An Interview with Terre Thaemlitz, Part 2Q: Having read your Die Roboter Rubato notes, I couldn't help but associate the "heavy breathing" snippet throughout "Rollerfreak" with the sound of "two men fucking" in "Tour De France" or perhaps in your track's case, one man fucking (though I realize my reading of that is probably way too literal to be true). Was this in any way intentional?
By Carlos Pozo
Sure! You can't have an old-school breakdance electro track without some blatent references to Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock!
Q: What sort of (press and audience) reaction did the Die Roboter Rubato CD receive? Do you think it got tossed in with the Balanescu interpretations CD, or "tribute" CD's? I've seen it described in catalogues as "piano interpretations of Kraftwerk tunes"- how exactly were the pieces recorded (I think I remember you saying you did not play the piano, so...)? After reading the notes, I felt the CD was very enjoyable but perhaps unreviewable, since I could probably do no better than reprint your text in full- this makes the CD a "closed object", it seems to resist audience (or at least critical) interaction. Would you agree?
The Wire review definitely treated it like a Balanescu "tribute" CD, but overall I think it was well received. The All Music Guide to Rock, of all things, did a great critical write-up in their print and online editions. Anyone who has heard the CD definitely knows they are more complex than reconstructive "tributes." A lot of people can't even hear any of the original melodies. It's definitely my most "cult" project, and I think it has a good shelf-life, although I'm not always sure how deep people go into it, since I get the feeling that most of the people buying it are not that into piano solos to begin with.
You're right that I don't play piano, but I've always been aware of the ability for persistent "unskilled" improvisation to invoke a sense of competency, if not virtuosity. The tracks themselves were done by slowing playing in the Kraftwerk melodies one note at a time, and then using the computer to layer, invert and reverse those melodies. These more ordered segments were then combined with improvisational elements. I wanted to incorporate Kraftwerk's notion of an integrated human-technological process into my production techniques.
I'm very interested in dispelling notions of "creative genius" or "natural talent" by challenging myself as a formally unskilled musician to pull off any style I set my mind to. I see these stylistically diverse production roles as a metaphor for the diverse roles we engage in daily social activity - that our sense of self is actually derived from highly fragmented interactions, despite common desires to "center" one's identity.
I'm kind of surprised (you see the disc as unreviewable). There's definitely this dynamic that music press often feels it's job is to "speak" what musicians present as "unspeakable." And I think the typical rock-mentality musician plays into this. "Yeah, we just like jamming. It's about funk," etc. What the fuck kind of pointless content do most musicians attribute to their work? It's embarassing. My writing has negatively affected me in the past. I did the liner notes for Iara Lee's Synthetic Pleasures 2 compilation, and two major mags (Option and The Wire) spent over half of their reviews clumsily trying to bitterly argue against my text which they didn't come close to understanding. I think it took Robin Rimbaud's (Scanner) article on me in the Wire to trigger a shift in the press' perception of me, and realize they don't have to reconcile the discourses in my texts with their personal discourses or how they perceive music. At least I noticed it was around that time that people started lowering their dukes and playing with the references I make. So for my Die Roboter CD, I'd say review it as a closed object and the relationship between the text and audio - not just see the text as a synopsis of the music? Of course, I'm not telling you to review it, i'm just formalizing the thought from your example....
Q: Can you describe the way the Roboter Rubato performance was presented? You spoke of Chiu-Fen's involvement as a stylist- do I take it there were costumes involved? Who else was involved? What sort of press coverage and audience reaction did you get? What are your feelings on "performance" in general. Any future plans for performing your music elsewhere?
