© t thaemlitz/comatonse recordings
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In Spex (Germany), Issue #321, Juli/August 2009. Note: I hope to have a copy of the printed version in German soon. Meanwhile, here is the original, unedited interview in English...
Terre Thaemlitz - "The buffet is cold and dirty"
Digital Evolution - Installment 6
Why does Terre Thaemlitz not have a Myspace profile? (It seems that Myspace has become a standard in musicians's self-promoting to such an extent that people might ask why Terre Thaemlitz voluntarily renders her/himself invisible in the digital world by not opening a Myspace profile...)
(Laughs) What a great question, because I think it is the first time someone has asked me that from a critical perspective, rather than implying that I should create one! Actually, a little over a year ago I did try to create a Myspace profile, and the only content for my page was going to be, "MYSPACE FUCKING SUCKS! GO TO MY OWN GOD DAMN HOMEPAGE, YOU LAZY ASSHOLE!" Half-way through setting up a profile I realized I was creating an "individual" profile whereas I needed to create a different "musician" profile, and it became too much of a waste of time, so I decided not to even bother doing that.
It's disturbing how people are so easily funneled into Myspace, and willing to provide content to a company most of us know nothing about. To me, people posting pages on Myspace are like people who eat at buffets rather than ordering off the menu. There is a kind of greed to it - the notion of getting something extra, something for nothing, the extra serving. But as someone who has worked in restaurants (and as someone who briefly worked in "professional" web design in the mid '90s just at the verge before it became hyper-industrialized), I can tell you the buffet is cold and dirty. The food is not carefully prepared, you are more likely to get sick from it, and the owners are still making a profit despite your larger sub-quality portions. Why would I want to freely contribute my content to a corporate site with content restrictions, unwanted advertisements, prescribed design formats, playing "friends" and popularity games, etc.? A desire for "Visibility" is not reason enough. That's just Americanized hunger talking - the impulse for big portions of everything, whereas the types of media I produce are humble enough to know they are not meant to feed crowds. They are specifically a reaction against crowds. They are saltless crackers for people who can't hold down what society shoves down our throats. Culturally, the Myspace buffet is completely unappetizing to me. It is purely populist, and for media producers who are critical of populism to have Myspace pages is a conundrum most fail to address. Meanwhile, many of us are already paying money to host our registered domain websites, where I feel I have greater content control despite less Flash functionality... for me that's a reasonable trade-off. The internet is not at the core of my projects, so I prefer not to waste too much time on blogging and all that jazz. The only people who care about web presence are the festival and event promoters, and they just need to see a lot of content about me to help justify their budgets, so that is why the Comatonse website is deliberately sprawling.
But it's true what you say about "invisibility," too. It is not uncommon for me to receive emails from people asking where they can find information about me and buy my music. I don't really know how to answer them since many of those emails seem to be sent directly through mail links on my website, comatonse.com! They are there, at my page! So many people are completely lazy about the internet, and will "give up" if you do not present them with standard corporate page design a la Adobe Page Mill or whatever the current trendy editor may be. This is specifically why my website and other sites I have designed, such as Ultra-red's Public Record label (publicrec.org), are completely hand-coded and designed in ways that visually look as "cheap" as the World Wide Web really is.
If you Google my name - hold on, let me Google "Terre Thaemlitz" - it shows over 74,000 hits on Western pages, and another 23,000 hits on Japanese pages, with my website comatonse.com right at the top of both lists. I mean, that's already more visibility than I want. In fact, a few years ago when I did a search on "Terre" alone, which appears frequently in French ("Earth," also part of the word for "Potato," etc. - although my parents gave me this spelling after Saint Teresa de Lisieux), I still came up rather quickly. Let me try that now. Oh, I come up 13th in the list of results and "Terre Thaemlitz" appears as a keyword for search refinement at the bottom of the page... shit, that's totally stupid. This is a real privacy issue when I cannot even disclose my first name without instantly giving people access to all kinds of information about my gender and sexuality, which often really need to be shared slowly and with complexity. In both public and private spheres, this is still dangerous and has caused me problems at times. People really do violently react to transgenderism as malicious deception, and in both Gay and Straight culture being "out about my various gender and sexual closets" is different from the more easily digestible concept of being "out of the closet." Identities are most threatening when they remain unresolved, since that signifies a lack of loyalty to a particular side, and in that way erodes interpersonal trust.
