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Interview with Terre Thaemlitz
- Tobias Fischer

In Tokafi (Germany), June 15 2011.


At a recent party in Berlin on the occasion of the international re-release of Terre Thaemlitz's Routs not Roots album, guests and promoters alike left the club feeling like star-struck little children. When the album was finally presented to the public at large shortly after, the response was a similarly enthusiastic roar of approval accompanied by a variety of features in major online and print publications. Perhaps none of this makes for headline news. But ever since her DJ Sprinkles full-length Midtown 120 Blues on Mule Musiq snapped up the coveted album of the year distinction at leading dance-music platform Resident Adviser, Thaemlitz's deep house DJ-sets certainly seem to have found a solid fan base and his music gained a wider audience than ever before - encouraging signs that after roughly two decades as a DJ and producer, Thaemlitz may no longer have to explain his views and aesthetics with each new entry in his discography. Only several years earlier, when she originally self-released Routs not Roots on his own comatonse imprint and still personally assembled all sets by hand, even thinking about this kind of development would have seemed absurd. And yet, it isn't the issues which Routs not Roots is dealing with - the ongoing open discrimination against trans-genderism, questions of creative ownership, originality and musicality as well as the incapacities of the capitalist system - that have become more socially accepted - but rather Thaemlitz's personal and unique presentation of these topics, with long spoken word pieces taking turns with slowly gyrating and hypnotic house epics. And yet, the current wave of enthusiasm is not so much a peak after a steady ascent but more of a temporary acme in a career marked by ups and downs. Her career had certainly started promisingly enough thanks to two strong solo efforts - one of which, Tranquilizer, contained "Raw through a straw", an eleven minute ambient piece semi-famously disrupted by a cacaphonous piano solo - and a collaboration with Bill Laswell, before hitting a first peak when he started working with Frankurt-based Mille Plateaux, an early home to acts like Oval, Asmus Tietchens, Alva Noto and Vladislav Delay. Over the next six years, Thaemlitz would himself turn into one of the leaders of this new generation of sound artists, releasing a string of equally revered and controversial albums, each of which created its own discourse: The rubato-series, as just one important example among many, outwardly seemed to present highly virtuoso solo piano interpretations of pop-classics by the likes of Kraftwerk, Gary Numan and Devo. In reality, listeners were treated to minute digital reconstructions of the originals in a virtual environment - thereby questioning or even dismissing the notion of talent and classical performance skills as intrinsic musical qualities. The Mille-Plateaux-years were important for Thaemlitz, because, for a short yet intense phase, instrumental music regained the power of being political, its fragmentisation and collectivity piercing the nerve of a long unquestioned consensus. Which unfortunately also meant that when Mille Plateaux entered bankruptcy proceedings in 2003, it forced Thaemlitz, who had by then moved to his current base of Kawaski, Japan, to start all but from scratch again. The period until 2009 was mainly spent re-activating her deep-house roots and building a Deeperama residency at Club Module in Tokyo, where his insistence on minor-label instrumental sets was to become a specialty. It wasn't until Mule Musiq released Midtown 120 Blues, however, that her comeback as a producer had come full-circle. And yet, as he explains, even the record label co-responsible for this renewed interest found it hard to always see eye to eye on on some of the most fundamental points of his oeuvre. Some of his newly gained listeners may also, on closer inspection, be shocked to learn about some of the underlying motivations for an album like Routs not Roots. All of this has, however, has only made talking to Thaemlitz more intriguing. Not all of his efforts have been in vain. But there is still plenty of explaining to do.

Markus Popp of Oval threw out all the self-programmed software for his new album and turned towards generic applications and "traditional" instruments.

I didn't know that. It's a nice anti-ego gesture from a producer who was once so invested in taking total credit for the Oval project. [Laughs.] Or maybe he's secretly stepping deeper into the mythology of musicianship by using the tools of the trade? I don't know ... It could go either way. I like that paradox. Good for him.

What's your perspective on the relationship between music and technology?

