Terre Thaemlitz has always been my favourite Wire magazine covergirl. From his early years as an escapee of the US Mid-West who immersed himself in art theory and deep house, Thaemlitz has always refused both conformity and convention: twisting his skills and knowledge into weapons and artefacts against the expectations of the audience. His work is a constant challenge to the various forms of complacency it fucks with – even (and especially) when it presents itself as seductively beautiful ambient or skilfully built deep house. Recently, Terre’s more ‘straight’ tracks have been getting love and commerce from a lot of big DJs, but digging deeper into the back-catalogue reveals an artist adept in playing with and between conventions and genres and messing with your ed. Terre is the master of every convention she betrays, and we SSGs are truly honoured to have received in interview with both bit-depth and band-width you’d expect from one (or several) of electronic music’s most astute and interesting people. This is one to cherish, print-out, underline. Or at the very least, read slowly and pay attention – you lad(d)ies might learn something.
Describe the relation between your work, your identity, and politics.
Active self-betrayal and self-deception. Hypocrisy and shame are the bonds that tie those three spheres together for most of us – not pride.
Why deep house? What is it about this sound/feeling that moves you; how has it motivated you to express yourself through it or express it through you?
When I moved to New York, deep house was simply the local electronic music. I was a long-time fan of techno-pop and disco while growing up in the American Midwest, and always looking for other electronic music. Deep house was the music played in clubs frequented by my friends. My first house records were ‘Jack Your Body’, by Farley Jackmaster Funk, and ‘I Can't Turn Around’, by J.M. Silk. I still play them. But back then, as with today, finding great tracks is hard. There's always so much pressure to buy records in a DJ store – especially in the '80s when there weren't listening stations and you had to ask them to play something for you – but I have always been one of those people who usually walks out empty handed.
In any case, deep house was closely tied to those elements of New York queer culture I related to, tied to HIV/AIDS activist scenes, tied to transgendered scenes, etc. For me, those references are critical. Call me a traditionalist, but those are still the frameworks I think about when making house music, despite that they usually aren't the frameworks my tracks might get played in.
What is the relationship between the different elements in your compositions? What role do they play and how do they interact? What does the piano express that the drum machine cannot/does not, and vice versa?
I don't really concern myself with what an instrument can ‘express’. I'm more concerned with what it can ‘represent’. The clearest example of this in my projects is the Rubato Series, in which I used rather expressive piano to cover very boy-oriented techno-pop songs (Kraftwerk, DEVO and Gary Numan). In that instance I was specifically interested in the piano as a ‘domestic’ instrument most frequently learned by girls. But at the same time, my piano was computer composed, and also played in a rather canonical/patriarchal way (the macho aspect of neo-expressionism) – basically mixing genres, technologies and composition strategies while thinking about the various social elements with which they each have their largest appeal, and thinking about how my own identity intersects with those arenas. Like a lot of my projects, it is about the ‘idea of a transgendered sound,’ but I should be clear and say I do not think there is an inherently ‘transgendered sound’ or any other kind of sound. It's ultimately about social placement, history, genre recognition, and those kinds of things.
Of course, when thinking about instruments, I do have sounds that I like – sounds that I am drawn to as a record collector – and also sounds I don't like. But I don't really exclude anything as a potential sound source. I love taking music from one genre and placing it into a completely other genre, but perhaps less to hear what it can become, and more to understand what it was.
And, most importantly, when it comes to non-sample based sounds, the biggest factor is budget – what instruments I could afford to own, or pulled out of garbage cans, or whatever… Economics are the driving factor behind most electronic music genres. Chicago house latched onto the 808 and 303 because they were cheap at the time. Glitch came from cheap computers not performing properly, and uneducated end users who didn't know the ‘real way’ to use the software. Major distribution destroyed house… Max MSP destroyed independent electroacoustic music… But the genres still persist in various forms. These are things to think about when considering one's instrument choices.
