Perfect Sound Forever


An Interview with Terre Thaemlitz
By Carlos Pozo
(February 1998)

Terre Thaemlitz is a young American ambient / computer synthesis composer who has been actively releasing music since 1994 on such respected labels as Instinct, Subharmonic, and Mille Plateaux. Originally based in New York City, Terre has relocated to Oakland (California), where he runs his recently quite active Comatonse label. The G.R.R.L. CD, the first full length on the label, presents on CD for the first time Terre's incursion into "beat-oriented" dance music. Terre's body of work is just as varied and can be just as perplexing as the entire Sabotage, Raster and Mego catalogs. Unlike those mysterious European entities, the Minnesota-born Terre usually packs his releases with enough self-analytical texts to put even the bravest potential listener/reviewers on edge. Terre's intentions are complex- iconoclastic humor might be the key that ties the themes of contemporary critical theory, queer issues, and transgenderism together into a deliciously subversive whole. Critical Theory? Transgenderism? Yup- read on.

Q: Can you talk about the G.R.R.L. CD- and how the concept (at least as expressed in the notes) took form- and the reasons behind doing a "beat-oriented" CD?

For the past couple of years many labels, especially in the US, have been moving away from Contemporary Ambient and a-structural audio, first focusing on Trip-Hop and then Jungle. And many major Contemporary Ambient producers quickly followed suit. The labels were and are backpedaling as fast as they can to distance themselves from the "breakthrough ambient marketplace" they all claimed they were so proud to be giving birth to just a year or two earlier.

To make a long story short, my increased interest in electroacoustique computer production was hitting a lot of brick walls. Labels would ask me to do Trip-Hop and Jungle, and explicitly state that was all they were interested in. So I thought it would be interesting to do a project that played into notions of marketability and genre-fication, while at the same time deconstructing those relationships. This also meant a self-analysis of my own relationships to production, and acting out market strategies in a very literal fashion by producing tracks in styles which I like as well as others I dislike - an amalgamation of influences both positive and negative. The result was a compilation of diverse electronic music genres which we've all liked or disliked in the past and present - so hopefully listeners can think about their own changing tastes in relation to genres and the marketplace. And of course, a large part of these changes is about nostalgia, good memories, and enjoyment in the present - not just cynicism - so its this type of critical pleasure that I referred to as "cyncerity" in the little liner notes.

Q: You mention the way labels latch on to new genres and sub-genres (which seem to pop up faster and faster these days)- is there no end to this "evolution"? It seems that the whole contemporary "electronic" field seems more attached to the idea of "evolution", or the idea that the "new" is always the best (a very retro "modern" concept in many ways) more than any other music field. Do you foresee a time when this levels off?

I think this notion of "new as better" is problematic when it presumes what is "new" is inherently "different" and somehow set apart (or hierarchally above) the things around it. Of course, general techno-fetishism totally plays along with this, so it's not surprising that electronic music does likewise. It's fucked up, though. In the computer world something is considered obsolete the moment it hits the market, and with a techno-fetishist or vanguard mentality that can apply to music as well. It just becomes pointless and erodes any efforts at contextuality or history or the importance of the present - even though the vanguard is presumably about moving history forward. As far as labels are concerned, they have an invested interest in tapering off "newness," since they need a stable marketable concept to develop sales around. This is why most electronica falls into two sub-genres of Trip-Hop and Drum'n'Bass. I prefer to embrace genres as established signifiers, no matter how new they might be, and not invest them with any super-evolutionary status. A world taken over by abstract computer synthesis would not interest me - it would no longer hold critical potential.

Q: With regard to the ideas on the GRRL booklet, as I read them, they do and they don't have a relation to the music. In what way is there no relation? Specifically- did you try and match a piece of music with a genre, or did you set out from the beginning to make a set of tracks to fit certain standard types? Or were the descriptions randomly generated?

I decided the style of each track as I went along, so they weren't totally predetermined. Of course, I made up some of the genres to fit my own needs, like "electrocynicism" and "techxotica." And most of the tracks are cross-referenced by multiple genres, which hopefully upon listening breaks down some of the hegemony of certain genre-alliances people can take to extremes at times. Maybe this overlapping of categories typically considered autonomous is what you are referring to as having "no relation" to the music?

Q: Who is Chiu-Fen? How did that collaboration came about?

