Back in 2011, we here at Crossfade included Terre Thaemlitz, AKA DJ Sprinkles, on our list of the World's Least Douchey DJs. It was a nod to her longstanding work as an educator and activist promoting awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues.
Like many others, we'd first gotten wind of DJ Sprinkles in 2009, following the release of her critically-acclaimed artist album Midtown 120 Blues. While winning over a new generation of deep house fans with its lush, elegant compositions, the LP was also a political statement on the millennial music market's exploitative appropriation of house, a sound originally rooted in 1980s America's disenfranchised gay and ethnic minority communities.
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"House is not universal -- house is hyper-specific," intones Thaemlitz on the album's intro. "The contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten: sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, H.I.V., ACT-UP, Tompkins Square Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment and censorship -- all at 120 beats per minute."
Of course, this was hardly the first politically-charged work for Thaemlitz, whose discography since the early '90s ranges from avant-garde and ambient to electronic jazz and house forays, always heavy in subtext and commentary on issues like identity, gender, sexuality and lingustics. Even her first commercial CD mix release, 2013's Where Dancefloors Stand Still, is a statement on the controversial anti-dancing laws of Japan, the country which the American-born Thaemlitz calls home.
Crossfade caught up with Terre Thaemlitz ahead of her Miami debut performance for SAFE's off-Basel event at the Electric Pickle on Friday alongside Francis Harris, another musical iconoclast and philosopher in his own right. Topics of conversation included the politics of dance music, life as an expat in Japan and her new projects.
Crossfade: What drew you to Japan and what keeps you there? What has your time there imparted to you?
Terre Thaemlitz: Miami has a lot of immigrants, so I think most people can sympathize with the reality that we aren't operating out of free will and desire -- even though the U.S has a tendency to think of immigration as motivated by "dreams." Realistically, most people move based on what is possible within limited options. A lot of it is about chance, timing and hoping one's decisions won't end in regrets. I feel fortunate that my move to Japan was a good move for me. And I'm also grateful that I moved here before the whole 9/11 thing happened, so I absolutely knew I was not simply reacting to the conservative cultural changes that came about after that. I always describe George W. Bush to people outside the U.S. as "America's great moment of honesty." He laid bare to the world the kind of conservative and hypocritical U.S. I grew up in.
So was leaving the United States a reaction to your quality of life or society and culture here?
In large part, yes. It's certainly why I can't imagine returning. You know, when you're 32 years old, living on the outskirts of the "Gay Mecca" of San Francisco, and still getting called "faggot" almost every time you walk out of your apartment, it just summarizes life in the U.S. for me. I'm 45 now, and I haven't been called the equivalent of "faggot" once in Japan. It doesn't mean people don't have prejudices -- it's just that the Japanese way of expressing dislike is to ignore someone. For me, coming from the US, that silence of being ignored is golden. Of course, it's not a paradise. For some people who were born in Japan, they'd prefer being screamed at and spit on U.S.-style, because they'd feel acknowledged somehow. So it's about conditioning and experience.
I'm aware that Japan works for me based on my experiences in the U.S. But I definitely find daily life in Japan much safer. The three main reasons are: very few guns, very few Class-A drugs, and way less ghettoization. The classes are less segregated as a result of the tendency for wealthier people to live next to their lands, rented to poorer people. Poorer people aren't so physically isolated as in the West, so the links between poverty and violence born of desperation and exclusion are diminished. The relationship between the histories of ghettoization, segregation and the concepts behind Western individualist identity formation -- racial, ethnic, sexual, gender -- is a whole topic in itself, and it doesn't really apply here. The methods of domination are different.
Many people, perhaps naïvely, will claim that the house music scene has historically embraced a philosophy of Peace Love Unity Respect and provided an inclusive environment on the dancefloor, where the barriers that exist in society between races, religions, and sexual orientations come tumbling down -- Chuck Roberts preaching "This is our house." Why do the politics of dance music continue to be a big preoccupation for you, especially where gender and sexuality are concerned? What would you say are some of the most important issues that remain unresolved or unexamined about dance music?
First, we have to think historically. The "PLUR" rhetoric you mention -- which is totally '90s techno-raver noise -- has a way of erasing time and making us forget that listening to house music in 2013 is as dated and nostalgic an experience as listening to '50s rockabilly or '60s Woodstock-style rock. I've often described today's dance floors as "wakes" for times past.
