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In Straight No Chaser (UK), January 2009.
Some of you may be familiar with DJ Sprinkles. First off, there was the inclusion of the excellent 'Sloppy 42nds' on Ame's 'Coast 2 Coast' compilation in 2007 - a tribute to the 42nd Street transsexual clubs such as Sally's II and Club 59 that were destroyed by Walt Disney's buyout of Times Square. More recently, 'Grand Central Pt 1' and 'Brenda's $20 Dilemma' from his latest album 'Midtown 120 Blues', forthcoming on Japan's Mule Musiq, have rekindled interest in those ambient, deep and introspective house burners.
However, it's as New York-based electronic music artist Terre Thaemlitz that Sprinkles is better known, a successful composer, critical thinker and uncompromising voice who has released records on Instinct Ambient, YMO founder Haruomi Hosono's Daisyworld Discs, Bill Laswell's Subharmonic Records and his own label Comatonse imprint, among others.
Besides the inquisitive pulse and connective emotion charging each of Thaemlitz' releases, it's his free and ardent spirit that proves most compelling. "He combines themes of identity - including gender, sexuality, class, linguistics, ethnicity and race - with an ongoing critique of the socio-economics of commercial media production," according to one wordy source.
His writings on music and culture have been published internationally in a number of books, academic journals and magazines. And as a speaker and educator on issues of non-essentialist transgenderism, Thaemlitz has participated in panel discussions throughout Europe and Japan.
'Midtown 120 Blues' is DJ Sprinkles' debut album and, according to the press release, "It's the rhythm of the empty midtown dancefloors resonating with the difficulties of transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, racism, gender and sexual crises, unemployment and censorship."
That's some synopsis. But as soon as you here the opening bars of the serene intro, disturbed by the voiceover stating very matter-of-factly, "House music isn't so much a sound, as a situation," you'll realise you're in for a true - and tense - listening experience. Prepare for lilting teardrops of piano, defiant kicks, a Madonna smackdown, apocalyptic yet paradisal Larry Heard landscapes, beatless movements fashioned from a classic funk break - it's a preternatural "obituary" of house.
In a world of the dollar, the show, the conceit and the fraud, Thaemlitz is all about truth, context, freedom and passion; principles crystallised during a life in the margins. The cries of pain giving way to those of joy. Midtown will feel a lot bigger after you've listened to this.
Chaser recently caught up with Terre Thaemlitz and posed a few overcooked questions. They certainly provoked a reaction. (Amar Patel)
CAN YOU PLEASE GIVE THE CHASER READERS A BRIEF RESUME OF YOUR CAREER FROM WHERE YOU'RE STANDING TODAY. IT NEED NOT BE A BLOW-BY-BLOW LOG - JUST CERTAIN THOUGHTS AND ACHIEVEMENTS YOU'VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT RECENTLY PERHAPS?
This is a hard question for someone who has been releasing projects for 15 years in just about as many genres... But I've been standing in about the same place all that time - despite changes of city and country - since I pretty much work at home.
Achievements are also tricky to list. For example, I received an Underground Grammy from Sally's II for 'Best DJ of 1991' only to be fired the following month for refusing to play a Gloria Estefan record, so I'm with Flavor Flav when he said, "Don't believe the hype". I had a line about this in the intro to 'Midtown 120 Blues', where I tried to frame my idea of the New York house scene in relation to anonymous, unpaid people in unknown clubs - not the major clubs and DJ's whose names come to mind when we are asked to think of New York. That's where I'm coming from. And I think the fact that I have managed to survive for so many years making unknown projects with minimum circulation says... this is my niche, for better or worse.
YOU SEEM TO BE MAKING A STATEMENT ABOUT HOUSE MUSIC WITH 'MIDTOWN BLUES'. IS THAT AN ACCURATE COMMENT?
Sure! I think if you bother to release media for an audience you should at least have the courtesy to give a bit of content. If I'm only interested in masturbating I'd prefer to do that alone - usually.
WHO IS SPRINKLES AND HOW DOES HE/SHE THINK AND BREATHE DIFFERENTLY TO TERRE?
