Sun Ra and his Arkestra were known, amongst other things, for their elaborate space garb – the sequins, the ancient Egyptian symbolism, the face-paint, the full-length capes. These were spacesuits the band wore to accompany them on their mission to ‘travel the spaceways.’ So when I first began the project I called The Spacesuits, the plan was to construct a series of costumes, modeled after the garments of the Saturnalian people from which Mr. Blount claimed to have descended. I drew inspiration from the early ILC Dover spacesuit prototypes, crafted in the mid-sixties. I also drew inspiration from artist and Afrofuturist Nick Cave, known for his Soundsuits, large wearable sculptures whose bedazzling feathers and contours are meant to obscure the race, class, and gender of its inhabitants.
The Spacesuits, however, quickly became more about the music than about the costumery. The Arkestra’s outfits, after all, were only subsidiary elements of a larger mission; namely, that to restore race relations by re-imagining a future for blacks that quite literally transcended space and time. Sun Ra’s music was, above all, paradise music. It was music, which by the process of “telemolecularization” (a word coined and used often by Sun Ra), would transport its listeners to another dimension.
Thus began my own search for Sonny Blount’s contemporary musical descendants. The Spacesuits became a collective of musicians in whose work I heard elements of new utopias. I studied their bodies of work and searched for themes like apocalypse, reincarnation, the afterlife, etc. To each musician, I provided five ‘calls to action.’ I gave them prompts like, “Create a short book on how to communicate with stars. Do not use words,” (a prompt given to Stasia Irons of THEESatisfaction) and “Imagine the instant the world began. Create the corresponding soundscape,” (a prompt for Bryce Hample of REIGHNBEAU). The responses produced by the musicians in The Spacesuits collective will form the basis of a series of 8+ multimedia installations over the course of The Spacesuits summer tour, which begins on April 24th at Mengi in Reykjavík, Iceland and then travels across North America. (See the full schedule here.)
When Portals did a micro-feature of Montreal-based musician Karneef in April 2014, I knew I’d want him in The Spacesuits crew. The feature was succinct, if humorous. It read:
Montreal’s Karneef is a man that really, really loves his bass. The video for his new single “Swimming” finds him in some weird situations, most of which involve him in his underwear. Karneef keeps it cool with a lot of smooth strumming and awkward dance moves; occasionally hiding behind paintings so he can scope out a cute girl in the studio. She seems to be in her own world for most of the video, walking around aimlessly and dancing while Karneef serenades her in different parts of the studio.
It is true that Philip Antoine Karneef does indeed love his bass. But he’s also up to much more. Karneef’s 2013 album Love Between Us is, for me, an exercise in paradise music. It is, of course, tongue-in-cheek, but its sincerity is just as unmistakeable. In fact, over time, it has become clear to me that paradise music always plays on that tension between irony and sincerity. One of my favorite moments in A Joyful Noise, Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, is when that very subtle smile appears on Sun Ra’s visage as he advocates for governments to give constitutional rights to angels. The smile isn’t signaling that Sun Ra is, in fact, joking around. Instead, the smile says, “There’s a lot more going on here than you think.”
Read Anaïs Duplan's interview with Philip Karneef after the break.
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You’ve mentioned collaborating with Pascale Mercier, who has done some work under the name Mathematique, on a new project, and also with Slim Williams. Could you elaborate on that? How you see those projects relating to your other work?
Pascale has played drums for the Karneef band on and off, mostly on, for three years. I saw her live show at this terrifying house party. Terrifying because the house was very scary and dark. I can't remember if it was summer or winter but I'm pretty sure she was wearing a backpack – one of those green canvas ones that you take to school. And she had a baseball cap on. Anyway, I mixed her last EP and I recorded vocals. I’m preparing to mix her first full-length album PASCALE PROJECT which seems to be lots of robust composition with elegant, searing vocals. Simple but not easy.
We've been singing up at Slim William’s mind-blowing recording spot in the Laurentians. I have no idea how I ended up being encouraged to do stuff there, but it's really paradise. It's Slim’s and Phoebe Greenberg’s place, a very beautiful duo. I help out however I can, with equipment or media-based stuff (archival or social media), or with helping set gear up at Slim's live shows. I give him tutorials on software, etc., and I get to use the studio to work with others, like Pascale, Asaël from Bataille Solaire, Dylan III. These are some really beautiful artists and I'm so lucky to have met them, incredible humans!
Will you tell me about your video work? How did the video for "Space," for example, come about and how did that experience compare with making your other music videos? I'm thinking in particular of the videos for "Bring You Back" and "Swimming."
"Space" was just unreal. That song was chosen to have a video made, and produced by the PHI Centre team including Phoebe Greenberg, the director. That took two full days, lots of costume stuff, a great camera and technical crew. And my body-double and dear old high school friend Matthew, who played the sax in the video. The VFX stuff and images are all stunning and engaging, and to be directed in all those scenarios was a great deal of fun. I just write the songs! I enjoy seeing how people want to have them visualized. I did a music video myself once for another band and it took too long. I'm not terribly preoccupied with the visual world.
The video for “Bring You Back” was the first video I'd ever done for my own music. It was directed by Thom Gillies, who has a band called Vesuvio Solo, and it's just me dancing around in my neighborhood, which has a lot of interesting people in it. They really didn't mind the camera and seemed to enjoy watching me dance. It was edited by our friend Adam Wilcox, who is very enthusiastic about cinema, so he put a lot of effort into it and I think it shows. The cuts are all very natural and rhythmic, etc.
The "Swimming" video was just as impromptu, but it was more about objects and fabric colours. But actually now that I think about it, the two videos are very similar in that they’re just kind of weird, with me jerking around and such. But the costumes are really neat and the director, Renata Morales is, of course, a very fun person, and Antoine Bordeleau, who shot and edited it, made it look really cool on the web.
On your website you've released a set of tracks called the Midas EP. In many ways, it's quite different from Love Between Us, but I also think the Midas EP is recognizably yours. What are your thoughts on that? When you go back and listen to your work, do you hear it and recognize yourself? Are there concepts or themes that you seem to revisit?
Midas was actually written before Love Between Us, but I sat on it for a while. I would say that it's recognizably mine because, yes, I tend to oscillate between a few themes. I don't realize they’re there until I listen back and say, "Oh damnit, those are really similar ideas." There are a lot of themes that come about by adding only one instrument at a time, and that instrument is playing only one note at a time. But then, harmonically, something very striking comes out. I don't tend to hear all the voicing in my head as it happens. I hear bits of it and I add it all up. Somehow, though, I have heard from other people that there is something recognizable in my music from one thing to another, even when stylistically it’s very different, and that makes me feel nice because I like to recognize artists too. It makes me feel like I ‘know’ them. We have this understanding.
When I was looking for musicians to participate in The Spacesuits, I spent a lot of time listening in search of what I was calling 'paradise music.' When I heard Love Between Us, I was absolutely certain that I'd found it. That being said, I know how strange it is to have other people characterize your own work. What relation do you think the concept of paradise has to your music?
A lot of people recognize, when I sing about technology in my music, that it's a really important part of my life. And when I dream, often technology creeps in there, because I know a lot about what might be possible with technology. So it's natural that those ideas enter my dreams, and of course paradise pops up in dreams – or, our projections of paradise maybe. Like being in a pilot-seat of an airplane or in a bed on a beach somewhere. I think I'm often trying to conjure up paradise in my lyrics, and just hoping that other people can relate to those silly ideas all strung together. Those shifting harmonies can really make a person feel like everything’s gonna be okay. I think when you're exposed to jazz, those rules change very drastically and ‘what’s okay’ changes. There are lots of different, faster, and smaller micro-emotions in jazz, and as I go further into the orchestral or instrumental music domain, I really question why I need to use lyric in the first place. I have to save that stuff, make it really count.
