Interview – Terre Thaemlitz

Terre Thaemlitz is an artist, public speaker and trans-gender activist, in addition to owning the Comatonse Recordings label. Identity politics and critiques of commercial media production form recurring themes in Terre’s talks and musical works, which range from deep house to jazz, and even computer-composed neo-expressionist piano solos. M3 asked Terre about the limitations of CopyLeft, restrictions of digital media and Terre’s upcoming album, a 30 hour piano solo released on a micro SDHC card…


M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Terre Thaemlitz – I always dread this kind of vague opening question, because it is nearly impossible to answer without knowing what you – the interviewer – want the audience to know about me in this moment. Since I work simultaneously in a lot of mediums and genres, and deal with a lot of social themes in my projects (particularly non-essentialist transgenderism and queer sexuality), I’m one of those people who has painted myself into a corner where I cannot come up with a simple response to the dinner-party question, “What do you do for a living?” For example, I would never describe myself as a “musician” unless in a desperate attempt to escape conversation, because the preconceptions and reactions that term invariably conjures is so contrary to how I would want anyone to perceive and engage with me. On the one hand, not being able to describe myself is a deliberate thing (and to be clear, “not being able to” is quite different from “refusing to do”). It took many years for me to get to this point. Overall, I think it’s a good thing. But it is also frustrating and has a lot of different social repercussions. I guess it’s important to say up front that I’m a cynic and nihilist. I find the dominant cultural pressure for people to think in terms of “optimism” or “hope” can be both oppressive and destructive. Beyond that, I think it’s best if you write an introduction to this interview answering the question for me, please.

What inspired you to focus on music? What is your own musical background?
I always liked music as a child – especially electronic music, new wave, techno-pop and roller-disco – but this interest was offset by being forced to play the violin throughout elementary school. I absolutely hated it, never practiced, and never learned a damned thing. It was torture. So my liking music was always completely detached from any concept of learning to play or make music. And that lack of ability to play any instruments has definitely been key to the kinds of audio projects I’ve come to produce. I don’t have to worry about authenticity, “feeling” the music, or “pouring my heart out.” There are too many cumbersome, technical steps involved in making sounds for me to ever get too romantic or emotive about it. I like that. I may employ romantic or emotive sounds, but that is different from pretending or convincing myself and others that they emerged organically. I think most “musicians” are handicapped by their faith in process. And too much skill can be like blinders on a horse, stopping you from seeing other possibilities.

I despise the ideologies behind art, creativity, authorship, etc. I actually studied fine art in college, expecting to be a painter (of all things), but by the end of my second year I knew it was total bullshit. This was between 1986-90 in New York. What an important yet horrible time and place for art. The school I was at was quite regressively Modernist, and doing politically thematic works was frowned on by both faculty and other students. It went so far as having my studio vandalized, etc. Then I read “The Art Scab” (“Der Kunstlump”) by John Heartfield and George Grosz, and realized all this art shit was already totally dead and dissected 70 years earlier. So I spent the last two years of college just finishing up my degree, then went on to work as a secretary after graduation. I tried getting design-related work, but it was my high-school typing courses that finally got me employed. Meanwhile, I was DJ-ing in some clubs, mostly orbiting HIV/AIDS activist groups I was involved with, and I eventually decided to press a 12-inch record. I did it as a lark, really – I never expected to release more than one. This was partly because I never really cared for music scenes any more than art scenes.

So the thing that ultimately drew me to music was not it’s expressive capabilities, but it’s total backward approach to all the things I hated about art – authorship, creativity, spirit, heart… Within the visual arts, those things have all been debunked and dissected for over a century now, but basically to no effect. And the thought of spending my life making “political art” for a gallery or museum, ultimately so some rich asshole I would never want to meet in a million years can “invest” in it and feel they are supporting “progressive” cultural ideas, strikes me as one of the stupidest things on earth. Meanwhile, within most music scenes, most people have not even gotten to the point of considering the topics and critiques that have already fallen flat in the arts. So I thought, why not use music as a medium for discussing all those art critiques I find interesting, but have failed so badly? Not because I believe music has the ability to do what the arts could not. To the contrary, because I feel music is even more idiotic and deliberately naive than the arts. I said this better somewhere else – if you don’t mind my copying from a text of mine: “This is not out of any interest in “advancing” the arts or music industries, but rather because the ideological workings of these industries – how incredibly strong processes of alienation from labor exist within these markets despite over a century of radical critique – makes them Petri dishes for observing all the ideological fungus and economic rot of our post-Industrial Capitalist era.”