Also, you write very articulately – I wonder, what you can express with music that’s ‘more than words can say’?
Most people – listeners and musicians – seem to talk about ‘sound’ as a way of communicating on a ‘pre-verbal’ emotive level. I think that's bullshit – and completely unreliable, in any case. It leads to statements like, ‘music is universal,’ when in fact people are usually responding to music that fits into a particular sound or genre. Responding to music they already like. Like Bossa Nova, who could hate that? Well, I bet if more people understood the mind-numbing lyrics it would have never caught on as it did. So, does Bossa Nova's international popularity reflect some kind of ‘more than words can say’ appreciation and understanding of a particular sound? Or does it show an ignorance of content and context? Most would say the former. I would say the latter. I would say their saying the former is symptomatic of the latter. That is what Bossa Nova is saying to me without words. This is how I think all music expresses socio-political things, in addition to, or despite, the more literal interpretations of lyrics and other things we are told to focus on.
And what things do you pass over in silence (and why)?
Silence, pauses, scratches on records, skips on CDs, fade-outs, fade-ins, even waiting for downloads to complete – these are also aspects of how we anticipate and receive audio as consumers. It also allows time to ‘think’ and ingest what has happened so far. That is how I try to use sound in a structural way, in addition to whatever metaphorical contents silence has in the genres I produce as a result of John Cage's music, or his silence about his homosexuality, or the AIDS activist slogan ‘Silence=Death,’ or whatever…
How do you feel space and time through music? How/why is ambience or a sense of ‘the ambient’ important to what you do?
Feeling space… it's strange, because I do often talk about sound in visual terms. I think a big part of this is my visual arts background, and having read a lot of visual theory. But I usually ‘feel space’ in a literal way – the space of playback, the quality of the sound system, etc. I think the issue of time is more directly related to the compositional process. For me, boredom is the most informative way of ‘feeling time’. It's about borders and limits of personal tolerance. When do we get bored? What happens after we get bored and the audio keeps going? Why weren't we bored before? Is it possible to ‘go back in time’ as the audio continues, and regain interest? Suddenly we have to confront our expectations about something, and decide to continue or retreat to silence and hope that's more interesting. Conceptually, boredom is much more exciting than traditional models of compositional momentum intended to captivate an audience.
What is your relationship with theory and practice? If practice makes perfect, what does theory make?
The three of us (theory, practice and I) have been on-again/off-again lovers for many years. I think theory is the diary of social trials and errors. For me, I'm more interested in theories of historical materialism, rather than theories that speculate futures. I think too much importance is placed on the necessity for ‘dreams’ and ‘goals’ (especially in childhood), when we spend so little time trying to simply catch up with understanding where we are in this time and place.
What about work and play? How do they contribute to making jack a dull boy?
While I am thankful as hell that I haven't had a ‘day job’ for the past decade or so, I think the consolidation of my work and private life in the same apartment has led to a kind of isolation. It can be hard, socially and financially. But this is also strategic, as a way of trying to minimize my interaction with mainstream capitalist culture. Or if I want to psychoanalyze myself, maybe it's really about my attempting to create an illusion of control over my life after growing up as a nerd-fag who still feels incapable of mainstream integration? In any case, mainstream aspirations for work and play always demand money, but the social and lifestyle returns are totally unappealing to me. Things like car and home loans just devastate people, grounding them in cement shoes, all under the pretense of ‘upward mobility’. I still think about the smartest kids in my high school, mostly women, who had so many aspirations, but quickly had to give them all up as the results of marriages, kids, divorces with assets, debt, etc. ‘Standard’ is brutal. It's always been important for me to preserve a kind of ‘lateral mobility’ in my life which is separate from the standard ‘upward/downward mobility’ most people fixate on.
And love? You wrote Lovebomb – is something like love carried by the signal? What’s the signal to noise ratio between love and commerce when making music for money?