You mentioned hoping that people could relate to the “silly ideas all strung together” in your music, and I think that might actually be part of what makes your work all the more utopian. Paradise is a scary topic, or at least, it can cause discomfort – but somehow you manage to make it okay to fantasize about. What is it about shifting harmonies that makes people feel at ease? And more generally, how would you characterize what ‘paradise music’ is?
Lately I've been thinking about a lot of words in French that we use in English too, but mean something different. Like “sensible.” That's the French word for "sensitive.” Isn't that weird? How did that happen?
Anyway, paradise is everywhere these days, if you want it. I'm the worst. I'll just spend a couple bucks at the store and get a chocolate bar, and I'll be in paradise until it's done. Then maybe I'll go on Netflix, or take a bath. Winter on this planet is just devastating. I can't believe we just sit in our heated houses and go out and buy olives or work in a restaurant, or talk to your mother on Skype, who is on the other side of the Earth. Soon people will be so used to being apart and there will be crazy relationships that are born and die online. Probably already a million of those happened. I can sit alone in my apartment, reading a book on how to be a better person or how to drive a boat, or order pizza. Or look at naked people screaming with pleasure. We are doomed.
You talked about being exposed to those faster and smaller micro-emotions in jazz. Give me an example of a track that does that for you.
Well I'd like to offer any track where Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul play the theme together, because the phrases are so long and the notes that are sustained are usually beautiful harmonies interrupted by staccato chirping, a big glowing synthesizer and honking reed instrument blending together. The synthesizer is being strained to sound natural and the sax is played with such exactness and precision that it could be programmed. That's paradise, mechanical and silicone, participating while singing to you. There's no words in that music so you can listen while trying to imagine that words don’t exist at all in life, just melodic themes.
Can you say more about your relationship with technology? How does it open up possibilities for you in your music?
I'm just a freak when it comes to using and fixing stuff. I can't stand that feeling of not knowing about how some very useful device was developed, where it comes from, or how to change it. Lately I've been very scared of the consequences of piracy and received some very scary letters from my ISP. I'm very bad at earning money, so of course, like most composers, I use software that I didn’t pay for and that has been really eating at me. I decided the next big film gig I get, which might never happen, because who knows really, I'm going to pay for this very advanced, thoroughly researched world which I step into each day, staring at their colors and boxes for things that I hear and share with others. What a tragedy.
Something I might like to do when I have some ability to develop my own ideas would be more intuitive percussive interfaces, or just different ones – some things that allow for very natural movement in faking hand percussion, or maybe a mallet-based instrument that does something different than emulate a drum-kit or marimba and uses physical modeling. Or portable 3D sound that seems to be nowhere close. Where are the worn donuts that have 360 degrees of sound? Maybe it exists and I haven't seen it. I think 3D records will be a thing soon. Like easily, through iTunes. Can’t you see a donut-shaped Apple device you wear on your head? It's wireless. 10 or 12 channels. Imagine!
Karneef's newest album, Musique Impossible, will be released in April, in collaboration with the new Montréal-based composers' collective, Géocité, which includes Pascale Project, Bataille Solaire, and Dylan III.
There are few labels that have successfully curated an artist roster that abridges the rather wide and sensitive gap between quality electronic music and rock. If we were to say that said gap has at all narrowed in the last ten years, we could quite naturally thank Kranky. Chicago's novel, "going nowhere slow" label exemplifies that the key to such strenuous effort isn't only through recognizing how avant-garde and ambient are genres more agreeable for those with guitar and drum ears; it also argues curation, how a consistent aesthetic and resilient, unwavering self-definition can win the hearts of others. Consistency creates feelings of safeness and trustfulness for just about anybody. For example, the Kranky website hasn't changed, ever, and that very quality has afforded some of us plans for long-term fandom. Kranky also somehow embodies the unqiue personality combination of solemnness plus funny. Above all, Kranky in its subtle ways advocates a genuine emphasis on sound itself, love of sound. It broadcasts that listening is an artform within musicianship, a talent bullied and overrun by proactive instrument playing. Can't a musician be a musician by his or her style of listening, sans guitar and/or synth collection?
Disappears' upcoming fifth Kranky release, Irreal, accents the inveterate label in a new way, and excavates big observations about Kranky as a whole. Though a rock band drawing strongly on psychedelic soundscapes and gospel spokenword, who have toured and collaborated with Steve Shelley, Disappears have tapped into a vein that travels from rock and indie toward electronic music and listening advocacy, without turning to synths and drum machines, or dance music. This feels executed mostly by Irreal's foregrounding of the drum kit, triggered, layered, and edited at a different if not later stage of making the record. By placing the effect-heavy drums prominently, as much so as vocals, we experience more of a pro-sound album, not overrun by rock motifs and traditional instrument assembly. Guitars are undoubtedly present, however working as if physically behind the drum kit. They assist in completing and stregnthening the, or any drum kit's nearly infinite range of frequency and particular type of solemness and thunderous emotionality. On Irreal, these traits are even more so unleashed, unlimited, and explosive, staring straight at you, in the face.
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Having sung this praise, Irreal uncomfortably pageants a type of violence and begruded existential yearning. While screaming and heaviness aren't unusual for Disappears, the despondent key signatures are. Furthermore, lyrics like "I want to remember" repeatedly stated as relentless yet calculated instruments smash their way through to supremacy altogether discontent the listener, making she or he likewise itch and eventually grovel for solutions to rudimentary unfairnesses. Incomplete sentences and general unknowns also evoke this fury. There are interludes and windows of mild prettiness, such as the end of "Another Thought," where a washed-over, Sting-like crooning soothes the fire at hand; nonetheless, later tracks like "Mist Rites" and "Navigating the Void" leave no room for invigoration, positivity, or redemption, which seems to be so desired here, since the start of the album. As "Navigating" limps on, a very arid form of solace slides in before the guitar feedback subdues the drum levels and begins drowning the album.
What is the anger for? Is this a band singing ill-praise for the recognized superfluity of standard rock band set up? Is it more personal than political? The message is perhaps deliberately unclear.
Several aspects of Irreal remind me of later Wire, This Heat, and struggling-to-grow-up Sonic Youth, all of which are quite militant, droning, and somewhat clean. These bands are surely not only celebrated by Disappears, but also the whole of Kranky and most of their various artists. My critical question about this album has to do with label coherency, like what was being rambled about at the top of the review: how do violent sounds, song structure and refined post-rock presentation work so well next to a plethora of celebrated ambient artists? In other words, how can Kranky have abrasive pieces right next to neo-classical ones in their catalog? How is it that ambience and aggression work so well into each other, that death metal lifers make exceptions for electronica only when it comes to ambient? No matter the feasible answers, Kranky is certainly arriving at a more ethereal stage in their career where a paradox like the one between violence and tranquility can make sense and even be patched up, and Irreal is a vtial part of that arrival, not to mention a fascinating evolutionary step for Disappears.
Look into pre-ordering here. Album to be released January 19th.
The atmospheric sounds of a dentist's office are comparable to the metallicity and searing audio mutations of Katie Gately's work. Her new movement, "Pivot," out on Fat Cat October 27th as a part of the Split 12" Series, displays the usual Gately melodies which lead listeners to unexpected places while being followed by surreal lyrics and indiscernible buzzing that originated with Gately singing into her at home studio microphone. Around eight minutes into the track, we are left alone to some dissonant timpani-sounding drum being struck at a rate that reminds me of the ticking of a giant universal clock, before medieval vocal cadence enters, followed by all kinds of silly blaring horns and rhythmic banter. Just let it suck you in.
Since the FC Split 12" Series focuses on emerging artists, and because we've been interested in Katie's style for some years, I felt that this elevation would be a great opportunity to sit down with the artist and pick her brain. As it turns out, Katie is a friendly, funny, and exceedinly cunning individual. Here's our conversation held via Skype chat.
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We really need to get you to Berlin for CTM or something!
Oh yeah CTM invited me last year! They are so nice but I'm not a performer, more a studio person. I really aspire to be in the studio twenty hours a day!
Are you in the studio right now?