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
I think these days I most appreciate AIFF files on a hard drive. Most of the music I listen to is off my computer. If their original format is not digital, I digitize them. I prefer files with CD quality or higher. For the past few years I’ve been in the process of digitizing my entire vinyl collection. I have been recording at 48kHz 24bit, which I feel is high enough resolution to capture enough of the analogue feel without going overboard. (Of course, there are people reading this disagreeing, but whatever…) It’s also better quality than most people DJ with. Having a large vinyl collection has really become a chore as I get older. It determines the size of apartment I must rent – which is crazy, really. So my plan is to digitize it all from A to Z, then get rid of as much of it as I can bear to part with. I really don’t want more vinyl in my life at this point, aside from things I release myself. That’s more than enough. If I can’t make a decent DJ set out of the music I already own, there’s something wrong.

I’m a person who still buys my music at record shops – not online. And I still favor CD’s over vinyl. I know vinyl is cool and all, but the CD is cleaner, smaller, lighter (I have back problems)… and knowing all the problems that happen during vinyl mastering, cutting and pressing, the CD sound is nicer to my ears as a producer. When you’re talking about electronic music made with the CD format in mind, the CD is often a direct copy of the digital masters, and you can’t get better than that.

MP3’s are a backward step, like suddenly going back to cassette. They make sense for listening to music when travelling, and I love my MP3 player, but otherwise they are pretty worthless to me. Nobody seems to care these days, though. Nobody even has a console stereo anymore. Nobody has speakers with woofers. And a subwoofer box on your computer is not a substitute for nice 12-inch woofers. So it seems to be a generational thing, where an era of higher-quality audio standards has been left behind in favor of market convenience. The plus side is “more music to more people” (if you make music for the masses), but the down side is that nobody knows how to listen to music anymore.

I think these things I’m saying are all pretty much the standard complaints everyone makes – sorry, maybe it’s not so interesting…

As a DJ, I play from CD or CDR’s digitized from my old dance vinyl EP’s collected in my early DJ years. I realize CD is also “behind the times,” and I am not opposed to moving over to USB sticks in a Pioneer CDJ2000, or even to laptop. I am not “afraid” of digital files. CD’s are digital files. But I just don’t have regular enough access to the latest equipment to pick up on new techniques, let alone practice them as a DJ.

In some ways digital media frees the concept of the album from physical length restrictions, and yet many online music platforms seem to cater to short attention spans with a kind of ‘quick fix’ listening. Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
Digital media is absolutely filled with length restrictions. They may not be the familiar restrictions, but they are absolutely there in abundance. But I agree with your point about the industry focussing on items for quick download. And there is no doubt that growing up in such a climate leads people to compose and produce within those limitations without ever questioning them. Maybe we have the 7-inch single to really blame, with it’s playing duration of two to three minutes per side. So these time limitations are not new, but the fact they persist despite format changes that have removed the initial reason for their creation is frustrating when you think about it.

The album format itself was also based on vinyl playback limitations – about 18 to 20 minutes per side. So if you’re like me, born in 1968, you’re used to albums being around 35 minutes long. If you’re younger, and grew up after CD’s came out, then you probably feel cheated if you pay “full album” price for a CD album that is less than an hour long. I don’t really know how younger people who grew up in the download era relate to albums. I think people into off-center music do take the time to listen to a whole project, if only because these projects rarely contain “hits” or singles in the conventional sense. This creates a different relationship between listeners and projects than hit-oriented pop music. So my guess is that, for the types of music which interest me, the “album” as a concept is still valid in some contexts. But in that sense, it’s just another term for “project,” really.

For me, what is more frustrating than the “album” format being abandoned or forgotten in some arenas is the incessant add-ons to a project. Digital exclusives, podcasts, DJ mixes for music blogs… These things are really demanded of producers, and they can far exceed the length of the album itself. People don’t realize how much time these things take to make (at least for some of us). I guess it was about two years ago that I made it a policy not to do mixes online – at least not for free – because once you do one you get asked to do a million, and each time you say “no” you offend someone. Then they won’t review you anymore, or cancel some article they were going to write. It’s totally political, all of this free content providing producers are expected to do. Aren’t our releases content enough for those reviewers and critics to build their magazine or blog’s content around? Those days are over, it seems. So, yes, I made it a hard policy not to do mixes – unless people are willing to pay for them, which of course they never are, and suggesting payment only offends them more than saying a simple, “No.” I consider all of the free labor within culture industries as a real labor crisis. It’s amazing how much of an arrogant asshole I look like to people just by asking to be paid for my labor. Sometimes people are really shocked and upset. And on top of that, I do not price my labor based on conventional market notions of popularity or demand. To the contrary, my price comes from a personal formula of how much money I need to pay my rent and survive producing these things people are asking for. So the less work I have, the more I ask for to cover my losses. It’s an inversion of conventional pricing formulas, and that is really hard for people to grasp, let alone get behind and actively support. But this is one of my little social experiments…

