Interview with Terre Thaemlitz Mon, 2017-01-23 20:08

Interview with Terre Thaemlitz

Terre Thaemlitz (1968) aka (G.R.R.L., Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion K-S.H.E, Social Material, Teriko, Terre’s Neu Wuss Fusion, DJ Sprinkles) is an award winning, Japan based multi-media producer, writer, public speaker, educator, audio remixer, DJ, transperson and owner of the Comatonse Recordings record label.

I was first introduced to Thaemlitz’s body of work through her DJ Sprinkles moniker. A few years ago a friend recommended the mix compilation ‘Where Dancefloors Stand Still’ whose title was a comment on Japan’s fuzoku laws. I have since familiarised myself with her work and interviewed him on developments in online radio, Japan, digital culture and club culture. Unable to meet due to a tight touring schedule, the following interview was conducted over e-mail on December 5th 2016.

Q: First off tell us about your “Naisho Wave Manifesto”, you did a reading last year at Café Oto in London and have given presentations since, what has the response been, in person and online?

It was a text written for the first issue of the Japanese cultural journal “Farben,” and the title translates into English as “Secrecy Wave Manifesto.” It was published in both Japanese and English, and is basically a rewrite of “Social Media Content Removal Fail: YouTube videos ‘no longer available due to a copyright claim by Terre Thaemlitz'” for the Japanese readership. There was also a limited edition of 100 copies with a 7-inch record.

The main point of the text was to think about how strategies of silence and withholding have historically aided and been cultivated as means of protection within Queer communities, and question the ways in which the bombast of contemporary “populist” online culture (ie. believing everything is best served by having the widest distribution possible) robs us of those tools and site specificities. I discuss my struggles to keep files out of YouTube and Soundcloud – and the impossibility thereof – as examples of how a naive enthusiasm to “share” can betray the minor communities that uploaders wish to “celebrate.”

The responses in person at public readings have been surprisingly engaged and productive to discussions, I’d say. Most people seem to “get it” in a way they had not thought about before. To the contrary, most online comments/reactions have been predictably flame-oriented, including YouTube users continuing to upload my projects with comments that they are aware of my stance, and even including links to my text under the uploads. Typical online pettiness. And as I say in the text, it’s a shame that so much of my online presence can be determined by those kinds of people (even ‘fans’) who least understand the intentions behind the projects they insist upon uploading.

Q: Speaking of Manifestos, the Black Madonna recently published a personal manifesto where she claims “Dance music (…) needs DJ Sprinkles (…)”, what do you make of this claim and to what extent can one problematize how personal/identity politics are becoming a social trend used to market producers, artists, musicians and DJs?

I saw her response to Trump winning the election. She’s amazing, I love her. In typical Black Madonna fashion, it was marvelously structured with politicized personal narratives and motivating affect. I mean, she’s really well versed at that stuff, and it’s always great to read. But there was one line in there about how “We are the people who refuse to dance in secret.” And this struck me as very American in its equation of visibility with empowerment – which is fine, considering it’s in response to Trump’s US presidential win – but, yes, very American. And, kind of going back to the Secrecy Wave thing, as someone whose life is much more shaped and facilitated by closets than Pride[TM], I question the notion that secrecy is always destructive or traumatic (while never denying that those are also often components!). Of course, here in Japan, with the fueihou cabaret laws it is still a requirement that we dance in secret within most venues which are too small to qualify for dance permits to begin with. And given the legally imposed sterility of the larger clubs since the fueihou’s revisions (brighter interior lighting so people can’t ‘hide’ in corners and do ‘bad’ things, etc.), it is clear that it is only the grey zones of secrecy, ambiguity and illegality that anything culturally challenging could happen. So I think there are still many contradictions around visibility and empowerment that are constantly failing to find language within the sphere of mainstream-friendly humanist discourses. Of course, I am not talking about replacing one method with another – I am talking about simultaneity, contradiction and hypocrisy as strategies unto themselves that we can employ, and there is an established history of how to do that within Queer histories of which we seem to be constantly erasing and robbing ourselves for the sake of Pride[TM].

Q: You work with an array of mediums always basing your work in political realities, how does this get expressed in house music for instance, does it require bridging music and text and/or image, i.e. Midtown 120 Blues with accompanying booklet, narration etc. or can it be purely transmitted through the audible affect that works differently on bodies but nevertheless is charged with some singular politic-aesthetic subjectivity?

It rarely gets conveyed through the music. Music is a horrible format, crippled by the vagaries of poetry. I hate it. For me, the more interesting discussions rest in how certain cultural circumstances gave rise to the conditions of production that resulted in the genres played in clubs, and the complex historical influences and relationships we develop in relation to that media, how it regurgitates and reinvents itself, etc. Like, all the clubs that were really interesting for me in the ’80s played pretty shitty music – not in small part because so many drag queens insisted upon lip syncing to trashy pop tunes. For me, it was all about the contexts, and social struggles of the people therein. The soundtrack was really sonically uninteresting for me. I guess in that way you could say my relationship to clubs is a bit like a non-believer who attends church just for the community. I prefer speaking of that experience of social disbelief, but that means not being able to really engage in that other ‘believer’ discussion about audible affect or other sonic appeals to a ‘faith’ in music.