Yeah I am at home, just working around the clock on some music as I have a week off from more film editing [and bill] paying duties.
It must feel good, though, to do artistic clockwork.
Yes, when it is going well! most of what I spend time on though is the technical tweaking which isn't very artistic but it's good to get in those 10,000 hours!
Do you always decline playing live?
Yeah I've declined to play for everyone - my focus is the studio. After being at USC, the most important thing I learned was to identify my goals and stick to them and not get distracted even if there is pressure to. Does that make sense? I have a few records that are so time-consuming to make and with no budget and no help. All I have is my own slave labor to push myself along!
That does make sense, and I feel like it's a very self-respecting rule to have with oneself.
The cave part blows…so now I try on/off weeks instead of months at a time. Just dig in like crazy for a few solid days and then retreat a bit (get some sun!).
Sun is very important, and those shadows in the cave can start to get freaky! The world of seeing live music is so poignantly different than private listening. Similarly, the act of performing music really has nothing to do with the act of writing and tinkering with music in the private sphere, in the studio, because the latter doesn't involve performing. People still think the ultimate music experience has to be a live one. What do you think? And do you have any feelings about performance in general?
Yeah I completely agree. Performance blows me away but I also think of it as using a different part of the brain. I am more prone to listen to records (I cannot afford to see live music or movies or anything these days….loans!) Since I trained in film….I'm also just prone to think of sound as fixed and "locked." Literally, when you finish editing you say "picture lock" and "sound lock." So I draft and draft and edit and edit and do pass after pass until I'm done. Then, I honestly never want to hear my music again! I spent insane amount of time hearing it loop and loop as I mix!
Oh interesting! That's how a lot of people feel about writing, and once they submit/publish, they don't want to see it again, or maybe they're even scared to read it because they're brain will go back into editing mode or something. I mean that's how writing my thesis was for me. I'm trying to reengage with it, but I still can't get passed page three of the introduction.
Yes! I've always felt that what I'm actually doing is writing. Or editing in the same way a writer self-edits. Just because there are no instruments. Watching someone play an instrument is totally beautiful and mysterious to me. It's obviously the normal/sane way to make music, but I just can't play anything beside the computer and assortment of weird plug-ins. I have a friend doing her PhD right now and we find millions of parallels between trying to structure a record and writing a huge essay like a dissertation. It's a nightmare! But a self-inflicted joyous and indulgent one totally worth the effort.
So you said that, for you, sound is a rather fixed medium, one that you lock and save. Does that rule out other observations about sound being as fluent as water, spooky, and fleeting?
No! I don't rule out anything! I've just found this one way of making music to be right for me as a solo producer. I know it will morph and change. It's just where I'm at now, still a bit of a beginner with making tunes after all.
The process is still fluent, but the process at this point entails that the sounds you record and edit are to be contained and perceived as fixed? That's a weird half question.
Yeah, coming up with ideas is fluent - anything goes – then when I finish a song, because I make everything via editing techniques (no midi controller, no real-time singing but heavily processed voice-as-effect) it's just literally beyond me how I'd perform this kind of stuff! My computer crashes all the time because of the CPU i'm hogging to process this way you know? Imagine me live. I'd need three computers and like ten people helping me! it's totally worth exploring for sure….it's just that i have zero time! I am trying to work in film and make records and it's already like 90 hrs of work a week.
I totally just had an image of that being your live set. It'd be so trippy omg – instead of backing musicians you'd have a back up tech support choir moving around you while you sing and splice the real-time.
I just hope I live until I'm really old so I can do everything I want to do. That's my constant anxiety. Like 'please don't let me get the first case of Ebola in LA so I can release these six songs first. Then give me Ebola! I don't care!'
Aww you'll be fine! I want to back up again to something you just said – you feel like a writer though you're a producer. Virginia Woolf, who was a massive music listener, who took listening and representations of listening to a new level, famously wrote that she "pens to a rhythm," and that she felt like her novels were movements of music. Have you ever come away with any inspirations from reading VW, and do you think that crossing media (writing fiction like it's music, producing music like it's fiction or polemical), is especially important nowadays?
I remember falling in love with VW at a very young age and then well, I found out she killed herself (alongside a disturbing number of the people I've found so moving!). I wrote much more as a kid than music...I didn't make music at all. Reading was such a huge part of my childhood. Sometimes I think it's those earlier memories than most seeped into my mind and changed me – that awe at someone building an independent universe and just with text and structure!
So awesome, yes. Microcosmic construction.
Yeah I liked that she would spend obsessive amounts of time on a single sentence. I relate to that deeply. It's not even an aspiration for getting something "right" for the reader but just getting it right in the sense that it perfectly communicates something specific about how you feel. I don't know if there is even a difference. Her and Kafka and Herman Hesse were my favorites. Also, duh, Nancy Drew books. I read 100 Nancy Drew books. She was a cute little role model. I'm pretty sure all those books were ghost written and formulaic to a T but comforting for a little kid.
Holy smokes there totally is! Curating how you want your work to be for yourself is utterly different than making things as clear and stiff as possible for faceless readers. VW wrote about that, too. Do you have any thoughts on the popularity of synaesthesia/intermedialty in art nowadays?
Gosh I don't know much about that – do you mean the self-diagnosis of it? Or an intentional practice of bringing this into artwork and music?
I guess more diagnosis, and seeing it in other artworks too – what has accelerated its popularity?
Haha, I don't know. Self-obsession? There are a lot of gluten allergies in LA. I tend to veer away from diagnosis and categories just as a knee-jerk bias.
Labels, categories, contagions.
Yeah they're so comforting but often just not even remotely accurate. My brother the other day asked how I'd describe my music and I said 'I have no clue. listen to it and decide for yourself. I'm just as likely as anyone else to totally describe it incorrectly!' It's not easy describing things. Thus, this is why I did become a writer!
That anecdote reminds me again of how superficial the uses of categorizing are – it's just for short answers and explanations.
As long as someone doesn't compare me to Lil Wayne or something I'm like 'oh I can see how that description makes sense' – ha! it's incredibly hard to talk about abstract art (i.e. music and sound are literally invisible to the eyes!)
Exactly! That brings me to the next question: I usually like to ask artists what their aural, as opposed to musical, influences are; but, since your work is already quite abstract, broken, and heavily coded, I want to ask what your musical influences are, as they are not very evident in the music. Besides Aretha Franklin.
[At this point we go off on a long tangent about sonic torture and Satan and Katie doesn’t end up responding to this generic question which I respect]
Hey how was the dentist?
Oh, great. I wish I could go every day. The dentist is like fun to me. I wish I could afford weekly bone scraping and feel newborn every day.
You like the sounds of the facility? Have you ever had an MRI?
Yes i love the sounds! Servos are beautiful. I have had an MRI and I was furious nobody warned me how incredible it sounded because I did not have a recorder with me! One of my biggest sound regrets and sadnesses. I guess will have to get injured again soon.
Haha, 'sound regrets.'
I try to be zen about it like 'don't become attached to things. it's all good' but I am essentially lying to myself when I do this. Just hard to carry a recorder at every moment.
Are you attached to sounds? Love at first listen?
Yes for sure. Some get made out of nothing, they start dull and then surprise me (it is so exciting when it happens). Others are like heart-stopping and just just draw-dropping out of the gate. And then there are childhood sounds which have a whole other comfort and association.
Can you give me an example of a childhood sound?
Oh damn, I walked right into that one! Let's see…well the sound of my childhood bathtub when you turn it on. It makes this crazy hyena wailing sound because the pipes are from like the 1800s or maybe even earlier! Also we owned a really old stool…my parents furniture growing up was like very very creaky and old! And we had a stool that when you stood up…the sound of it scraping against the wood floor was almost like a whale bellowing in pain or something. So dramatic! Especially with reverb.
So childhood sounds that remind us of wildlife, all contained within the walls your childhood home?
Yeah things that feel too exceptional to be from the mouth of something so mundane! Sort of teaches you to not judge a books by its cover!