I guess my point in all this is: if you can't find me online you are complete fucking idiot.
Might one of the reasons you don't have a Myspace profile be that Myspace asks for your sex when opening a profile? (Actually I didn't check if they really do - but I assume they do.)
As if forcing you to identify as a "musician" isn't bad enough... I don't remember if "musician" pages include genders, but I remember the individual pages did - and there were only two options. But that is not surprising. To suddenly expect the "online world" to reflect concepts that radically differ from the material conditions that create them - especially in populist forums - is to buy into a lot of cyber-liberationist fantasy. Transgenderism is often about passability. My selecting "M" or "F" is just another form of socially mandated drag... and my chances of passing are greater online.
Even if Myspace doesn't ask for your gender, a lot of other community services/platforms on the net do: Do you see the growing calculation of social and economic processes in binary codes as a chance or danger for the transgender community? How can a transgender person deal with a problem like this? (I guess even when you're trying to sabotage the mandatory sex declaration by checking the "wrong" gender you end up not changing/challenging the binary concept of man or woman...)
As you may have noticed, the way in which "transgendered" functions as an online option is typically about Male-to-Female sex work. Even on a non-sex related site, if I do check the transgendered box, I am guaranteed to be inundated with typically misogynist sexual advances from macho-wannabees in search of "Ladyboys" or their first "TG adventure." As with many women, I think most transgendered people (MTF and FTM) hide as men online. This is not about male identification, but about removing oneself from the categories of sexual targeting within an online "world" reflecting offline patriarchy. I know many people have devoted a lot of time and energy into promoting the idea that this kind of gender bending is somehow "empowering," but this is granting online information a capacity for transcending social context that it simply does not have. Most people can understand on some level how capitalist globalization is a form of imperialism, but when it comes to the internet (which is not "pure information" but a material network relying on hardware that most people in the world cannot afford) people are quick to lose sight of imperialist processes. People who insist the "good" of the internet justifies the material processes through which largely Western capitalist information and technologies are being globally propagated are not unlike those who would say the "good" done by the Catholic church allows us to forgive the systematic sexual and financial abuses at it's core. Most people are unwilling to address the hypocrisies of their faiths, including faith in information. Faith in information is inseparable from one's susceptibility to propaganda.
There's a brilliant line in one of my favorite movies, the "rockumentary" Spinal Tap, in which lead singer Michael St. Hubbins says, "I believe almost everything I read, and I think that makes me more of a selective human being." It's a beautiful summation of the naïvely Humanist approach many take toward online information. Everybody knows most web search results are useless, yet we believe in the potential of the web search. The concept of potential is more important than a material reality of uselessness. It's worth noting that web searches became useless precisely as a result of the US "internet bubble" of the mid '90s, when corporate web design took hold of how information is managed. It went from a governmental and academic information engine to an advertising engine, and sites that were previously designed by individuals were suddenly designed by teams of people, each with sterilely isolated tasks (content, format, interface, back-end, etc.). All of the internet's "success" must be framed in relation to this industrial shift. Of course, the preceeding states and academies are also subjects for critical analysis, but today our ability to perceive the internet as a "free" or "global" place (when it is not a place at all) is nothing more than a reflection of the feeling of freedom we have come to find in commodity fetishism. Make no mistake about this.
Is Myspace a heterotopia in Foucault's sense?
Well, if a heterotopia is considered to be a momentary break from normal social patterns - such as a vacation, church service, prison, or hospital - there is a way in which one could argue the internet is a heterotopia of sorts. However, within the normal functions of online audio, I would say Myspace is symptomatic of status quo audio ingestion, and an off-center site like my own would become the heterotopia. That's not a plus or a minus - I'm just thinking through the definition...
