Of late, though, media attention has been focused upon the DJ Sprinkles moniker. Mule Musiq, which has shrewdly dribbled out releases over the course of the past few years, has helped the hype along, culminating in a host of year-end plaudits for the Midtown 120 Blues full-length, including the coveted top spot in Resident Advisor's own poll. Nonetheless, as Thaemlitz put it in an interview with RA earlier this year, "none of this has generated interest in my other projects or my own label [Comatonse] releases, so it really seems quite isolated as a phenomenon of the commercial music industry."
To that end, Thaemlitz has been focusing efforts towards the completion of a release which will comprise of "a 30 hour piano solo filling a single 4GB MP3 file (the largest currently allowed on Mac & Win according to FAT32 restrictions), an hour-long video DVD of other materials, pages and pages of text and photos in .PDF format." RA's Finn Johannsen caught up with Thaemlitz on a rare break from work on the project on a recent tour of Germany before he joins the Red Bull Music Academy in London next week. - Todd L. Burns
I picked this because of the extraordinary lyrics, which reappeared eventually in the house scene. Kerri Chandler did a version of it. And there are some rhythm patterns that you use as well. It was also a hit in the gay house scene. There are many house tracks based on this tune.
Personally, I really like Nina Simone a lot. I think there have been a lot of really bad remixes done of this track. For example, the Masters of Work remake added a really cheesy synth pad. It's really been bastardized a lot. But I think that's part of the whole schmaltz of the gay house scene as well. It has this way of reducing things to a cheap standard.
I think there's a way in which it's complicated to play music that verges more on gospel than soul in the club environment. And I think that's something that Nina herself would like in a weird way. There's this idea of "How could her music get worked into a DJ set?" Especially with the contrast between the euphoria of her live performances that is associated with her work and her audience's reactions to her work. She'll play something like "Mississippi Goddamn," this sad, tragic song. And the audience is like, "I love this song!" They're cheering like idiots.
I think the same goes for this song. The way that she sings this song is not cheerful at all. That contrast struck me in that gay house context as well. It's not the same sort of material that you ordinarily associate with it.
For sure, that's something that I identify with in my own music. I often produce it from a perspective that people don't sympathize with particularly. Or they approach it from an angle that is different from where I produce it from. They want to turn it into something, despite the complaints, that is energizing for a party. For me, I'm totally not concerned with this type of energy.
Would you basically say that this streak in your work, where you reference things like this, is that you try to remain faithful to the original vibe of the material?
No. I don't believe there is an original, or that there is something to be faithful to. I don't believe in faith at all in any form. I think this is important to clarify: That doesn't mean that just being kind of aloof or naïve about the connotations either. It's about thinking about them in a way that allows for complications or recontextualizations as opposed to simply doing an homage or a tribute. Nina Simone has had enough tributes, you know?
"Cry, The Clock Said"
Beggars Banquet, 1981
I chose this track because of your Rubato series where you do piano renditions of Kraftwerk, Devo and Gary Numan. It struck me that all three of these acts have this weird relationship between technology and humanity. Was that your purpose with it?
Yes, of course. The purpose of the series was to investigate the techno pop icons that were the seminal acts of my childhood. And to think about how it polluted or influenced or channeled my own productions, as well as my own politics. And, of course, techno pop is very phallo-centric, Mensch Machine, so I wanted to also complicate the homoeroticism of this musical world that almost exclusively prevents the entry of women. Which makes it either a misogynistic or gay space. Or both. Or neither.
How would you place Gary Numan in this? He also played with these ideas, but it always had a bit of a tragic note to it.
Remember when you interviewed me about Dazzle Ships, and I talked about it being a kind of crisis moment when an artist is trying to figure out their own artistic direction…when they're faced with the pressures of the major labels that they're signed in and locked into? Dance was right around the same time, and I think it was Gary Numan's crisis with the industry. When you look at it in relation to the kind of progress of the sound of his work—and at that time he did have a very linear channeling of what he was doing—this was the album that was the peak of this weird electronic Latin percussion thing. His next album, Bezerker, was this more industrial thing. It was samplers and all this sort of stuff. For me, though, Dance was the height of this certain kind of sound that he had control over, but also dealing at the same time with pressure from the label.
