Thinking about dance music, and by extension talking about it and writing about it, isn’t easy. One can get lost in the idea that it’s nothing more than a functional tool for a willed-into-being sense of longed-for transcendence. Some interviews with DJs and producers propagate these ideas, reinforcing the belief that it strives for nothing more than danceability.
Then there’s the tendency to instill certain records, certain labels and certain artists with a sense of over-reverential mythology. At times we end up lost in dry descriptions of sounds that turn the 12”s into check-lists, or meandering through a semi-gonzo write up of a club night, leaving with little more than the knowledge that someone, somewhere, was in a nightclub watching someone else play records and that they half-remember it.
Dance music – even the phrase is instantly reductive, almost infantilising – can be difficult to elucidate, tricky to modulate into prose, so at once full of stories worth retelling, as socially and culturally important as any other form of music, yet ultimately viewed from afar as little more than a soundtrack to mindlessly repetitive hedonism. The same names, the same clubs, the same records trickle down from interview to interview, from thinkpiece to thinkpiece, review to review.
Not many musicians are willing to talk at length and in depth about the issues that arise from the production of music, to confront the fact that records aren’t just records, that we encode and decode them in accordance to their prominence in various social, racial, and sexual groups: a disco song isn’t just a chintzy dancefloor hipswayer, a house track isn’t just an inert 4/4 beat. It’s easy to view all these things as inconsequential sounds, songs that recede in the memory, as physical or digital remnants that exist in a vacuum and mean nothing when not being played.
All of which made talking to Terre Thaemlitz such an unbridled pleasure.
Thaemlitz – despite years and years of DJing, releasing records that run the gamut from house to electroacoustic composition via expansive solo piano works and ambient experimentation, running his Comatonse label, written texts that usually accompany audio releases, and educational engagements that promote the discussion of matters such as non-essentialist transgenderism and queerness – is probably best known for the material released under the DJ Sprinkles guise. Indeed, it was 2009’s critically adored deep house stormer Midtown 120 Blues (voted Resident Advisor’s #1 album of the year) that brought her name to the lips of even the most casually discerning clubber. This year has already seen the release of the gorgeous, sensually-minded mix of deep house gems Where Dancefloors Stand Still on Tokyo’s fantastic Mule Musiq, and the arrival of Queerifications & Ruins: Remixes 2010-2013 on the same imprint made it the perfect moment to talk to Thaemlitz about deep house, identity politics and not knowing who Disclosure are.
How did you go about compiling Queerifications & Ruins? Why those tracks in that order?
Well, it’s a double-CD that compiles almost all of the remixes I’ve done since Midtown 120 Blues, right up to the Matt Tolfrey remix that just came out a month or so ago. In fact, I think the only things missing are the K-S.H.E and Sprinkles remixes from Soulnessless, and an ambient remix I did for Primula. So for me personally, the fact all of the mixes got on there is pretty exciting. A few are previously unreleased alternate versions that differ from the ones people may already have, such as the June and Hard Ton mixes, and the CDs are made directly from my digital masters, so for better or worse the sound on the CDs is exactly how I intended them to sound. Many of these were only on vinyl until now, which has limited bandwidth and stereo field issues, and they were remastered by vinyl cutting engineers, etc., so it’s a little different sound … similar to how the Midtown 120 Blues CD sounded different from those vinyls.
The track order was actually suggested by Toshiya Kawasaki (Mule Musiq boss), based on flow, and I liked it. I mostly look at this release as a DJ tool. I mean, they are all totally unrelated remixes, so this compilation is not like an album with a clear narrative or something like that. I did request that Toshiya make the second vinyl sampler only have the two June remixes, with the vinyl B-side just the short ambient version. I like old school EPs from the 80s where you would sometimes have just a three or four minute edit alone on one side of 12-inch vinyl, and the June remixes are very old school, so I thought it would be cool that way.
In regards to the recent Where Dancefloors Stand Still mix, is RA’s Will Lynch right when he says, ‘It’s a rare instance of Thaemlitz simply having fun, preoccupied with nothing except mixing records’? Does the mix’s title stretch no further than highlighting an issue that the intrigued listener might research into?
You’re right. Certainly, compared to most of my solo projects, there is an absence of text, video or other information delving into the theme. But Where Dancefloors Stand Still is not a DJ Sprinkles album. It is a compilation on Mule Musiq for which they hired me to make the track selection and mix. And their four-panel CD booklet design places real restrictions on the inclusion of text. That’s the only reason the text for Midtown 120 Blues was so short. So I was really glad that Mule went public with the theme in their press release, and generated some discussion of the issue that way.