So what did it mean for the emerging house scenes in the '80s to constantly invoke images of family and nation -- the "house nation" -- when many of the people in that scene were runaways or disowned by families due to their sexual and/or gender orientation, as well as systematically ostracized and ignored by their government? This abandonment by both family and government -- including via health care systems or the lack thereof -- was particularly volatile during the '80s AIDS panic. Clearly, house music's continual reference to family and nation was rooted in a desire for acceptance by those social structures from which people were alienated. And that is in itself symptomatic of trauma. Trauma that has left people trapped in desires for reintegration with those social formations that oppress us.
But at some point we have to ask, why have we so thoroughly allowed that romantic desire for belonging within those fucked up systems of exclusion to dominate our linguistic framework for speaking of our experiences? Why do we so eagerly sell and consume ourselves through images of family and nation? That is a huge problem, in my mind. By our own hands, we are left with no ability to critique family or nationalism. I suspect this will forever be the case, and the genre will fade away before these issues get opened up. But this tension has been an underpinning of house from the start, particularly as it developed among queer and transgendered communities. And I have seen that original tension transform itself into a language of reconciliation with today's younger and broader audience -- a post-9/11, post-Soviet, pro-family LGBT era audience. The language of family and nation have lost almost all irony or skepticism. What a nightmare.
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I do believe the fact that so many firsthand witnesses to '80s house culture are no longer with us, due to HIV, is one of the reasons why people have since been able to abstract early "house experiences" into idyllic gatherings -- we'll momentarily ignore the idyllic abstractions of memory caused by drugs. At first, the idealism was a sign of respect for those lost, a means for mourning and joyful remembrance of people who suffered. It was part of a movement of anti-victimization and self-empowerment among queers and trans-folk. And now, the period of mourning is over -- if only by the passing of time -- as the house sound is now being produced by a new generation of people removed from that earlier generation's experiences with loss, so the idyllic abstractions of mourning have been taken at face value as historical accounts.
This doesn't mean that people are not still suffering the social exclusions faced by people in the '80s -- they are. But house has grown increasingly distant and disconnected from those experiences, industrially co-opted and sold back to a much broader and mainstream audience. Of course, as a result, the meanings of house change into new meanings -- meanings I find both predictable and violent in their erasure of previous contexts. There is no chance for restoration or going back in time. And, as I said, the language of that "past-time paradise" was one of ideological production and alienation, trapped in the unhelpful language of family and nationalism.
So as far as I'm concerned, there is no "truth" to restore or go back to, even if we wanted to. It is the irreconcilable collision of all these issues, past and present, that we have to grapple with in our various contexts of production and consumption. Most people don't give a shit, simply because they don't have to give a shit. Or they give a shit in other areas of their lived experiences -- house is irrelevant. But if you take an audio genre like house, with very specific queer roots, and rebrand it for general consumption, of course you are putting it into the ears of people with no tools, language or experience for truly "hearing" the music they consume -- or produce. So, yeah, there is a lot unresolved and unexamined about dance music. And that is partly a result of how it is marketed and consumed.
Most people approach dance music as a hedonistic escape -- superficial feel-good fodder. For you it seems to be the canvas in which to raise some of the most challenging and troubling questions about ourselves -- a "buzz kill," so to speak. What are your thoughts on the conventional role of dance music as an escape tool? And why do you choose to raise the issues through this particular area?
Well, as a materialist -- the Marxist kind, not the Madonna kind -- I'm just not interested in ideologies of transcendence or escape. Cultures are designed to preoccupy us with ideologies and actions that are alienated from reality, which perpetuates status quo dominations by keeping us from being able to identify the actual social mechanisms through which we are oppressed and oppress others. Most people gladly operate in metaphorical worlds, social networking being a prime example. Music is, of course, another example of people operating out of feeling, soul, etc., declaring a detachment from all contextual specificity via some humanist concept of "universality," yet at the same time preaching in favor of individual uniqueness and authenticity. It's total hypocrisy, and utterly uninteresting for me.
I'm not so interested in music. I'm even less interested in dance, especially when it becomes formalized into schools. These are simply media outgrowths from particular communities. Mistaking the music or dancing as some universal and metaphysical core of being around which one's social actions revolve -- as opposed to the very real opposite of their emergence from social contexts -- strikes me as a huge disrespect to peoples' material life conditions, which is odd for people who generally are so into demanding props and respect. I just don't understand how so many people can fail to see how those very demands for respect are undermined by their own insistence upon music being about abstractions of "innate talent" and "soul." That privileging of the individual -- the self -- over others is in the end just an ego game.