I know you have read a transcript of my presentation at The Vienna Academy of Fine Arts last year, "Please tell my landlord not to expect future payments because Attali's theory of surplus-value-generating information economics only works if my home studio's rent and other use-values are zero" (comatonse.com/writings/utopiaofsound.html), in which I coined the term "homotopia" in reference to the moment when we leave a heterotopia and re-enter the homogeneity of standard daily social rhythms. In particular, I meant to draw attention to the fact that heterotopias are not at all challenges to the status quo, but rather preserve it by offering therapeutic breaks. In this way, audio heterotopias such as the infamous Burning Man Festival, which many people uphold as "life altering" and culturally transformational, are nothing more than manifestations of narcissistic fantasies for self-determination common in most bourgeois vacations. The heterotopia relies upon the homotopic moment of abandonment - it means heterotopias are explicitly counter-transformative in structure. Burning Man, like Disneyland, only exists to be left behind as the attendees get back to their day jobs. When Foucault cites a prison as a heterotopic space, I think he was implying its role as a construction of, and means of constructing, the status quo.
Coming to the release of your "Dead Stock Archive" at a shocklingly cheap 3,60 Euro per hour audio: You say that one of the reasons you decided to release "Dead Stock Archive" was that online record shops sold (or still sell?) Terre Thaemlitz' works without having a contract with you and without paying you. How come? How did the shops get hold of the records? Which record shops were (are) they and which records did they sell? (Are these problems related to Force Inc.'s/Mille Plateaux' bankruptcy?) Have you found a way of stopping the shops and of obtaining the money they have made with your records? Also: Were/are the shops aware of any wrong-doing or did they pay other companies and assumed everything was legal? (For example if I open iTunes Germany I can download several Terre Thaemlitz tracks - for example one from a compilation from Onitor records with "Politics" in its title... will you get money when I download this track?) Also: What would be a way of communicating to consumers who paid for these download that they were left under the wrong impression that they did you, Terre Thaemlitz, good by paying?
Pricing the archive was difficult, and the "shockingly cheap" price you note is not that dissimilar to the percentage of sales royalty I might receive by licensing the tracks online. But ultimately, the 220 EUR price is based on the limits of what is financially possible for most people. It's still too expensive to actually sell en masse, I think. It's playing with this tension between consumability and a notion of individual consumers becoming "art benefactors" who directly support me with lumps of money. Like our social enthusiasm for Myspace, most people are fine with the bulk of their payment go to iTunes rather than the producers they are interested in. It's a Wal-Mart shopping mentality, where convenience and price out-value any sense of social participation - which is funny when thinking about the purchase of culturally critical media.
The longstanding problem I had with online distributors is very convoluted, and a lot of it does involve the various Frankfurt boys, about which I prefer not to comment. But I will say the problems with uploads began after the bankruptcy, which is when I found several of my Mille Plateaux albums and other projects on iTunes. Some things were absolutely uploaded maliciously. Others occupied contractual grey areas, agreements made before MP3 distribution, compilation tracks, remixes, etc. I proceeded to send iTunes a few emails stating which works I knew for sure that I controlled, that they should be removed immediately, that they should tell me to whom they were paying royalties, and since when. These letters went unanswered, or even worse, were responded to with support desk form letters about how "iTunes takes issues of content ownership very seriously" with absolutely no follow-up or additional correspondence from their side. It was impossible to contact their legal department directly through any of the support links on their site, and the cost of hiring a lawyer to investigate the matter would clearly be more than the amount of money made from download sales. It was a complete dead end. I had also found my albums for sale on e-Music and a few other sites, whom I also wrote, to no effect. Not all the stores carried the same projects, so it actually appeared to me that my albums were coming from multiple sources - kind of randomly being selected by different people. I had no idea who, and nobody was responding. All of the different countries and territories involved also complicated things. Even if I wanted to take legal action, I felt I had no real starting point.
