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Interview with DJ Sprinkles on music and gender identity
Parts 1 & 2
- Marcus Barnes

In The Independent (UK), October 16 (Part 1) & 20 (Part 2) 2013.

Part 1 (October 16, 2013):

Terre Thaemlitz AKA DJ Sprinkles is an enigma to many house music fans, someone with a reputation for producing great music and someone whose identity is a source of intrigue.

Sprinkles is pansexual and transgender, she speaks regularly on matters relating to her sexuality, as well as creating music and visual art that explores the themes of gender politics, ethnicity and identity. Overall she is one of the most interesting subjects I've ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Here's the first half of a recent chat I had with her.

When did your love affair with music first begin?
Well, if it's a 'love affair' it's always been a dysfunctional one. I'm not one of those people who produces audio because I 'love it.' I approach it as a communicative medium, like a language. Not a very clear language at that. In my childhood I had multiple and contradictory relationships to music. From the listener/consumer side, I listened to the radio constantly. My dad had one of those old mono cassette recorders with the built-in speaker and microphone, and I would sit with it in front of one of the stereo speakers, waiting for songs I liked to come on the air so I could record them by holding the recorder up to the speaker.

I also had a little phonograph player, and two or three Ronco and K-Tel compilations. I was born in '68, so this was all during the Seventies. My siblings and I would also collect old tube radios from the Forties and Fifties that our grandmothers or neighbours were throwing out. Come to think of it, we used to love playing with big, old metal vacuum cleaners, too. Any kinds of old powered utensils or tools. Great noise machines with great, bubbly metal designs.

That kind of interactive listening and noise-making was countered by being forced by my parents to study violin from the age of five to 13, through an extra-curricular orchestra program in public schools. I had absolutely no say in the matter. I hated classical music, as well as the very simple music I was supposed to practice. I refused to practice, ever. It was just an awful stress. I actually did the old trick of recording myself practising once, and then just played that tape in my room whenever I was supposed to be practicing... although I can't imagine I really fooled anyone.

That went on for nine years, and I never even really learned to read music in all that time! My poor instructor! In fact, I was only able to convince my father to let me quit the orchestra on the condition that I joined the band instead. And even then, rather than getting to choose an instrument, my father went to the band instructor and asked what instrument they needed most - so I was stuck with trombone.

Trombone is actually pretty cool, but not at that age, and not when you really just want nothing to do with any of that shit music. So all of those power dynamics conditioned my sense of musicianship, and my absolute inability to ever be a musician. Of course, to this day I still refuse to identify as a musician, or artist, in rejection of that entire school of musicology rooted in performance and creativity, blah, blah. I consider myself a media producer. And that distinction is not just a word game. It really has to do with how one uses sound.

Who or what sparked your passion for music in that early period of your life?
Definitely roller disco. Indoor roller disco, with lights, sound system and DJs.

Can you recall some of the very first songs that really inspired you?
Kool & the Gang's "Hollywood Swingin", Rose Royce's "Car Wash", Andrea True Connection's "More, More, More", Vickie Sue Robinson's "Turn The Beat Around", Johnnie Taylor's "Disco Lady", George McCrae's "Rock Your Baby", Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good" ... and then the late Seventies electronic wave came with stuff like Earth, Wind and Fire's "Let's Groove," Gary Numan's "Cars", The Gap Band's "Humpin'", Midnight Star's "Freakazoid", etc.

I guess for Brits it sounds weird to have Numan mixed in there, but in the US it was all R&B chart stuff... I was also into the Monkees, which people tend to dismiss, but they really had some brilliant social satire going on. I think that sarcasm and social critique somehow set the stage early on for my developing interests in those directions. I still listen to them a lot, actually.

And what was your life like in general around that period?
I was born in Minnesota, then the family moved to Missouri... both are considered the Midwestern US, but Missouri had the bonus Southern culture thing happening. I was a nerd who wore glasses with face distorting "Coke-bottle" lenses since the age of two, so in terms of socialization, all of childhood was pretty much shit. Daily physical and emotional bullying, basically.

Can you recall if there was a specific moment when you realised that you were of a different sexual orientation to others? Well, the conventional language around sexual and gender "coming out" stories don't really apply to my experience. There was no "coming into oneself", no crystallising "self-realization", and that has greatly informed my affinity for non-essentialist approaches to identity constructs as "social strategies" rooted in cultural domination, rather than as "subjective essence".

I was basically denied any "coming out" story, because I had grown up being socialized as "non-boy" then "non-straight", all of which branded me a social aberration or threat, even though I was the one being constantly threatened. And in the Evangelical Mid-West, this also took on biblical proportions.

It started very early. Even in the first grade the other boys wouldn't allow me to eat with them, so I ate at the girls' table. At that age, the difference between boys and girls was largely a difference of social castes, and wouldn't be justified through arguments of physical difference until we were older. Basically, rules of childhood like, "don't hit girls or boys with glasses," unravelled my boyhood enough to push me out of that caste, and of course my days of acceptance in girl circles were also limited.

