Many faces in the electronic scene claim to operate in the underground — or at least on the fringes of the mainstream. Few put any real money where that mouth is. Enter the enigmatic Terre Thaemlitz.
Also known as DJ Sprinkles, she lays claim to many titles. From producer of the 'longest album of all time', the 31-hour Soulnessless, to 'queer philosopher' and activist concerned with everything from class to sexuality and ethnicity. The cross-dressing DJ upstaged by post-op queens in New York's notorious trans-sex worker club Sally's II in the early-1990s, to one of the most sought after names in modern deep house — renowned for combining expressionistic piano solos with What Was That records.
Even the gender-lines can be somewhat difficult to define, as the Guardian found out while interviewing her in full-on 'boy drag' last year. As outspoken as she is educated, enlightened, and keen to share thoughts and ideas about what's wrong with the world, there could be no better person to discuss recent homophobic rants by DJs, the role of politics in house and techno, and why Peace Love Unity and Respect is just shorthand for A Room Full Of Straight White People On Drugs.
Here's what she had to say from the Japanese headquarters of her imprint, Comatonse. Eyes to the front, please.
THUMP: Hi Terre, hope all's well. What's been happening with you at the moment?
Terre Thaemlitz: Here in Japan, on June 17, revisions to the Businesses Affecting Public Morals Regulation Law (Fuueihou), which bans dancing after 1AM, were finally approved, to go into effect in 2016. The foreign press has been largely misreporting this as the law being "defeated" or eliminated, but that is entirely not the case.
The law is very broad, and covers a wide range of things from sex work to dancing, so the debates around this were never about repealing the law. Instead, it has mostly been about dancers attempting to portray themselves as "morally upright citizens" who just want to relax, and are certainly not "perverts" like those nasty sex workers, so they should therefore be excluded from Fuueihou control… while the rest of those affected by the law are left to rot, basically.
The entire strategy ensures there is zero chance for broader social alliance and bringing about real changes to the 'morality code'. Of course, this is super upsetting for me. I spoke about these problems in RA's Real Scenes Tokyo — they kept in about 30 seconds of our 7-hour interview!
Well, as I said, revisions were officially approved, but the changes only affect larger clubs that already have proper dancehall licenses. Smaller underground venues remain ineligible for dance permits, often simply because they are not large enough to meet the physical space requirements specified by the law. So, on the one hand, nothing has changed and dancing remains illegal in many clubs. It's really important to understand that in these clubs dancing has always been illegal at any time — so the whole debate about the 1AM curfew only applied to the mega-clubs with proper dancehall licenses.
I know the lawyers are continuing their struggles to open up the law, but they are up against a conservative government and police force that takes a foot for every inch they give. For example, part of the 'trade off" for the current revisions meant granting police greater power in defining what constitutes legal 'entertainment". So the police now have even more power over defining what activities are moral and legal. It's a bureaucratic nightmare — the old idiom, "You can't beat city hall", really rings true in Japan.
Meanwhile, a group of over 40 major Japanese DJs — mostly techno and hip-hop — decided to 'celebrate' the revisions by issuing a Declaration On the Future Of Japan's Club Culture, in which they vowed, among other things, to dedicate club culture to the advancement of the Japanese economy, and totally bizarre conservative shit like that. It's worth noting that mainstream Japanese hip-hop is super nationalist. I issued a public response to their declaration which has since been co-signed by 58 people, including many local DJs, club owners, musicians, journalists, academics and other media producers.
You're booked to play Outsiders Festival in Holland, which is your first Dutch festival. What are your thoughts on the event and the country's party scene?
In recent years Europe has been opening up to classic US-style house, but most people still want to hear faster stuff that I would classify as techno. To my ears, what most Europeans call deep house is either techno or just plain pop music. So when I play in Holland I often find that people are impatient with the older, non-EU kind of deep house I play, which can be more melodic and soulful.