Love and commerce are one and the same. The ways in which we love under capitalism are totally influenced by processes of reification and abstract value. If we apply Jacque Attali's formula of melody (signal) reflecting a society's order, and noise reflecting its dissonances, ‘love’ is definitely carried by the signal. But even for the ‘believers’ in love, in relation to the genres we're talking about, questions of love and commerce when making music for money is generally pointless because the money sucks. Forget existential crises. It's not worth a crisis. It's only a system that demands we leave ourselves open to bad deals and regrets – like any other freelance job.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf dismisses Rudyard Kipling’s writing for having nothing of the feminine about it. How might it be important to have a little bit of each in the other (I think also of the Funkadelic song ‘Jimmy’s Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him’)?
This question was key to ‘The Laurence Rassel Show’, the electroacoustic radio drama I did in collaboration with the Belgian cyberfeminist Laurence Rassel. It's available for free download from Public Record (publicrec.org) and Comatonse Recordings (comatonse.com). In it, we talked about models of feminist authorship as it relates to copy-left (anonymity, the absence of the name under patriarchy, etc.), as well as questioning the possibility of ‘transgendered authorship’ as something other than essentialist, identity-driven egomania all in the hope for social conformity (attempts at self-creation through hormones and surgery, etc.).
I wonder about gender in electronic music… Although largely a genre without lyrics, techno and electro (especially 80s-influenced electro) seems to tend toward an idea of toughness, masculine hardness, one that seems to contain an incipient homophobia that expresses itself through a distain toward (or rejection of) disco and house. I would even argue that this overwhelmed and killed the drum’n’bass scene, which became so ‘dark’ and ‘hard’ that the girls stopped dancing… House DJs often play techno, but in my experience many purist techno DJs distain house, and it appears to be a rejection of the music on the basis that it’s ‘poofy’, ‘sissy’, ‘faggy’ etc. I wonder what you make of that.
Actually, I was just having an email exchange along these lines with Dont Rhine of Ultra Red, who is currently doing some teaching at a university in Chicago. He was talking about how there are absolutely no traces of the Chicago house scene. No DJs, clubs, record stores, radio stations or anything. Compared to the homophobic ‘Disco Sucks’ campaigns of his youth, house music died a more passive death of neglect and silence that he links to AIDS, racism and Right Wing reactionary shifts. He was talking about how the death of house is such a metaphor for the genocide of queers in the '80s and '90s, and no one wants to hear.
Although I was a hardcore Techno-Pop fan in my youth, it was precisely the ‘straight, white’ tendencies of New York techno culture you pointed out that made it completely unappealing to me. I just fucking hated techno. It ruined so much electronic music for me, which is really depressing.
What makes a track exceptional to you? Tell me a classic that you feel is really outstanding and describe what it is about it that moves you so much.
Memory. History. Placement is what makes it ‘classic’. For me, I think Yello's ‘You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess’ is a real classic. It had a totally foreign sound when I first heard it as a teen. A bit emotionally disturbing, actually. I vividly recall thinking, "This is why the religious nuts around here believe music can be possessed by Satan!" I don't imagine many Europeans having that reaction to it, but for me, where I was living, what was around me at the time… it was a real ear-opener. But also, in relation to other electronic music of that day, the use of tapes and noise were really impressive. Yello has always had such an identifiable and unique sound. In some ways more unique than Kraftwerk, with their Kraut-rock beginnings.
Which of your own tracks are you most proud of?
I guess if you ask me about my own projects, for my electroacoustic tracks, ‘Means from an End’ (the first movement) contains a kind of tension and melancholy that has been hard for me to replicate. For house tracks, maybe ‘A Crippled Left Soars With the Right’ is my favorite EP. Unfortunately, it's also my smallest pressing, and was soon out of stock.
How do you see your craft developing (if indeed it is a ‘craft’ to you)? And how is technology influencing this?