Chiu-Fen is actually a professional stylist. We've known each other for a long time, and we're very close. She most recently did some stylist work for me at my performance of "Die Roboter Rubato" in New York. Anyway, as I was making G.R.R.L., I decided that I wanted to do a track based on the Frank Chicken's style from the mid '80's. The Frank Chickens were Kazuko Hohki and Kazumi Taguchi, with electronics by David Toop. They sang alot about leaving Japan for England to explore their identities as queer women, only to find themselves having to deal with the dynamics of Asian fetishization. Really wonderfully complex stuff, but at the same time very campy. I was talking to Chiu-Fen about it, and she was always wanting to do something in Taiwanese, so we came up with "China Doll (Kill All Who Call Me)." She's just put up a little (and I do mean little) web page at

Q: In my review of GRRL, I mentioned something about the "distinct loud and fuzzy digital sound" of the CD- I don't know if I was imagining things or not but I still think the sound of that CD is very "dry" and disorienting. Moments like the middle of "Turtleneck" sound positively deranged. I was wondering if you'd care to comment on that?

Thanks, I actually made myself come up with some different production techniques to set the project further off from my other releases. I wanted it to sound both low-tech and overproduced (well budgeted and stylized for the marketplace) at the same time, and I thought that "dryness" you mentioned was the way to do that - clean but fuzzy.

Q: This line from the GRRL notes pretty much sums up the state of contemporary pop culture: "GRRL adopts SPACE JAM's' intermixing of technology and nostalgia in the fabrication of new desires." Is there any other way to operate as an artist? If we can agree that cynicism is a highly necessary thing (and I speak for myself here) can you elaborate on the "intermixing of technology and nostalgia in the fabrication of new desires" as it applies to your musical output both as GRRL and as "Terre Thaemlitz"?

This kind of brings up one of my other agendas with G.R.R.L., which was too repackage some of the same ideas I deal with in my electroacoustique "Terre Thaemlitz" projects in a lighter manner - since some people get put off by my analytical texts. I discuss a similar notion of nostalgia in historical processes in "Resistance to Change" on the Means from and End CD. I think that employing notions of cultural change requires some degree of "nostalgia" or "familiarity" to allow people to retain some sense of historical continuity, and minimize alienation. But this can be done in either overt or concealingly deceptive ways.

The liner notes to G.R.R.L. picked up on the marketing for the movie SPACE JAM as something that did this in such an obvious manner that it actually worked against itself, and made even the most commonplace pop-cultural people aware that their heartstrings for Bugs Bunny were tied to a big-ass corporate boardroom. G.R.R.L. was more about mirroring this condition to draw associations between corporate marketplaces and the "underground" music marketplace. My electroacoustique projects as "Terre Thaemlitz" try and talk a little more about how to strategize change within these conditions.

Q: Can you explain what you mean by the word "change" here? Do you mean attitude change, "marching in the streets"-type change? I ask because the whole idea of "change" (as I think you mean it) once again seems so alien to contemporary electronic music.

Sure, I'm coming from that post-Modern activist outlook and background, so I'm thinking of change in relation to personal and social attitudes, which means real material change and organization. Obviously music performance or some little CD cannot do that, but there is a type of audio discourse going on that can inform people in ways that are analogous to texts.

Q: The issues you are grappling with in the GRRL CD seem very alien to the contemporary "Electronica", "IDM", "Techno", "Ambient" music genres. Not to sound flippant, but, why bother dealing with these ideas at all, when your presumed target audience merely wants to "chill out"?

...Hence the absence of any lengthy notes on my Instinct releases. But these issues aren't alien to the genres - they are suppressed by the homogenizing universalizations of conventional humanist music discourse - one experience, one love. Bullshit. I think most people know life is way more complicated than that, but some people are unsure how to deal with the larger issues without losing a sense of pleasure. There's a common fear that complexity detracts from happiness. But I'm all about pleasure myself, so hopefully people can recognize the humor and sex in even my most serious projects.

Q: I buy most of my music by mail- Ear/Rational seems to be the only mailorder place where I've seen the G.R.R.L. CD listed- how is the CD being distributed in the US and abroad?

