Eris Drew: Keep reaching
Eris Drew is worried that she’s painted too rosy a picture of herself. She’s done a lot of interviews in the few years she’s been something like famous, and the overarching themes are happy ones: magic, healing, romantic love, shrooms. But this is a warped vision of someone that “has been through a lot, hurt plenty of people, and isn’t always that great of a person”, she says. “I mean, I’m just human. I’m selfish sometimes.”
What we already know about Drew, who turns 46 this year, is that she is a DJ and musician with a particular affinity for ecstatic breakbeats, a trans woman navigating sudden international success and a public polyamorous relationship, and a de facto spiritual leader for turned-on ravers, who acknowledge her as the “high priestess of the Motherbeat”. Sometimes the articles written about her “are very much about my positive light and energy”. But her life has also involved a lot of chaos. “I try to turn it into something positive in the world,” she says, drumming her mermaid-blue nails. Drew has a habit of closing her eyes until the end of each sentence, when she suddenly meets your gaze. “And part of that is trying to rewrite my story in a way that’s good.”
It’s an unexpected summer’s day in September when Drew wanders into the community orchard of Haggerston Park. A squirrel hops into a flower bed as she takes a seat at a weathered picnic table; a fitting mise-en-scène for someone who spent lockdown in the woods of rural New Hampshire. In a few days she’ll be in Glasgow to play at La Cheetah, a last-minute booking among the wreckage of cancelled festivals. Travelling (and occasionally playing back-to-back) with her partner Maya Bouldry-Morrison, AKA Octo Octa, Drew is in the UK for three weeks of gigs – a gruelling re-entry programme after 18 months away from the dancefloor. In that time her ears had even stopped ringing. “It’s been hard to know that I’m about to put my body through all of that again,” she says.
Recovering her hearing wasn’t her only lockdown project. In late October, Quivering in Time, the first Eris Drew long-player, arrives on T4T LUV NRG, the label she runs with Bouldry-Morrison. It’s an unusual achievement: an album that somehow distils an entire person into nine meticulously arranged, pleasingly surreal songs (and they are songs, not mere tracks). Built from a kaleidoscope of samples old and new, and augmented by her own keyboard and guitar playing, the album was mostly conceived while standing at her Pioneer PLX 1000 turntables (notable for their extreme +/-50 pitch control) and looking out into the forest.
Drew knew the potential pitfalls of writing a dance album. She didn’t want guest appearances, “zoners” or a collection of B-sides – she wanted to write songs inspired by the albums she listened to on tape growing up, like Information Society’s synth-pop debut and the first 808 State record, “where the arrangements are really exciting and non-stop”. The songs are as carefully constructed as her DJ mixes, which stand as a catalogue of their own under titles like Raving Disco Breaks and Ecstatic Bass Transmission. Those take weeks to piece together as she works out tricky long blends with her signature techniques: exuberant scratches, bits of birdsong, evocative vocal drops ringing out from some galactic tannoy. Equally, every sample and scratch on the album sings to her life and loves: bass bin revelations, psychedelic voyages, old-school hip-hop and her devotion to vinyl in all its unstable physicality.
The autobiography continues inside the LP in a collage of Drew’s photos made by Glenna Fitch, better known as Chicago DJ sold. On the right is a wheel of circles – an estrogen canister, a mushroom candy – inspired by the spinning visuals Drew sees when she’s tripping. She asked Fitch to make the collage “because they really believe in this idea of the Motherbeat”, this concept of a healing power that lurks inside rhythmic music like an atavism. But the term was never supposed to be taken too seriously. “The whole reason I talk about Motherbeat is to hopefully give others permission to have their own idea of what this could be. Because I think the real part of a mystical, spiritual enterprise is a direct engagement with direct experience – not taking somebody else’s dogma.”
“I’m not new age at all. I’m part weed-smoking hippie spiritualist, and part rooted in science and rationality”
If that statement rings a cosmic bell, maybe you’ve gone down a YouTube rabbit hole listening to the lectures of Terence McKenna. The psychedelic guru appears on Ride Free urging us to reclaim “the primacy of direct experience” with the promise that “the real universe is within your reach”. The voice is pitched up and genderless, not just to blur the provenance of the sample, but to hint at a hidden feminine aspect to his persona. “Maybe I’m seeing what I want to see, but there’s this other part of them that I think they really suppressed,” Drew says of McKenna, “even though they took all these drugs”.