Hopefully the DJ booth won't be surrounded by a bunch of kids with frowny faces making "Come on! Pump it up!" hand gestures. It's pretty standard to have a group of them at every Dutch club gig I've played. And they really stand there making eye contact with me for the whole set, which I never understand. Why not just sit it out until you hear something you like?
Holland is well known for its liberalism, it seems dance and electronic music news has been full of negative stories lately surrounding homophobic rants, sexism, misogyny, racism… were these issues problematic within the wider scene when you were first starting out DJing in New York?
Sure, I mean, the other day I was listening to an old EP by Pizarro called Backstabbers — New York Puerto Rican deep house — and after all these decades I heard for the first time that the lyrics non-ironically bitched about "little faggots". It reminded me of the parting words of the 16-year-old straight Latino DJ I replaced at Sally's II, back in 1991. He said; "I can't stand being around these fucking faggots anymore." Keep in mind Sally's was a transsexual sex worker club, and that was the attitude of the resident DJ.
I think that on a dominant cultural level people have become more clever and savvy about policing their hatred, but the resentment is still there. Tolerance around sexual and gender deviation is only granted if we pass ourselves off as 'morally upright', family oriented, day job-holding, home-owning, car-owning, and willing to operate on our bodies in order to conform to the dominant two-gender binary because it's easier to butcher the few than to transform patriarchy.
It's a tolerance that literally makes people bleed for it. And it creates a situation in which it becomes harder to voice grievances, because liberal culture will quickly claim prejudice against homosexuals and transgendered people are things of the past. "We accept you! (…On our terms)." It's really the same kind of catch-22 as the Japanese Fuueihou revisions. Each attempt to legislate 'protection' is ultimately protection of the status quo morality. There is no 'win', there will never be 'equality'. The only constant is struggle.
Do you think those issues are likely to be present in every country where the scene exists, now it has gotten so big, and the stereotypical demographic for dance events has changed — particularly in the U.S.?
Certainly. It is like the anti-disco campaigns of the 70s. Even today, I still see 'Disco Sucks' bumper stickers and t-shirts, and these days everyone acts pretty oblivious to the fact that 'Disco Sucks' is basically code for 'I hate faggots and their faggot music'. But that's what it is about.
When I play in Europe today, I am almost always playing for predominantly white, straight, young, middle-class audiences who have little-to-no resonance with or concern for the social contexts which gave rise to the sounds they enjoy. And the reason I end up playing for these audiences is largely due to the fact I live in Japan, so of course minor queer clubs don't have the budget to fly me halfway around the world for a stupid DJ set. I've pretty much had to take my track "Ball'r (Madonna-Free-Zone)" out of my gig bag, since almost every time I play it I get this horrible feeling that—- contrary to my rant at the end of the track — yeah, "This is people dancing to the decontextualised, reified, corporatised, liberalised, neutralised, asexualised, re-genderised pop reflection of yesteryear's dance floor's reality!"
So that's how I pay my rent. And this hypocrisy is something I try to keep public, because people want to believe so badly in the myth that people in 'creative industries' are living some fucking fantasy where personal desire and industrial labour are harmoniously reconciled. Fuck no, we hate our jobs like everyone else! We are all compromised under capitalism! And it's important to keep these contradictions open, and to struggle with them daily. Media industries are the propaganda machines of dominant culture.
Society relies on people buying into — literally — myths of artistic authenticity, and the ability to 'live your dreams'. Whether we acknowledge it or not, people who work in media industries are the poster children for capitalism. If we complain about our jobs, people immediately respond; "Well, at least you're doing what you love". Without fail. How do you know what the fuck I love? There is a cultural necessity to say publicly; "No, I don't love this." And there is a cultural necessity to be armed with real, grounded reasons why. It's really upsetting for some people.
