Planningtorock is still breaking boundaries

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For close followers, the intimacy and tenderness of family might be one of the last topics Planningtorock, aka Jam Rostron, would be expected to touch upon.

The Bolton-born, Berlin-based producer’s brand of punchy electropop has become known for its defiance and audacity ⁠– with aptly titled tracks such as Misogyny Drop Dead, Patriarchy Over and Out and I Wanna Bite Ya – marrying together eccentric, catchy beats with rebellious lyrics that explore the struggles of identity and queerness.

However, upon first listen to the title track of their fourth album, Powerhouse, a slow wistful tribute to Rostron’s mum, it becomes plainly obvious that this was always going to be the natural next step in their metamorphosis from the impassioned, boundary-pushing of their early career to the melodic, reflective sound they have carefully cultivated in the past decade.

Rostron began their career in 1999 after moving to Berlin from the UK, cutting their teeth in underground parties before releasing their first record Have It All on Chicks on Speed in 2006. Since then, they’ve toured with LCD Soundsystem, developed an opera based on Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species alongside The Knife and Mount Sim and collaborated with the likes of rRoxymore, Paula Temple and Nina Sky.

Rostron identifies as non-binary and uses their work to manipulate interpretations of gender, whether it be through their appearance – using prosthetics to change their facial features – or, since the release of the critically acclaimed W in 2012, disguising their voice using auto-tune and pitch-shifting. This exploration of self, however, never feels alienating, with Rostron often erring on the side of open-mindedness, creating pieces that communicate plainly with audiences wanting to find a way to express their questions on gender, but which also feel so personal and raw that it’s possible to still identify with them regardless of personal experience.

With its tenderness in mind, Powerhouse still explores these key ideas, upholding the motifs Rostron has examined throughout their career. Radio-ready lead single Transome delves into desire from a genderqueer perspective – a sexy, fervent track that you can imagine grinding in the club to, regardless of how you identify. Much To Touch, meanwhile has all the markings of a pop smash; produced with a little help from friend Olof Dreijer, Rostron sings about romantic trepidation in a track that is both meaningful and infectious. In contrast, the retrospective Somethings More Painful Than Others is more personal, featuring melancholic lyrics about regret and pain accompanied by warm, summery house – influenced by Rostron’s older sister and her discovery of dance music in the late 90s.

Next month Planningtorock will debut an acoustic rendition of Powerhouse at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts as part of Brighton Digital Festival. We caught up with them to talk about outsider syndrome, their most nerve-wracking performance to-date and getting around BBC censors.

Can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect from your ACCA showcase?
It’s going to be mostly acoustic versions of songs from the Powerhouse album. I was originally set to do a residency for two weeks and record an acoustic version of the entire album, but that has been pushed back to January – so this will be a precursor to that.

What made you want to present the tracks from Powerhouse in an acoustic way?
It came from rehearsing the show that accompanies the album. There was a section where I talk a little bit with the audience about my family. I was thinking about how I could segway from electronics to this vocal storytelling. I asked Simone Jones – who is on the guitar with me – to listen, and she said: “let’s try it”. They work really well.

How do you hope it’s received by the audience? What do you hope they take away from it?
We’ve tried a couple of tracks while we’ve been on tour and what has been really striking was how silent everyone was. It’s so tender – everyone seems to be looking inward, and the lyrics become far more predominant; people hang on every word you say.

Are you nervous about it?
Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge, but it’s so rewarding as well. But it is a bit more nerve-wracking. You’re totally naked.

You’ve said Powerhouse is your most personal record to date – exploring your family and identity, what was the process like in creating it?
It was totally all over the place. I knew that I wanted to write about my mum and my sister and the people that really mean a lot to me – but it was difficult to know where to start. When I could see the record really come together, it was very exciting, but I was also terrified because I’ve never been so exposed.

Was it a case of having material that was so personal you were scared of other people seeing it?
Yeah. It’s strange because you put a lot of trust into the public. In my experience, when you make music, it’s not really yours anymore. We treat music as if it something that belongs to us, especially if it’s emotional, and we devote a certain feeling or energy to it. As an artist, you have a responsibility to let go and allow that to happen, which is so weird because this is about my life, you know. But then at the same time, music really helps me come to terms with my life, it helps me grow, I think it makes me a better person – so I never really had a choice.

What were the stories you wanted to tell with this record?
My first idea was that I wanted to talk about my mum because she’s the reason I make music. She’s an avid listener, and she has been since we were kids. The title track is about her and a ritual she used to have where she would get up really early in the morning, go downstairs put a record on really loud.

She used music to deal with life – she would put a record on when she was happy or when she was sad. I learned very early on about the power of music and how it can lift you up. The next idea I had was my sister and her love of house music. She’s autistic, and when she discovered house she became obsessed, collecting hundreds and hundreds of mixtapes – I wouldn’t know that much about dance music if it wasn’t for my sister.