If it's fair to say that most people look to music for its aesthetic qualities, your music can be very challenging for listeners as far as aesthetics are concerned. An arguable example would be your 30-hour long piano solo piece, "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album," which is challenging attention spans at the very least. On the other hand, even some of your most conceptually heavy work, like the material on Midtown 120 Blues, can be exceedingly beautiful by conventional aesthetic terms -- in making an album questioning and deconstructing the meaning of deep house, you made a beautiful deep house album. Do you consider yourself by definition a musician, or a concept artist? How high on your list of priorities are aesthetics and pleasing the listeners' conventional musical sensibilities when you're writing music?
I don't identify as a musician or an artist. My work as a producer crosses into those fields, so if those labels do apply, it is only in connection to my labor relations. I don't internalize any of those roles, and see them as constructs that are totally loaded with rhetoric of creativity, authenticity, individual identity, etc. -- stuff I'm interested in debunking. So when a person like me, who has no musical training or skills, produces a "beautiful" piece of audio, that is a demonstration of how music is not about innate talent, but about presenting an audience with recognizable sound signifiers that trigger those consumer-based audience reactions of like or dislike.
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For example, I am someone who is drawn to house music more for its cultural value than its sonic quality. My thoughts, subjective reactions and "feelings" around house are not spiritual at all. And I recognize this as an anomaly. At the same time, I grew up internalizing the sounds and structures of electronic music, house and other genres, as soundtracks to my own experiences with queerness and transgenderism. The same sounds others may insist are always spiritual or soulful are, for me, deployed for entirely different reasons rooted in identifiable social relations. And I think this kind of re-deployment for other means is a part of both queer and transgendered experience. It is about closets, and the internalization of the systems around us, internalizing and reflecting back to the world the cultural conventions we are presented with in ways that protect us from identification and assault by others, as well as twisting them to manifest our own needs and acts of resistance. It's like the convention of gay male disco being plagued with lyrics about female lovers. Once one understands the "she" in question has a cock, an entirely different reading of disco music emerges. I would argue any viable reading of disco cannot begin until one has that understanding, and revisits all the songs they assumed were about straight couples and hears them with a queer ear. A part of that sound is about fear -- the fear of being outed, of being bashed, of losing family, friends, employment.
I think my projects present a similar condition of the closet. Any soulful sound I adapt, like a gay male vocalist singing about his lover in the feminine, is a decoy. A decoy that is not so much about deceiving the social majority, as it is about protecting a minority who inhabits a closet at issue. There are others in here with me. And we are not sharing a moment of truth or authenticity. To the contrary, we are sharing an awareness of cultural falsehood. And that shared awareness becomes a means for both support and resistance. It has value, despite, and because of, being inherently incommunicable to the majority audience. This remembrance and utilization of closets is, of course, a deliberate complication of mainstream LGBT movements obsessed with Pride, visibility, legislation pushed through using "born this way" birth-right arguments I can only see as feudalistic, and the destruction of closets, all of which brings about the destruction of personal choice, diversity -- the irreconcilable type, not the melting pot homogenizing type -- and perversity.
What prompted you to release your first commercial mix CD, Where Dancefloors Stand Still, this year? What can you tell us about the underlining concept of Japan's anti-dancing laws? What has your personal experience been with these laws as a resident of Japan and a DJ, and what were you trying to say with the work?
Like most releases, the prompt was a job offer from a record label. Like Midtown 120 Blues, the enunciation of the concept was cut short by the label's lack of budget for a text booklet, but the title was a reference to problems related to the Entertainment Establishments Control Law (Fueiho) and Moral Code (Fuzoku) in Japan. One problem here is that clubs with official dance permits must stop patrons from dancing after 1 a.m. That's gotten quite a bit of coverage in the Western press. The bigger problem, however, is that most clubs do not meet the official space requirements for an unfettered dancefloor to obtain a dance permit, so dancing is technically illegal in those establishments from door open to close. The laws in question date back to 1948, so it's important to bear in mind that the entirety of post-WWII dance culture in Japan has flourished despite these codes. They were pretty much ignored. However, back in 2010, the police began reinforcing the codes. There are various theories as to why, but since Japan is not a religious country, it's not like Footloose. The most rational explanation I heard was that it was a bureaucratic result of a 2010 lawmaking police responsible for logging statistics on their enforcement of all laws on the books, so they had to start generating cases. I don't know if it's true, and of course there is some rhetoric from the police about control of youth and drugs, etc., but the bureaucratic cause seems like the most plausible reason I've heard so far.