I think it's always contextual, primarily in cultural and economic terms. For me, I try to debunk the myths of Futurism and prosperity that go along with so much electronic music - images of being slick, high-tech, well funded, well developed, going somewhere ... It's all bullshit. We mostly work with crap second-hand, out of date computers - I'm only up to OS X 10.3.9 - running partially completed, unsupported shareware applications that were usually grad school projects abandoned by the programmers as soon as they graduated. This is why my video works, such as for Interstices or Lovebomb lean toward no-budget collage and homemade animation rather than cyber-slick screen savers that move to the beat. The slick stuff strikes me as totally deceptive. It may work differently for select producers with artist subsidies and such, which is unique to the EU, because they may actually have the funding to match their image. But it makes no sense in my world, or the world I see a lot of other producers living in. And I think this is difficult for consumers to understand, that even within a very limited genre of music you can have producers functioning in very different environments, and with completely different support systems - or lack thereof. So I try to produce in ways that reflect my limitations, rather than my "potential". I don't see potential in what I do. I'm not interested in potential. I'm interested in debunking the American Dream, and stepping back from the incessant demand of the optimists to interpret life through visions of successes to come - of dreams - which are always poisoned by the systems of domination that seduce and manipulate us from cradle to grave.

Why do you choose to discuss these highly concrete issues in the most intangible form of art, music?

I'm not sure what you mean by "intangible," since music so often seems to revolve around phenomenology, like the Noise scene, or live bands, or club sound systems, and commodities, but ... having gone to art school I could have conducted my analyses in the arts - an insular world where everybody is completely familiar with the terms of debate but the exploitative material conditions of production and presentation never change. That was a hypocrisy I couldn't deal with on a daily basis. Or as an academic, which still fundamentally operates as a feudal social order, and is therefore a little regressive to me as a Marxist. So instead I work in an audio marketplace which, compared to the arts, is unquestionably dominated by even more antiquated beliefs in authorship, authenticity, spirituality, giftedness from birth, and other nonsense - but it's a social arena where those failed representational analyses of the arts and other cultural spheres have yet to fail ... er, I mean, yet to be introduced and given a shot. [Laughs] I do believe music industries are far more "populist" than art industries, music affects the construction of our identities much more, and the ideologies around the reception of music serve as a kind of litmus test for the ideological complexity of a society's culture in general. But yeah, music is a shit media. The world is shit. I have to work somewhere .... Of course, culturally and economically I step in and out of all three of these industries. But you can say the music marketplace is my main emphasis. I hate my job just like everyone else.

You once mentioned that all of your "music" was intended as a deconstruction of the traditional composition process. Why the brackets around the word "music"?

Because the cultural preconceptions around those terms are so laden with particular meanings - generally meanings I am acting in critical opposition to - that I feel compelled to indicate this gap somehow. Clearly I operate within economies of music, fine art and academia - although I have no formal institutional affiliations in any of those markets - which means I am at times treated as a "musician," an "artist," a "theoretician" or "philosopher" or "critic". And in a material and economic sense, in those moments of employ that is what I become in some way. However, I do not consider myself any of those things. I am really in a fix when meeting somebody for the first time and they ask what I do for a living. Any term I could give them would instantly lead to misinterpretations on their part, and cause them to treat me differently than desired. Particularly if I say I am a "musician". They always think I am a rock guitarist ... and usually make a kind of air guitar gesture when they say so, too! I mean, if this is the common reaction to the term "musician", it says how removed we are on a cultural level from any complex understanding of the medium. And how indoctrinated we are by the dominant discourse of the music industry. I've been to a lot of countries, and this is a global problem.

How will will these thoughts manifest themselves in your work?

I've always relied upon the way in which my complete lack of musical talent, when put to disc, will be heard as Avantgarde brilliance. The piano solo on "Raw Through a Straw", from my very first release, was all about this fine line between non-talent and genius. The Rubato series were the most extreme test of this theory, as they were reviewed with terms such as "virtuoso performances", although the liner notes clearly explained they were digital compositions created note by note on a computer, then manipulating timings and putting in strategic errors to make them sound "live". Just the other day I got an email from a person involved in the high-end audiophile industry - stuff that my hands will never touch - complimenting what he thought were live recordings in Replicas Rubato. So I've pretty much proved my point that "talent" is not something contained by the individual musician or artist, but is rather something interpreted into a work. It emerges from our expectations around how to receive a particular commodity, or hear a certain album. It's as simple as how we hear an album differently based on whether we found it in the rock, r&b or jazz section of a record store.