Image-wise, what he did up to Dance certainly served him better than what he did after. I remember this sleeve of Warriors... Maybe the image that he portrayed earlier wasn't exactly original, but it served his voice quite well. And his persona.
For me, the conflict of something like the Warriors cover, where he's standing in this S&M gear, all leathered up with a baseball bat as though he's some kind of bad ass road warrior guy, is that he has this posture that is totally faggy and limp. And the bleached hair. And then he's not queer-identified. He's straight-identified. He plays with gender in his lyrics, but he makes it clear in his interviews that he's not. For me, it's this contradiction between the kind of costume play that you could find in a gay club, but for me it was also a mismatch...like the leather bottom.
It also has to do with being a nerd that is really into science fiction. Numan also has this nerd component. His lyrics are all about Philip K. Dick and Blade Runner. He was totally into that stuff. I think that's also what drew me to him. And it also made me repress the impact that he had on me. By the time you reach 18 or so, it's too tragic to say that you're a Gary Numan fan. People react in this horrible way. But he, more than Devo or Kraftwerk, was a real influence on me. I mean, I used to plagiarize his lyrics and enter them into the school district contest and get ribbons for it. And when my father was upset with me about music and things, it was my Gary Numan records that he would lock away in the closet so that I couldn't get at them. There was a lot of battle around Gary Numan in my adolescent life. I think that's why "Cry, The Clock Said" has such a special connection for Comatonse. The first EP was basically a dub remix of this song.
"A Slow Song"
It was a pleasant surprise when I heard this as the last song of the set on one of your Deeperama CDs. I was wondering if you have some sort of penchant for Joe Jackson's stuff? Or did you just pick that one for the message?
I like some Joe Jackson songs a lot. But then there are a lot that I'm not particularly fond of stylistically. It's a bit too frenetic for me. "A Slow Song," though, makes me miss my youth when, at roller discos, there would be the slow skate. In the midst of all this disco dancing, you'd have the chance for the slow dance. I miss something about the slow dance in the club environment, especially these days when people don't touch at all when dancing to house music unless you're really at some high energy club where it's totally a trashy kind of thing. People have become very detached in this way in deep house clubs. One of the reasons that I don't go to clubs anymore, aside from when I'm working, is that maybe I have this romantic image of the slow dance or something.
I would play "Slow Song" at the end of every Deeperama until the club owner ordered me not to play it anymore. He said it was too depressing to send people home on this note every time. And, of course, it's Japan. So people didn't understand the lyrics so well. For them, it's just ending this dance night with some wailing vocal thing. But for me, yeah, this was just giving this chance for the final slow dance. I never saw anyone do this. A couple of people would sway, but I never saw a couple or a threesome or foursome huddle dance. There was still this detachment. But I like this kind of winding down.
It also draws on this tradition of New York disco clubs—or any disco clubs—where they would have what they would call morning or sleaze music where they put the tempo down and played ballads. I always thought that this was the most beautiful part of the night, the part where the DJ was really expressing these emotions that they wanted to. Do you feel like that quality is lacking today?
Yeah. There's also an underhanded joke, also, in this song. Because the singer is talking about going to this noisy club and asking the DJ to play a slow song. But in reality, when people come up to me when I'm DJing, they are always asking for something harder. For me, I have this fantasy of people asking me for a slow dance. So it's kind of an underhanded joke. I want people to ask me for something slow! Something softer, and being open to this kind of music.
"Can You Feel It"
I will probably never tire of listening to this. It's very simple, but it's pure perfection.