The original 1948 restrictions on dancing were intended as a means of controlling sex work, since dance halls were key places for U.S. GIs to meet with sex workers. So one of the problems of the contemporary pro-dance movement is a desire to sell dancers as wholesome, upright citizens who just want to get their groove on. They simply want dance deregulated and cut from the morality code, with no attempts at solidarity with sex workers and others who would still be left affected. And if you know anything about how legislation works, if the government were to open and revise the code in 2013 or 2014 to exclude dance, those left affected by the code will have no chance of re-opening discussions around the law for decades. The politicians would say "we just dealt with that."
So the pro-dance movement is ultimately a rather conservative, neo-liberal movement from which I have kept a distance. Of course, not because I am in favor of the dance restrictions, but because I find the pro-dance movement's approach to the problems of Fuzoku and Fueiho both culturally naïve and oppressive. Again, we're dealing with a generational thing, where a kind of mainstream, straight audience sees their "right to dance" as completely unrelated to specific struggles with the morality code. Instead, dance is spoken of as a "universal right" -- "dance is a part of all humanity," blah-blah-blah.
Meanwhile, for a good 10 years before the police started raiding clubs and getting the attention of middle-class party people, they were raiding both licensed and unlicensed sex work establishments, shutting them down, immediately deporting undocumented sex workers with no concern for their well-being, with no prosecution of the people responsible for keeping them here, etc. Clearly, there are many convoluted issues at work, between willful and unwillful sex work. Meanwhile, as authorized spaces for sex work diminished -- which also meant the erasure of spaces for sex workers to meet and share information on how to protect themselves -- a new generation of individual women with no sex work experience have been using the internet to privately meet up with johns in hotels. The result has been an increase in incidents of rape, violence and harassment. Is our unfettered "right to dance" so important that we'll turn a deaf ear to the larger circumstances?
The ideal function of any public regulation should be to facilitate social space in which people may safely organize themselves. This is clearly not happening under the current Fueiho codes. It is utterly outdated and conservative. Meanwhile, for the pro-dance movement to be utterly ambivalent about their relationships to others affected by the code strikes me as unforgivably crass. I mean, my first DJ residency was in a New York transsexual sex worker club, so for me it is impossible for me to separate house culture from issues of sex, gender and the policing of bodies. And I get that is not the common experience of most DJs anywhere, let alone for today's generation in Japan. But that is no fucking excuse.
What's next for you on the production front? Are you working on a special projects at the moment?
As you know, I'm coming to Miami as DJ support for the release of Francis Harris' new album, for which I did two remixes -- one house mix as Sprinkles and one ambient mix as Terre Thaemlitz. I'm not taking on any other remixes at the moment so I can focus on some of my own projects in 2014. I have a few album ideas in mind, in different genres, from house to electroacoustic ambient. The biggest project will be a continuation of ideas from Lovebomb and Soulnesssless. It will specifically focus on an ethical defense for not having children, as well as elaborating critiques of family and clan structures that came up in the introduction text to Soulnessless. The house album will be a completely new project under a new name, but I'll keep it vague for the moment since I need to do a little more research to see if I can technically do what I would like to do.
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What can Miami expect during your debut performance at the Electric Pickle on Friday? Are you bringing any preconceived notions about the crowd here and planning a set accordingly? How do you typically approach a live performance based on what you expect from the crowd?
Oh, I'm totally bringing a trunk full of horrible preconceptions with me. First and foremost, the election recount of 2000, and Florida's role in G.W. Bush's tragic reign of lies -- no, no, we haven't let that go yet. And all I know about Miami is that shameful story about DJ Shadow getting kicked off the decks at club Mansion. So, yeah, expecting a tough crowd. Personally, I just think of myself as a freelancer hired because of my specific catalog and record collection, so I'll just do what I usually do. My general strategy is to make it the audience's burden to work it out on the dancefloor. In my mind, that cliché house sample, "Work it!," is as much a call for their effort and labor as my own.
DJ Sprinkles. As part of You Can Always Leave. Presented by Scissor & Thread and SAFE. With Francis Harris (Adultnapper) and Diego. Friday, December 6. Electric Pickle, 2826 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 10 p.m. and tickets cost $20 plus fees via residentadvisor.com. Call 305-456-5613 or visit electricpicklemiami.com.