We are all very susceptible to these images.

On the one hand, this is a kind of Devo-esque black humor that runs through my projects. Maybe I should start calling myself a comedian, someone like Andy Kaufman. In some ways, the humor is the same. A humor that is not about laughter, but awakening to paradox. Humor that is about deconstructing the joke itself. I think all of my projects, from the audio to the texts to the graphics, contain a lot of jokes people miss. On the other hand, although I see the black humor within the tragedy of life, I am also seriously concerned about the issues at hand. I'm absolutely laughing at myself first and foremost, trying to unpack my own gullibility over the years. I'm not coming from some uppity better-than-thou perspective. I'm looking up from the bottom. Which is also why I use brackets to disassociate myself from an active endorsement of what it means on a conventional level to be a "musician" or "artist".

With regards to this anti-musical position, how did that work when you collaborated with the classically trained musicians of Zeitkratzer?

Working with Zeitkratzer has been, and forever will be, producing through those humorous paradoxes I just mentioned - from both sides, theirs and mine. And I think that's why it somehow works, much better than I think either of us ever expected, because the humor is socially interactive and communal. It's no longer about my being a lone comedian, but a praxis that incorporates the incongruous or ludicrous as a foundation for production. I think this is a part of anybody's work, no matter what their job is, but it's rare to make this an open starting point for collaborative production. I mean, it's a joke that I pushed them to limit their cover versions of my works to my house tracks, robbing them of their aesthetic preference for doing acoustic renditions of experimental and beatless electroacoustic music. And it's a joke that they pushed me to play live piano and sing on stage at the Volksbühne. And we are receptive to this humor - some sort of sarcastic revenge that facilitates a type of production and interaction we - or certainly I - do not share with others.

Not even with "Taiwanese jazz ensemble" Funk Shui?

It's interesting that you mention Funk Shui, since Superbonus is in fact a solo work. Again, it was one of my jokes playing on listener expectations around improvisational music. The outside of the CD package says it is an "impromptu session" recorded by myself and four other musicians - all fictional names - on a discarded reel of tape when I was visiting a radio studio in Nantou, Taiwan. It's a marketing ploy, peaking interest in the consumer before they buy it. And, if you read that, it's pretty much what the track sounds like - I deliver on what I say I am selling. But the inside of the package the text clearly states, in poorly written English that was part of a Queer reading of incorrect English in Asian CD packaging: "Superbonus is a simulacrum of improvisational jazz performance composed and recorded over a four week period alone by Terre Thaemlitz at Meow, Oakland. The fictional story of Superbonus from a jam session is looking at function of Superbonus as a simulacrum. It means the use of fiction to engage ideological assumptions about the value of individualist gesture which are integral to navigating the audio marketplace, and to make the psychological performance of the listener's anticipations prior to the actual act of listening." So I put the punch lines to my jokes out there, although they seem to get overlooked - which is, of course, the real joke I am making.

Superbonus actually came about as a reaction to changes in the direction of the musical selections in the Computer Music category of ORF Prix Ars Electronica, which had moved from overly-academic tape music to overly-pop MIDI based electronica. Although I was happy to see the shift away from elitist academic tape music, I was also upset about the abandonment of digital synthesis and abstract musics. So I said to myself, "Rather than submitting digital synthesis-based electroacoustic work, I bet if I submit a totally acoustic-sounding, MIDI-based composition it will win something."

Did it?

I got an Honorable Mention. [Laughs.] Of course, for Zeitkratzer to then take this fictional "improvisational acoustic" composition and turn it into a real improvisational acoustic moment was something I never expected. And they do it so nicely, making it sound less jazzy and more electroacoustic than the original. It's a nice inversion.