One more thing super duper important: Do you know your astrology at all?
I don't at all! I am a Cancer though, which always sounded like such a bummer. But crabs are cute (and sassy!).
Fat Cat Split 12" Series #23 with Katie Gately and Tlaotlon is out now and you can order it here.
While studying Sadie Plant's brilliant Zeroes + Ones, I came across her interpretation of how net programming and social media are rearranging our uses for hierarchical structures. Plant establishes that hypertext is a non-linear, weaved form of footnoting. By surfing the net and following hyperlinks, one does not abandon a main text but instead is presented a macrocosmic idea and its backing details in a more spiraling way. Such easy-access cross-referencing has begun to lessen our thinking rectangularly, limited to the edges of the page.
Hypertext programs and the Net are webs of footnotes without central points, organizing principles, hierarchies.... Such complex patterns of cross-referencing have become increasingly possible, and also crucial to dealing with the floods of data which have burst the banks of traditional modes of arranging and retrieving information and are now leaking through the covers of articles and books, seeping past the boundaries of the old disciplines, overflowing all the classifications and orders of libraries, schools, and universities (Plant 10).
If hypertext is another form of narrational text and editing protocol, it is safe to say that telling the same story through a different lens, or sending the same information through a different grid, is indeed informative as well as expansive. Undoing the straight and narrow, single-strand perception as the standard doesn't only benefit our experiences as perceptual beings; it also speaks to the circularity and mysticism radiating off of the internet, which is being absorbed by this eager stage of cultural history.
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This year's Seattle Decibel Festival incidentally offered such evolved and altered referential structure. The Experience Music Project (EMP), located at the Seattle Center, directly below, or next to, the Space Needle, served as the main ticketing and showcase hub. Arriving at the EMP and remembering the time I had been there before, I started recollecting the available exhibitions in the museum, contemplating how neat it is to have so much live, innovative, and passionate electronic music within the corridors of a museum incidentally focused on rock music.
The reason for emphasis on rock music and guitar worship is quite simply due to the non-profit museum's dedication to popular culture. Unanimously, guitars have played a huge role in shaping said culture. The museum also houses a notable sci-fi exhibit, in which we find reverent Dr. Who props and Sean Young's neo-gothic dress from her entrance as Rachel in Blade Runner. Since Star Wars, fantasy and sci-fi genres and styles have immersed themselves somewhat sustainably into the mainstream; but a larger part of sci-fi will always lie out on the outer limits, for it must have that element of unknown in order to generate dreams, or fantasy, of what will be.
Electronic music, gear tinkering, and the mystical futurism evoked by these hyper-creative soundscapes and oftentimes non-linear song structures, are the perfect links for tying together celebrating innovation in music and sci-fi mentality. In other words, housing dB primarily at the EMP makes complete and utter sense. The EMP acts as a central point of dB but without any feeling of singularity. As an added bonus, festival pass holders were granted access to the museum exhibitions during daytime hours.
While some found the fortress confusing and perpetuating of a fragmented feeling, perhaps due to our having to exit the building and walk around to a different entrance in order to access the other stage, such a requirement fascilitated getting some air, readjusting, running into friends, and glancing up at the shimmering, bulging fortress. The architecture of the museum, impressive and provocative, complements forward-thinking electronic aesthetic, which helps create a cohesive visual + audible experience that can override fragmented perception.
I was curious about how the dB team ended up wanting to use the museum has a main hub, so I got in touch with the EMP's Audience Development Programs Manager Michael Stephens, who offered the following statement:
The EMP and Decibel partnership aligned perfectly with the mission of EMP - EMP serves as a gateway museum, reaching multigenerational audiences through our collections, exhibitions, and educational programs, using interactive technologies to engage and empower our visitors. At EMP, artists, audiences and ideas converge, bringing understanding, interpretation, and scholarship to the popular culture of our time. Decibel fit perfectly within that and we look forward to a continued partnership with the festival and the community.
Something that is difficult about dB, and something that I've noticed festival regulars joking about, is dB's incongruent, overlapping schedule. There's loads of good stuff, showcases featuring personal favorites as well as artists that peak new interest, but no possible way to see everything. Schedule overlapping typically demands that we zoom around Capitol Hil and Bell Town venues via taxi, foot, or bus. It's as if a dB tradition, which is now upgraded. Having a main hub with several stages and superlative sound execution (I mean, really, one of the best I've ever experienced) ensures that festival-goers at least catch parts - yes, perhaps fragments - of acts that are playing at the same time, as one can simply swing around the building as opposed to wait for an Uber taxi and/or walk to the other venue. Again, this creates a more accommodating and correlational experience, although this year there were still plenty of performances at venues such as Re-Bar, The Crocodile, and the Triple Door, all still within a downtown reach.
[Strength] of connection derives from the partial overlapping of many different strands of connected-ness across cases rather than from any single strand running through large numbers of cases... (Plant 11).
Because it is a festival, and due to the overlapping nature of this specific one, the dB experience is already not very linear. All the showcases, happening more or less simultaneously, appeal to widely varying music lovers and philanthropists. I feel that, looking at the dB festival as such - like a wheel turning on top of other wheels, adorned with hyperlinks and gateways - reinforces its textuality and referentiality. Such conception also solidifies the festival as unique, and the EMP as a partnered main hub helps this festival's uniqueness become a strength, a multi-stranded, dense communal experience.
Altogether, dB this year had a welcoming, different, almost sleek feel to it. 'Sleek' maybe comes to mind just because of the texture of the outside of the EMP; nonetheless, I feel that the partnership between the dB team and the EMP was a very smart and graceful gesture toward both Seattle and dB communities. The action of primarily operating out of the EMP was a means of doing the same old thing but in a different way, hyperlinking events that are taking place simultaneously in the same building or at least, so to speak, just a click away.
In case you can't dig on my massive analogy, here's a linear and hierarchized list of personal highlights:
1. Kangding Ray
Gorgeous, wavering light show with driven, coherent dance beats: Kangding Ray was exceptional, and likewise a very welcomed taste of Berlin ambient techno that doesn't live under the banner of a specific club or crew. It's real artistry in the guise of minimal techno, reveling in the complex labor of blaring emotionality through restraining, gray machinery. David Letellier's latest album, Solens Arc, is highly recommended, and out on Raster-Noton.
2. Cherushii (played in town with Golden Donna festival week but unaffiliated with the festival. Speaking of overlapping...)
I went to see Cherushii at Seattle's small clothing shop and DIY concert space Cairo, and it blew my mind. I've seen Cherushii aka Chelsea Faith several times at this point, and I've even had the pleasure of playing alongside her at the NFOP event in August: this set blew my mind. It was focused, lush, full of new sounds, and demonstrative of Faith's unlimited talent. Looking forward to her forthcoming releases on 100% Silk.
After some arsenide broke out at a Chicago regional airport, Sassmouth made it safely to Seattle's Re-Bar on Sunday night and her set blew pretty much everyone away. The stars were right. This glorious celebration wasn't just because it was the last night of the festival, or because the vibe in Re-Bar after Nordic Soul's set was completely radiant: it was because she authoritatively spun pure house at perfect tempo for hours. What more can I say?
Admittedly, it's taken me a while to fully get on the Braids bandwagon. After seeing them a second time and letting my mind grasp their style, I am completely enamored. Their performance was dense, beautiful, and spellbinding, and left the devoted audience speechless. They announced that they are "working very hard" on new material and played some of it. I can't wait to hear the new album when it is complete, or, better yet, at least see them live again.
I've listened to Ghostly+Kranky icon Loscil for years and years, and thanks to this year's dB, I've finally experienced that world of ambient sound live. The visuals performed by were perfect, and the set quite simply spoke directly to my insatiable appetite for pad.
