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The Quality Of Something Audible
Terre Thaemlitz
Interview by Justin Hardison
Photo by Bart Nagel

In The Land, September 2003..

For more info:

This month will mark the second year anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks and it seems like an excellent chance to contemplate how those events may have changed my own views on religious fanaticism, the role of the U.S. government in international affairs as well as how our policies effect the lives of millions. As a musician and music/sound enthusiast, I remember how irrelevant my passion for music felt as the scent of smoke and ash from the WTC was blowing through our Brooklyn neighborhood for weeks afterwards.

A short time later, we witnessed the pop music and entertainment industries banding together and performing concerts for the victims of the attacks. Music fans found solace in their favorite songs. The press wrote pieces on musicians and their responsibility to bring love back into the world. However, few seemed to mention the need for musicians to address the storm of emotions and ideals that have surfaced post 9/11.

As you'll read in my interview, a Japanese writer in a previous interview asked musician, sound artist and label owner, Terre Thaemlitz about this need to replenish love and Thaemlitz challenged the notion by pointing out how simplistic and foolish the concept of "love" is. Everyone feels love and sometimes at the root of hate you find love, oppression, and abuse. While President Bush may see the world as good vs.evil and try to warn the American public of evil doers, artists like Terre Thaemlitz are addressing the complex nature of love, good, and violent confrontation.

Thaemlitz's new album, "Lovebomb" on Mille Plateux is a sound collage work based around these ideas and detailed essay in the linear notes offer personal views and reasoning behind the selection of much of the source material.

I'm interested in finding out what inspired you to create an album on the concept of love and why you decided to write the essay you included with the album rather then leaving the interpretation up to the listener?
Well, written essays have been a part of most of my projects for many years. I consider them a contributing part of the entire project (as well as the graphics), and not just an "explanation" of the music... although that is a rather typical response simply because audio producers are largely discouraged from discussing audio in clear or intelligible ways. Liner notes are usually limited to lyrics (poems), with occasional essays left to third-party music editors, etc... In fact, you can see how the framing of your question positions my text against the interpretation of the consumer as "listener," rather than identifying it as another communicative element of the entire project intended for the consumer as "reader." This is totally common—in fact, when I first started including texts with my projects around 1997, I received tons of hate mail from people accusing me of blocking their ability to interpret the music "freely," etc... to which I always respond, "If you don't like it, simply don't read it." But I think what they were complaining about is total bullshit. Music is never interpreted "freely." It is interpreted according to our preconceptions about genres, the social groups which produce and consume those genres, and any other number of things.

One thing that is different about this project's text is that it was planned as bilingual (English and Japanese) from the beginning. Having only been living permanently in Japan for a little over two years now, I am still facing many language challenges—this shows in the heavy use of English samples in the audio. So with this project I wanted to include transcriptions of all spoken word samples for the Japanese audience—almost like a lyric sheet. In the past I have tried to downplay the necessity for a precise understanding of spoken word samples, in favor of a more abstract exchange between what the listener might hear and what they might read in an accompanying text. But, given my recent experiences with gaps in understanding (even when things are clearly spelled out for me), I thought it would be both helpful and fun to include detailed notes, realizing clarity is still never really achieved.

This also isn't my first project on the theme of love. In particular, "Love For Sale: Taking Stock In Our Pride" was about the commodification of Lesbian and Gay sexuality via the "Pink economy," and the consumption of systems of romance. But, as with most of my projects, there are a few simultaneous inspirations. I think there is enough introspective music out there that it makes no sense for me to dwell on the super-personal reasons for making this album (but, gee, I'll bet you could never guess based on the title!). The main start of this project, though, came out of an interview I had just after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. A Japanese magazine was asking musicians to write about how we needed music now more than ever to bring the world love, and my response was basically the opposite—that the attacks showed how totally empty, absurd and unfocused the rhetoric of love is in the music community. I suggested that rather than songs of love, we need songs of strategy - people trying to really generate social dialogue rather than simply pandering platitudes to an empty-headed mob... not to mention the dangers of nationalist profiteering in the aftermath of such a tragedy, etc...

The people flying those airplanes into buildings on 9/11 had true love for their cause. I have no doubt about that. So... is love really the answer?

Would you mind elaborating on your quote: "Love is...a redundant construction of pacifying hysteria, a mandatory insult to appease our senses. It's persuasive image of universality is its greatest act of culturally invasive violence. A perverse mirror of the cut." Just to explain for your readers, in the CD booklet the transcriptions of spoken word samples for each track are followed by a little smart-ass blurb in the spirit of the old Charlie Brown "Happiness is..." books, and that stupid L.A. Times cartoon "Love is..." (which Homer Simpson once aptly summed up as "a story about two naked eight year olds who are married"). This quote is from the last track, "Main Theme From Lovebomb," so it is a kind of synopsis of the entire project.

