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Terre Thaemlitz: The Interview
- Jasper Gape

In Nerdy Frames (NZ), May 12 2011.


We got a special treat for you in the form of an exclusive interview and none too exclusive than Terre Thaemlitz, a musician, nerd and a transgender who valiantly stood up for gay rights and bigotry forced upon the many misunderstandings of the queer lifestyle.

His/her work critically combines themes of identity politics - including gender, sexuality, class, linguistics, ethnicity and race - with an ongoing critique of the socio-economics of commercial media production. I made headways towards his/her music through the Rubato series in which Terre did a series of piano composition covering the likes of Gary Numan, Devo and Kraftwerk.

In the 90s he/she was also a well known DJ in New York while studying for a bachelor’s degree in fine art in which Terre was also famously fired from certain residencies due to their inane music policies.

As it stands today he/she is currently relocated to Japan which as you know suffered a huge earthquake and tsunami, but thankfully Terre is still with us. It’s a far away stones throw from his hometown of Springfield, USA.

We got to speak to ever delightful, witty Terre Thaemlitz about his/her history inwards to music, his/her work with gay, lesbian, bi and transgender and of course Terre’s notorious DJ Sprinkles album K-S.H.E in this exclusive NZ first!

Hello Terre Thaemlitz and thanks for doing this interview with us here at Nerdy Frames. Wow could I say that you have done a lot on both ends of the creative spectrum. I mean you not only do music, but you’re done public speaking on transgenderism and pansexual Queer sexuality. Where does this passion come from and are you okay with such a huge undertaking?

Hello to you, too. I'm afraid I might not be my usual wordy self today. I'm a bit lacking in both time and energy, but we'll give it a shot!

Within the fields of entertainment and media people tend to always label actions as stemming from "passion" or some other positivist sector, when in fact there are many of us who are acting out of necessity, panic, crisis, anger, discontent, etc. Especially with a name like "Nerdy Frames" (I consider myself a nerd), I suspect you must also be dealing with a degree of ostracism and alienation from others, so you know what I'm saying. You know it's not about being "okay." If you don't get it, then change your name! [Laughs]

Take us back when you started djing in the early 90s in New York, how were the queer clubs and the gay culture back then because you were heavily involved with that movement so much so that some of your mixtapes were soundtracks to many Gay parades?

It's true, my first public DJ experience was providing a mix tape for the A/PI Caucus of ACT-UP at the '88 or '89 Gay Pride parade. At that time Pride parades weren't quite at the point of major commercialism and corporate sponsorship, although I think they did take out legal permits for the parade.

I grew to hate Pride[TM] events very quickly after that time. My first few times DJ-ing in clubs were also at activist benefits. Some friends told me they were looking for a regular DJ at Sally's, so I went over and gave them a mix-tape, and they hired me on the contingency that I bring my own records because they liked the tape but didn't have any of those records in their House collection. "House music" used to just refer to the record collection owned by a club.

Those were the "house records." It wasn't a specific genre. It was more of a mood, each club having their own collection. That's how we ended up with subgenres taking on the names of clubs like Garage, Shelter, Loft, etc. My favorite club was a different mid-town Puerto Rican drag club, La Escuelita. It had a great mix of dykes, fags and trans people. The music was pretty bad, but who cares...

Even though during that time you earned a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts (BFA) when did the urgency to make music for yourself really started? What was the trigger or events (besides djing) that warranted you to start making music, did you started to invest in buying drum machines or synthesizers?

I started making music as a result of always getting fired as a DJ because I didn't like to play major label vocal house. There were some great instrumental Deep House records coming out of Jersey and the Lower East Side, but I swear for the life of me I couldn't find a club that played them, and like I said, I was fired for playing them.

So after I got fired from Sally's for refusing to play a Gloria Estefan record - just a month after they had awarded me a "Sally's II Grammy Award" for Best DJ 1991, mind you - I was totally depressed. At that time so much of my world had collapsed.

As you noted, I graduated from a visual arts school with a BFA, but I only completed the program to say I had a college diploma - I was totally disgusted by the prejudice and bias of galleries and museums and wanted nothing to do with them. Then things fell apart with the various activist groups I had been involved in.