James Clements aka ASC's performance was a proud part of the Silent Season showcase. It was a calming, meandering, and slightly aberrational set. His latest Truth Be Told is undoubtedly one of my favorite albums of 2014, so why do I say abberational? The showcase was moved from its original assignment to the EMP Level 3, which is more of a dance space. Sitting on the floor, listening to ASC, and watching crystal clear images of the moon over northerly boreal landscapes hardly fit the Friday night festival head space. Nonetheless, I appreciate the mismatching mostly because it sparked contemplation over how to better experience ambient music, which rouses very private emotions, in a public space. Furthermore, I love paradox.
As a girl, we sat along the wall under the barre and played a back scratching game in between ballet class: inscribing words, letter by letter, on a back while we simultaneously absorbed and read the letters being pressed into our own. My younger sister, grown now and still dancing, once conspiratorially confessed to me that the feeling of letters on her back and shoulders often created a line of sensation down there.
Dancers are acutely attuned to how down there is bound up with a host of sensations and processes— sinewy ligaments transmitting messages through body, mind and space. Moving is thinking is feeling is speaking.
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I dance feelings like they’re spoken
How does it feel to have me thinking about you?
The artist FKA twigs—Tahliah Barnett, her nickname bestowed by her body, “twigs” for her cracking joints—was the daughter of a dancer and grew up in Gloucestershire taking ballet and attending Catholic school. She has recently released her first full-length album to general acclaim and another few consensuses: She is mysterious. Her music is sexy. She is (alt-)R&B, whether she likes it or not.
A few matters not so agreed upon or even addressed: What does it mean for music to be about sex? To be sex as one review declared? How might that meaning be different for a woman? For a dancer?
The Internetinformsus that sex is about the right rhythm. Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” And a recent study shows that music with heavy bass makes us feel powerful because we associate power with men’s deep voices. Instead of male ejaculation, twigs’ music is about sex and power in a musical and lyrical language centered on female pleasure. This vocabulary, and the very concept of female pleasure, is somewhat of a befuddlement to popular culture and its critics.
General reaction to this disorientation has been to circumscribe the music and maker within reductive genre borders and comparisons—R&B and trip-hop, Aaliyah and Björk—and when those fall short, to declare twigs herself as cultivating a sense of mystery, likely for marketing purposes. Her songs are often called contradictory and she is accused of deliberate misreadings—by those for whom trust and sex, sexual appeasement and knowing that you can count on your lover, are separate things. Conversely, female listeners likely understand those connections and cannot help but recognize in the ways that blood, ripping someone open, and sex are not contradictory or easily separated in “Two Weeks”.
Twigs (despite her mysterious ways) has spoken out on the more insidious aspects of genre labels:
When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: “I've never heard anything like this before, it's not in a genre.” And then my picture came out six months later, now she's an R&B singer.
Certainly categorization can have its utility, but genre and sub-genre designations have not only replaced substantial criticism to the detriment of general music knowledge and listening abilities, they have also been doled out and defended with a zeal that uncomfortably approaches colonial and eugenic impulses. A musician is only as good as her lineage. The talk of twigs as mysterious and sexy can sound like a thinly veiled way of calling her exotic, further reducing her to an offensive cliché instead of a distinct artist worth being judged by her art.
LP1 (even the album titles—EP1, EP2, LP1—ask us to focus on the content and not the label) opens with a hymn. The melodic and harmonic intervals hark back to Gregorian chant and medieval counterpoint, but where hymns are straightforward and driving always homeward, “Preface” loops back upon itself. Choirboy vocals swirl around the cathedral dome and introduce various imposed rhythms and sounds that add to the dizziness—at times aligning with the melody, other times ever-so-slightly out of sync. The church pipe organ one would expect to accompany the hymn appears instead on the next track (and an even more traditional hymn structure and lyrics come later in the album, on the song "Closer"). It is an appropriate introduction for the sounds to follow.
“I love another, and thus I hate myself,” a line in “Preface” is from Sir Thomas Wyatt’s sonnet which describes seemingly contradictory states as not just coexisting within the poet, but also causing the other. I love another and thus I hate myself. They are not contradictory, they are inseparable.
“Preface” opens with a technique of percussive vocal staccatos that are employed elsewhere on LP1 as well as on both of the EPs. This motif technically and symbolically calls attention to the relation between rhythm and melody, between the individual notes that connect to form musical ideas. It calls to mind “Hocket” by Meredith Monk where two singers sustain the eponymous musical technique of splitting a single melody line note by note. Elsewhere, like on “Water Me” and “Weak Spot” off twigs’ first two EPs, her vocal staccatos come closer to the more computerized “ha ha ha ha” of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”. All of these works address the ways music and people come together, the connections formed, and what can come in the spaces between.
Discussion of FKA twigs’ music cannot ignore that she is writing about sex more directly, effectively and consistently than any popular music artist of the last few decades (other than Prince). Twigs would likely agree with Wilde that everything is about sex. As such, everything cannot be expressed with just words. Discussion of sexuality in her music should therefore not be reduced to only lyrical content. Rhythm, movement, melody and lyrics interact to create the overlapping arcs of desire, pain, trust, power, loss and anger that create erotic space. This is music for when the lights are out, indeed, but if we trust her, we can do it with the lights on and “it” is so much more than fucking.
Twigs brings the body into her music through rhythm, and she knows that to do so masterfully is to create much more than a beat one can dance to. Oftentimes it is the absence of such a beat that gets her message across: “Hide” is an unraveling tango of absence—of space—where the metronomic percussion becomes subsumed and slowed in the course of the song, disorienting and separating from the melodic rhythm and accompanying guitar. The beats wind down as twigs finds satisfaction elsewhere: “I found another way / To caress my day.”
The negotiation of multiple contrasting and/or ambiguous rhythms is at the heart of twigs’ work. This is the language of interplay between bodies, thoughts and one another (not just where you bump and grind it). The best composers for dance are the ones who understand this language. In a scene from the ballet Petrushka by Stravinsky the ballerina is performing a waltz; when her would-be paramour joins in, their incompatibility is apparent by his clunky insistence on dancing to a slow duple meter against her triple waltz.
Compare this to “Breathe” from EP1. The rhythms here convey not just divergence but also the struggle to regain synchronicity. Twigs protests, “All I see is the reflection of who you are not,” the melody races to try to catch the drumbeats until she comes to focus on the unconscious rhythm of breathing, “I breathe easily in your arms.” The music slows and the beat lets up for a moment as she tries to gather the rhythms together: “Just breathe / Breathe in / Just breathe / Breathe in.”
These complexities and nuances of rhythm haven’t been mined to such depths in pop music since Radiohead. Björk too uses rhythm to express emotion and states of being. Twigs’ rhythms add a distinct awareness of the body and intimate relationships that is decidedly feminine. She is knowledgeable and wary of how one’s personal rhythms can be overtaken by seemingly more powerful, deeper voices: “Your love / Made my heart go boom / So I might lose myself in you”. But she is also aware of how one can learn to incorporate those opposing forces within oneself: the expansive gesture of dance counted “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,” and the mathematical motion of music, “one, two, three, four” (or even, “one-e-and-a-two-e-and-a…”) alongside the linguistic common meter of hymn, the iambs and anapests of speech.
One of twigs’ most powerful and stimulating (erotically, intellectually, viscerally) tracks is “Two Weeks”. The song is a major convergence of rhythmic, harmonic and emotional elements. Lyrically, twigs is at her most explicitly desirous and commanding, and yet music and lyrics together make it clear that her lover is already gone—there are no disparate rhythms to gather, the loss is clear and acute. Beyond the math and theory of rhythm and harmonies, there is something inexplicable at work. It has something to do with the particular sharp physical desire felt in times of loss and the ecstasy of a sorrow that reaches full expression.
The electronic vibrato of keyboards in “Two Weeks” gradually swell and abate (in a way that recalls the first movement of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3), but the song doesn’t wait for abatement before it ends—as twigs' songs often do—seemingly unfinished. While this has proven noteworthy in pop music, it is less remarkable in the realm of female desire.