A few years later in 2006, a friend tipped me off to the US distributor Iris, who turned out to be controlling much of my online distribution. It was only by mentioning Iris' name to iTunes, with whom they were in contract, that I finally received a response from iTunes' legal department. You see, until I could name the party they were involved with they were completely unwilling to divulge contractual information, and were buying more sales time. But I was not some unrelated third party claiming to control my works - I was myself, stating my direct control of my own titles. That shows you how major industry players will dismiss the claims of individual producers as "artist tantrums" - who knows, maybe I was just unhappy with a bad contract I had signed with the people they were doing business with, right? That was also completely plausible from iTunes' perspective - that I was just a "crazy artist" - although they still should have asked me to provide proof of my claims or something. Their silent treatment was totally bastard corporate bullshit, and shows how all their claims about protecting "individual information rights" are absolutely fraudulent. The internet is not about individual information rights or individual expression, people! It's totally corporately manipulated! Enough already! To paraphrase the "In Soviet Russia..." jokes of comedian Yakov Smirnoff, "In internet, iTunes downloads you."
The distributor Iris was basically cooperative with me once I contacted them... in other words, they were laying the groundwork to offer me online distribution contracts so they could keep using my projects, which I rejected. In any case, it seems their EU counterpart Juno Download never got the call to remove my releases, so everything wasn't finally resolved until 2008. Then there are other weird problems, such as iTunes Australia selling my Web collaboration with Bill Laswell as a collaboration between Bill and Tetsu Inoue. I mean, it's endless, and I didn't start any of it! Completely irresolvable. I'm so tired of chasing these things, and there is absolutely no financial gain. Like I recently asked the Australian label Room 40 to pull a track I did for their "Incidental Amplifications" compilation which was not supposed to be sold as MP3, and they had to have their distributor pull the entire release and then re-submit the compilation for distribution without my track. It turned out they owed me $9.00 for sold downloads. I told them to buy me a hot chocolate the next time they're in Tokyo. The statements I got from iTunes and Iris for years of downloads were also not worth pursuing. That's the irony of all this - again, the buffet mentality I was talking about earlier. Online distribution is not about the distribution of specific information. It is a crap shoot where companies simply try to maximize the odds of a possible download. Any download. They don't care. Money is not made through individual projects - the entire system has nothing to do with individual producers such as myself, despite it's pretentions otherwise. Why a lot of producers working in fringe audio genres think online distribution suits their needs is beyond me.
I can say the recent Mule Musiq downloads are authorized. As a label, I know they contractually need that to recoup, and as a genre house music sells online more than other genres I produce in. So I did it as a courtesy to them for the duration of the contract. In 3 years, when the term is up, we'll see if they manage to get the distributors to take the tracks offline... that's the tricky part, right? It's an experiment, actually. I have my serious doubts. Meanwhile, Mule allowed me to include unreleased tracks in my Dead Stock Archive, so it's a mutual exchange - not someone maliciously getting over. But in general, if you buy my music online the money is likely never going to reach me. People should know this. We small artists get our little advances, and the labels play with numbers so that they never have to pay us additional royalties. Since we only get a small percentage of total sales, it is easy for labels to make a profit without technically recouping our advances based on the percentages. It's only in the very rare case of a runaway hit - something I never have to worry about - that the recoupment numbers get taken seriously. So, no, the money doesn't reach me. That's normal in this business. I only get money in my pocket if you order directly from me. I've said this many times, and people really don't care. My direct sales do not blip when statements like this get printed. As consumers, it's rare for us to care about who we are supporting. We're conditioned to care about what we get on our plates, what's in it for us. I'm no different. It's a hard habit to break.
As for the Onitor track, that was a very esoteric remix I did. Since I managed to get my "serious" projects taken offline, it's surprising what remains. Sometimes the quality of a remix is limited by the nature of the original source material. I don't think I've ever gotten a royalty statement from them, but again, that's normal for this business. I know it's possible they did not recoup the remix fee they paid me, and they know it's not worth my time and money to hire a lawyer and find out if they owe me money. All of that is absolutely SOP. Or maybe I even did it for a flat fee. No, I won't get money from that or other downloads. Theoretically from Mule... We'll see if they recoup.