I decided long ago that I want to treat my work as exactly that – work. Not in the sense that it’s about the money – which implies a desire for profit, wealth, etc. Simply in the sense that I am providing content to others – labels, distributors, press, galleries, university classrooms, festivals, etc. – most of which operate in fiscal terms. So I wish to point out to those people – actively, through direct interaction – that there is an inherent injustice within culture industries towards payment for the provision of content. For example, as record labels, we think nothing of paying money to the pressing plants – sure, that qualifies as “labor” in some kind of industrial sense. We say, “Well, we have to pay the factory!” But many people don’t approach payment to producers as “labor” at all. Producers should just be grateful someone is interested enough in their work to release it, right? Often times labels can’t offer advances or fees because they simply have no money to pay – but that does not excuse the rampant silence about the economic power dynamics at play. All of this is why I rarely release works by other producers on my label. I do not feel it’s proper to do so if I am unable to pay them to a degree I feel is justified, even if they are willing to volunteer work. The rare exceptions generally involve close friends, and barter-exchanges. But I am generally not comfortable asking such things of strangers. It is not fair for me to do business on content provided by people who need to go work a 9-5 office job somewhere to support their own production processes. And I am not comfortable with strangers asking such things of me as a producer, either. Strangely, saying this out loud is taboo. Oddly so.

Your upcoming album ‘Soulnessless’ is being released on a 16GB micro SDHC card. Could you tell us a bit more about this, and do you think that SD cards, USB sticks etc. could ever overtake CD and vinyl as music’s primary physical distribution method?
I honestly don’t know. I think when you get into re-recordable storage media like USB sticks or hard drives it is just as easy for people to accept a download. But that presupposes you are a label that either has the money to develop one’s own secure online distribution system, or you get in bed with online distributors, or other online content provision sites that end up hosting your content without your ever really knowing their business and ethical policies. We only find out where those companies stand politically if we produce something that gets censored as “obscene.” Otherwise, we assume a kind of sympathetic alliance with the websites, when that may be more in our heads than anything. Facebook is the biggest and easiest example.

I’m not able to afford hosting secure downloads on my website, and I’m not yet willing to get into bed with online distributors after the problems I’ve had with them selling my Mille Plateaux albums out of contract for years and years, so that is why I have been playing with “offline” formats like DVD-R and microSD cards. I would like to explore other offline formats in my future releases. I still like CD’s, but I realize they are really going out. Vinyl is nice when it’s someone else’s record, but making one’s own record is a nightmare. Cutting, pressing, shipping – so many troubles. Vinyl’s just for posterity’s sake at this point.

Vinyl fans often speak about the ‘ritual’ of the medium, and how its technical limitations affect the listening experience (for example, having to flip the record over after each side, amounting to more active listening). What are the main limitations you have encountered with this medium, and have they had an impact on your listening experience?
You know what I really miss? I miss the old turntables with record changers. The kind where you can stack two or three records on a tall center rod, swing that arm to hold them in place, then when one record is done the next one drops down… It’s strange to think most young people with turntables these days have never even seen what I’m talking about. I’m sure the record changers damaged the records a little, but there was nothing more satisfying than listening to a double-album with A-/C-sides on one record, B-/D-sides on the other, stacked so when the A-side was finished the B-side dropped down and continued playing. As a listener, I just loved that moment. When I was a kid I used to stack on a few K-Tel or Ronco disco compilations, and it was so much nicer than playing an iTunes library. Unfortunately, I don’t own any turntables with changers. I don’t even have a turntable that can play 78’s or 16’s. I used to have quite a bit of those when I was younger. When I was thirteen years old, I bought a beautiful walnut console stereo at a neighbor’s garage sale for $5.00. You know, the kind that looks like a hutch for dishes, with built in speakers and a hinged top. I loved that thing.

Since my little label has put out a lot of vinyl releases, I find the main limitations are sound quality, and product quality control. Every vinyl record is filled with concessions. And once the mistake is delivered – 300, 500 or 100 copies of that mistake – it is a nightmare trying to get anything fixed by the manufacturers. It’s impossible, really. Too late. So you sell it as-is. I believe that is the story of every record. No project turns out as it was hoped.

How would you describe the difference between online culture and digital culture?
You’re referring to an article I wrote for The Wire’s “Collateral Damage” column on that subject. And a few people took it the wrong way – as though I was in some nostalgic moment for the days before the internet. I actually wanted to emphasize that digital culture is larger than online culture. I think online culture is a subset of the digital. Digital music, computers, electronic music – these all existed before the internet became what it is today. So it’s a mistake to think digital music and other digital media must always exist in relation to, and exclusively dependent upon, the internet. In particular, I was thinking about the pressure to work with online distributorships. I’m not saying all online distribution is bad. I just believe there are other things we can be doing at the same time. And to forget that is a mistake. It’s good to have people working on all of these various things simultaneously. Fuck consolidation.

