DJ Sprinkles on music, culture and the queer community

Terre Thaemlitz (AKA DJ Sprinkles) is a musician, artist and public speaker whose work stretches far beyond the conventional bounds of electronic music production and DJ performance. She* will present a reading of his article Secrecy Wave Manifesto at the Art Gallery of Western Australia on April 21st before she DJ’s at Connections Nightclub from 11pm that evening for lé Club.

We asked Thaemlitz some questions about electronic music, queer history and more ahead of his upcoming Australian tour.

In the past few years it seems people have begun to properly recognise and celebrate the contribution LGBT+ individuals have made to electronic music throughout its history.How does this recent focus on diversity compare to your own experience with electronic music in the 80s and 90s? Whose contributions are being overlooked?

I think it still seems to be on the level of trivia (like, “Oh, so-and-so is so gay! That’s so cool!”), as opposed to an active social engagement with the politics of sexual and gender deviance, or the reduction of violence. You know, how many times do I get people coming to me and starting with, “I’ve never had any problems with gender or trans stuff myself, I’m just a normal (guy/woman), so I don’t know about any of that personally, but I really respect what you’re doing”? I know they are usually just trying not to lay claim on someone else’s experiences – my experiences.

However, their inability to consider their own reconciliation with dominant binary gender roles as a possible act of violence – against both themselves and others – instantly puts a huge wall between us. A seed of thought may have been planted, but they are not allies in any immediate sense. This is why the mainstream’s acknowledgement that queers and trans people have contributed to the development of cultures is bittersweet.

The real power dynamics have not shifted. It is simply a mainstream celebration of the presumed openness of liberal humanist culture, with no real political alliance nor responsibility nor desire to truly divest of patriarchy. Liberals love to celebrate the struggles of ‘social others.’ But let me ask bluntly, what’s to celebrate? People are dancing on graves.

Last time you came to Perth we asked you to pick a few tracks you were playing out regularly, one of which was your edit of Pitch Black by Octo Octa (aka Maya Bouldry-Morrison) who has since come out as transgender. Do you think there are aesthetic similarities between your and Mayas productions, in part due to similarities in your world experiences? How important is trans visibility in electronic music?

I don’t think our releases have much similarity, actually. Not in terms of production, sound choices or mood. But that’s why I like some of her tracks very much, because they are clearly made by someone else.

As for visibility, the majority of LGBTQ(RSTUVWTFLMFAO) organizers are working on that agenda. But it’s not my agenda, because it relies too heavily on that dominant Western equation of visibility equalling power. In that process, we find ourselves so preoccupied with assimilation and Pride[TM], and so convinced that shame and the practices of the closet are only to be discarded, that we are effectively erasing our own minor histories and strategies for self-defense and preservation.

In a global context emphasizing neoliberal agendas of privatization, family, and the erosion of social services, I am utterly convinced that all of this “we’re just like you” assimilation business is a huge mistake. For example, I guess most people these days would say the increasing availability of same sex marriages is a sign of increased social acceptance. I just hear the same thing we’ve always heard: “Don’t bring shame upon the family,” ie., “We will only accept you if you are a cooperative part of it.”

I think it’s a violent reinscription of the patriarchal family upon all people, and an organized political assault upon women, queers and trans people who have historically led the struggles against family tyranny and abuse, by further eroding our abilities to socially exist in other ways. Family rights are up. Social services and education are down. You do the math.

Perth’s LGBT+ scene has been affected by the city’s isolation and urban sprawl. You grew up in Springfield, Missouri, before moving to New York, and now you live in the Japanese countryside. How has isolation (or the opposite) affected your life and work?

I’ve never liked crowds or mobs. Too many bad experiences with them in my youth. So having a little distance from others is emotionally helpful for me. Also, I’ve never really talked about this publicly, but in relation to my own personal politics of harm reduction, socially retreating is also a way of reducing some of the harm I might inadvertently inflict on others by simply being alive on this shit planet where every lifestyle is traceable to slavery of one kind or another.

So I currently live in an official rural non-development zone, which means it will never have city sewage or other infrastructure. It’s a place with zero investment potential, so outside of any real estate bubbles and that whole bullshit. And, as a result, for the first time in my life I actually have space for a studio. Not a studio in the formal sense, but room for my gear to be out. But from my experiences in the US, I also know that the countryside can be dangerously conservative. Really violent. So I hold no inherent romance for the countryside.

Thankfully, the folks around me here in Japan are friendly enough, yet we keep to ourselves. As always, it’s an ongoing flux between economics and survival tactics. If I feel isolated out here, it is immediately comprehensible because I am literally living someplace remote. For me, there is a comfort in that logic, as compared to the sense of isolation felt when living in a city of millions.