What made you decide to release the "Dead Stock Archive" as a limited plush burger? (Apart from the contradiction "limited vs. burger/fast food/junk" (pun?) the product seems to be a comment on the notion that musicians in future will only be able to sell physical records if through limitation and objectification they manage to give them the aura of a piece of art.)
The "dead stock" theme comes from the literal mountain of unsold records and CD's sitting in my closet. When I saw the plush burger CD case, I thought, "Who the hell would want to buy that?" and in that way it was a perfect match for the unsellable content I put inside. I realize there is this kind of "art object" marketplace, and I can't deny the archive functions in that way for those who wish it to, but I don't consider it an "artwork" with "value" in an investment sense. It's cheap quality, and only has "value" in the discount buffet sense of a little more bang for your buck.
I don't at all agree that this is a direction for establishing financial security around sales, which has never existed for many of us anyway. The archive may be the biggest mistake I've ever made, essentially releasing CD quality masters of things previously only released on vinyl, etc. I'm sure it's going to do more to guarantee the dead stock status of the records in my closet, rather than move inventory. But the notion of making an "offline" MP3 archive, and the idea that it might somehow get "online" through unauthorized actions not so different from how they got into iTunes before, is perhaps a virus of sorts. A fungus in the buffet. It's not the main entrée. It's not even supposed to be there. But that's a better way to be there, for me. It makes sense to me, and resonates with my experiences socially. If someone is to share a file with friends, knowing how I produced and issued this project, they have to think through the illegality of their actions. Is it about sharing information out of a desire to hold one's own culture? Or is it about trying to get more value out of the buffet by loading up another plate? If your plate is full, do I go hungry? Can this micro-relationship between your possible piracy and my hunger disclose something about macro dynamics around global information flow? As consumers conditioned to use our vulnerability at the hands of high prices as justification for our greedy lifestyles, can I invert your consumer sense of victimhood for a moment such that I as the seller am in a position of vulnerability? Or, at 220 EUR a copy, is that also a farce?
This notion of seller vulnerability also resonates with transgendered sex work, and sex work generally. (Can you even get a 220 EUR professional lay anymore?) But like with sex work, the fantasies about high returns rarely come true. To be honest, I will be very surprised if I manage to sell 10 copies this year, and 20 copies in the long-term - that would be quite a success in my experience.
Coming to your album "Meditation on Wage Labour..." which I understand is a comment on the music industries notion that new/longer formats must be filled with "content" no matter what and the industries unwillingness to at the same time change contracts with artists accordingly. Is this right?
Actually, the album will be called Soulnessless, which will consist of two discs. "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album" is the audio component which is a roughly 30 hour piano solo compressed into a single MP3 file on data DVD-Rom, and the second disc is a video DVD of additional materials, because these days a 30 hour album isn't enough. (Laughs) The overall theme of Soulnessless is a deconstructive look at "soul music" (in the same way Lovebomb deconstructed the "love song"), including a critical analysis of notions of meditation, spirituality and religion. I fear I might have thematically bitten off more than I can chew.
The actual piece "Meditation..." came about during a residency at York University, as part of their "New Aesthetics in Computer Music" project headed by Tony Myatt, and co-organized by former Mille Plateaux labelmate Mark Fell from SND. This was right after I had written the "Please tell my landlord..." text, in which I was thinking about how "our reckless extension of goodwill [via pro bono projects and performances] is ultimately an act of self-sabotage. The impassioned artist's stance, 'art for art's sake,' obfuscates a labor issue. The iconic struggling artist who volunteers her work is a scab, but does not know it. If demanding payment for our labor means culture industries would collapse, then so be it. Perhaps we would finally begin conceiving of cultural production in terms larger than industry. Or more likely, we might find that we cannot exist without those industries which fail to support us, making us already pathetically irrelevant." As this relates to album production in the era of MP3 downloads, the link between performance duration and media format duration has finally been severed. The album as a concept is dead in the wake of single-track downloads. Simultaneously, record labels demand that audio producers produce albums that fill the longer media formats (36 min. vinyl versus 80 min. CD, etc.), getting more content while paying us lower advances and royalties.