The basic idea of this quote, and "Lovebomb" in general, is to question the notion of love (in particular, the Western model) as universal (ex. the idea that love is a constant, from culture to culture, person to person, era to era). The fact most people accept the current Western model of love as universal is an act of social wizardry... brainwashing, I would say. "It's persuasive image of universality is its greatest act of culturally invasive violence," is a reference to the "violence" of this brainwashing, from the individual level to cross-cultural conditioning via Hollywood, etc.

This line is actually a slight rewrite of the notes to an earlier track, "Anthropological Interventionism," which is about love songs being a form of anthropology, and therefore subject to the critiques of anthropological bias. That track's audio partly consists of a "COPS" style domestic dispute, the key images being hysteria and possessiveness (as opposed to more romantic love song themes). "Love is a redundant construction of pacifying hysteria, a mandatory insult to appease our senses" is in reference to the way in which love relations facilitate or justify this kind of behavior. Love forms the outlet for violence and hysterics, justifying it via the family unit, love for one's religion or nation, etc. This image of love is rather simplistic and insulting, but culturally mandatory. Many cultures rely on this function of love as a means of restricting certain forms of violence to certain social spheres.

Cultural institutions such as marriage and coupleship rely on images of love as a "bonding" device. However, I think love actually serves as a fracturing device. Couples typically become increasingly insular over time, alienated from friends and others. In this way, the image of love as a force bringing people together is a kind of "perverse mirror reflection" of a counter reality, the social "cut" of the couple from society at large.

What kind of response have you had to the album? For myself, it really made me think about the destructive results brought on by passion and how we use love and compassion to justify a lot of terrible political decisions. The responses I've received personally, as well as those I've read, seem pretty good... but when was the last time you went up to a friend and told them their project sucked? Or took the time to write and publish a total slam on a project you hated? Let's just say people love it! Ha, ha.

I just finished a full video translation of the album, which is released through my personal label Comatonse Recordings. It's currently only available on the web site ( People who have never heard the album seem to like it a lot—especially people who are not necessarily drawn to computer music in and of itself. But there is a bit of a nice surprise reaction from people who were familiar with album beforehand. Somewhat related to your first question, I think images can challenge the consumer's interpretations even more than text. So I tried to use images that did not overpower the audio, and were not your typical CGI computer music videos.

Why are you drawn more towards sound collage/experimental/political forms of work as opposed to more traditional song writing? Would you say it's your background in art and design or is this just what you're working with at the moment. You've seemed to approach a lot of different music genres over the years... Because traditional song writing is boring. It's been done really well by a lot of people for a really long time, and I am not interested in spending the time it takes to acquire the skills involved to write songs when the results would only be predictable in the worst way.

My reasons for producing in a lot of different genres, from abstract computer music to house music to computer-composed neo-expressionist piano solos, is to show how music is simply about emulating signs—it is not about originality or talent. It's just about regurgitation. Computer music, too. The formula for genius, by the way, is simply a proper combination of what people expect within a genre, combined with a random dash of the opposite.

How did you go about selecting source material for Lovebomb? What kinds of elements were you looking for? In general, I wanted to use a lot of "outdated" themes—apartheid, futurism, lynchings in the South, the U.S. use of nuclear weapons against Japan, etc... Part of this is a kind of contrast to the way love is considered "timeless." It was also to diffuse the narratives of those themes and keep them from becoming simple "testimonials." For example, "Between Empathy And Sympathy Is Time (Apartheid)" features an early, very clearly spoken announcement from the African National Congress about the need for retaliatory violence against Whites—it's phrased in a rather strange, disturbing way, I thought. This track is not about the literal message of the speaker (outdated as it is). It is about most listeners starting with an unquestionable desire to sympathize with the anti-apartheid cause... but over time, i think the dark twists of the speaker's plans for acquiring weapons and random retaliation make most listeners question their originally unquestionable desire for alliance. It's ultimately about this moment of questioning an unquestionable alliance—a doubt in love, brought about by a sudden awareness of the potential for violence. As with most tracks on the album, this theme could be interpreted on a large-scale cultural level, or interpersonal "couple" level.