“Kicks” directly acknowledges the inherent difference in male and female approaches to, and definitions of, pleasure. Common interpretation of the end of LP1 finds twigs alone “giving up and having a wank”. But there is so much more happening here than simply an ode to masturbation. By the close of her album, we know twigs better than to believe she needs to “take your lead” in order to learn how to get herself off. She is experimenting with more than mechanics. No longer feeling for someone else, no longer waiting, she finds her rhythm in accepting absence and asking, “What do I do when you’re not here?” Until now, sex involved another person—even just their absence. It accommodated multiple rhythms and spaces. But here, to go her “own damn way” and “get her kicks like you” is simply to touch, to define getting her kicks as just that, separate from the ambiguous unfinished stuff of life.
Twigs’ voice is often described as airy and delicate, even too pretty (apparently vocal as well as physical beauty distracts from what a woman is saying). Her range is impressive and, as is often the case with sopranos, much is lost in the compressed digital translation. To hear her live is to understand the presence and force of a controlled, impeccably pitched soprano that resonates through the concert space, down through your toes, leaving goose bumps in its wake. That’s sex. That’s power.
I wrote about Missoula once before in an essay about what it's like to see electornic music in a rock town that thinks it has it made. Relatively, Missoula does have it made, since it's the single best spot in the state for music and art. Now it's time to announce its techno side. Next month, Missoula will host a three day electronic music conference, which displays a brilliant line-up, including John Tejada, Natasha Kmeto, Lusine, and Nordic Soul. Yet, the DAT will do more than bring quality electronica out from different corners of the states, and join them in this particular corner few people have ever heard of: it is bringing to the fore why a place like Montana is a hitherto under-considered most excellent location for experiencing techno, as its geography has the potential to poetically complement aspects of electronic music culture.
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This year on August 1st to 3rd, the Digital and Analog Technologies Music Conference, or DAT, will launch in the small city of Missoula. While the acronym is colloquially catchy and urban, and the spelled out name seems rather relevant but not overtly laudable, the unique thing about this conference does not reside in the name. Or does it?
Like anything, we easily do but usually shouldn't judge a thing by its name. For example, what about the name “DAT” says Montana, rural electronica, and celebration of how both digital and analog technologies have shaped dance music? Does “DAT” by itself equal to what Wolfgang Voigt once called “adult techno”? Yes, this conference proudly calls itself a “conference” rather than “American rave” or “Burning Man” or “EDM Party of The Northern Rockies,” which is one way of clearly stating its mature and intellectual intentionality, even though, jokingly, "dat" is baby talk for "that." In what way does this event really display its polygonal complexity?
According to an outsider, Missoula, a town of about eighty thousand occupants, seems like an unlikely hub for electronic music, nor does it appear as a destination for discussing the integration of digital and analog technologies. At the same time, Missoula is a likely hub. It's the most city-like, artistic community in the state, although worldly and fascinating individuals pop up just about anywhere throughout this expanse of breathtaking land. Montana, if you aren't sure, can be found north of Wyoming, south of Alberta, northeast of California, and west of everywhere else. With its statewide population only recently reaching one million, Montana offers unexpected geographical, as well as cultural, diversity. Yes, some of the redneck stereotypes are true, but until you see what's going on here, you may not be able to conceive of the majesty, true-spiritedness, and capacity for the diversity this place possesses.
First of all, there's space. Montana gives you space, whether you need a cultural break, are seeking out a concentrated utopia somewhere off of the mainstream radar, or escaping into the mountainous wilderness (be careful because there are loads of bears, wolves, lions, and moose out there, so let's not over-idealize); or if you just need a long drive, bike ride, or horseback tour out on the plains that lead up to the Rocky Mountain Front; or if you need space for throwing expansive festivals, pow-wows, for building ranches, a new self, etc. Not sold yet? Unsure of how electronic music would fit into this equation, especially now that I've mentioned horses?
Seeing as how this is a space-giving destination, there is of course plenty of space for cultivation of not only of crops, but also dreams, imaginings, individual development and methods for diversification. Be that as it may, we do not take kindly to developers - especially if from out of state – conducting their business here and forcing property taxes to reach the sky; we see not only exploitation in this prospect, but also unsustainable triviality, and this observation is a symptom of the attitude here, part New Age, part cowboy: it is an attitude that accepts stoically the fact that, in the end, the mountain wins.
Montana has been diverse even before the white man made it this far northwest. This landscape has been the home for various Native American tribes for centuries upon centuries, reaching back to the mystical pre-time world, where they lived with, hunted, utilized, and celebrated the diversity of wildlife available at the time. Today, Montana is one of the states with the most federally recognized Indian Reservations, and one of few states to proudly enforce Indian Education for All curriculum within the public school system.
Among many noble perspectives of Native tradition is the one that calls on us to remember what the land means, and how the landscape can inspire stories, ancestry, and growth. With that in mind, and in recalling the idea of a space-giving, imagination-cultivating location, we begin to assemble thoughts on how Montana and music, especially instrumental, ceremonial music, can go hand-in-hand, as music with little to no lyrics certainly leaves plenty of space for imagination by minimizing verbal disruption in listening. One of the chief characteristics of quality techno, as we well know, is the extraneousness of lyrical verse. We need more beat and less conceit! What this amounts to is the possibility that Montana is actually an unbelievably ideal place for listening to and experiencing electronic music.
Tara Emery, co-creator and head curator of the DAT, met me for coffee recently at one of local bakeries, where one goes to acquire the best espresso in town. We laughed about how some of the artists booked for this first year might be expecting a truly rural setting, where there's a town that tourists pass through in the blink of an eye, and that the showcases will be out on leased acreage, Summer Of Love style. “Let them think that, so they can have that Montana surprise!”
Emery was born and raised here in a “hippie household,” she says. She graduated from Hellgate High School (Thurston Moore's favorite high school in the country purely due to its name (it refers to the canyon barricading the east side of the valley)), spent time in Pacific Northwestern cities, and is a mother, as well as a grandmother. I asked her when it was that she first realized that she was surrounding herself with everything electronica, despite the fact that she and her family are happily planted in rock-loving, small-scale Missoula. “I'd say late 90s. It was The Orb.”
For years, Emery was geared toward participating in festivals dedicated to tilling and expanding techno culture hubs. After several years of regular volunteering with family festivals like Communikey in Boulder, Colorado, and Decibel in Seattle, she realized what drove her to be so involved: it was about gaining inspiration, experience, and general know-how, for curation of her own festival. Thus, it's DAT time.
Apart from their love for the music, Emery and her partner in DAT curation, Logan Foret, share the dream of a mature techno culture in the States, as well as a more substantial one in Missoula. Deliberating on how to benefit that cause from Missoula, they are calling the DAT a “conference” rather than a “festival,” which reserves the more intellectual experience, somehow. By announcing Missoula to the techno scene, Emery and Foret wish to simultaneously awaken the reality that techno can be anywhere, even in Montana, and perhaps this can temper the overall American attitude toward techno.
Wait, we have to back up again: other than this being a special conference in a small city surrounded by bear-infested mountains, and besides it being Emery and Foret's maiden launch of their long-in-the-making brain child, this festival carries a feminist, egalitarian hue. From its purple and pink banner, to its greater mission to nurture the growth of this sub-culture, like a mother, the DAT is undeniably feminist, and proudly expects that, by its second flight, the artist line-up will be at a fifty-fifty gender ratio. If you have read any of our pieces on the topic of gender in electronica, you will already know that NFOP finds this commitment highly important and supportable, as does Natasha Kmeto, who is booked to blow the DAT away. More broadly, the geographical factor of the DAT persuades us to realize that, while we advocate gender equality in electronica, some of us may have biases when it comes to where to experience quality music, culture, and art. The DAT awakens city/rural prejudice and engenders some consideration for smaller communities that have hub potential.
Conclusively, what is remarkable about this conference, besides it being in Montana, an adult-techno party, gender-aware, and nationally recognizable, is that its name quite simply testifies against any conservative, black or white attitudes that may arise when considering any kind of duality, and in this case, the future of electronic music: will it be digital, or can it still have an analog turntable at the stand. Shit, why not both?