It's a great track, I don't know what to say other than it's amazing. He produced a lot of things that set the standard really high for himself. And I think he had to try to get away from this sound a little bit. But when he would use that sound, like on "Washing Machine," it always sounds fucking amazing. Sometimes I feel his sounds are too patch. Too stock when he tries to get away from this, and it becomes a little too cheesy for me. He has a kind of Muzak component to his sound at times. What was his major label album?
Yeah, really corporate stink on that. There are some good songs on it like "Closer," but also it's reflecting this pressure to make "music." To make something proper for a major label A&R guy to say, "Yeah, that's cool." And I think that—this is kind of a recurring theme in all of these—something that Fingers also had to deal with. There's a difference between his small label releases and his major label releases. The version that I first listened to was the one with the Martin Luther King overdubs. I was named after Martin Luther King, my middle name is Martin. He was assassinated a couple of months before I was born, and my parents were having this connection with things going on politically at that time. When I was a kid, my parents would give me these Martin Luther King newsreel albums, so I had these speeches kind of memorized. So to hear these over electronic music was kind of cool, but then it became so played out. To the point where you couldn't stand to hear it anymore. I like the instrumental version the best.
You also referenced the speech version with the Chuck Roberts monologue.
Yeah, well, the Chuck Roberts monologue is such a pivotal diatribe in the history of house, and that's something I've chopped up for him to say whatever I wanted him to say on my Sprinkles album. He said something like, "No one man can own house," and I changed it so that he was saying "house music is consumable desire you can own."
It's funny to talk about this because it's so common knowledge, this speech of Chuck Roberts, but would you say that the meaning when it was originally recorded, that this is still totally valid? Or has it been lost?
I would say from the beginning that this made an alignment with nationalism, which is instantly uninteresting for me. I mean, yeah, it sounds good. In the same way that a lot of this preacher style delivery sounds good, but the content is totally about nationalism, ownership and has things like, "I'm the originator," and then "No one man can own house." It's totally in this liberal moment of a rant, and in this way it's OK if you just take it as just one guy going off. But as a political statement or a unifying theory, it's totally fucked.
"A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain..."
Big Life, 1989
I fell out with The Orb after U.F.Orb—even though my collection continued for many albums after that. The first Orb song that I heard was their remix of Keiichi Suzuki's "Satellite Serenade." It has this five minute ambient intro, which uses a lot of Suzuki's track, and then it goes into this nine minute house thing, which I found really interesting. Then when I got Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, I really liked this too. "Little Fluffy Clouds" I didn't like so much because I didn't like this breakbeat stuff that was coming out of England at the time. It was a very English sound, to me, that I just didn't like. I can't connect with this as an American. Maybe it was too close to an industrial break for me. But it had this Psychic TV flavor to it that, for me, was a little bit too hard.
I really enjoyed the early stuff that The Orb made. When it came out, I thought it was really something different. But I think in retrospect the problem with these releases is that they planted some images with the music that have stuck ever since. Clouds, space, the connection to psychedelia…
And the spiritual. Yeah, that was kind of what I was trying to react to. On my first album for Instinct Records I wasn't allowed to be very explicit in how I did react to it. For instance, they didn't want text to be included on my albums. The best gesture that I could get was this photograph of a used condom in the woods as the inner sleeve to the Soil album. This gesture around safer sex, it had to be abstract or it had to be artsy, and this was because everyone just wanted to chill out.
When I came out with Couture Cosmetique, or my Mille Plateaux releases where they had text, this was really the way that I wanted to have my projects be released from the beginning. I got so much hate mail, especially from America. "Why are you being such a fucking Nazi, telling me how to listen to your music? I just want to chill out." And I was just thinking, "Well, don't read it, you know?" People totally don't want their consumption around music to be disturbed. And spirituality, soul, all of these universal abstractions that take music out of any social contextual framework, that makes it easy marketing, easy consumption, where you don't have to think about anything other than some sort of masturbatory connection to style or something. That's totally boring to me.
But the chill out rooms have disappeared anyway. So it's not really necessary to make music from that angle anymore.