There's a quote by Zeitkratzer's Reinhold Frield on your homepage about the entire ensemble being "very impressed by Terre Thaemlitz, who is probably one of the best musicians I ever worked with - including studio-mixing of acoustic instruments".

Yeah, I mean, what an amazing quote for someone as skilled as Reinhold to say! Again, he caught me in a good joke, because I cannot help but feel honored by his compliment despite my criticality of musicianship. It totally feeds into childhood fantasies of being a "real musician." And I love this kind of conundrum, where I catch myself being twisted by desires around music. I felt I had to put that on my website because it was just so utterly unexpected and humbling. It really caught me off guard. [Laughs.]

What was it they so particularly liked about your mixing?

I think it is the way I think spatially about the placement of instruments in the stereo field. I was there when they were mixing the tracks for the Super-Superbonus vinyl on Comatonse Recordings, which were from recordings of their first concert of my compositions at Podewil - I was there, but not as a performer - and I made some suggestions about how to physically locate certain instruments in the stereo field - as if it were an old studio recording where the mics were set up and everyone had their place in the room. I think that is part of my technique in mixing my own projects, as part of my playing with sound images of "live" recording within my very non-live process, and somehow it actually helped them in their mixing session.

I often try to deliberately go against the logic of a lot of mixing in electronica, such as putting the drums off to the right or left, rather than dead center, even though this can "cause trouble" when mixing in a club. I think one of my major influences has been the mixing of albums by The Monkees, to be honest. I love that era of studio production, where it was somewhere between trying to record where the musicians were standing in relation to one another in the studio space, as well as being layered in with tapes and effects that are about things happening in your speakers.

So, when you started out working on Routes not Roots, did you have a bigger picture of its overall sound in mind?

Routes not Roots was very influenced by my DJ residency at Club Module in Tokyo. It is in many ways an extension of the DJ mixing style that environment let me develop - which was a way of mixing deep house that was clearly inspired by what I used to do in New York fifteen years earlier, but this time in an environment that fostered my choice in selections rather than penalized them. So I wanted to incorporate this sound into the album. I also wanted to make it about oral history, documentary, and fiction. I knew some people would hate stuff like "Saki-Chan" or "Stand Up," but the album is a full eighty minutes, so I figure even if they totally skip those tracks every time they have nothing to bitch about being "cheated" on their purchase of a house album. Yeah, people are that fucking petty as consumers, so I took that into account as well.

I assume DJ-ing and producing are generally closely related in your work.

To be honest, it was my failure as a DJ in New York that led me to produce tracks of my own. I was consistently fired for not playing vocal house or major label house, since completely minor-label instrumental sets were not really featured in any club at the time - all of today's underground "classics" were just snuck in between tracks by Ultra Naté or Lisa Stansfield. But the records were coming out, from New Jersey and the Lower East Side. I was young - in my 20s - with activist-influenced ideals of being part of a yet undiscovered "community" - so I had this naïve idea that if I put a record out there I might get in contact with these other producers ... That wasn't all of it, but it was certainly one subtext to my releasing Comatonse.000.

As a producer I am forced to perform, for economic reasons. But I despise conventional "musical" performance. It's why I either tend to DJ, which I consider a kind of tape performance, or with my more thematically serious electroacoustic projects the performances lean towards lecture presentations. For me, these are more interesting types of performance. And I like the idea of being booked at a music festival, stepping out between conventional acts to start talking with an audience. It's a kind of critical intervention on my part. But in relation to DJ-ing, it's about sampling, sharing collections, being anonymous. I don't like the current trend of DJ booths being visible, front and center in clubs. Back in the 80s the booths were hidden, hard to find, the dancers were the performers. This idea of trying to be intimate, but not egoist, is how I produce my house tracks, too. And why I use so many aliases. The ideal album for me would simply be a compilation of tracks by others that I love, and writing an essay about them.

This ongoing pressure to "perform live" ...