However, one of the common mistakes I see in the press is that everyone focuses on the 1:00AM club curfew [Where Dancefloors Stand Still was presented as a protest against Japan’s restrictive ‘fukozu’ laws], but that actually only applies to big clubs holding official dancehall permits to begin with. Most Japanese clubs do not meet the official open-floor space requirements to obtain a dancehall permit. They are officially just ‘bars’ where dancing is always illegal. So beyond the curfew problem, there is this larger problem of dancing in small and underground clubs being illegal all the time – which means those clubs can be raided and shut down at any time of day or night.
If you want my personal take on the ‘anti-dance laws’ here in Japan, I’d refer you to the recent interview I did with the Japan Times.
The fuzoku laws are really more about regulating sex work than dancing, so I do worry the way the topic has been reduced to an easily sellable notion of the ‘right to dance’ may end up resolving the dancehall zoning and curfew laws while leaving other aspects of fuzoku in place, possibly even recrystalised and stricter. Which means stricter regulation of bodies – typically impoverished bodies. The topic does warrant a lot of research. I feel like I still haven’t done all my research, either, to be honest … But for sure, the actual issues at stake are deeper than a bunch of middle class kids agreeing they should be allowed to dance whenever and wherever they want. And the fact that it continually gets portrayed as that kind of trivial problem is alienating for me. It’s one of the reasons I am not directly involved in the pro-dancing campaigns. To be blunt, most of those people are the class enemy. When bigger issues get boiled down to a liberal sound bite about the universality of dance or whatever bullshit, it makes me very aware that I don’t give a shit about dancing at all. Not on that level.
Whilst listening to the compilation on iTunes, I was drawn to one bit of data: the tracks were grouped under two generic headings: ‘House’ and ‘Fagjazz’. Firstly: Is this kind of division – if, indeed you see it as a stuck-to delineation – something that informs your working process? Secondly: If, as you’ve stated previously, ‘FAGJAZZ IS NOT ABOUT REPRESENTING AN INDIVIDUAL’S IDENTITY, BUT THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY FORMATION’: would you mind telling us a little about how you perceive identity formation in relation to the ‘dance music world’?
The compilation is not yet available in the iTunes store, so you must just mean that Mule gave you a digital promo which you’ve loaded into your iTunes software? People should know that the CD contains tracks that are not on the digital download version. So for the extra tracks, as well as higher-quality CD audio, I really recommend that people get the CD. Anyway, the MP3 files with the genre set to ‘Fagjazz’ were clearly files I had personally sent to Mule, and they just used them as-is [laughs.] I always set the genre for my house tracks as ‘Fagjazz.’ Mule probably didn’t pay attention to setting all tracks to the same genre before giving you the demo. So whatever division you’ve identified is just randomness.
As for the question of identity and dance music, I think one has to first acknowledge that most dance music – like the majority of other genres of music – functions in very predictable and uninterestingly heteronormative ways. Even a release like Queerificatons & Ruins gets distributed through standard channels, and I have to assume the majority of people buying my records are not my actual target audience: people – possibly queer or transgendered – with complex relationships to both dominant straight and LGBT cultures. And the fact my target audience is only one small segment of the broader consumer audience is not a surprise – it’s a precondition. However, rather than trying to appeal to that broader audience, I make a conscious effort not to give them directed attention. People who are reconciled with their gender and sexual identities – whatever they may be – get enough directed attention from the music industry as a whole, and don’t need more from someone like me. And they’ll always do whatever they want with a project from someone like me, anyway. So the audio’s location and movement within a predominantly heteronormative distribution network pretty much parallels the movement of our own queer and trans bodies within dominant heteronormative cultures.