After my two last sets in London, I had different people come up and ask, "Did you enjoy it?" To which I responded, "Does it matter?" They were super upset. I mean, really upset and not letting it go. Why do people quickly overreact like this? Let's unpack this shit… There's something cultural happening in that moment of discomfort. It's not about me being an asshole, or them being an asshole. It's about how we are conditioned to think about entertainment under capitalism, and having that conditioning challenged. As I told them both, they are simply asking the wrong questions.
In terms of dance music, and specifically rave culture, didn't there used to be a political side to things- a counter culture concerned with opening perspectives up, acceptance and unity? Do you think these ideals still have a place or role to play?
Well, most of that was P.L.U.R. (Peace, Love, Unity and Respect) liberal bullshit. On the macro level, it was no more political than the hippy movement of the 60s. The idea of 'opening perspectives up' was almost always tied to the heterotopic moment of celebration — departure from the everyday. It was typified by the white, middle class fighting for access to drugs. Those who actually practiced more urgent social organising and politics locally were in the minority, and generally would have done so even without the music. And yes, I believe that is still the case.
You have always operated outside the 'mainstream', but do you think overall big business in dance music has distracted people from the potential for it to be politicised? It seems like there is very little political music left in 2015…
I think that lack is not only about what is being produced, but it is about the ways people consume and listen to music. This has completely changed since I started 25 or so years ago. Today, music is just one more data component for data delivery systems handled by your smart phone, tablet and computer. Few people have a decent home stereo through which they can experience sound resonating in space. Everything is done in headphone head-space, which leads to a heightened sense of personalisation, and a decline in experiences that lead to understanding the social aspects of sound.
It makes sense that headphone culture coincides with the development of upload culture, in which everyone wants to 'share' things 'freely' through utterly corporate platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud. Music is not even felt as a commodity to be pirated anymore. The commodities are the data devices through which people connect to the internet. People don't even perceive the data they upload on a commodity level anymore. It's just 'free stuff'. And from a dominant cultural perspective, this seductive, childish feeling of what it is to be 'free' has successfully replaced real struggles for social freedoms of mobility and action.
It's all about unbridled access and receiving, with no boundaries of struggle or responsibility. It's brutal social infantilism. I mean, these days the main place people encounter revolutionary slogans about freedom and rights is in cell phone and data service advertising, right? And I guess it supposedly started out ironically, but it's not anymore. It's just empty.
But it's the go-to language everyone is using when speaking of all these nightmare overpriced data services that constantly scam people out of hundreds of euros monthly for playing freemium games, or calling out of their service areas, etcetera. And now iTunes has escalated their file controls. No wonder music is not a representational medium for Left politics and social struggle. What it has come to represent socially is utterly conservative. And, as I always say, this is why I work in this field - not because it has potential, but because it is hopeless and typifies the very social abuses I seek to discuss and critique. Music is such a shit medium!
How much does politics still have an impact on your career choices as a DJ; in terms of where you play, the crowds you move with?
Well, on a base level, I automatically refuse work in countries where homosexuality and/or transgenderism are illegal. This is part boycott, part personal safety, and part safety of the organisers who might get left with trouble after I have returned home.
There is definitely a group of Western DJs that I consider 'audio imperialists', in that they will take gigs anywhere, be treated to finances and comforts that are unknown to most inhabitants of a region, and then return home to talk about how amazing things are in impoverished lands… That's also part of the P.L.U.R. bullshit mentioned earlier. And it's also why I have not done many festivals, which are often in resort settings. I find it really disgusting. I mean, I can have a kind of Robin Hood attitude about working in Europe, but never about work in the Third World.
Finally, other than dates this summer, what else have you got coming up?
This fall there will be a new EP coming out on Comatonse with a remix I did of Simon Fisher Turner's Shishapangma from The Epic of Everest soundtrack. It's a 'secret weapon' I've been playing in my sets for a while now, and after a little push from Frank & Tony for me to try putting it out on vinyl, I asked Simon, and we got that to happen.
DJ Sprinkles will play Outsiders Festival in Alkmaar, Holland, on 8th August
For more information on Thaemlitz and her work, head over to the Comatonse site.