Er... it's not. Distributors won't touch it because it convolutes the genres they work so hard to nudge everything into so neatly. This is even though it has gotten surprisingly good press from the diverse likes of Wire, Keyboard, and Urb. The only good distribution I've ever gotten for my own label has been through Cisco Music in Japan, but they only really deal with vinyl, so they didn't do much with it either. I've gotten it into a lot of stores in New York and San Francisco using my Mobile Distribution Unit (my backpack), but most people get it from the website:

Q: Many artists in the contemporary electronic field seem to purposely "obscure" their intent- I'm thinking of the European labels such as Sahko, Mego, Raster, a-Musik, and Sabotage. You on the other hand go into detailed explanations of your intent- can you tell me your reason for this? How do you feel the reaction of your audience is affected by this? Does it matter if your texts are (mis)understood?

With labels, producers and listeners, I think "obscurity of intent" typically means one of two things: 1) a fear of alienating themselves from a notion of the "lowest common denominator" audience; or 2) an uninformed preservation of Modernist ideals of sound-as-sound above and beyond notions of content or social contextuality. Both of these things not only bore me, but really bug me. They are both incredibly passive-agressive stances that become self-righteous in their inability to clarify a social position.

Of course, I'm sure right now someone is grimacing at the implication that my texts are not self-righteous. Of course they are, but I do make a large effort to disclose the limitations of my own sense of vision which is about all one can do. I'd rather be contributing to discourses that interest me, than just cranking shit out and pretending I don't care about anything, and wondering why so few people are doing anything interesting - or why I always have to feel like I am appropriating the music of others to suit my own agendas. There are other folks who have been discussing these issues for a long time - and hearing works like theirs really inspire me in a way that obscured intentions never could. There are definitely some people who hate my "issues," but I can't really help them - that's their "issue." Most people, even if they don't like it or don't really follow it, can at least ignore it enough to still make the music fit into their preferred listening contexts. And I've been pleasantly surprised by the number of press who have started to discuss my CD's in relation to issues such as transgenderism, queerness, economics and the construction of audiences.

Q: The exception to the "obscure intentions" labels in the above question is perhaps Mille Plateaux, with whom you've worked- Achim Szepanski used to be involved with the '80's industrial group P16D4. Many of the industrial/noise groups of that era seemed to make an effort to address some of the cultural issues you deal with- did you have any connections with those outfits like Nocturnal Emissions, Lustmord, Coil, SPK, etc.?

There was definitely a lot of great "content-based" Ambient music that came out of the '80's industrial scene, like Laibach, Hafler Trio, and those you mentioned. I wasn't producing music back then, so my connections were those of abstract consumption. I think it's interesting to note that the popular Contemporary Ambient scene we've been mostly talking about here - the techno-accompaniment Ambient - is largely associated with a former A&R rep from a New Age label (Alex Patterson). These are very diverse elements of a common ground, and the techno-spiritualist camp can sometimes forget they didn't invent the wheel alone - some of these ideas simply don't reconcile, and that irreconcilability has to be accepted.

Q: Could you define "transgenderism" as it connects to your ideas about music and your working process in making music? Is there a possibility of the same "fetishization" (by your audience- and I could be as guilty of that as anyone by just posing the question) the Frank Chickens dealt with when dealing with these ideas?

Anti-essentialist transgenderism is about an appropriation and recontextualization of cultural signifiers around gender. Anti-essentialist refers to an outlook that does not believe in an inherent "essence" or content, as opposed to an essentialist transgendered outlook that one is "trapped" in the wrong body, etc. I think computer synthesis is also very much about appropriation and recontextualization, drawing from external audio sources and materials much like quotations in a book. There is no essentialist core of creativity, or sense of originality - but there can be an awareness of difference and change. So from my experience, transgenderism and computer synthesis definitely have resonations between them. When you ask about fetishization, are you asking about people fetishizing or tokenizing my music as "Queer" above any other contents? I haven't really seen that happen.

I like to think when I talk about Queer issues in my projects they arise in a complex way that doesn't reduce easily. Queer sensibility, as opposed to Lesbian and Gay sensibility, is also about anti-essentialist appropriation (the appropriation of a derogatory term to reference a notion of one's sexuality being inextricably tied to a larger social condition) and notions of pan-sexual diversity, not rigid Heterosexual vs. Homosexual binarisms. To be honest, I'm not sure how much of that gets across to people who equate Queer with Gay, but I haven't really sensed any problems with negative over-simplification. All of these ideas are simultaneously about processes of identification and processes of transition between points of identification, so that inability to solidify an essentialist identity can lead to misrepresentation or offending those with essentialist outlooks, but you can't worry about that or it will socially paralyze you.

See part two of the Thaemlitz interview

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