By the time adolescence came around, and my peers were struggling with their identities, worried about what people thought about them, I already knew that they and the world at large couldn't give a fuck about who I actually thought I was. My own personal identifications made no difference to anyone, since I had already been so heavily branded from without by dominant cultural mores.

Their perceptions of me never changed. So that's how I was "raised homosexual," but not in the contemporary sense where that implies having a supportive or nurturing environment for sexual deviation. I was "raised homosexual" in the exact opposite sense, which was all about learning how both sexual conformity and variance are informed by homophobia and shame. I think it's a really common "queer" childhood, actually. But the language of LGBT Pride somehow performs its own exclusions that render such things invisible by over-emphasising the role of positivity in evaluating life experiences, just like dominant heteronormative culture.

I don't see LGBT Pride as an overcoming of shame, nor as a counterpoint to mainstream dominations. Pride is more of a "when in Rome..." strategy, with Rome being dominant heteronormative patriarchy. I don't want anything to do with prides of any kind, since they always trace back to nationalism orclanism.

How did you go about working out who you were and telling friends and family?
I basically just snapped one day around age 15 when I realized my previous years of attempting to assimilate were pointless. There was no way to transform how people saw me or to fit in. So if they wanted a faggot, I'd give them a faggot... fuck 'em. Since most violence was coming from males, I began actively using female clothing and accessories as a means of disassociating myself from maleness - on my own terms. Of course, the people around me continued with their own disassociations of myself from maleness on their terms.

Then all kinds of new troubles began, both at home and outside. And a lot of those things never did get worked out, even within families. I think this is particularly likely when one's act of "coming out" doesn't take the shape of "coming into" the standard and accepted homosexual or transgendered identities their friends or family have seen on TV.

Western individualist culture patently rejects any models of identity that are about perpetual flux and irresolvability. We are told to find ourselves. We are told to resolve ourselves. We are told to be individuals, in the singular sense of the term... Fuckk off already.

Identities are just strategies for mediating social organization. They are never who we are. They are what we do. But that idea, and the refusal to identify, or the insistence upon multiple and contradictory identifications, is hard for people to accept. So my refusal to share any 'team' identification with my partners immediately breeds mistrust, regardless of which 'team' they are on. It's hard to sell that stance of "mistrust" (which is a mistrust in identity, not in a person herself) as a more honest foundation for developing complex social interactions... although I sincerely believe it is. It doesn't necessarily generate stability [laughs], but it increases the chances of a deeper inter-personal connection, as opposed to just an inter-identity connection.

Come back next week for part two

Catch DJ Sprinkles at Oval Space on 25 October

Part 2 (October 20, 2013):

Here's the second part of my interview with DJ Sprinkles

How easy or difficult did you find the process of self-discovery?
Of course, constantly trying to evaluate one's relationships to cultural dominations is tiring and depressing. It's why people embrace dominant social and identity patterns in the first place, to maintain (or attain) some mental and social stability. But making those social and ethical concessions required by a life of mainstream "normalcy" is also tiring and depressing.

Any honest person in their 40s or 50s will tell you the same, regardless of their sexual or gender persuasions. I know a lot of people my age who pursued the straight and narrow, and are surprised to find themselves trapped in lives they truly and deeply hate. They really struggle with it, even admitting the very idea of hating where they are and who they've become, because to do so goes against the value systems they embraced since childhood. I hate life, too. I hate myself, too. I'm just not surprised by those revelations, because I had to deal with them decades ago. [Laughs.]

What role did music play in how you developed and evolved as a person?
Especially in my teens, electronic music - exclusively electronic, such as techno-pop - provided an alternative cultural soundtrack to the sounds of rock and country embraced by those who gave me a hard time. Clearly, there is a lot more electronic music in the world today. It fills the pop charts, including electronic rock and country. But back in the Seventies and Eighties in the Midwestern US, electronic music and disco were explicitly associated with homosexuality and perversion. The anti-disco campaigns were brutally homophobic.

What inspired you to progress from being a lover of music, to somebody who actually plays and makes it?
As a DJ in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I kept getting fired for refusing to play major label tracks. I collected and played independent deep house from New York and New Jersey, but couldn't find a place to play in New York that accepted it. So I quit DJ-ing, and decided to release a record in the style of those I liked, wondering if it would somehow put me in contact with people making the records nobody seemed to be playing.

What else did you dream of doing when you were younger?
I think I really thought I would be an illustrator. I drew constantly. And traced constantly - which is similar to sampling in audio production. By the time I was in high school I did a lot with photo copies, like brushing them with paint thinner and then rubbing the black carbon off onto other surfaces, etc. So that kind of production strategy rooted in copies and fakes was there throughout. Again, thank you, Monkees, for the inspiration! [Laughs.] I think my parents expected me to be a doctor, so that idea was also in my head, but clearly didn't happen.