With all of this in mind, between June 6-16, 2008, I recorded what I believe to be the world's first full-length MP3 album. It is a 4GB file, and at 320kbps ("audiofile quality" in the MP3 domain) that is just under 30 hours, which is actually an edit of a longer 31 hour piece (every album needs a fade-out!) recorded in sittings of 4 to 6 hours each. I have since performed the piece live in Tokyo, and hope to be able to perform it in the EU this summer. Since a 30 hour performance is impractical, the duration of the live performance must simply be no less than 81 minutes, so as to preclude a recording from fitting onto a conventional audio CD.
Apart from that: I was wondering how you came up with the lenght of 30 hours and size of 4GB. Aren't these numbers arbitrary? Or is 4GB technically really the largest possible MP3?
Actually, this was one of the problems we uncovered during production, and which I could not have resolved without the help of the York staff. My initial assumption was that an MP3's size was only limited by the drive it resides on. Theoretically, a terabyte drive could be occupied by a single terabyte MP3 file. From the limited tests we ran, I believe this to be true, and the basic file could be generated. However, I set my sights smaller, hoping to fill a 4.7GB data DVD-ROM (approx. 4.4GB active space). I had decided upon the DVD-ROM format since it was fairly easy to manufacture, yet would be large enough to make downloading impractical for most people - complicating the presumed harmony between MP3 files and download culture. Another idea was to make it 35 hours long, connecting the theme of labor with the length of a standard work week. Unfortunately, when we generated test files in that size range they would not open on most systems. This was because we had forgotten about FAT32 file compliancy, which currently sets the largest file size under Mac and Windows at less than 4GB. This was previously raised from 2GB for better handling of large video files, and we can assume it will continue to increase over time. However, right now less than 4GB is a real limitation, and even then the file gives unexpected results (for example, it can be loaded onto an iPod, and played all the way through from the iPod using iTunes software, but once the iPod is disconnected from the computer it will only play the first 2 hours and 39 minutes). You could say it's an escalation of "glitch" music that is not about the audio aesthetics of the glitch, but the possibility of the unexpected glitch itself. If we are not concerned about audio quality, the time duration of the 4GB file can be increased by lowering the bit rate, and even making it a mono file. I mean, someone could instantly generate a +100 hour file of a mono sine wave at 96kbps, no problem. But this is not only about media formats, but about how those formats affect the music industry and audio culture in general, so I decided to approach this from a kind of "industry" mentality of preserving audio quality, and making the entire 30 hour piece aesthetically "listenable." It is not a kind of joke performance (although humor is a part of the piece), it's an actual acoustic recording in which I wanted to realize the absurdity of an "MP3 album" in quite straight-forward terms. For this reason, I felt it was important that it not be dismissed as an exercise in file generating, or looping. The people at York suggest that I submit it to the Guiness Book of World Records to see if they will make a category for longest non-compilation commercial audio release, or longest single-disc release... something like that? Why not! (Laughs) I just hope they don't revise the FAT32 requirements before I get a chance to release it!
Coming to "Midtown 120 Blues" and your DJ Sprinkles persona: "Midtown 120 Blues" seems to be your critically (hopefully also economically) best-received work since a few years, maybe since before the talk of the "crisis" in the music industry started. It's as if you could actually hear the critics' sigh of relief: "Finally he/she is doing something more 'fun'!" This makes me think of your essay "Nuisance" and your defence of pessimism. Can you relate to that?
