piqued your interest?
TT: Very little. I still find that I generally leave record shops empty handed, because I find as few good tracks now as I did back then. This is nothing new. I find a lot of Will Long's ambient works incredibly listenable… I can't think of may other younger producers whose works I really look forward to in that kind of neurotic Pokemon "Gotta catch ‘em all" way. But I'm also at a point in my record collection's size where the collector's impulse is pretty well smothered out. I'm not out there actively looking for music, simply because I have too much already - on a literal, physical level of space. At this point in my life, I prefer not to have my interest piqued.
h:Fair enough. Soullessness seems to me a natural endpoint for a certain strain of your discourse in its commentary on the economics of contemporary music; you took the idea literally as far as you could. What's next as far as upcoming projects for you?
TT: A lot of little, random things piled up while I was working on the release of Soulnessless, so they are waiting for me when I get back to Japan from the US. On the House side of things, I have several remixes to make for others, a vinyl-only single for Kolour Recordings, a very limited run DJ mix tape (cassette only) for Field Records, a DJ mix CD for Mule… I'm working on an idea for my next "Terre Thaemlitz" project, but it's still in the vague early stages, so nothing yet to discuss.
I am also continuing my ongoing attempt to digitize my entire vinyl collection from A to Z. I've been working on that for about two years now, and still have a couple years to go, but I'm making headway. It's kind of like being forced to read every single book you own. There are some things you rediscover, and other things you discover for the first time because you had them but never really read them through. And then there are reminders of decisions past, like recently I was listening to the vocal mix of Mr. Fingers' "Can You Feel It" for the first time in decades, wondering why I never really liked it before, until the lyrics based on the 12-step "Serenity Prayer" come in and I'm like, "Oh, yeah… that bullshit's why I never played this version." As a listening process, I like it.