How did you go about learning how to DJ and getting involved with playing at clubs?
I just taught myself... which is why I've never been very good in a technical sense, but that's not so important for my style of mixing. Before ever getting a mixer and dual turntables, I used to make cassette loops of little passages from songs, and then layer those tracks. The way I did it was to tape a microphone to one side of a headphone, then dangle it in front of a speaker.

I would use a tape player to play the loop tracks through the headphones, then layer in other sounds in real time by playing records through the speakers, recording it all through the microphone onto a second cassette player. It was kind of an elaborate extension of recording songs off the radio as a child. So when I first heard about DJ mixers, I was like, "Oh, shit! That's exactly what I've been needing all these years!" As for playing in clubs, I just went around with cassette tapes, and handed them to managers at various clubs, saying I was available. I didn't even go at night. I just went around in the afternoon or early evening, and introduced myself to the managers... most of the clubs were kinda tragic bars during the daytime. Those were different times. I don't think many people could get DJ gigs that way these days.

When you started out did you focus on transgender clubs, or were you always open to playing wherever?
I did focus on queer contexts, yes. But that was primarily where electronic music functioned in the U.S. at the time, so it wasn't unexpected or strange to have that kind of focus. It was pretty much a precondition of the genre.

How do transgender clubs differ from so-called 'regular' clubs... if at all?
Well, there are as many kinds of transgendered clubs as there are kinds of transgenderism. These days house music has become popularized, but back then there were explicit connections between the emerging genre and queer communities. So there was no "aside from the clientele."

The clubs were very much about how the clientele - as deviants and outlaws - literally, with regard to the policing of sexual activities. You have your own violent history with this in the UK - socially moved and organized around their sexual and gender object choices. There was no internet, so people did things in person. Even personal ads back then were often done by sending letters written on paper to PO boxes, hoping for a reply with instructions of where and when to meet. There was no internet-style private access to porn, either. Accessing porn meant physically going to the porn shops, or secret distributors, and interacting with others.

I know people today talk of how the internet has helped people organize and be in touch, but it has also done away with many of the secret and unsanctioned spaces where people used to physically meet. So clubs served a very important role in queer lives, in ways that were not simply about dancing or partying. They were safe houses, essentially. That's why The Shelter was called a "shelter."

And that meant the "wayward children" entering those safe houses were also from all different backgrounds. They weren't all like-minded people who met online before agreeing to hang out en masse at some club. For example, at Sally's II, which was a transsexual sex worker club, a lot of the male clients were straight-identified. But those issues of closeting and secrecy in their lives did not inherently make them the "enemy," just as the "gender deception" of the transgendered people did not make them the "enemy" within those walls... even though both may be seen or treat each other as enemies on the street (generally the transgendered folk being treated poorly). So there were a lot of inversions and twists of dominant cultural relations happening. I don't think you will ever find that at a 'regular' club... and they're pretty much all 'regular' these days.

You've reached a stage in your career where many music fans place a mystique around you, how does it feel to be held in such high esteem?
I guess it feels awkward, because I never learned how to take a compliment. The pro musician move is to flip it into a generic compliment about having amazing fans, or thanking the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for making all of this possible... What a horrible question for you to dump on someone. [Laughs.] The reason it's horrible is that it baits a response rooted in subjective feeling and affect, when the only possibly interesting issue buried within that question has to do with how music and media industries manipulate the audience and producer emotions through the marketing and sale of egos. It just reinforces the age-old conflation of esteem with success. That's pretty much the opposite of everything I am interested in.

Did you ever worry that your sexuality or gender might overshadow your talents as a musician?
With so many people just wanting "music for music's sake," it's a struggle to make themes heard. I absolutely wish issues of gender and sexuality would always overshadow the music. Unfortunately, even when they do, a project's specific content is too easily transformed into an illustration of some attribute of "the artist's" identity or character - the latest piece of an artistic ego-puzzle in process - as opposed to opening up social dialogues on themes of sexuality, gender, class, race, ethnicity and other things... Again, an industry focused on the marketing of ego constructs stops us from using sound to represent social issues, because it always insists on tying everything back to the "talented ego figure".

What music can we look forward to in the coming months?
I just wrapped up two remixes for Francis Harris' new album (one as Sprinkles, and one as Terre Thaemlitz), and will be doing some DJ support for his US and EU release tour in December. That wraps up my remix commitments for now. I've been turning down remix offers to try and focus on my own productions in 2014. I have some ideas for both house and electroacoustic projects, so we'll see if I can get my shit together on any of them.

You're soon to be playing at Oval Space in London, what's your experience of playing here in the capital?
Yes, Oval Space on the 25. I'm also performing "Soulnessless" and DJ-ing in Sheffield on the 24 and 26 respectively. What's that Alan Partridge line about the capital? "Go to London! I guarantee you'll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway."

I get the sense that when it comes to music, London is kind of like Tokyo in Japan. It has the money, it always has plenty of stuff happening, and you can have a good enough time, but the more interesting stuff is usually happening elsewhere in the country. I think that's pretty much the history of electronic music movements in the UK, isn't it?

Catch DJ Sprinkles at Oval Space on 25 October