The result is one of the strangest songs on the album. Built from church organs, a Think break and Peter Fonda’s most famous movie line, Ride Free is inspired by a vision of wild horses Drew had on an accidental acid trip (advice: not all mouth sprays are breath fresheners). After making it, she was baffled. “I was like, what is this song about horses and being free and getting loaded?! I love that aspect of surrealism which uses strange combinations to bring out something magical. It’s not just about being funny, it’s about engaging with the irrationality of dreamlike states.” Hearing McKenna’s quote made everything click into place, in a trippy sort of way. “I thought, this is what it’s about – the metaphor is for these horses that want to eat mushrooms and be free,” she says, laughing loudly. “And don’t we all!”
Drew’s personal cosmology is a matter of public record. In 1994, as a teenage raver, she heard the pulse of the Motherbeat through the hum of an air conditioning unit after an acid-fuelled party. In the same month, as she later discovered, art-pop band The KLF burned a million pounds in a notorious ritual intended to bear its magical fruit 23 years later. By then, Drew’s life was in flux. She’d come out as a trans and taken the name Eris, not yet realising she shared it with the goddess of Discordianism, the joke-but-not religion that had inspired The KLF. “The synchronicities were multiplying like wild, starting in about 2017,” she remembers. “I was like, well, why don’t I just make it part of the story of my life? I started to read meaning into my life in a way I never did before, and all of a sudden all these things started happening.” That year, Drew played a set at Club Toilet in Detroit that proved to be a turning point in her career; a few months prior, she met Bouldry-Morrison for the first time, picking her up at the airport for a show at Chicago’s Smartbar, where Drew held a DJ residency and threw her Dada-inspired Hugo Ball parties. Everything happens for a reason, right? But, she contends, “I’m not new age at all. I’m part weed-smoking hippie spiritualist and part, like, very rooted in science and rationality.”
In person you get the earthly Eris. She has that down-to-earth manner often associated with being from the Midwest, and the occasional folksy turn of phrase (“we’re all a buncha misfits,” she says of her US rave kin). But, in her words, she’s also “kind of a perfectionist. I’m always trying to control things and make things come out the right way. I’m very hyper and almost manic. So I can get pretty depressed.”
Drew wasn’t raised in a religious household. Her father, a Danish-Mexican-Puerto Rican from Minnesota, was on course to join the clergy until he joined the military two weeks before America went to war in Vietnam. Hit with a grenade a few weeks into his tour, he spent a year in a military hospital, contracting malaria to boot. By the time he met Drew’s mother, who’d been raised without a faith, he was questioning his own. Drew describes her mum as a hardcore atheist in the Richard Dawkins mould, while her dad is more of a “Carl Sagan spiritualist”, she jokes, “like, we’re all made of star stuff, we’re all gonna return to the earth”.
“That’s what it is to dissolve your ego. It’s not to quit being human – it’s actually quite the opposite, it’s a very human state”
Drew was raised in different towns in the Midwest, first on the St. Croix river in Wisconsin. She remembers when Dutch elm disease left ravaged tree stumps across the town, her “earliest memory of collective death”. An only child who didn’t fit in at school, nature was her sanctuary. “I didn’t understand why people wanted to be mean to me,” she says with half a laugh, “but [being] in nature and with animals always made perfect sense.” Another early memory: sitting by the grave of her cat, suspected poisoned by the neighbours. “There were honeysuckles growing around the grave, so I would go eat them and hang out.”
Her dad became an FBI agent when she was five and the family got shunted to Kansas City, Missouri, and then Glen Ellyn, an affluent suburb of Chicago. “There were bullies that lived in the same apartment complex,” but the building backed onto swamps, marshes and prairie where Drew could play in peace. “That’s the time in my life I associate with a sort of innocence. It’s before I really started to feel dysphoria in a way that was really pronounced. I knew I was different and I knew I was feminine but I didn’t have any language for it. And as long as I wasn’t dealing with other people, mean boys and girls, then none of that mattered.”