Yeah, I never really went to techno clubs. I was in the house clubs where there were no chill out rooms…. When I was first DJing ambient music in New York, it was at this event called The Electric Lounge Machine. I forget the guy's name, but it was run by the graphic designer of Eightball Records at the time. It was the first regular ambient event in New York. Our objective was to see how quickly we could make people fall asleep. A year or two later, it was totally different. I would be invited to DJ in The Limelight, a big techno club in New York, and it was totally uninteresting to me. And very strange. I didn't like it.
I think one of the interesting issues that The Orb brings up is that we're so limited by sampling. Today we aren't really able to talk freely about samples, which for me are like footnotes, ways of connecting and constructing a deep and rich history around the music that we're making. The legalities of the system totally prohibit this kind of discourse. It's all reduced to profit-making. It's as though the only possible reason that you could want to sample someone else's music is to ride the coattails of someone else's success. This is, in terms of media and in terms of discourse, totally handicapping us. I think this is also why you have people falling back into this idea of wanting to trip out and thinking about space and stuff like this. Because the entire infrastructure of music is against our thinking of it as anything else. It's either money or some universal thing floating in the ether. There is never a point where it becomes discourse. That's a problem.
Italian house. I was really surprised that, for your own house productions, this was a major influence on you. This basically came out of New York, this particular sound. I remember hearing 12-inches in the early '90s with these really mellow deep house tracks that were so mellow that I couldn't even think of someone playing them in a club. Were they being played?
I was playing them, but of course getting fired for it. [laughs] It was very hard to get people to dance to it. Especially if it was instrumental stuff. It was hard to get people to be patient enough to allow themselves to dance to something that was around 118 BPM. But everyone was so hopped up on coke and ecstasy at the time. I guess I was one of the few that wasn't, so it created a kind of tension in a way.
There was a big renaissance of deep house music lately, and there were a lot of tracks that were mellow again. Pretty traditional. Would you say, after all these years, that there is space to play that kind of mellow music? Or is it still difficult?
I certainly think that, as it became more commodified and established as a genre, the space to play it became larger. Then you end up with social spaces, club spaces, consumer spaces where it becomes more acceptable. This is a Catch-22. On the one hand, it's nice to be able to play a type of music that people will listen to. On the other, it's totally raped of the original context for me. In that way, it's really uninteresting. For me, music isn't simply about listening to it. It's how you listen to it, where you listen to it. And if the reason that we're able to listen to it together now is because of some corporate distribution network, then for me this is totally boring, problematic and has nothing to do with anything that I find interesting.
Wouldn't you say that this is the price you have to pay all too often when you're DJing music? That it's kind of connected to something?
I don't think that we have to pay it. I think we can decide to do other things. And I think that many of us do. The larger trends pass over what many of us having been doing for decades anyway. I get people interviewing me now as if I had suddenly made some artistic shift to deep house, for example. I've been releasing house stuff since 1993, and I've been DJing it since before then. This is totally a problem about distribution. And people's vision and desire to identify an artist with a particular genre and chart this artistic growth [along that path]. It's as though you can't be multi-tasking genres. Your soul must be full of this one particular sound. That's really a problem that a lot of musicians have. They go along with this stuff. "Oh yeah, my heart is just filled with house… or rock… or punk." No. It's filled with a consumer relationship. And I think this needs to be problematized.
There is a kind of pressure when someone drives up to their house with a truck full of money, and they're given a lot of attention in the press. We're told since we were kids that we need to be successful, to follow these things if you have the chance, that it may be our one shot. This sort of bullshit. That's a real trap that people fall into. In electronic music, this doesn't mean you turn into a superstar. It means that you take some corporate gigs, some DJ things for major companies like Marlboro, Coca Cola, or Red Bull. And then you have to sign these contracts that then sign away all your rights. People think that they have to do this because they need to get this PR, this promotion, "I'm going to be on the website." In the end, they'll just throw you away. We really need to read our contracts, we really need to say no to things. This is important. This is not a price we have to pay. It's a price we pay without thinking often times. But we don't need to pay it.