Despite my BFA I was unable to get design work or anything like that, so the only job I could get was as a secretary. Just everything was a mess. So I kinda gave up on everything, and thought, "Somebody's making these records - I have no fucking idea where they are being played or who's buying them, but they're being made. Maybe if I make a record I'll bump into one of these people some day." One of the valets at the place where I worked as a secretary was Kid Freeze from the old Breakin' movies (by that time he had grown up to be King Freeze), and he introduced me to a friend with whom he was trying to make hip-hop music. House music in New York also used a lot of breaks - there was even the "Hip House" scene - so we somehow connected musically through breaks. We used to hang around and try to figure out gear. I've always had a digital studio - my first synths were a Casio FZ-10M and a Korg M1. I didn't have a drum machine, so my first dance records used samples of breaks.

Was there a deeper meaning and deconstruction of the Rubato Series (which were a compilation of neo-expressionist piano solos from artist like Gary Numan, Devo and Kraftwerk) because I remember in an article for SPIN Magazine which they did a retrospect of Kraftwerk you were quoted as saying with regards to Tour De France ‘it sounded like men were fucking’ with the rather famous panting that is featured on there?

The Rubato Series was about investigating my own musical influences from childhood, how they contributed to my queerness and transgenderism. Of course, most techno-pop was boys-with-toys stuff, so there was also the question of how to listen to such music through feminist ears.

I decided to do the albums as piano solos because the piano is a comparatively domesticated and feminine instrument, sort of a counterpoint to the macho machinery of electronic music. There was also the transgendered link between classical and electronic music with Wendy Carlos (formerly Walter), so by making "neo-expressionist" flavored piano renditions that were not at all mechanical sounding like the originals, I was also trying to invoke that crossover... But at the same time, I do not play piano, so the pieces were programmed note-by-note on the computer - despite the fact they sound human and fooled many a lazy journalist who failed to read the opening paragraph of the liner notes which explained how they were completely programmed.

Computer composition was also a way of crossing back into the sequencer-dependent production style that was so vital to techno-pop. As for "Tour de France," as with so much other of Kraftwerk's music, there is absolutely a homoeroticism to it.

"Tour de France" strikes me as totally gay - intentional or not - but much of the homoeroticism of their other tracks simply emerges from Kraftwerk's self-imposed masculine world of the Mensch Machine (which is the age-old counterpoint to the feminine realm of "Mother Nature").

With a career of djing and producing music for well over 17 years, what are your thoughts with dance music or electronic music in general today Terre?

This newer generation have a tendency to want their music loud, compressed or in my case the ridicule of dubstep and heavy basslines.

It's strange. I imagine most younger people today really don't have a clear concept of what has been done before, or how dated much of today's sound really is. For me, now in my 40's, thinking about House as a genre that is over 20 years old, that would be like my listening to 1950's Elvis as a kid.

Clearly the difference in style and sound between recordings from the 50's and 70's was undeniable. But I think this awareness of time is lost when listening to today's completely referential dance music. I think the referentiality is not a bad thing - it's an homage if nothing else.

But the ability for those references to be mistaken for "contemporary" or "new" is unsettling. Like you said, today's mixing style is much more compressed and "punched up" than 20 or 30 years ago, but since we also live in a world where everything old is "remastered," even old music bought on CD or online today sounds the same somehow.

Seriously, if you have the choice between a first-edition CD release and a "remastered" edition, ALWAYS choose the original CD! If you just gotta have the bonus tracks on the remastered version, then buy both. You'll hear the difference. The engineering, recording and mastering strategies were as important to the time as the compositions and performances themselves.

Tell us about your life in Japan Terre, before the tragic Earthquake and Tsunami hit Japan what was life like for you and why the move to such a beautiful country?

The quakes - which I guess we are supposed to call aftershocks - are still pretty much happening daily here, although things seem to be calming down. There are a lot of quakes in New Zealand as well, right? I imagine the aftershocks after your huge quake a while back went on for a few weeks, too.

Generally speaking, though, coming from the US I really appreciate the safety of daily life here. The US is so aggressive, and people are so in your face if they don't like you - verbally and physically - that it was a real adjustment to actually feel "safe" for once in my life.

I don't want to over-romanticize things, because there are a lot of unique social problems here, but for me it's a good match. If Japanese people don't like you they generally ice you out and ignore you. For people born here, that coldness is as devastating as the more outward aggression I experienced in the US was for me, but for me the silence here is golden.

Alright let’s talk about your new album K-S.H.E, which I took a listen to, it’s a fantastic album. How long did it take to make and were there concepts that you wanted to inject with this release?

The tracks were recorded in 2004, and it was first released on my Comatonse Recordings label in 2006. I guess I spent 9 months making it. Most of the concepts are pretty clear to anybody who hears it. Others are not so clear, but the clues are in place. The title "Routes not Roots" is about the socially constructed nature of our identities (sexual, gender, ethnic, class, etc.), as well as a rejection of the idea of music coming from the "soul" or something intrinsic or "rootsy" like that.For me, music is just codes and signs - language.