Within that domination, I do believe there are places and situations in which audio functions differently, through more precise resonances with the actions of typically ostracised people, and how and where they assemble, or how and where they become socially isolated. And for me, it is only on this more precise micro-level that discussions of identity become vital – if only because it is at these micro-levels that identity actually has consequences. I mean dangerous or negative consequences, including threats of violence, unemployment, being disowned by family and friends, etc. And it’s on this micro-level that something as familiar as, let’s say, ‘disco’s relationship to gay culture’ – which everyone has at least heard of, gay or not – can suddenly become a discussion about histories of communal organising around sexuality. The real discussion about ‘disco’s relationship to gay culture’ is about what happens when groups of gay men of the 70s came together in a common space, often with some odd combination of both secrecy and pride, and the threat of police raids. In England and many other countries, there was an enormous policing of gay sex, and imprisonment. So it’s not about music, but about spaces and situations. How did those particular circumstances, obstacles, politics, cruising and drugs cultivate a certain sound? And what happened culturally that allowed for its ‘export’ and mass appropriation by heteronormative cultures around the globe? The same goes for house, the ball scene, etc …
I think it’s really important – and far more interesting – to probe into what acts of resistance to domination lurk behind various genres. This is in direct opposition to populist ways of looking at the relationships between identity and audio as a question of ‘How does the music liberate us (for example, to come out of the closet)?’ I suppose we all need that moment of revelation in our lives where we experience that there is ‘something else out there.’ Something beyond the heteronormative. But to get trapped in the excitement of that revelation, and forever focus on a kind of juvenile and self-indulgent feeling of club ecstasy – clichés like recapturing the feeling of coming into one’s gay male self while walking through a dancefloor of foam in Ibiza or whatever – seems to stop most people from learning from that new found awareness and asking, “Now, what do I do with this information?”
For most people, clubs are holidays from standard work days, but there are also all these other histories behind certain types of clubs that absolutely shatter standard work day life. Not in some crazy, fun, club-kid way. I mean, clubs as spaces where people who have been systematically excluded from that standard work life come together in unexpected ways, through unemployment in more ‘appropriate’ businesses, or through addictions, or sexual release, or sex work, or not having a place to go home to, or so many other things … Again, I’m not speaking of all clubs, but about micro-specificities. And within music cultures, these are the contexts I believe are most capable of generating real cultural changes of consequence, because these are the contexts where people are drowning in actual consequences! Think of Stonewall and the modern LGBT movement coming out of a riot of drag queens who were tired of constant police raids on their club, until they finally fought back. That is a very different way of associating a club space with gender and sexual identity than walking through the foam in Ibiza.
Some people may say, ‘Hey, that was the past’, but considering how every year I end up rejecting offers to DJ in countries with legal prohibitions on both homosexuality and transgenderism – not only out of fear for my own safety, but for the safety of the organisers after I return home – I can tell you first hand that these issues are not things of the past. And I have a real disgust for DJs who fly into those countries, take the money and run. That’s DJ culture’s participation in a legacy of imperialism, pure and simple. Especially when our countries have border restrictions making it impossible for most people in those countries to enter and work where we live.
Here in the UK we’re living through a moment where ‘dance’ music (be it imported American EDM, lower-rung relics clinging to the last vestiges of UK Funky, or an example like Disclosure: two teenagers making something akin to traditional deep house and getting to number one in the album charts) is straddling the mainstream and the underground. Has a similar thing happened in Japan?
I’ve never heard of Disclosure … Fuck, I’m old [laughs]. Let’s blame it on the fact I live in Japan. I mean, house – including deep house – has been used as background music in shopping malls, department stores and airports for years now, so I’m not surprised by what you’re describing. But I don’t follow the names of producers in that stream of the genre. I know very little about contemporary house producers. Clearly. I’m more interested in the cultural movement of media than in individual producers.
Here in Japan, I think most people’s exposure to house music happens while shopping. They don’t even know it’s called ‘house.’ They don’t care. Not at all. And I would argue the fact most people don’t care is one of the few things working in favor of house, because it keeps house from being 100% socially coopted – despite being 100% commercially coopted. There is still a little grey area between the two that I’ll be sad to see fade away some day when your average shopper can actually classify the various styles of house tracks being played in department stores [laughs]. That would be a really sad day for me. But I don’t think it will come. I think shopping music will move on to something else before that could happen.
There are a lot of house maniacs here in Japan, but they are precisely that: maniacs. This has been the case for decades, and they always seem to operate in a sphere outside of truly mainstream music. Still, you can’t buy a Daft Punk album today in the same way you did 15 years ago – the social codings and relations around it are totally different. So, in a way, every time there is some kind of ‘breakthrough’ in the charts, I think it makes the real maniacs dig deeper in other directions, tunneling underneath those breakthrough acts and undermining the foundations they stand on. When an act goes big, it leaves its original audience behind – if only because the initial audience is outnumbered by a completely other audience. And simultaneously, many members of that initial audience tend to deliberately leave the act behind, so as to disassociate from that larger mainstream audience. In that way, I don’t think ‘underground’ scenes ever get destroyed. They get damaged, for sure. But they also mutate and thrive in unexpected ways. The vitality of today’s ballroom scene in New York, decades after Madonna’s Vogue, is one simple example.