I made some changes in the show between the time I first performed it in Berlin, and most recently in New York. But the general idea is the same - to confuse the fuck out of the audience as to what "live" performance is really about. The show is done in drag, with costume changes and slide projections of transgenderized Kraftwerk iconography (these are online at http://www.comatonse.com/listening/rubato.html). At the show in New York, I was sitting at a highly modified grand piano with wires and monitors all over it. It is very unclear to the audience whether I am playing sections of music live, or interacting with the computer, or simply pretending to play along, or all of these things. Each track is preceded by some vocoded spoken word, which I am tragically lip syncing to, and a snippet from the original Kraftwerk song about to be played. The idea is to make the audience simultaneously consider that they are witnessing a piece of over-orchestrated shit, and a brilliantly complex theorized performance - and to deal with those conflicting emotions. All the people I spoke with at the New York show said this came across well, but of course you always end up with a few people who think it's pure genius, and others who think it's pure shit - neither of which get the point of the show was in themselves. Kyle Gann gave it a very nice write-up in the Village Voice, and they even ran a moderately cute picture of me, so I was really happy.
For the most part, I think live performance is ridiculous. I hate the whole split between the passive audience and active performer. That's why the Die Roboter show is such a "spectacle of the anti-spectacle." I'm supposed to do a show around Means From and End in Frankfurt this spring, and I'm not sure how that will take form yet. All of my computer processing work is post-processing, and cannot be generated in real-time, so there is no inherent spectacle of production. And DJ-ing is kinda lame for that stuff these days. I've elaborated my more lofty ideas about the downside of DJ performance in an article for Mille Plateaux which is currently online at http://www.comatonse.com/listening/crisis.html.
Q: In a couple of interviews, you've said you mostly listen to old disco and funk. Does that still hold? Is it possible to discuss disco (as a musical as well as social thing) in terms of your interests in "transgenderism, queerness, economics and the construction of audiences"?
My first really positive social musical experiences were as a little kid at roller-discos in the '70's. Once a week I was cool for an hour or two, and I had all the moves down. So I think that's my real interest in it - not so much the Gay-disco thing. The Chugga release on Comatonse is totally about '70s retro-nostalgia. I think I try not to overprocess disco too much, because the minute I do, I hate it. A chief difficulty with current Lesbian and Gay identities is their investment (literally) in an economy of sexuality - the "pink economy." Lesbian and Gay identities are no longer discussed in relation to their subversive capabilities, but as "natural" social components which have always been a part of dominant culture - "we're just now beginning to see it." That really sucks. Lesbians and Gays end up just like Hets in their ability to consume a prepackaged formulae for living. Rainbow car stickers, c'mon. A certain aspect of Gay disco can definitely be seen as an early manifestation of this economic homogenization of Gay culture. Really sterilizing and boring. That's why I prefer being a weird and detached Queer. But, er, yes, that's still what I listen to at home. And Erykah Badu's live CD, guilty as charged.
Q: There were recently some very heated e-mail exchanges on the ambient newsgroup about your work. You participated in this dialogue to some extent- why did you step in? Are you surprised at the passionate venom your words seemed to bring out?
I didn't catch the whole exchange. I was having parts of it forwarded to me, and I thought I would reply for the heck of it. All I did was add fuel to the flame(r). His reaction didn't surprise me. I'm sure I came out looking stupider than if I had never stepped in, but what can you do? A few years back there was some of bizarre hate mail from people who were offended at the inner photo of the Soil CD. Others were offended at being called "drug addicts" because my Comatonse records always have a line about safer-sex and IV drug use. This time it was someone who felt my text to Couture Cosmetique totally destroyed their listening pleasure. So don't read it! Silly. And I guess I should take my own advice and not reply to flamers... (unless they really get my goat!).
Q: What do you make of people who say they don't like "digital sound"? Do you prefer digital synthesis as a working method alone, or do you prefer "digital" sound, or is the whole idea of analog vs. digital kinda pointless?
I think it's totally absurd. This goes back to the notions of techno-fetishism we talked about earlier. I mean, really, who cares how the fuck the sounds were made if they are appropriate to the project? My set-up is totally digital, that's what I like because I don't like knob-twiddling. I prefer people-diddling. I know what people mean when they say they prefer a "warmer" analogue sound, but for my personal taste I like the dryer and crisper digital spectrum - which is really just harsher because it is broader in range so you can exploit a lot more high-end. But that's just me. I'm not religious about it.
Q: Since we're being gear-fetishistic for a second, can you describe your studio setup? You said in another interview that you use a lot of shareware editing programs- is this intentional or just convenience?