DJ Sprinkles emerged as a character of mine in the late eighties, while living in New York. That was the era of macho DJ names, so I wanted a name that was totally weak. It's also a side reference to post-porn performer and safer sex educator Annie Sprinkle, who lived in the same neighbourhood. I was mostly DJing at HIV/AIDS benefits and transgender sex-worker clubs. Sprinkles is primarily a male character. Although I identify as transgendered, I am non-op (I don't take hormones or wish to surgically alter my body) and I was too shy to 'come out' in drag before all the hardcore transsexuals working girls. I was no match [for them]! In that way, I look at life as a closet with a revolving door: you come out of one closet only to step into another. As Sprinkles I preserve that dynamic and rarely DJ in drag (as opposed to my Terre Thaemlitz performances where I am usually in drag).
WHAT ARE THE MIDTOWN BLUES AND WHERE SHOULD A LONDONER GO ABROAD TO FEEL THEM?
'Midtown' is, of course, a reference to Midtown Manhattan, which is where I used to DJ and where a substantial African American and Puero Rican transgendered scene used to exist. Since the mid-nineties, that area was bought by Disney, rezoned so the sex industry was kicked out and so forth. The 'Midtown 120 Blues' refer not only to the social strife of that scene as it existed, but also to it's dislocation and loss at the hands of gentrification.
YOU COME FROM A STRONG BACKGROUND IN ART. HOW, IF AT ALL, IS THAT RELEVANT OR MANIFESTED IN YOUR MUSIC. PERCEPTION OR 'LEARNED AWARENESS' PERHAPS?
It's more accurate to say I come from a background in rejecting art as a study; and being critical of all media. Studying visual arts in New York totally destroyed my Midwest dreams of being an 'artist' of any kind - the gallery community was filled with all kinds of institutionalised discrimination but waking up from that dream was absolutely a necessary death of sorts.
My interest in DJing is the non-spectacular, anonymous kind. In the old days, DJ booths were usually hidden. Dancers didn't look at the DJ, they looked at each other. This is how I got into DJing as a kind of performance that was not stage-based or about ego (clearly, this is not the case for all DJs). Today, most clubs are set up so people stare at the DJ. There is very little interaction between dancers. It's become a concert, which I think is, frankly speaking, dumb. And boring. Clubs can be really boring anyway, but it's a different kind of boring.
YOU'VE HAD EXPERIENCE IN THE MORE FOUR-TO-THE-FLOOR CLUB ENVIRONMENT AS WELL AS PREVIOUS RELEASES OF A MORE INQUISITIVE, INTROSPECTIVE AND ABSTRACT NATURE. IS THERE A CONFLICT BETWEEN THESE TYPES OF MUSIC OR MINDSET? DOES YOUR OPINION TIE INTO MORE GENERAL THOUGHTS OF ANTI-ESSENTIALISM IN GENDER AND SOCIAL ISSUES?
This is a common editorial glitch - the idea that a new release plots an artist's course or direction. I have always been producing in multiple genres simultaneously, but the workings of distribution and promotion meant that only people in certain countries knew about certain projects.
I really admire producers like Haruomi Hosono from YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra), who has always worked in many genres and still retains quite a degree of anonymity despite his notoriety. I've tried to emulate that approach since the beginning. For me, this is not just about decentralising notions of creativity or complicating a singular concept of 'the Artist'. It is about the schizophrenia of identity we undergo every day in relation to gender, sexuality, class and all the other masks we put on and off in a single day.
In relation to audio production, this does include conflicts of interest, makes marketing more difficult, confuses buyers etc This is necessary stuff, I think - to do these things consciously rather than let the systems of distribution (and the consumers) go on auto pilot. Of course, it means engaging the music marketplace through desires not rooted in profit, which is unappealing for most of the people you end up working with since they have a vested interest to recoup, but that's part of it. One can either say, "I refuse to just go along with mass marketing strategies that have nothing to do with the fringe issues I am invested in, but I still have to survive under capitalism as a tool, so what do I do now?" Or, one can mindlessly go with the flow and hope to end up as a multi-billion seller, thanking god for their gifts on some award show (the chances of which are nil, of course). Politically, I cannot feign the type of naivety required to be a straight-up artist. That kind of deep identification with dominant cultural processes would be a betrayal of the reality of social ostracism I felt growing up - and continue to feel.