Powerhouse, the title track, is about your mum. What was it like to write it?
Hard. The hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was the last track I finished and I ended up writing most of the lyrics on napkins and bits of paper everywhere. I was constantly being brought back to the dilemma of writing about someone so important. Powerhouse became an exercise in finding the anecdote that can summarise what you’re trying to say about a person.

In describing my mum I also had the challenge of representing this humble person in art; finding a balance between my love for her, but trying to not go over the top – my mum would have hated that you know – but saying ‘hey, I just want to celebrate you because you’re amazing’. She came along to my show when I performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London with my sister – and it was actually the first time she’d seen me play live – it was such an emotional show and I’ve never been so nervous in my life but she loved it.

What did she think of it?
For her, she appreciated the acknowledgement of how hard it was. It was hard to raise two kids on no money, my dad was away an awful lot and then later passed away when I was 12 suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. It was so hard.

Do you think your mum is a good example that music can come from anywhere?
I ask my mum all the time where she got her taste from, because it’s so varied and rich, and it’s so hard to imagine someone connecting with so much material from such a humble background – both of her parents never had music in the house. She always just says it interested her – she’d go to the local library and rent out cassettes from different film soundtracks and foreign genres.

Music is everywhere and it comes from all kinds of places, it doesn’t warrant an education, to be honest. That’s what I like about clubbing as well – it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you don’t need to agree with everyone, you just go and have a really good time and dance to the music that you like. There’s no hierarchy; it’s so beautiful.

You moved to Berlin 20 years ago, what was it like to move to the city at that time, and how did it influence your sound?
I mean, it was very different then, you still felt back of the wall coming down. You could still really feel the East/West divide both visually and economically; there were a lot of squats and places where you could go and just put up a party. I could immediately start to try things out so it became this great playground for my performances. I still love it even though some bits are very gentrified; there’s still plenty of nightlife there.

What was it like coming from the UK to Berlin?
For me, coming from England, in Berlin, no one cared or knew if I was working class, they just view you as a Brit. I’d left school when I was 14 and I didn’t have a proper education, I had a lot of anxieties and insecurities about that, but in Berlin, none of that mattered anymore, it was very freeing.

Do you think if you’d have stayed in the UK, you wouldn’t have been allowed to explore yourself to the fullest? Because you’d always have been seen as working class?
Yeah! I mean being northern and working class, it puts a bit of a chip on your shoulder. You fight so hard to be accepted and I know it sounds extreme, but I didn’t want to be defined just by that discrimination. In Berlin, I could really just define myself.

A few years after moving to Berlin you released your first album Have It All, what is it like listening back to that now and how does it compare to your other work?
I think I was just so proud that I managed to make a record. It was really interesting because I was performing a lot before I released the record, so a lot of the songs are written on stage. It’s a really nice place to write songs because you’re there with a with an audience and you can decide what you want to communicate, what you want to share with them and what you want the energy to be like. But the second record was tough – I had no material, I’d been on tour for three years and I didn’t feel like I’d lived enough to produce anything.

During W you legally changed your name to Jam, as you wanted to have a non-gendered name – was this the era you felt most comfortable to explore your gender identity?
It was a big thing, but it was really fun. It was giving myself a licence to take myself seriously, or rather how I felt seriously and also it was about making something visible. Being a non-binary person, I regularly get read as female or male depending on how I dress and it was just about taking those things I express all the time and taking them seriously. For me, it was a lot of fun, but then I’d talk to my friends, and they’d say it was quite dark. Some of them watched the video for Doorway with the prosthetic make-up, and they have to stop it halfway through because they got really spooked out, and I was like: “This is hilarious. I’ve just got a load of putty on my face. What are you scared of?”

Do you think Powerhouse still has a lot of commentary on gender?
I mean Transome I wrote mostly wrote in bed, and I’d be singing a lot of the lyrics there. I’m verbalising how I feel about being a trans-non-binary person. I enjoyed creating the Transome space, creating language that doesn’t exist yet. You can just enjoy it as a track too – it’s not something that has to be specifically for people like me, it’s a fun, sexy track – it’s the most erotic song I’ve ever written, it’s super raunchy. BBC Radio 6 wanted to play it but said that I would have to remove the word wet – and I didn’t know what to do. I was talking to Peaches about replacing the word wet with a water sample and that’s what I did. You just hear the water sample, and they took it – but still, what’s wrong with ‘wet’?

Planningtorock plays their acoustic set and subsequent Genderqueer Dance Party for ACCA Digital in partnership with Brighton Digital Festival on 11 October. For more information and tickets, click here.

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