So throw out your stereotypes and put your leather boots or rubber sneakers on! The DAT is a premiering powerhouse fueled by passion for music, techno lifers, regional and international artists, and a whole bunch of what it takes to make you think differently. The premiere line-up includes the legenadry John Tejada (Kompakt), Lusine (Ghostly International), and a NFOP favorite, Natasha Kmeto (Dropping Gems). There will be live visuals from Albertan soundwave artist Clinker, and a spout of sets from Seattlites Cyanwave (Innerflight), J.Alvarez (Hypercolour), and Decibel Festival daddy Sean Horton aka Nordic Soul (Basic_Sounds). On the roster we also have Chicago's Sassmouth (God Particle), local techno pundits Kris Moon, Hendawg, and Mike Stolin, and other people, like yours truly.
If you happen to be passing through the area at the end of July or at the onset of August, or feel inspired to go out of your way, you can find more information and purchase tickets on the DAT's website.
A few weeks ago I met up with Natasha Kmeto in Seattle to chat with her about her submission to No Fear of Pop. Her piece, revolutionary, eloquent, and diplomatic all at once, was a response to our critical coverage of 2013's Decibel Festival and their lackadaisical shortage of female artsits in their line-up. Kmeto was one of the featured female artists of last year's festival, and thus her reaching out to discuss the touchy topic about gender dispropotion or "under-representation" in electronic music struck a strong chord across many realms that have experienced and continue to experience chauvinism. What she and I landed on after an engaging conversation was that permeation, or being encouraged or educated to permeate rather than belong, in musical style, gender, politics, and whatever which way, seems a most sincerely innovative way to contribute to the ongoing pursuit of equal rights. Here's a recap of what we had to say.
Photo by Patti Miller.
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Natasha Kmeto is a truly unique individual who, by genuinely implementing that individuality in her music, is benefitting the forward movement of electronic music's aesthetic as well as politic. Biographically, Kmeto is an ethnic permeation. When I inquired about her heritage, she smirked and said she's "Hungarian, German, Greek, and Phillipino," originally from Sacramento, raised in a feminist setting, with a grandmother from Berlin. Coming from a multicultural background, it's no big question that Natasha branched out to find space that supports experimentation for better artistry:
I went to school in LA and the way I was plugged into the scene in LA was very industry-heavy and the school I was at was into training back-up singers or back-up dancers for other artists and doing the pop machine scene where you can be disillusioned about the state of art ... It's like divorcing yourself from consciousness … where you're constantly bombarded by images of success. I wanted a change of pace and wanted a place where I could go and explore art as opposed to the standard music scene and I visited Portland. It's a very supportive art scene and proved to be more open for me.
In effort of finding a community that promotes deviation from models, these set "images of success," Natasha relocated up to Portland, Oregon, where she felt she could cheaply rent a studio space and comfortably "make weird shit" without any fear of ostracization or loss of good conscious. Her statement about divorcing oneself from consciousness speaks to the authenticity of her world of music. For her, it seems, music shouldn't only be good and brooding, like the climate of the Pacific Northwest and that which is found all over her album Crisis: music should also be aligned with experience, with consciousness and open perspective. This is best achieved after one is given space to find his or her own space. Alas, as a female artist, it's sometimes too easy to have plenty of explorative space and yet too difficult to be treated equally when it comes to booking. It is challenging, as we all know, to not be marginalized by the label "female."
You could be thrown into a roll ... it's either you're a woman or you're a human. I'm not trying to come from the perspective of manhating, because I'm not. I'm not trying to marginalize men ... I'm idealistic and I understand it's being idealistic to say that we shouldn't assign gender roles. Part of me would like to see that done away with but at the same time I want to represent other strong female producers. There are many who aren't tauted as highly as male producers, so I think the way out of that is to familiarize the public with the fact that women do other things besides get married and make babies, and I think that the vast majority of people still imagine it that way because they're not shown examples in their day-to-day lives. They're socialized that women are teachers, nurses, or moms, and they can be all those things and there's nothing wrong with it all. But looking at younger generations, I can see that they are already less rigid. So we'll see. I think electronic music is a great avenue for women because we can do it ourselves and it tends to be a more alternative scene. I feel like most men I meet in the scene are usually cool and not chauvinistic.
I agree, but I still think there's this intrinsic, unclaimed chauvinistic trend that dominates electronic music, making it a boy's party, and that was the feeling I came away with after Decibel. I had a good time, and felt that I was constantly surrounded by crowds so in love with the music; those crowds just happened to mostly be bros dancing to bros. And I felt that that's ok but someone needs to be aware of it, and if they don't want that type of festival, then maybe they should make a better effort of equivocal booking. But are there enough acts? Is having such discussion even helpful, or is it a detriment?
I think that there's a lot of women out there right now just crushing shit and it's different from what men do. I'm not saying that women's music is different or it should be different, but women do have a different approach because they kill it in a way that I relate to on a soul level. More women just need to go out to shows and experience that and look for that. And I think they do. I come from a completely different perspective too, coming from the queer community. In Portland, there's a disconnect between the queer community and underground electronic music ... they're not like "oh my god Mike Q!" and instead going out to dance to some top 40 stuff ... If they could go out and relate to it on a soul level then that would help too. That's what I'm trying to do. Maybe they come to a show because they really like singing or they really like R-n-B but then they hear some techno in the works or some drum-n-bass and then they'll be like 'I wanna explore that.' One of my favorite DJs in Portland, DJ Bianca, plays mainly top 40 to keep people happy but she'll also mix in Grimes, or mix in some Disclosure or start mixing in stuff like Jessie Ware, stuff that's a little left and center to the American top 40 but easier for trying to get people hip to that ... subtle moves like that is what is going to moves things forward.
One of my favorite things about Natasha's essay is how she validates permeation or equivocality overall. It's not just the crossing over of boundaries that we want, but rather the melting down of boundaries and letting all the contents pervade each other. Some individuals may choose to keep their boundary-defining label because they think it's empowering and relevant; still, rearranging things so that less power goes to out-of-date constructs also leaves room for those who wish to be identified in this way, or however they want, to be identified as such. It's really all about awareness, finding your own space to think about and arrange or fuse things, and making a choice.
Some of my favorite music is music that fuses things ... and I'm going to try and bring those elements into my music. Putting a fusion in front of people can be an uphill battle ... they won't know how to categorize this. I could've easily sang back up in Los Angeles or moved to Portland to make dubstep ... but there's still a lot of headscratching going on as to what kind of bills to put me on. You have to fight the big fight, though, in my opinion, to be singular, to be your own voice in order to voice to a lot of things, or to permeate and break down boundaries so that everyone can imagine a reality where a woman is on stage with electronics and executing it well, or someone is combining R-n-B and house. It's all about fusing, and breaking people's minds open. The human brain is programmed to categorize but for the people and artists I relate to the most, those categories are smaller. They're not big, broad categories of 'THIS IS WHAT IS;' it's about being able to step outside of yourself and seeing 'WHAT ISN'T?' ... it's about freedom of consciousness that I feel like a lot of people don't own. Some people can't imagine eating apples and cheese, they'll be like 'Ugh that's just backwards, I don't know what you're talking about,' and then there are some people who are like 'You know, I want to try that,' and those are the people who change things.
The people who don't try eating apples and cheese likely remember that foreign combination, and eventually the thought makes its way through the mind like a worm until they may decide when given the opportunity again to try it. And then they will have permeated with, or fused what someone else knows and what they know.
Let's all be permeable and permeable-minded. This is challenging with the paradoxes given by electronica, that is, its at times genre-specific, hard rhythm and metalic (and so less fluid-like) personality yet multicultural, equal-rights-for-those-who-wish-to-dance tradition. It's been brought to my attention that my favorite music tends to be the stuff that permeates even these, tracks that possess some kind of dreamy reverberation, atmospheric, slippery melody behind, beside, or maybe in front of delicious, crunchy, and solid beats. Let's apply these themes to our personal music tastes and learn more about how we can expand, give ourselves more room to fill and explore, and ask ourselves why we should in the first place. Let's be everything but exclusive, and take what we like but not exclusively.