Do you think the digital age has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
Of course, they are still relevant. Especially from the corporate side. If you try to decorate your little blog page with an image of a kitten or something from a Google search, you might end up with a letter from the legal department of Getty Images asking for recompense. They have software out there scanning for this stuff, doing everything they can to make a buck from anyone and everyone – not just seeking royalties from big businesses, but from every little blogger they can find. Meanwhile, in the world of audio, disputes around sampling have all but destroyed the concept of fair use. As the internet creates more chaos around these issues (good), it also triggers fanatical restrictions (bad). Those with money and assets are digging themselves into their trenches. And in response, the CopyLeft folks are equally entrenched, making an “us versus them” binary. The real enemies are the corporate bosses and their corporate lawyers who have twisted copyright into something that excludes the concept of fair-use. The example I like to use is how you can’t print an image of a Warhol artwork without approval of the Warhol Foundation, yet that image might contain a Brillo or Coca-Cola logo… It’s totally absurd! Warhol could not produce his work in this era of the Warhol Foundation! That should shock people! Am I the only one freaked out by this?

I have had offers to perform at festivals revoked when they found out I would be performing a piece that did not use a CopyLeft license. This kind of reaction is totally forgetting about a little thing called fair-use! The issue is not what kind of license someone uses, but how that license is enforced (or not enforced). Someone can release something under regular copyright, and still reserve the right to not give a shit if someone samples their work. If we allow ourselves to believe in a kind of paranoid way that every case of “copyright” is intended to function as a corporate tool, that is giving the corporations all the power when it comes to defining copyright! For years, before CopyLeft existed, my sole purpose in copyrighting my materials was to protect them from exploitation by labels and businesses. It had nothing to do with stopping people like me from sampling my works or any of that. Then there is also the matter of collecting royalties from GEMA or similar collection agencies – royalties the record manufacturers collect from record labels and theaters, and sit on that money regardless of whether there is a producer registered to receive those funds. If someone is forced to pay that money to GEMA, is it better for it to eventually go to the producer, or stay in the pockets of collection agencies? For people like me, who live in non-EU countries with no public art funding, these royalties play the role of a small grant. Maybe they cover my annual electricity bills. That’s helpful.

I would think CopyLeft events would want to be totally open to any and all licenses, in defense of fair-use, to show that implementation is more important than any style of license in itself. The more rigid the CopyLeft gets, the less flexible copyright gets. Ultimately, my main problem with CopyLeft is that it presupposes a notion of authorship just like copyright. If that is the starting point, then it’s already problematic as hell, just like copyright. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying CopyLeft should be abandoned. I’m just saying it is not the solution it proposes itself to be. So my personal approach is to work with all of these license options, as something that culturally frames my work – not as something I choose to “empower” me as an author. I refuse to put my faith in any of it. Several years ago Laurence Rassel and I did a project on these issues, which can be downloaded for free from the Public Record online archive or my website.

What is your take on the current SOPA/ACTA controversy?
You can guess what my take is! Sadly, the fact that these laws are being pushed does not surprise me…

What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
In terms of vision, I don’t really care where the industry takes it. I suspect it will be financially corrupt as always – a pyramid scheme that works for some, not for others. More and more, I find the business models employed by distribution companies ridiculously ill-suited for minor and tangential projects like my own. There is too much visibility, and too little control of content. I’m not talking about “control” in terms of enforcing one’s authorship rights, or profit rights.  With all the troubles around my Mille Plateaux albums being sold online, I never asked anyone for a single penny. I just asked them to take them offline, and even that proved near impossible! (Notably, Beatport was the only distributor to offer recompense.) I’m talking about “control” in terms of context and audience. My projects are not for everyone. It is a mistake for me to employ mass distribution strategies that would envision my audience to be “everyone” or “as many people as possible.”

Finally, what does the future hold for Terre Thaemlitz?
Again, in terms of vision, I don’t really care. Although I live in Japan, I still work a lot in Europe, which at some point will be too difficult for me physically (again, back troubles…). I’ll probably just keep trying to do what I’ve been doing for as long as possible. I assume the break point will be when I need to ask for business- or first-class seats on international flights for health reasons. Then, when this job is no longer possible, I’ll have to find another.

Maybe I could work in a haberdasher or some kind of a chapeau shop.

That’s a reference to “Spinal Tap,” in case you didn’t get it. Now you ask, “Would you be happy doing that?” Then I reply, “I dunno… What are the hours?”

For more information about Terre Thaemlitz, you can visit the official Comatonse Recordings website.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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