Q: You rereleased Simon Fisher Turners track ’Shishpananga’ from ’The Epic of Everest’ last year on Comatonse and recently released the debut album of Will Long. Both feature remixes/dubs by yourself on the B-side, Is this a format that will continue for future releases and what can we expect from Comatonse in the near future?

Will and I are working on another album of A/B-sides, so definitely. I think at this point, the only way for me to really keep the DJ Sprinkles project viable despite its visibility is to keep decentralizing my role as ‘author’ or ‘originator’ through remixing and things like that.

I’ve got some other solo projects in the works, under different aliases, that will eventually come out on Comatonse. However, my schedule keeps getting so delayed that I don’t feel it’s the right time to talk about them yet.

Q: Your multimedia album Soulnessless deals with an in-depth critique of religion. It was released on 16GB microSD cards and contained a letter explaining the sensitive nature of the material and the potential risks it posed to people who you collaborated with. In what other ways is it possible to ask listeners to socially participate in building subcultures through collective power of restraint and cooperation?

Yes, maybe to further explain that for people unfamiliar with the project, some of the collaborators living in countries where religious affiliation is mandatory had concerns about web searches on their names quickly pointing their participation in an atheist project. You know, from the production side, other than trying to explain things to people matter-of-factly, I don’t know how else to really ask things of listeners. Unfortunately, there is always the risk of people taking on such requests as a challenge, somehow being all the more inspired to ‘disobey’ with a juvenile punk-rock gesture. “Fuck you, I’ll upload it if I want to!” Ultimately, we need to break the alienation and isolation of ‘production’ and ‘consumption’ – not through some idillic connection between a consumer and I, but in the conversations we each have with those around us, sharing information and ideas on how to cultivate trust in specific contexts, rather than the kind of socially detached meta-trust implied by online sharing, blogging, etc.

Q: You previously recorded and produced an audio drama called the ‘Laurence Rassel show’ for German Public Radio which was eventually banned from broadcast. Do you see any potential for online radio with regards to your stance on offline culture?  For example, can a radio station function in today’s digital landscape where it broadcasts online but actively partakes in ‘offline’ politics, perhaps like the pirate radio stations in Koenji?

Yeah, it was cancelled because it focused too much on the ‘F-word’: Feminism. They wanted a more trendy sequel to ‘Trans-Sister Radio’ focussing on the T-word.

Although I haven’t listened to the radio for decades, I do find the idea of one-pass broadcasting interesting. I like the idea of things being lost once they are over. Unfortunately, today most everything is archived and available on demand, which is fine for mass-media stuff that wants to be circulated as broadly as possible, but it’s not of interest to me at all. I also think most listening is happening in solitary isolation these days. The radio is not as social or communal of a device as it used to be, in the sense of people hearing things in groups, or talking with each other about what they heard the day before, etc. The paradigm has shifted because we individually have more control over what we can access and hear.

Q: The recent revisions of the Fueeihou law saw you and several other notable Japanese DJs and club owners respond with concern to the Neo-liberal language of the “Declaration On the Future Of Japan’s Club Culture”. The signees claim that ‘Japans club culture is taking a giant step forward’, is this related to the ways in which the city will reshape itself for the 2020 Olympics? Have there been any noticeable effects with regards to the sex and nightlife industry since the revisions and the publication of your response?

Yes, I do think the Olympics have played a part in the revisions moving forward as they did – not only in terms of schedule, but in terms of their limited and conservative vision of culture and morality. The legal revisions certainly do not give us more cultural mobility than necessary for mainstream, touristic clubbing. I’m sure that people who say ‘Bro’ a lot can have a great time.

Of course, my response did not have any effect upon the mainstream workings around these issues, but it does seem to have triggered a lot of discussion between people working in small venues where it remains illegal to dance at any time. I feel they speak to me more openly about their concerns now, so I’m grateful to be a part of that dialogue as well as participate in their spaces. Several club owners told me they feel more pressure from police and surrounding businesses, even though the incidents of police coming into clubs has gone down – fewer visits, but feeling closer to a kind of escalation of legal trouble when they do happen.

One of the things we often talk about is the lack of ‘underground-ness’ in Japan today. There is so little edge, perversion, or critical challenges put to mainstream notions of how small spaces might socially function. There is a real absence of sexual variance, too. Every place seems to be a conventional straight pick-up scene with drunk guys shouting too loudly to deep house music that does not warrant constant “woot-woot” screaming. To be blunt, I can’t recall the last time I had an erection in a club.

Explore Thaemlitz’s website here.

All images courtesy of comatonse recordings.