Jessy Lanza kicked off her first European tour last week at Berlin's Berghain Kantine. I had the opportunity to speak with her about numerous topics, including the endearing and well-known fact that she is a music teacher on the side of being a producer. When I told her I wanted to learn some of her thoughts concerning women in electronic music, she enthusiastically complied but warned me that she dislikes how she has to come across as fussy or bitchy in order to gain recognition where it is absolutely due. That's where the topic opens up: why shouldn't the issue aggravate producers who are limited in recognition by their gender? The following article is another contribution to No Fear of Pop's discussion on women producers, their under-representation, and a suggestion for steps toward finding antidote, informed by the talented Jessy Lanza.
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When Henning asked me to write the review for Pull My Hair Back in August, I found myself imagining the album as instrumental. I always thought that the composition was very unique, full of some kind of comforting space between big R'n'B beats and references, which I hadn't encountered in music for years. The review concluded with the proposition that, while Jessy's voice is indeed one highly enjoyable narrative element, we should treat the work like an already excellent production with a beautiful voice on top as a special treat. Plus I was of course thinking about the issue with labeling women as singers and not producers.
Chart Attack's recent interview with Jessy complies with this theorem in stating at the outset that, “Hamilton's breakout electronic star would like you to know she's a producer first.” Better yet, Jordan Darville, the interviewer, asks that Jessy explain in her own words her adversity to being labeled a songstress:
There have been certain articles that have left me out in terms of production, like completely. And obviously that’s pretty annoying to me, when it’s been pretty explicitly stated in press releases that I’m not just a singer. I produced the album as well. But I think that’s just a reflection of the general popular scene being really sexist. It’s not something I spend all day fuming about because I understand that the record’s under my name and Jeremy’s an already established producer. It sucks that people always fall to the natural assumption that the guy does this and I do that, but I think that as time goes on and I put out more music I don’t think it’ll matter anymore. But yeah, it sucks when you read something and it says “songstress,” I hate that word. I don’t consider myself a vocalist.
Most interviews and reviews have been not an inch short of praising Jessy and her debut album, recommending it to a wide audience, and celebrating the emergence of a musician with an enjoyably nostalgic take on R'n'B; alas, it should again be reinforced that these reviews are often short of commending Jessy's production, talking sometimes instead about the lyrics' overt sexuality or a reputed producer's collaborative presence, omitting clarification that she's a producer before a singer.
Here's what Jessy had to add to this overshadowing when we met:
The project with Jeremy is a collaboration and I understand that maybe people would get confused about who does what based on the fact that he has been doing music in Junior Boys for ten years. It's always the underlying assumption: why is it that automatically just because I'm a girl and he's a guy and we're working on something together it defaults to that, and that's what pisses me off. I read stuff on Twitter where people are like, “This song's awesome! Jeremy Greenspan from Junior Boys produced it – it's great,” I'm like “Oh fuck you I produced it too!” [laughter]. I hate how that's the natural assumption.
I also hate how if I want to get my point across that I had a role in this, I have to be so hardline ... if I was a guy and working with Jeremy, then nobody would ask these questions like, “So what did you, and what does he do?” and I have to make a check list of, “Yeah he did the closed hats and I did the fucking open ones.” That would never be a question for a band that was two guys, but when it's a girl and a guy there has to be this delineation between the work. It gets annoying when you get asked to specify what you've done in this collaboration, where I feel like if it was two guys the question just wouldn't come up. It can't just be a girl and a guy working together? Why can't I just say that and have people understand that it's a mutual project. That's what pisses me off.
These misteps and "natural assumptions" do indeed reflect sexism and negligence in spheres far behind electronic music. But the big question is: who is perpetuating this myth of production hierarchy?
Natasha Kmeto's recent submission, which is also a response to our discussion of the lack of female artists at festivals in hubs as big as Seattle and Berlin, confirms the contemporary criticisms about treatment of female producers vs. male producers – just “producers” – vs. female singers. She asserts that women in electronic music are experiencing “under-representation,” that no real fruitfulness comes from pointing fingers when dealing with gender issues which expand far behind the microcosm of electronic music, and that, staying local, the discussion needs to be left open and engaged with:
I just think that the dialog about women and what women generally do and don't do needs to change, or even be had in the first place. Same goes for men. It's imperative ... It makes me endlessly happy to see these things being discussed because I believe that all conversations around this are a microcosm of women's experience in almost any industry. It also opens up the gates to a much needed discussion about gender roles and about women and technology in particular.
Jessy's take lies usefully congruent to Kmeto's and, in combination, the discussion is furthered to construct why the women in electronic music – henceforth playfully shortened to “girls in techno” – discussion falls into lulls and is defended against rather for. There is an obstacle at the core of this behavior which is that no one wants to hear a producer demand recognition where it's due, and people don't want an angry woman on their hands.
Is it not ok to get upset or proactive where it's due? Wouldn't an up-and-coming male producer demand credit for the guitar part he played on a friend's album in the event that his name is left out of the album sleeve? Would women be annoyed by his claim to fame?
Is gender disproportion present due to the technology being genderized, the male and female audio cables, color-coded pitch ranges, the higher, the brighter, the lower, the bro-er?
Perhaps making who produced who and what clearer, delicately, without the marginalizing indicator “female producer,” is one of the next steps to take, although it is conversely empowering to stand out as female. Taking charge in this way could boil down to individual awareness of assumption, catching ourselves quietly before stating things, thinking to check the facts first, or overall avoid speaking in a grandiose style - be more sensitive and sensible. An alternative antidote could reside in education, specifically a free type like what Jessy and other producers, such as Christina Sealey (the modular half of Orphx), in Hamilton, Ontario have established. In the Loop is a freshmen workshop for girls aged fourteen to eighteen, advocating the spread of girls doing techno. It demystifies electronic production for young women and, in a way, places electronics back into the hands of its perhaps rightful owners (in recollection to Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, whom Sealey definitely replicates as she dances wearing a vintage-looking dress turning the oscillator, next to her bandmate Richard Oddie).
We got Ableton and Korg to give us a bunch of monotrons, we rented a bunch of shitty laptops, and got some shitty soundcards, and taught them the basics how to set up an interface ... Christi got a nice grant from the government and we got about twenty girls enrolled in it. The end project was us putting together clips from the movie Carnival of Souls and had the girls do a soundtrack for it. It's amazing what they came up with, and how they responded to the software. We helped them a bit, but I didn't want to get too in their face. I'd be like "Hey, do you need some help?" and they'd be like "Uh... fuck off."
Working for a rather extraordinary cause, Jessy seems to have found a way to combine both music teaching and electronic production. It also advocates girls in techno without the risk of coming across angry or pissed off. It is instead a proactive and communal antidote against gender disporprotion and under-representation. Interestingly, Jessy's description of coaching young female producers reflects on a defensiveness when it comes to girls using technology with their "leave me alone" reaction to her pedagogically checking in on their progress with the software.
In conclusion, the general unwillingness to listen to an unaccredited artist become slightly pushy in her limited recognition is cultivated by irresponsible attitudes toward women. It is what keeps mouths closed, what continues to push this disucssion into lulls of silence as it creates an acute fear of coming across as problematic or inconvenient for bringing it up. However, an effective antidote against such attitude can be implanted in education and advocacy; Hamilton's In the Loop workshop more than likely will sustain and re-manifest itself in various ways, this article's praise being one. As for now, before we arrive again to the future, let's keep the discussion going further, and be articulate, inarticulate, angry and subtle as we need.
Jessy Lanza's Pull My Hair Back is out now on Hyperdub. You can catch Jessy in Europe or the UK during her current tour, or stateside next year.