HOW HEALTHY IS THE HOUSE MUSIC WORLD TODAY FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE? WHERE'S THE CREATIVE ENERGY AT TODAY? IS IT STILL NYC, DETROIT AND CHICAGO OR ARE THERE NEW COMMUNITIES OF LEADERS EMERGING WORLDWIDE? WHO ARE YOU LISTENING TO AND ARE THERE ENOUGH PEOPLE TAKING CHANCES AND LIVING THEIR DREAMS THROUGH THEIR MUSIC INSTEAD OF APING OTHERS IN A QUEST FOR CASH?
You're hitting on a lot of dangerous keywords: creative; energy; dreams... I am not interested in any of that stuff. For me, the notion that people need dreams is dogma. It's a placebo to numb the pain of life.
I believe there is too much demand for optimism and upsides under global capitalism. In fact, this perpetual optimism is part of the engine that feeds consumerism. I think there is a real need to confront the practicality of negativity and dissatisfaction, which are at the core of social transformation.
This idea of change rooted in a need to end the unacceptable is radically different from humanist or US-style, morality-based "We Can Change (because we're good people at heart)" bullshit. That is about improvement, not change. They are two very different things. I don't want to improve dominant cultural systems. They are already too efficient in what they do. You can't rely on the kindness of strangers as policy (although you may rely on it interpersonally) because society is not led by morality or truth. I've said many times that we are much more the products of shame than pride. So, from that perspective, I'd say the health status of house music and all music is rigor mortis. Absolutely rotten, decayed, but still prancing on stage.
'Midtown 120 Blues' is reeking with nostalgia. I'm sure you smell it too. So I'd like to rephrase your question as, "Who is consciously dealing with all of this decay in a critical manner, and devoid of romantic fantasies of doing anything 'new'?" I think Ultra-red is doing interesting things that relate to the world of audio production. I'm very inspired by the work of Constant in Belgium, which deals a lot with copyleft issues, but is not specifically audio work. But there is very little of interest going on within the music marketplace. It's just the wrong social arena.
The social concessions that go along with the industry already eliminate the chance for change. It reminds me of the people who were surprised by Pope Benedict's rant against transgenderism and gender theory during his 2008 end-of-year sermon. (My response: www.comatonse.com/writings/homosaywhat.html). They were seeking support in the wrong venue.
My releasing a project like 'Midtown 120 Blues" is not about the hope house has to offer the world - it is an obituary [a theme also present in K-S.H.E "Routes not Roots"]. That doesn't mean the scene is not ongoing, just as the Catholic church is ongoing after Martin Luther posted his sign of protest. We may not be able to bring down the church or bring down the 'House Nation' but we can consciously rethink our relationship to it. (You'll notice I focus on the audio marketplace and don't even bother to talk about clubs as places of reform, since they are totally compromised by one or more links to alcohol, tobacco and mafia.)
FOR THE TECH HEADS, PLEASE CAN YOU RUN DOWN WHAT'S IN YOUR STUDIO AND HOW YOU MAKE YOUR MUSIC? ALSO, WHAT'S THE BEST ADVICE ANYONE EVER GAVE YOU ABOUT MAKING MUSIC?
Most of my gear was bought in the early nineties, when I had a day job. My prize instruments are a Korg M-1 (heavily self-edited) and two Casio FZ-10M samplers. Most people think Casio is a joke but the FZ series was the world's first 16-bit digital sampler, with amazing filters to boot. Unfortunately, their reputation did them in, so their pro-audio line failed miserably. Sound & Recording Japan did a special on my studio several years ago. (It's in Japanese but there are some photos: www.comatonse.com/reviews/soundrec0102.html.) I've since upgraded to a PowerBook G4 but I'm still running OS X 10.3.9 because I can't afford the software upgrades.
I feel it's important to avoid the notion that computer-based music is 'futuristic' since that conjures a kind of slick and well-funded image in most peoples' minds. Electronic music is mostly people working on whatever junk they can get their hands on - Chicago circa 1985.
As for advice, you're talking to a person who's dad recommends washing dirty phonograph records with bar soap (cringe), so I try not to take advice to heart. And not that you asked, but the best advice I could give to people releasing media is to require pre-payment for all orders. It means few distributors or shops will work with you but the ones who do are legit. Consignment never works out.
CAN YOU GIVE US TEN ALBUMS OR TRACKS THAT SHOWED YOU THE WAY AS A PRODUCER?