The underground dance music scene has always been highly nostalgic. In what ways do you think our focus on the past (for example using analogue drum machines) restricts or affords creative freedom? How easy is it to convey a message or examine an issue within the confines of a 4/4 dance track?

For me, it is less about nostalgia, and more about the economic limitations that lead one to using specific technologies. So my studio is filled with old gear, but not the super expensive classics like the 303, 808, 909, etc. Just old shit I picked up for $20 here and there. But it’s important to remember Chicago acid producers first turned to the now infamous Roland gear because at the time it was the cheap, unpopular, unwanted stuff found in pawn shops.

Now everything has flipped, and the cheapest way for a teen to make music is on their laptop. Maybe it’s just the Marxist in me, but I think most of these discussions only really take on meaning when making the links between cultural production and poverty. The content of a track is not inherent to its style, but emerges from an analysis of the contexts of production. And that discussion is more about historical materialism than nostalgia.

Likewise, electronic music seems increasingly fragmented into specific sub-genres and homogeneous scenes. What effect do you think this has had on the music and the people that enjoy it?

I’ve talked many times about how a lot of that fragmentation you are describing is the work of music distributorships. ‘House Records’ used to refer to the collection of records in a club: the house’s records. The collections would span genres, but some arc of continuity would emerge, and that is how we arrived at the ‘Garage’ sound, or ‘Loft’ sound, etc. Those were the names of clubs, and that arc of sensibility was the style of music you could hear in them.

By the late ’80s and early ’90s, small US dance labels started getting distribution in the UK and Europe – something they hardly ever had within the US – and those distributors started asking for specific types of releases that were more likely to get radio play overseas. Most predominantly, vocal tracks. So the US labels started catering to those requests, which further crystalized them as sub-genres, which the distributors could then easily brand and market.

For example, when I got out of my first record contract with Instinct Records in ’95, I was producing ambient and electroacoustic music, but that bubble had burst. So when I was shopping demos, the labels and distributors would specifically ask me for techno, drum’n’bass, jungle, etc. Basically, all these ‘hot’ genres I had no interest in. So as a kind of distributor-jamming experiment, I made the G.R.R.L. album, in which every track is in a different sub-genre of electronic dance music – all of which was mapped out on the cover.

As expected, the distributors and shops refused to carry it because it didn’t fit into just one category. Success! Point proven! As of the mid-90s the marketplace could no longer tolerate cross-genre releases! I still have tons of unsold copies. [Laughs] But ultimately, I’m not afraid of sonic specificity. Also, I think most people listen to a lot of different types of music – even if in secret. I’m not so concerned about about that.

To the contrary, if people are living in a kind of standard town with four or five bars playing pop dance music, and somewhere there is a small dive that refuses to play anything but some really narrow sub-sub-sub-genre, more power to them. They are reacting to another, larger, more dangerous homogeneity, right? I’m more concerned about the economic role of distributorships and labels in pressuring producers to conform to their own sales-driven stylistic demands, which ultimately filters down to limitations in what consumers are exposed to, which in turn affects what they draw influences from when trying to create their own local scenes. People always think about how they are influenced by ‘artists,’ but in doing so they end up further concealing these other structural processes through which their beloved artist gained distribution. It’s hard for most people to take it all in simultaneously.

Would you please provide a brief intro into your Secrecy Wave Manifesto ahead of its performance at the Art Gallery of WA (before your show at Connections Nightclub) later this month?

It was originally a text written for the first issue of the Japanese cultural journal Farben. It was published in both Japanese and English, and is basically a rewrite of Social Media Content Removal Fail: YouTube videos ‘no longer available due to a copyright claim by Terre Thaemlitz’ for the Japanese readership. There was also a limited edition of 100 copies with a 7-inch record.

The main point of the text was to think about how strategies of silence and withholding have historically aided and been cultivated as means of protection within Queer communities, and to question the ways in which the bombast of contemporary “populist” online culture (ie. believing everything is best served by having the widest distribution possible) robs us of those tools and site specificities. I discuss my struggles to keep files out of YouTube and Soundcloud – and the impossibility thereof – as examples of how a naive enthusiasm to “share” can betray the minor communities that uploaders wish to “celebrate.” The presentation is a mix of reading, slides, video and audio.

Buy tickets to Terre Thaemlitz’s Secrecy Wave Manifesto here or a bundle of the reading and club show at Connections Nightclub here. For more information about both events visit JoinLe.Club

Jack Faulkner

*Please note the use of alternating gender pronouns in this article is deliberate and a request of the interviewee. As Terre says[] because “he/she/he/she” rotation is disorienting and annoying to most everyone, I feel I am inviting the reader to share in the awkwardness and inconvenience I continually feel around issues of gender identification.

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