... even as a DJ, it's inescapable. All of the hard work that the ambient movement put into decentralizing sound, decentralizing melody, decentralizing the "musician", went to waste. It was lost the moment The Orb started performing with drummers and bass guitarists on stage. And I blame part of this demand for musicianship on a post-sampling society in which the legal systems around sampling have made it so risky that we must become "original" in what we produce. This is the death of house. A semi-recent example of all this mess was my being canceled from appearing at the Mule Musiq release party for Midtown 120 Blues because the label and venue wanted DJ Sprinkles to perform a conventional "live" set with instruments, whereas I insisted my DJ-ing was a valid and more suitable "live" performance. I ended up sending Mule a long letter in poorly written Japanese explaining the history of Constructivist sound experimentation and critiques of the "artist," and they were like, "Thank you for the wonderful insights. We won't be including you in this event." So this ongoing conservative emphasis on "artistry" I'm talking about is real, and has economic and social implications on what and how we produce - as a DJ or as an "artist".

The longer pieces on Routes not Roots seem to express this sentiment most clearly ...

Again, thinking of the album as an extension of DJ-ing, I wanted the tracks to remix themselves in a way. For the longer tracks, they tend to go through three stylistic shifts, each building on the other. They also all tend to start and end with more simple breaks that can be mixed in and out with other things - although I personally tend to play them solo from start to finish in my own sets. I think the compositions are also torn between a kind of conventional compositional strategy of "building" over time, and also being long and repetitive enough to be "boring" in a way. Maybe "anti-climactic" is a sexier word, but certainly I based the timing of when the tracks change direction or "remix" themselves on an idea of when people might start to get a little bored on the dancefloor. I want people to reach that moment where the enthusiasm and motion they had at the beginning of a track kind of fades, they hunch a bit more, slow down, wonder if it's time for a drink, and then hit them with a new sound or something. I think a track like "Crosstown" only works if it's played out from start to finish, no matter how brutal or monotonous it may seem to be for some dancers - I'm into these long tracks that push people through boredom, through their limits. I guess the full versions of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" or Cameo's "Find My Way" are always in my mind as perfect long tracks that keep you going all the way through.

You're not interested in skill and technique?

I'm not interested in the formal validation of skill and technique. But I am interested in how we internalize and respond to aesthetic systems around skill and technique. Sampling is a way of deconstructing the authenticity and authority of "real music," in the same way putting some piano solo that sounds like a cat jumping on the keys into a track is a way of questioning what makes something "brilliant" or not.

What, then, is the relevance of vocal samples from a compositional or musical point of view?

At the time the tracks were recorded and released, Mille Plateaux had just gone out of business - which was a tragedy, but it also created some openings for me stylistically. I had been frustrated by the limitations of audio for conveying my ideas in a coherent way - music is just too poetic and therefore vague. But I also don't like the idea of "lyrics" or singing. So I was doing some electroacoustic radio dramas, which the "Saki-Chan" and "Stand Up" tracks were also a part of, and that kind of crossed over into my house tracks. Clearly the DJ Sprinkles album Midtown 120 Blues also reflects this. Maybe a part of it is also about language and talking being at the front of my mind since moving to Japan and struggling to learn a new language. But I like taking vocal samples to the next level, as it were. Rather than building a track around a little James Brown vocal loop, building it around some scene from an interview or a movie or documentary or some other found source. And I like treating them as found sources. The anonymity of "found sources" is something we've lost in this highly regulated world of sampling today. Everything has become about authorship, ownership, origin and originality. This was all stuff I wanted to debunk, as expressed in the title Routes not Roots and the inner booklet having phrases like "NO ORIGINality" etcetera.

How do you see the line of development leading up from Routes not Roots to Midtown 120 Blues?