By the time she moved to the city of Chicago in 1994, she was a committed raver, making and playing music even while working a corporate job and studying law. Through the late 90s and into the 2000s, she cultivated a taste for breaks, garage and bassline, going against the Chicago grain of tracky house and smooth mixing. Records often came from a single import rack at the famous Gramaphone Records store, where she and her longtime DJ friend Mazi would scoop up 12”s by Booker T and Jeremy Sylvester.
But she wasn’t yet Eris. When she finally came out as trans in 2015, “I just thought my life was over. I wanted it to be over,” she says flatly. “It’s pretty messy coming out when you’re 39. [There was] a lot of self harm. I was drinking really heavily, I was doing a lot of cocaine, I was throwing a party every month. Everything was kind of collapsing in on me.” Convinced that she could only hurt and disappoint her loved ones, she became “a dark person”.
The Motherbeat epiphany had presented her with a spiritual quandary. “There was so much power and all this mystery,” she realised. “I didn’t know what to do with it. And I’m trans at the time, and queer, and suppressing all of this.” Coming to terms with her identity years later, she realised she had to “somehow awaken the irrational in my life again. And the only thing that kept me slightly tied to it was my connection to rave culture and this experience I’d had, which I knew was real.” When she opened herself up to the unknown, she “came alive again”.
Coming out wasn’t just about changing how she was perceived by others. In ending one life and starting another, Drew found herself challenging all kinds of limits she’d placed on herself, both as a human and as a musician: “I had learned to control so much relating to my body and my personality, how I moved, even the music I thought I could play.” She dug out the most beautiful and euphoric music in her collection, allowing herself to scratch the records and touch the platter – tiny gestures that previously felt out of bounds. “Part of an artist’s journey,” she figures, “is to try to de-program some of that stuff.”
In March 2020, Drew was living in New Hampshire with Bouldry-Morrison and their partner, Q, gigging constantly and thinking about writing an album. Then, a global pandemic. “I did feel a tremendous sense of loss. Maya and I were at a really incredible point in what we were doing,” she says. “It was like a locomotive coming to a sudden stop. But I was able to take some of that energy and that intentionality and shift some of that sense of loss into actual work.”
With an album now in hand, leaving the tranquility of her bubble has brought its own anxieties. “I was nervous to come back because I feel most vulnerable when I’m travelling. At home I live with two other trans people in the woods!” She senses that the cis people she meets in the music industry have become more aware of the danger she faces on tour. “Even a couple years ago I’d say to people, ‘I’m worried about my safety every day, and every time my girlfriend leaves me I’m worried about what’s going to happen to her.’ And they’d be like, ‘What do you mean? Aww, no!’” One promoter was shocked to hear that she’d been harassed in a black cab. “I get harassed in every other cab I get into in London,” she points out.
Even her shows can be a hostile environment, especially now she’s playing to bigger, less familiar audiences. Knowing about – and occasionally even seeing – harassment happening on her dancefloor is hard. “It hurts my heart. Here I am talking about coming to music to heal, and dissolving these dominator-type cultural ideas, and I’m basically soundtracking it. It feels terrible.” But moving closer to the mainstream has its own appeal. “I actually like playing festivals because it’s a chance to perform for people you wouldn’t normally perform for,” she explains. Her gambit is that by summoning the Motherbeat through the apparatus of her vinyl, her hands, and the speaker stacks, she might unlock something deep inside, bringing you into the moment and into your body. “That’s what it is to dissolve your ego. It’s not to quit being human – it’s actually quite the opposite, it’s a very human state. To be alive in one’s body – the not so hyper-vigilant, traumatised or triggered body.”
And so the Motherbeat is ancient but its message is modern. Nothing is constant except change; boundaries can disintegrate, old models collapse. Open up the LP and there’s a photo Drew took in Hawaii of a rotting jetty, once used to move plantation sugar onto merchant ships. A ruined monument of colonialism, she explains. “There was something beautiful in watching it decay.”
Quivering in Time is out on 29 October via T4T LUV NRG