I have released projects before that I thought had a degree of "marketability" - most notably Yesterday's Heroes (with Haco), and G.R.R.L. - but they both flopped in their own special ways, so I'm pretty realistic about the limitations of any of my projects' potential for mass appeal. Basically, I've never identified with dominant culture and popular music enough to appreciate and produce it sincerely, so my cynicism and sense of parody defeat my attempts to do so. All of my projects have an odor of insincerity, even when I don't intend it, but that's ultimately a good thing! Somehow surviving off a kind of terminal economic failure feels much better than the hypocrisies and complications of financial and social reward. I don't mean this as praise for the "suffering artist," but to the contrary, as a kind of rejection of industrial participation that includes a disdain for artists. I am not an artist. I don't live a "creative life" or surround myself with "creative people." I don't get along with "creative people" - we have nothing to say to each other. To the contrary, I am just a freelance producer in a commercial marketplace. How others ascribe "artistry" to my projects and insist that I function as an "artist" are precisely the kinds of social processes I hope to make visible for consumers - because these are things I have always been preoccupied with as a consumer myself. That is my starting point: consumption. Not creation. Creation in relation to music, art and media is an ideological construct. I'm concerned with the material processes beneath such ideology. The ways in which "creativity" is imposed on my projects is a process not unlike the ways in which other forms of social conformity are imposed upon us as people. That's the operative metaphor - how we are socially created.
It would be nice to get a little remix work or something out of the recent buzz, but I don't see myself becoming DJ Sprinkles full-time. I have always been releasing dance music on my Comatonse Recordings label since the very start. The fact that the only distributors interested in it were Japanese, and the US and EU didn't want it, doesn't mean it wasn't there. So this kind of sigh of relief you mention is a construction of the media, and a reflection of its fickleness.
In other words: When one of the interesting questions of today is how the crisis of the music industry will influence music aesthetically, is "Midtown 120 Blues" one way of dealing with this? House music as party music is generally perceived as being "optimistic", "hedonistic" etc. Was it your strategy to at a time like this offer something which on a superficial level seems more "light" and "accessible"? Happy music for sour times?
Well, maybe your question assumes a kind of "artistic self-determination" that needs to be dissected. Since Mille Plateaux went under the first time, I have been without label support. As you can imagine, even if a label might have some interest in releasing an album by me, to find an actual match of interests and a willingness to leave themselves open to critique in the same ways I critique myself and the rest of the music industry is difficult. And if there is such a match, then there's the question of budgets, and typically there are none, so things end there. Meanwhile, in 2006 Mule Musiq had issued a compilation of my dance music previously released on Comatonse Recordings here in Japan and in Europe. The CD got a rather luke-warm reception, I think, but Mule asked me to produce an album of new materials for them. So that sets the general context of how a house album on a label other than my own came about.
I know Germans are used to hearing me produce a different type of music, with a different analytical approach, but I don't consider this album to be particularly out-of-sorts with my previous dance projects. So while I understand from over there it looks like I decided to try a lighter approach of dance music in the world of analysis, I was actually doing the opposite by bringing more analysis to deep house - which is a genre I DJ and have economic ties with beyond studio production. And like I said, this approach was not new to my dance releases. Actually, my self-released K-S.H.E album Routes not Roots did it in a much harder way than Midtown 120 Blues, which was a luxury I had because it was self-released. I think Mule is very happy with how Midtown... is working out, but during production there were all the typical problems, particularly when it came to my wanting to include a text, and insisting that it be bilingual Japanese/English. Also my selection of the cover art, wanting to do the graphic design myself, etc. These are typical battles with every label. Mule also just doesn't get the queer content. It's certainly not a part of Japanese house culture, and in general these kinds of material realities are too "abstract" for most people involved in house these days. It's a strange historical inversion where social context becomes seen as abstraction, and Humanist fluff about vibe and community are considered concrete processes. I think the album is more of a reaction to these dynamics as they relate to small labels and my experiences as a club DJ, rather than a statement for the larger pop music industry. For me, it's specific in this way. I know that specificity gets lost through wider distribution, which is where the inclusion of a 10 page text would have come in handy, but there was no budget and two panels of 5 point text was the best I could negotiate. (Laughs) I mean, realistically, all these themes I deal with - even at Mille Plateaux - are essentially arbitrary extras to the bulk audio materials labels and distributors are really interested in. All of the texts, posters, etc... as vital as they are to me, from the label side they are A&R pampering. If I did not fight for them every time, they would not exist, and most consumers would never know they were missing anything.