For me, K-S.H.E Routes not Roots and DJ Sprinkles Midtown 120 Blues are the same album, only Routes not Roots is how I do things when completely left to my own devices, whereas Midtown 120 Blues had a lot of restrictions of content and artistic direction because it was being done for release on another label and had to function for them as well. Working with labels is certainly a form of collaboration on par with working with musicians. There are lots of egos involved. Sometimes more than with musicians, because they have you endebted to them in economic terms. This is true of working with any label - it's inherent to the system, so I'm not ragging on anyone in particular here. But there is also a difference between the Skylax re-issue of Routes not Roots, in which they are licensing something that already exists, and developing new materials for someone else's label. I definitely feel more comfortable with developing things on my own, since I lack the social sensibilities required to function as a hired musician. And I certainly ask a lot of labels in that they must become targets of the critiques I lay out in my albums, not out of spite, but as an extension of my projects being critiques of my own personal processes. I mean, there is a critical message behind Midtown 120 Blues being developed for release on a label that in some ways exemplifies the house revival I call into question, and am myself participating in, and seeing how that message becomes interpreted by some as a statement from the label itself towards other labels, whereas others see it as a self-critique of myself and the label. All of this confusion is part of my strategy - I'm all about pointing out every day contradiction and confusion - but these kinds of strategies on my part can certainly end up in awkward moments when dealing with people trying to stick to a marketing plan.

What does the album mean to you today?

I think you're referring to the theme of my 30-hour piano solo "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album," which is part of the even longer forthcoming album Soulnessless. I think the entire notion of what constitutes a full-length album is up for grabs in this era when every album - let's say that means what can fit on a CD, which is longer than an album meant when limited to the amount of music that fits on vinyl - must also come with digital exclusive downloads, podcasts and DJ mixes. The borders of the album have been breached. By moving into the download era, in which the physical limitations are ostensibly the limitations of the consumer's available disk space, we've lost the interconnectivity between time and format that had both defined and limited the album until now. I'm actually billing Soulnessless as the "world's first full-length MP3 album" in that the length of "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album" fills a single 4GB 320kbps MP3 file. 4GB is currently the largest openable file under FAT32 system requirements - anything larger will not properly open on a Mac or Windows machine - surely this will change in time, I assume to 8GB, 16GB, 32GB and so forth. So I'm searching for these current limitations of format in the download era, taking sound quality into consideration as well. Obviously, if I used a compression rate lower than 320kbps, the amount of playback time for a 4GB file could go for over 100 hours. It could go for over 1000 if the bit rate is low enough, and it's only a single mono channel. However, I want to produce an album that is not just an exercise in format experimentation, but is also about audio quality which is something sadly overlooked by most online labels who do not even offer 320kbps files. CDs were supposedly all about raising the bar and giving us frequency response that is better than vinyl or cassette, but we're devolving into low-fi MP3s that, frankly, sound like shit. In my mind there is no excuse for something being released online at under 320kbps.

I was rather referring to the album as an abstract musical form ...

To me, it means an assembly of compositions or phrases or chapters that constitute a larger thesis. It's the sonic equivalent of a book. I consider it a structural device. I do 12-inch EPs or singles too - I'm not only making albums. But certainly I enjoy the longer album format, and the more involved sonic discourse that becomes possible when you have a larger amount of materials interacting with each other over time. They no longer stand alone as "songs" or "singles", but become something identifiable with a larger sonic context and larger context of production. Songs in an album get compared to one another, we pick favorites and dislikes, we wonder why in the world someone decided to include this or that track which doesn't make immediate sense, and of that all contributes to a different reading we can only get from a collection. Albums help songs lose their individual brilliance, which I like.

In the visual arts it would be the difference between talking about an individual painting or print by Barbara Kruger or whoever you want, or seeing an exhibition of her recent works. You know that feeling of confusion, stupidity and inferiority most people feel when walking out of a modern art exhibit? It has a very special sound. In a similar way, listening to an album may really suck at times, but the experience of disappointment and confusion can be more productive than the enjoyment of one song. Just as I don't like much art but can learn from the failures presented by their collections, I don't really care for most music but can learn from how it is grouped, categorized and consumed. For me, the best albums are always the utter failures that never make clear sense in relation to their genres or marketing.

Which raises some interesting points about the "importance" of a particular work of art, doesn't it?

For me, the best albums are always the utter failures that never make clear sense in relation to their genres or marketing. They become important in that they make me aware of my learned expectations and boundaries around music. But then again, I'm the type who values some totally obscure homemade record that is utterly unlistenable over a first-edition Elvis Presley album or whatnot that would have recognized collectibility.