‘Craft’ is no longer suspect to a lot of electronic producers. Especially in the house genre. Everybody wants to be a full-on musician. I think that makes a lot of music complacent, because we stop challenging social norms around how music should sound or be performed.
As for technology, does anybody else find it unbelievably patronizing that the default file name for most Apple software follows the formula ‘My…’ – ‘My Disc’, ‘My Song’, ‘My Movie’, etc.? It's a real sign of how we've socially come to project personal identity onto corporately structured media. It goes hand in hand with the rise of the ‘DJ as Artist’.
What of DJing? Vinyl? Digital? Both? Neither?
People should just use what they feel comfortable with. I personally prefer DJ-ing with CDs. I've digitized most of my old vinyl. It's so much lighter to transport!
Vinyl is a tricky media. Despite whatever warm affinities I have for it, it's also a total bastard to get mastered and pressed in a quality way. Totally cost-ineffective. Spectrally limited. Stereophonically limited, especially with bass frequencies… I could go on forever. Vinyl's great to make if you have the money and patience, though. Records are fun as objects, and rich in history.
How has the digital revolution affected you in terms of sales and distribution? What are some of the uses and disadvantages of this new economy? Would you say it’s a positive or negative thing, on balance?
It's not a ‘revolution’ by any means. But there is something reactionary in the way ‘information based economies’ facilitate economic corruption, and are increasingly consolidating even more power in the hands of a few. In terms of labor, CD and vinyl factories are closing, which is symptomatic of the way certain levels of manual-based labor are being reduced in the West. It's tied to a kind of escalation of capitalism, but it's not new or revolutionary. It's just a shuffling of White collars and Blue collars on a global scale.
And music distribution has always been a scam of one kind or another. CD and vinyl distribution is often a pyramid scheme in which distributors offer small labels ‘deals’ in which they take care of product manufacturing for the labels. In the end, distributors function like lenders who advance manufacturing costs to labels. When distributors over-manufacture and under-sell, it is the small label who gets stuck with the cost of the returns. This is how EFA and countless other distributors went down, taking tons of labels with them. So I don't have any romantic nostalgia for the ‘old ways’, either. They are all corrupt.
My experience with online distribution is described on the Soundfiles page of my website. While the music industry panics about file sharing (reminiscent of the anti-cassette tape campaigns of the '80s featuring a cassette with cross-bones and the slogan "Home recording is killing the music industry, and it's illegal"), iTunes and other major distributors were selling downloads of my album with absolutely no contracts or permissions from me. They refused to answer my emails inquiring who they were paying royalties to, or let me speak with any member of their licensing team. It was a nightmare. If you've ever bought a download of my music, the money never was connected to me in any way. I finally got them to pull my files last year. It was all money being circulated between iTunes and their corporate distributor pals. Of course, they have no interest in my music. And whatever money they made couldn't have been much. It's just fucking information greed, trying to consolidate and monopolize for no reason other than a possible sale. This is horrible…
…but typical capitalism.
Abletonitis? Does it exist? And is it as bad a disease as some people say?
Ok, this will maybe tell you something about myself – I had to Google your question to figure out what you're talking about. I don't use Ableton, and I'm totally out of the loop with what ‘today's dance producers’ are using. It sounds like the dance equivalent of Max MSP, in terms of influence upon the end results. We have to remember that in an era gone by, people asked the same thing about turntables and samplers. They are all problematic. But what it comes down to is if the producer uses them complacently, or engages those problematic characteristics so as to actually fuck with process, fuck with mainstream expectations, etc. Complacency is the disease.
What have been the biggest musical influences on your productions? And what about more generally?
So many names, so little time… I couldn't possibly answer that. However, I am surprised by the ‘influences’ some reviewers come up with. They usually name people I've never heard of. My favorite is when they try to name things I've sampled, but they're totally wrong. It's like a mistaken literary reference. Lots and lots of wrong things have been written about me and my projects. I like that.