Shareware is intentionally convenient! It can be incredibly buggy, but it's also free of a lot of "marketing" planning, so the ideas and strategies behind them can be really impractical in a commercial sense - which I like. I also like to play with the edges of a program's functionality, and the glitches in shareware seem to be a little more inspiring than some major application's buggy key disk. My production is pretty split right now. The most recent "Terre Thaemlitz" projects were done strictly through software on the Power Mac platform. My other Comatonse projects are done with a mix of software and MIDI gear.
Q: Beyond what you have listed on your web-site, can you tell me of some of your future releases still in planning stages? Have you done any any live performances lately? What else is coming out on Comatonse?
Mille Plateaux released my collaboration with Jane Dowe, called "Institutional Collaborative," in August (http://www.comatonse.com/thaemlitz/collaborative.html). Molly Taylor from Escape Tank wrote the accompanying text. My next solo computer music album, Love For Sale - Taking Stock In Our Pride, comes out on Mille Plateaux in late November. It deals with the commodification of Queer identities, and the manner in which the Lesbian and Gay mainstream seems to be fighting for marketplace integration more than Queer diversity. (Text and imagery are online at http://www.comatonse.com/listening/love.html)
Two of the tracks from Love For Sale are based on source materials from a recent Comatonse release I did under my old deep house alias DJ Spinkles, Sloppy 42nds: A Tribute To The Transexual Clubs Destroyed By Walt Disney's Buyout Of Times Square - although you could not tell by listening to them. The DJ Sprinkles 12" is a modified mix of North Jersey and Loisaida deep house from the late '80's, reminiscent of the records I used to spin in the mid-town transexual clubs before I began producing music myself, and my jazzier Neu Wuss Fusion style. (Text and imagery are online at http://www.comatonse.com/releases/c006.html) Also out right now on Comatonse is a release by my comrades in LA, Ultra-red, called Ode to Johnny Rio. All of the sounds are taken from field recordings of people fucking in Griffith Park, which they processed into rather abstract electroacoustic and even some electro! They're brilliant. It also includes a remix by Chugga.
I hope to put out a CD in the spring called Fagjazz which will compile some of these jazzier items previously only found on Comatonse vinyl, as well as a track from an upcoming 12" I will have out this winter under the alias "Social Material" on Joe Claussell's notorious deep house label, Spiritual Life. I'm really having fun with more housy beat-oriented stuff, but strictly as a side or accompaniment to computer synthesis.
I don't perform 'live' much, as I really prefer working in the studio. But I recently went to Germany to do two performances at the Battery Park Festival in Koln. This event was organized by Dr. Walker from Air Liquide - it was huge, with multiple performances at multiple locations over a 10 day period. It was a lot of fun because the history of minimal electronic music is really rich there, but it was strange that nobody dances in Germany - not even to the really hard local techno stuff. I did one computer music set at a big weekend 'rave,' and a funky comatonse set at a trashy bar later in the week.
Then I did a show in Frankfurt which was a lot of fun. The folks at Mille Plateaux hooked me up with a local drag performer named Timo, and she was fabulously wreched! She started out dressed like a female art connoseur, lingering in the audience for 15 or 20 minutes while I played abstract computer music. Then she went to a stage in the middle of the room and fully transformed into business-man drag and rejoined the audience. But somewhere in the middle she found herself trapped in bondage. It was great.
Q: Where do you see yourself 25 years from now? You mentioned moving to Canada before settling on Oakland- any chance you'll go back to that?
I really have no idea. What happens to all people dubbed "experimental musicians"? I'll have probably hit my learning curve with technology, and have my last slightly interesting project 15 years behind me. But on the bright side, maybe nobody will notice. Or maybe I'll be the proud owner of a "Corn Dog on a Stick" franchise.... And don't even ask me about moving again so soon after leaving New York!
Q: Is Terre Thaemlitz your real name?
Yes, the family name was a little mangled by US immigration several generations back (it was originally Thamlitz). As for the spelling of my first name (pronounced "Terry"), I think my parents were trying to name me after St. Teresa of the Roses, but they didn't want to spell it "Terri" because that's for GIRLS, and they didn't want to spell it "Terry" because that refers to St. Terence, or something weird like that. This whole gender-ambiguity thing goes way back! It's made for lots of free tampon mailings over the years.