I'm interested in how you were able to get the African National Conference Spokesperson sample to follow the tune of "Loving You"? I'm interested in some of the software you are currently using in your work? That was done using an unreleased UNIX-based software suite called PV Nation, developed by Christopher Penrose, a computer music professor. That particular process is called "Co-depend," which crosses two audio files but is a bit different from vocoding. In vocoding, you run one "master" file through another "target" file. In codepending, both files contribute as sources and filters to the output file. There is no hierarchy between files.

In that track there is no actual timing relation between the spoken word and the song - the song just runs throughout.

I notice you have an interest in a little bit of everything from design, to the label, illustration, HIV/AIDs education, transgender issues, writing...You must be very busy! Yeah, I work entirely alone, so I keep busy... but mostly with administration bullshit—email, postal mail... and unfortunately being busy has nothing to do with earning a living! Media production is all about building visibility around yourself and hoping somebody will occasionally ask you to do something for pay. My situation is the same as a lot of people's... unfortunately, music is the thing I spend the least time on. I haven't been able to work on a project for a while.

Why did you move to Tokyo from California? Well, there are a lot of reasons. A big one was that my work was increasingly split between Germany and Japan. Most Europeans are more familiar with my computer music, but in Japan I was considered more of a deephouse producer and DJ. This is because of my Comatonse Recordings label, which focuses on a mix of jazz, ambient and dance music, and has only really been distributed in Japan. So it made sense for me to be either in Europe or Japan. For my work, I like Japan better than Europe because most of my projects are somehow about the relationship between music and commerce (as opposed to art and subsidy), and in Japan things are much more related to commerce than subsidy. More personally speaking, I like Japan because there are few guns and drugs—things which have plagued the places I have lived in America, from the rural to the urban. I was 32 when I first moved here, and I went through a kind of shock at feeling safe—truly safe—for the first time in my life. That is not to say foreigners do not face discrimination or other troubles in Japan—they can be fierce—but it was my first time to really live with a sense of physical safety. It blew my mind. Changed my life.

How has daily and creative life changed for you since the move? Language is the biggest change. I'm really a dumb-fuck mono linguistic American when it comes to language, and cannot sit down to study. I knew a little Japanese before moving here, but not much... like, I could ask a question, but was totally unequipped to deal with any answer someone might give me! I guess I'm doing okay, though... for someone who has only been here for as long as I have. My computer OS is in Japanese, as well as many of my applications and email. That has helped a lot. Also, speaking daily with my partner and friends....

What's ahead for Comatonse? This is actually the 10th anniversary of Comatonse Recordings! I am preparing a special anniversary compilation called, "Below Code." Aside from being a bit of self-deprecating humor, the title is a reference to the fact that Comatonse sales have always been "below radar" and none of our releases have ever had a UPC code. The distribution I have received has been through Japanese house distributors, which has limited the kinds of music I can release.

To avoid these kinds of distribution issues, "Below Code" will be limited to 250 copies, all of which will be given away for free. The contributing artists will each get 10 copies—that will leave around 100 for me to give away. I will put information on the web site about it when the time comes (maybe November?). Unfortunately, for the copies available through the web site, it looks like I'll have to ask people to cover the cost of shipping from Japan. I haven't quite figured this out yet.

"Below Code" features a large range of music from friends and family, pro and amateur. Some of the better known contributors include SND, Haco, Scanner, Simon Fisher Turner, and Jane Dowe. It also has some stuff from my mom and dad, a Japanese promoter I work with who formed a punk band, a track from a misguided rock demo I received but love, and a writer friend of mine who arranged for a special congratulatory message from Lou Ferrigno, the original Incredible Hulk! I'm really excited about it all.

My business frustrations with the music industry are increasingly leading me toward music that is "non-releasable," by which I mean home performances, non-professionals, non-recorded music. Home keyboards with no MIDI or line outputs. Things that happen everywhere, but remain undocumented... because the money's about the same! Ha, ha! Oh, wait, that's not funny at all...

Plan on visiting the U.S. anytime soon? Maybe a personal visit with the family and friends, but no performances or anything soon. I might perform in Canada at the Vancouver New Music Festival in 2005... that would be my first N.American performance since 1997. Kind of a bummer. I never did get much work in the U.S.... but, at the same time, I'm glad as fuck to be out of that shit-hole. Whether Japan really works out or not, having left for this short time I hope to never permanently live in the U.S. again. After leaving the country I was finally able to accept how unhappy I had been there. My investment over the years in issues of cultural criticism, education and activism were obviously related to coping with that unhappiness, and I think I'll always have an undercurrent of nihilism wherever I live, but in the end it was really socially unhealthy for me. I'm glad to have the opportunity to experience something different, and am trying to cherish it.