In January in Berlin there was a congress under the title "Dancing With Myself" dealing with the current changes in the music industry and the the perceived devalorization of music. Jacques Attali was invited to give the opening speech and to once more present his theory of music being the avantgarde of political change. In your essay "Please tell my landlord..." you attack Attali, you call him "Schmattali"? Can you explain why?
Actually the organizers had asked me to attend that congress and respond to Attali! That would have been so fucking fun! But I couldn't adjust my schedule. By the way, the actual phrase I used was "Attali-Schmattali," which is something we do in US English that I thought we got from German, although perhaps it is Yiddish? You can do it with any word. Word-schmord. It basically means, "Hey, I don't care about that." Attali-Schmattali, forget him... Since you read the transcript, you know it's meant with a bit of humorous affection.
Personally, I think Attali is helpful. The famous quote from Noise about how "music's order simulates the social order, and it's dissonances express marginalities" is still the best way to explain to people why abstract "noise music" or similar things could possibly be more than nonsense, and actually be of interest on a socially critical level. I always have to add that most producers could care less about such contents, but from a critical perspective such media has analytical potential, and a kind of materialist or leftist appeal. I use reference his quote all the time.
But where I beg to differ with Attali is with the notion of music being a precursor or sign of things to come. It smacks of hind-sight and revisionist historicism. And beyond that, he has proposed that music and digital information have created new principles of economics, and that the old economic models no longer apply because information transcends the material. For example, unlike water or some other material substance that I must let go of to share with another, if I give information to you I still retain it - that kind of logic game. But we don't share information through telepathy or ether - despite people wanting to view the internet as vapourous - and we accurately retain things in our heads. We have to document them, thus we enter the same old world of reliance upon commodities. The internet is a material network requiring material devices. The devices and the services we use them for are by and large not free, and like I said earlier, beyond the purchase abilities of most people in this world. That is unarguable. I won't really go into my analysis here - if people are interested they can find the text online at the link I mentioned earlier. But basically he's spouting a kind of Humanist naiveté which I think needs debunking. It's the kind of talk that sells internet and eco stocks, but it's a shell game. Whether Attali is a con-man running the game, or a player placing his bets, I would have loved to have met him in person.
And one last (for the moment) question - out of personal interest: Who was the broke depressed queen sitting in front of you who tought Madonna how to vogue? José Xtravaganza? When was that and where?
It was at Sally's II, of course! This was late '90 or early '91. It wasn't José, although I'm pretty sure she was a top MTF queen from the House of Xtravaganza - I'm so bad at names, forgive me. Especially since people would change their names with their outfits, reinventing themselves, etc. Also, The House of Sally was not a particularly high ranking house, and as one of Sally's employees I was just like a busboy or something to the diva queens. I didn't deserve to know who was who. (Laughs) Dorian Corey was really the main person I worked with, though. She treated everyone well, and is the one person I'll never forget. Anyway, I think the story was that Madonna wanted Willi Ninja to teach her vogueing, but his asking fee was too high, so she hired this other queen instead. She was a tragic mess whenever I saw her. It was sad. But this queen also had some kind of evil vendetta against the House of Sally, and would sometimes go through the club with a spray bottle of shit water (literally), making the place smell foul so that customers would leave. I had to stay and keep spinning for my $60 a night, 10pm to 4 or 5am without breaks, hauling my own records every Thursday through Saturday. Then Sally hired a new Sunday night DJ - a white clone from the West Village who played the Pet Shop Boys, Whitney, Lisa Stansfield, and Madonna. He got $300 per night, even though the club was empty on Sundays. He eventually took my slot. Good times, good times. Shit water and the Pet Shop Boys. Those are the Midtown 120 Blues.