Q: I remember Asmus Tietchen's being asked: "What else do you do apart from making music?" His reply: "A lot of things. But I think they should not interest the public." So here goes: What else do you do apart from making music?
I have secret rendezvous with Asmus.
Solo full-length albums:
Couture Cosmetique (US: Caipirinha Productions, 1997; and Japan: Daisyworld Records, 1997.)
Die Roboter Rubato (Germany: Mille Plateaux, 1997, MP34.)
G.R.R.L. (US: Comatonse Recordings, 1997, C.003.)
Means From An End(Germany: Mille Plateaux, 1998, MP CD 44.)
Soil (US: Instinct Ambient, 1995, AMB:007-2; and Belgium: KK Records, 1995, IAE 007 CD.)
Tranquilizer (US: Instinct Ambient, 1994, EX-283-2.)
Collaborative full-length albums:
Institutional Collaborative (Germany: Mille Plateaux, 08.1998) a collaboration with Jane Dowe.
Web (US: Subharmonic Records, 1995, SD 7010-2.) a collaboration with Bill Laswell.
Comatonse.000 (US: Comatonse Recordings, 1993, C.000.) Contains "Raw Through A Straw" and "Tranquilizer".
Comatonse.000.R1.(US: Comatonse Recordings, 1997, C.000.R1.) Translucent vinyl re-issue of C.000 with previously unreleased outro "Pretty Mouth (He's Got One)".
Terre's Neu Wuss Fusion: "She's Hard" (US: Comatonse Recordings, 1998, C.004.)
DJ Sprinkles "Sloppy 42nds" (US: Comatonse Recordings, 1998, C.006.)
There is something appealingly non-musical about all of Terre's recordings- the presence of the "auteur" is as difficult to detect as in anything Oval or Mika Vainio have concocted in recent years. The best example of Terre's early recorded output is probably the Soil CD on Instinct. Deep waves of ambient hum and nearly audible voices and melodies rumbling along like dubbed out, muted radio transmissions- the music drifts masterfully from angelic beauty to bass-rumbling menace.
The recent Couture Cosmetique CD on Caipirinhia (USA) presents alternatingly blurred and explicit computer noise that also crackles along quite "ambiently" until loud interventions of mechanical klings and klangs blast the listener out of their chilled out complacency. Overall, a bit harsher and less muted than the Instinct material.
For a sampling of Terre's analytical / smart ass side, the Die Ruboter Rubato CD on Mille Plateaux as mentioned in the interview is Terre's piano interpretations of classic Kraftwerk tunes from their "pop" major-label era. Musically, the over-abundance of echo that washes over all the slowed-down pieces obscures the melodies and submerges the listener in a sound and conceptual environment that is entirely Terre's own creation. Easy to listen to- difficult to grasp.
The G.R.R.L. CD is a commentary on current genres of "dance music" and consists of very listenable takes on d'n'b and house, etc. It includes Terre's essential collaboration with Chiu-Fen on the track "China Doll".
The Comatonse EPs are nominally more "dance" oriented- but a listen to the first EP ("Raw through a straw") delivers much more- sluggish computer melodies and very detached "bouncy" house beats with the truly odd addition of abstracted "jazz fusion" keyboard squiggles.
All of Terre's Comatonse releases, as well as EP's from Chugga, Erk Dahl and Ultra Red are available directly from Comatonse. Additionally, the Comatonse web-site is a massive storehouse of data- liner notes, interviews, essays, reviews, graphics and sound samples all neatly archived. Of particular note perhaps is Terre's essay for a future Mille Plateaux publication at http://www.comatonse.com/listening/crisis.html where he takes on DJ culture, turntablism, and other things.
For some very comprehensive explanations of "queer theory", "essentialism" and a tremendously helpful and easy to read near-booklength introduction to the world of contemporary critical theory there is an online syllabus for a class taught by Mary Klages at the University of Colorado: http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/index.html
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