It's completely non-universal. People who say music is universal are dumbasses. Clearly if it were universal we would all love every genre. The fact that most people hate the music of their parents, and vice versa, is evidence enough for me that it is not universal. The fact that I hate classical music is enough for me.

It just takes one person to hate something for the whole universal shit to be disproved, but for some damn reason nobody's thinking even that much... That's a bad sign about how shallow discourse around music is these days. But back to the album, I was still doing my regular "Deeperama" DJ parties in Tokyo, but the scene here is very different from the old days in New York.

On the plus side, people here actually listen and leave themselves open to the music being played - unlike New York where I got fired for not playing Gloria Estefan. On the down side, the events are incredibly sexless, and on the a-sexual-but-straight side of things.

So in 2004, while I was DJ-ing I would often think about all the complexities and contradictions and problems of being a white transgendered person from the American Mid-West who used to DJ in a Puerto Rican and African American transsexual sex worker club now in Tokyo playing Black music for a rather asexual Japanese audience. "Routes not Roots" was about trying to create discourse and narratives around those various layers.

My favorite tracks from K-S.H.E are ‘Hobo Train’, ‘B2B’ and ‘Crosstown’ but there is one track that stuck out like a sore thumb which is a stand up skit. What was a motivation behind doing a stand up track and is this another avenue you want to explore?

That's a true story - my true story - by the way. Exactly as it happened. Clearly, the piece moves from a kind of comedy routine where the audience is laughing with me, to a point where they are laughing at me.

Fear and shame are definitely deep facets in transgendered and queer life. There is a horrific collision between the bashing experienced in the real world and the fear it breeds in our imaginations. It's easier to imagine it away as paranoia, convince oneself things aren't really that bad, but then *BAM* reality hits you in the face again. There is so much artificiality in today's world of GLBT Pride[TM], where people think homosexuality is about two similarly identified people getting together happily, empowering each other in their choices, blah blah blah. Reality is that most sex between people of the same gender is not "gay on gay." That is a fucking hoax.

Usually one person identifies as heterosexual. Sexuality is more complex than identity - our interactions are more complex. People have forgotten the roots of identity movements - identities are about safety. For example, the safety of not having to worry about being bashed in a gay neighborhood as much as one would worry in other neighborhoods. Safety is what we're fighting for - not the identities themselves! These days it's all about DNA and "born this way" - feudalist arguments whereby people claim they deserve rights based on blood.

How is that different from the aristocracy of old? How does that facilitate our human capacity for choice? There is a very dangerous, conservative undercurrent to all of this legislation of rights based on being "born this way" (ie, a lack of choice). "Oh those poor people, they can't help it - okay we'll give them their rights..." Patronizing. Like I always say, "Gay Pride" is like a lesson unlearned. It focuses on power-sharing and obtaining "equal recognition" within those systems of domination that oppress us, rather than divesting those systems of their power. Investigating how we - all humans - are creatures whose identities are born more of shame, and not pride, is vital to changing processes of domination. Pride[TM] is a distraction.

What is the future of electronic music Terre Thaemlitz, where do you see the genre in let’s say the next 8 years?

Oh, God, it's going to be so fucking amazing! I can't wait! *Wink-Wink* There's just so much exciting stuff going on these days, so many boundaries being shifted and broken, tomorrow's just gonna be awesome! *Wink-Wink* It's a really, really exciting time to be involved in all of this - I feel so lucky. *Pause... and cough*

You travel a lot around the world I take it so is there any chance we might be able to see you here in NZ?

Travel is certainly a big part of this industry. I personally hate to travel. If I were able to economically sustain myself here in Japan, I would travel abroad far less than I currently have to. But as for New Zealand, all it would take is a funded invitation. Work is work. Actually, speaking of New Zealand, I recently did some piano performances in Europe that were a part of an exhibition series on Cornelius Cardew, organized by a New Zealand ex-pat named Dean Inkster.

He was telling me about your rather progressive social programs in years past, and how it's been swinging to the right in recent decades. It was interesting to learn a little about that. I've never been there. Lawrence English had me do a little tour in Australia a few years ago, but that's as close as I got - and I have the feeling Australia is culturally quite different from New Zealand, right?

Would you like to finish our interview with some wise words or sage advice?

Nerd power.

And with that we thank you Terre Thaemlitz