What is something that might be a ‘hidden’ or ‘silent’ influence on you and your work that might be inaudible from listening to what you do?
No matter how anti-spiritual I say I am, it seems incredibly difficult for some people to hear my projects in "non-spiritual" terms – especially within the house scene. This is silencing on many levels, personally and socially. I think my anti-spirituality is completely lost on the dancefloor, overwritten by the larger context.
What’s something you’ve learned through music that has helped you in life (and vice versa)?
If you don't mind, I'd like to refer your readers to an article I wrote about a lesson I was taught as a child by personally meeting the members of Cheap Trick
How is living in Japan shaping you? How are you shaping it? How are you learning to better (mis)understand or (mis)recognise one another? What kind of acceptance do you find in Japan that you couldn’t in the States, and vice versa? Which if its dysfunctions do you find most fascinating? And which of its rejections are the most telling? What’s something ‘we’ (as Westerners or what have you) could learn from ‘them’? And is it necessary to be ‘us’ and ‘them’? Is it possible to not be a gaijin (when one is interpolated as an other)?
Damn, how many questions is that? [Laughs].
As a Westerner, I think it's fascinating to see how Western models of identity, particularly as they were formed in response to prejudice and discrimination, simply do not work here. That does not mean prejudice and discrimination do not exist here – of course they do, as in every society – but I am used to understanding those processes in relation to Western individualist notions of identity. Japanese identity is clan-based, not individualistic (which is a big part of why it is so difficult for immigrants to integrate here). It's an imposed democracy, and everybody knows it. But the benefit of that is, unlike a country like the U.S. which is terminally up it's own ass with self-righteousness about ‘freedom’ while fucking over its citizens and the rest of the world, Japan seems to be more open about the hypocrisies of contemporary ‘democratic’ society. Americans rant and rave about what ‘needs to be done’ while changing nothing – in fact, becoming more reactionary. Japan's ambivalence toward any possible realization of democratic goals under capitalism strikes me as somehow more honest, or culturally revealing. It's not any less depressing, but it somehow feels like something.
Within Asia, I think the most difficult thing for countries like China and Korea (which are still culturally wounded by the events of WWII and consider Japan an active military threat) to understand is that there have now been several generations of Japanese men who never had any military experience whatsoever. This is an incredibly rare social circumstance, since most countries make men serve mandatory military service. I think it is impossible to comprehend the cultural impact this has had on Japan. I don't think the Japanese can comprehend it themselves. Also, Japanese people can be superstitious, but organized religion is incredibly weak here. Buddhism only functions on a social level as ritual, unlike in most other countries. It's really freeing to be surrounded by people who approach any regular religious involvements as suspect. I hope the combination of these circumstances continues to play out for a long, long time.
What do you know now that you wish someone had told you ten years ago?
I've watched enough Star Trek to know you should never mess with the space-time continuum.
What’s something that’s guaranteed to make you: angry/crazy/smile?
What kind of music would you make in a world without electricity?
Folk. (Culturally speaking, I think the kinds of music I produce are a kind of contemporary Folk, as opposed to Classical.)
What’s troubling you… ?
This long-ass interview! [Laughs] But we're down to the short-response questions, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Finish this sentence: ‘The world would be a better place if only…?
Insert lyrics to ‘Imagine’, by John Lennon… Few people listen to that song through Marxist ears, as I believe it was intended. It's quite beautiful in that sense. Too bad the song was ruined for me when used in TV commercials for the Catholic diocese in Missouri during the early '80s, before I had ever read Marx. And Lennon seems to have been kind of an asshole.
Questions? Comments? Abuse?
On your website's theme of sausages, they don't sell Italian sausage in Japan. I have never found them once anywhere. They're obsessed with Vienna sausages and German sausages. I find that strange, given the success of the Italian food boom of the '80s and '90s.
Done! (phew) Thanks….
Deep breath… and release…!