Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ Sprinkles, is a DJ, musician, public speaker and the owner of Comatonse Records. But she is also far more than those simple labels suggest. Her work seeks to explore and critique the themes of identity politics and the socio-economics of commercial media production, using not just music, but photography, video, graphic design, text and illustration to do so. In our interview, DJ Sprinkles covers a range of subjects, including social alienation, how the delivery of content is prioritised over the content itself, counter-culture amnesia and a whole load more besides. Due to the nature of the interview, we have decided to release it in its entirety, unedited, over four separate parts.
In Part Three of our interview, DJ Sprinkles talks about the urgency of engaging with discomfort, how the revolution will never come, why he despises live performance and more.
You’ve said that the more obvious trappings of what we think of when we think of a club (loud music, lights, chemicals) are of no interest to you, and that only “the larger dynamics of how certain spaces come into being, and the roles they play for disaffected people, are interesting to me.” If we’re talking of clubs as concepts and ideas, rather than actual physical spaces, which, if any, clubs out there arrest your interest in this way today? Or is this something that has been lost in the commercialisation and sanitisation of the culture, something that is undoubtedly prevalent in the UK scene?
It’s troubling that you would imply the material development and function of social spaces suddenly takes us out of the physical and into “concepts and ideas.” I’m speaking of the exact opposite. I’m speaking of the histories of certain clubs that were/are sites where very real social, cultural and political struggles occur. This is not abstraction. Sometimes we can cite specific events that altered the history of transgender and queer resistance, such as the Stonewall riots (if anyone doesn’t know what that was, Google it). But beyond those landmark events, there are also the daily issues of transphobia, homophobia, poverty, homelessness, ostracization, addiction, social abandonment, etc., that affect various club staff and club regulars. In those instances, certain clubs really function as sites of communal organization. That is far more interesting to me than what some dance record sounds like.
It’s similar to recognizing the importance of Black Christian churches in the US, and their history as sites (often times the only sites) where African Americans could legally congregate without being harassed or arrested by police or White mobs. That’s the reason why churches came to hold – and still hold – so much power within African American communities. Whether people are aware of it or not, the power of Black churches derives from their function as sites of organizing. Not the religious bullshit. Clubs are the same. Fuck the spiritual blah-blah, “music brings people together” bullshit. Socially, the parties themselves are no more vital than Sunday service in a church. The important communal stuff – if any – generally occurs in the off times. It’s just that people are focussing on the “service.” On the party. That’s the least interesting part for me. The spectacle draws attention, like jingling keys before a baby, but it’s a distraction in the end. Eventually, babies learn to shift their focus away from the keys, and look to the hand, arm and body doing the jingling. But culturally, we don’t seem to get to that point. The dominant discourses around clubs are all about the jingle-jangle. That’s frustrating as hell.
Do you think in the modern age that the majority are so comfortable with what they have, that they lack the drive to endure any suffering themselves in order to bring about any genuine change to the systems within which we live, despite being more aware of the need for it?
On an animal level, I think we all come to sense and define suffering in relation to our own social contexts and experiences. Even billionaires have their miseries, even though what they identify as misery may be an enormous insult to the majority of people. But as animals, I think most of us adapt to our environments, and tune our emotional reactions to the standards within which we exist. This means numbness towards those “beneath” us. And the West has used capitalism and globalization to export the most horrendous labour abuses overseas, out of sight, away from our immediate contexts. Major cities load busses with homeless people and dump them in less populated regions, “improving” the urban quality of living for those remaining. When we see footage of warfare today, it is no longer the raw footage we saw during the Vietnam era. Today we see glitchy black and white areal video footage from drones dropping bombs onto cubical building tops. We have incredibly elaborate social systems in place which cultivate a true lack of awareness, and invisibility around horrific social practices. This is the foundation for comfort. And again, this brings us back to the urgency for engaging with discomfort. For me, that discomfort of a boring club night has a metaphorical resonance with the real need for accepting discomfort as a reality of life, and not always working to reduce discomfort – especially if the consequences are disastrous to others.
You’ve said that you “think any social space that declares itself “open” and “all accepting” is instantly suspect, and engaging in ideological production.” Do you think club culture was at its best when it wasn’t understood by the mainstream and seen as the deviant outsider? And do you think that it’s now become so commercialised and sanitised for consumption by the masses that even if you set yourself up to resist this, in some ways you still have to play within the rules of ‘their’ game, making your efforts watered down at best?