Terre's hodge-podge of the 10 greatest albums ever, listed in alphabetical order, spanning all genres and devoid of shameless self-promotion:
CAN YOU NAME SOME EXCITING ACTS FOR US TO LOOK OUT FOR ON COMATONSE RECORDINGS?
Comatonse Recordings is not really a proper label in terms of having acts, or even a release schedule. It's really just my apartment and the name I use when licensing to other labels, or to manufacture items myself when I can't find someone willing to pay me. Since I don't have money to pay advances, and since I believe no labour should go unpaid, it means I very rarely release works by others. There are rare cases, however, such as the recent vinyl remix of John Cage I did, featuring a B-side by UK's own Simon Fisher Turner (SFT). Or the Parallax Beat Brothers EP featuring two more UK lads, Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) and Pete Lockett.
Actually, I hadn't realized how UK-influenced my recent releases have been until writing this here and now! But the next thing to look for on Comatonse is the 'Dead Stock Archive' (www.comatonse.com/releases/c018/), which is my complete collected works in 320kbps MP3, issued on two DVD-ROMs as an offline alternative to iTunes and other online distributors who have illegally sold my albums. It took me years to finally get them taken down from those bitches who had absolutely no interest in my projects other than to increase their odds of getting a paying download. The archive features 8.54GB of audio, 711 tracks, 69:29:40... A horrible beast.
I'M LISTENING TO YOUR ALBUM ON REPEAT BECAUSE, SIMPLY PUT, IT MAKES ME THINK AND FEEL. HOUSE MUSIC SEEMS MORE POLARISED THAN EVER RIGHT NOW, IN THAT YOU'VE EITHER GOT THE SMOOTH SHIT - IGNORABLE - OR YOU'VE GOT THE ROWDY SUB-GENRES ADDING BASS AND BPMS TO OFTEN INTRICATE AND PURE GLOBAL RHYTHMS. DO YOU THINK THERE'S A DEEPER CRITICISM OF MUSIC THERE? AN EMOTIONAL RETARDATION PERHAPS? OR AN INABILITY TO CONFRONT REALITY, STRUGGLE, CENSORSHIP AND AMBITION?
I think it's easy to feel. I mean, as animals, it's impossible not to feel something or another. Even numb is a feeling. So let's forget about that. The question is, are people interested in sharing concrete ideas? Music is an inherently tricky medium for this. While the visual arts industries have developed intricate theories of representation, the audio marketplace has largely remained deaf to critical work in the field of audio. Part of this is because, aside from classical, most music remains market-driven (especially outside the UK/EU - state-funded events and festivals are not a reality in most countries), whereas the visual arts are more steeped in private and state sponsorship. Of course, sponsorship comes along with it's own concessions, which is why so much 'political art' has absolutely no cultural impact.
So step one is admitting the ineffective character of our chosen media. I guess we're like the drummers on a battlefield. Low rank. Not decision makers. The noises we make signify the cultural location of some group we wish to identify with. But as people, we are in the midst of cultural chaos. Hearing the drummers may make us feel like we are still part of an army, or team, or directed social movement. But reality is much more frail. And there I am - scared shitless and banging a drum.
WHEN CAN WE EXPECT TO SEE YOU IN LONDON?
I'd love to come to London now, if only because the recent drop in the pound would mean that I could afford to eat for the first time! England is insanely expensive. I really don't see how people survive. I understand how purchase parity functions, and the idea of one pound being treated in the UK similarly to one euro in the EU, or one dollar in the US, or 100 yen in Japan, despite all these currencies being totally non-equal, but my heart really goes out to people in the UK.
In any case, I rarely get to the UK (or Canada and Australia for that matter). I put this down to the fact that interest in my work has always been low in Anglican-capitalist nations. I seem to do better in the 'Weberian' nations that have deeper socialist-orientated roots, particularly Germany. Jesus, what was your question again? Oh yeah... uh, my schedule is currently open to invitations. ;)
'Midtown 120 Blues' will be available in the UK from 26 January. Check www.juno.co.uk and www.phonicarecords.co.uk for further updates.
Download an exclusive DJ Sprinkles mix here:
Words: Amar Patel
Release homepage: http://www.comatonse.com/releases/stock_midtown120blues.html