Well, even when it wasn’t understood by the mainstream, most “insiders” generally used PLUR language, right? I mean, it’s always a case of needing to remember the self is suspect. We are all a bit of the “enemy within,” simply because we are exposed to, and implicated within larger cultural systems of education and indoctrination. So for me, the “watering down” has always been part of it. I mean, back in the late ’80s and early ’90s I was consistently fired from extremely “underground” venues (ie. off radar and on the periphery of major club culture) for refusing to play major label tracks, and focussing on instrumental minor-label records. I have never had that kind of mythological DJ experience of “the good old days” that you always read about, where everything was in harmony between the club owners, DJ’s and audiences – like clubs were spaces of freedom. Never. And that brings us back to that earlier comment about discomfort always being a part of it; tension always being a part of it.
But, for sure, the kinds of tension have shifted with the popularization of house. You also have to keep in mind that the UK mainstream has embraced house much more than other countries. Based on my visits, I really believe so. And I have never lived in the UK, so I cannot speak with authority on what that really means on a cultural level. I can only comment on the fact that I assume being a DJ in the UK was probably always quite different from my experiences in the US and Japan. I always carry this feeling of distance with me when playing in the UK, regardless of how “good” or “bad” a party may be. Like, I’m really aware it is not “my experience.”
You’ve said that as “a realist, I also strongly believe languages of escapism and transcendence are part of the ideological production resulting from conservative contexts.” Do you believe that club culture in places like the UK, and all that entails, is tolerated by the ruling elite, perhaps even encouraged by some form of radical ideology, because they serve as the bread and circuses of today? In that, would one of your aims be to see a mass rejection of this in favour of people actually tackling those who seek to suppress and dominate through such means and, if so, how could club culture realign itself to engage in this?
From what I understand, Right-wing politics in the UK have historically attacked club culture, often times in conjunction with attacks on sexual and gender rights. So I would not subscribe to a conspiracy theory about the Right-wing setting out to develop UK club culture as a tool, or anything like that. However, clearly the transcendental language embraced by most club scenes is easily and quickly reconciled with mainstream (i.e. conservative) agendas. It is generally the language of liberalism. It is not a language of socialism or other more deliberately materialist strategies for organizing.
I’m a materialist – you could say a Marxist materialist – but also a nihilist, so I don’t believe the “revolution” will ever come. That moment of “mass rejection” will never come. Certainly not in any sustainable form. Clubs, audio performance, and audio production are not things that can be realigned into vehicles of change or whatever. My efforts are focussed on demonstrating their limitations and points of failure. I am not interested in resurrecting them. There is no salvation. I am simply focussed on speaking to limitations, and inquiring how they manifest exclusions and violence. I am interested in reducing that violence when possible, understanding it will never be eradicated. I operate in these media industries due to a lack of options – not a faith in their capacity for change. If my education had been different, I could still be performing similar critiques from within other industries.
You’ve made it clear in the past that you don’t like performing live, saying that you only do it out of economic necessity. Does that mean you reject the live forum as an effective means by which to convey your message, musically speaking?
Yes, I despise performance, and find it quite unproductive for my interests. It really is just a job for me. That is why my “live” performances as Terre Thaemlitz emphasize talking, text and audience discussion as the only meaningful things I can bring to a “live” situation. The audio is rather inconsequential, since it can generally be heard under better conditions at home, or in a studio, etc.
You’ve said that you’re “skeptical of the commercial music industry allowing producers to function in non-ego terms”. This seems to be something that has been ramped up again in recent years; the notion of the DJ as the global superstar is rampant at the moment. Do you think we’ll ever be able to escape this?
You’ve said that when you make your own tracks that, “It’s definitely about remembrance. And mourning is a part of this, as well… how HIV devastated a generation of dancers. How gentrification and poverty scattered communities.” Do you feel this is in part necessary because, in certain respects, we seem to be repeating this cyclical history yet again, in that there is a rise in the case of STIs among the younger generation, gentrification and poverty are once again scattering communities; lessons haven’t been learnt?
You’ve said that you’re “quite serious when I say DJing house in 2013 is not much different than being an “oldies DJ,” like Wolfman Jack or something.” Have any of the bastardisations of house that have sprung up over the past few years interested you at all? Or do you consider them as adding nothing to the genre other than a few fancy twists on an established format? Are we at a stage where it’s now all been done?
Yeah, bascially. I think the only person doing what I would stylistically consider to be “2014 dance music” is Mark Fell, and he would never identify himself as a dance music producer. (Of course, I’m referring to his solo work, which is nothing like our collaborative house tracks.) But his rhythmic stuff is incredibly difficult to DJ in a club context, despite it being built around sound references to house and electronic dance. The way it interferes and fails to cooperate with conventional club play is what makes it utterly contemporary. It’s not the music of tomorrow, or some futurist fantasy. It is not about “never having been done before,” or uniqueness. It’s just really outside. It is the most 2014 club music I can think of out there.