Terre Thaemlitz

An AmbiEntrance Exclusive Interview

Terre Thaemlitz:
"Means From an End" Interview

(AmbiEntrance© - 1998)

Perhaps as well known for his unflinchingly brazen and inventive social commentary as for his unique electroacoustique creations, Terre Thaemlitz has agreed to speak with the AmbiEntrance. For this we are very grateful.

And if you're wondering, the donated graphic is not of Terre, but of his alter ego, the beguiling and dangerous Miss Take.

Link: Who, and what, is Terre Thaemlitz?

Thaemlitz: It's all good, baby.

Link: What do you view as your primary "role"? Musical propagandist? Electronic gadfly?

Thaemlitz: Post-Marxist anti-essentialist Spiritual-debunkifier?

Link: Why was I surprised to learn you grew up in Missouri? What can you share with us about that time of your life?

Thaemlitz: It was incredibly demented. They call Springfield the "QUEEN City of the Ozarks" .... It's a misnomer. ;)

Link: On your own website, you mentioned your mother's hammered dulcimer. So you grew up with music? How did your own musicality evolve to its current state?

Thaemlitz: The way I grew up with music was that it was a hobby. Anything "creative" was a hobby, and all life really can be is empty work. I never learned to play anything, although I was forced to take seven years of violin lessons. I hated it and never praticed. So what this really amounted to was my interest in non-traditional composition techniques - tape and software. I hate "real music" and try to demystify it with releases like Die Roboter Rubato and G.R.R.L. which play in over-specialized genres I have no training in.

Link: In a genre which rarely deals in "specifics" and "issues", you often convey strong messages in your music, liner notes, art and website. When did you really begin to speak out with your art?

Thaemlitz: I think Contemporary Ambient and Electroacoustique DO deal with "specifics" and "issues" - they are just typically considered inocuous and a-political. Hopefully it comes across that I am not just trying to create content within an ambiguous field. Maybe I'm more like standing around pointing at existing dynamics and saying, "Did you see that?" - which I guess can be off-putting to those who don't want to see anything, but also very bonding for those who do.

Instinct wasn't really into this idea of "speaking out" - they were very adamant about me keeping my mouth shut. They had lots of truly nice and professional ways of telling me this, but the result was mostly dissatisfying for me. The issue was complicated by my own doubts about peoples' interest in PoMosexual issues, and my reservations about my ability to convey my ideas clearly. Die Roboter Rubato was the first release to really break this trend - Mille Plateux was totally interested in my ideas - in fact, their first words to me were, "We read your paper and really liked it" - they didn't even say anything about the music! I was blown away, because I was so accustomed to well tempered rejections which evaded the text all together. It was very liberating and exciting for me.

Link: What do you say to those who refuse to accept your opinions, techniques and/or images? (For instance, I heard someone report that they got rid of Soil because the art inside - a used condom - turned them off so much).

Thaemlitz: Yeah, there were some weird flames on the internet at the time it was released, too. The same thing happened with Couture Cosmetique. I don't know of anything I could say, since my advice would only be to ignore the text or imagery - which they obviously weren't able to do. I think if someone really freaks out like that, their response is probably more about an inability to deal with their own issues, and a desire to be away from anything which might challenge the safety of their presuppositions about gender, sexuality, music or myself as a producer - whatever they get upset about.

It's self-preservation, that's normal, so I don't really care. Other people appreciate the images and text, and I'm more interested in that connection than pissing people off. I also think Ambient music is very sexual - I'd love to see an Ambient sex club some day. So incorporating these contents in an extroverted way is really just a different take on pop "love songs" - nothing new. In fact, I think it's curious that people into electronic music are so willing to latch on to images about chemical alteration and psychadelics (acts of social internalization), but have a strong reaction against direct sexual references to the body (acts of social exchange) - especially with all that hype about "community vibe."

Link: Is Means from an End more of a socio-science project, a musical experiment, or what? Is its scholarly nature sincere or tongue-in-cheek?

Thaemlitz: Yes. :)


I wouldn't call the project tongue-in-cheek (that would be G.R.R.L.), but I think a lot of people overlook the humor in a lot of post-Modern discourses, and in critical theory generally. For example, I think one of Marx's greatest contributions as a critical Modernist writer is his relentless sarcasm and humor, which I rarely hear people talk about. I think that anything which is critical can't help but be a little humorous, poking fun at oppressive circumstance in order to help relieve pressure.

Someone described their listening experience with Means from an End as "really specific in its obliquenss." I think the audio and text clarifies my relationship to production for listeners much more than in previous releases, which is what seems to be occassionally catching people off guard. I guess this goes back to your second question, and what people expect.

Link: How did you devise the concept behind the inelegant implementations? (I find the hypothesis quite interesting, but the results are less than listenable. I don't imagine you're often accused of pandering to the masses, eh?)

Thaemlitz: Well, I sat down to the computer with my concept, and developed the processing strategy over a week or so. When I listened to the results they were not what I expected, either. But I was actually really happy about this, because the piece was about the inability to control "cultural distortions" around social appropriations, and I think this comes across.

By the way, try listening to them either very softly or very loudly. In the middle doesn't work well for me.

Link: Your source material for the resistance to change tracks really gets me; does Billy Joel know about this?

Thaemlitz: Nope (not yet, anyway - and hopefully never). I mean, for my purposes in that track, it could  have been anyone. Hopefully it's obvious that the track is about processes of cultural appropriation, rather than "remixing" or "sampling." I kind of worry about this, and I think it's a shame that it's so difficult to reference audio, as compared to writing, etc. A lot of my tracks have ended up much more ambiguous than intended, simply to mask the source materials - at which point you lose referentiality. In addition to my larger intention with the tracks, I thought I would use them to help reveal my processes a little.

Link: I found it interesting that you discovered that "uninterrupted playback of (means from an end) for more than four hours may result in nausea, nervousness and/or mild disorientation". Is this normal in your recordings?

Thaemlitz: That was really a discovery of the programming and mastering process, where I would listen to that high frequency for days at a time. The difficult part, of course, was that in playing the track only once or twice the effect was actually quite the opposite - so it made it hard for me to keep track of my effectiveness when programming.

Link: I hear you "submitted an entry" to the Hall & Oates Re-Mix Contest? Please tell more!

Thaemlitz: Well, as we all know, Hall & Oates is BACK! And in a BIG WAY! :)

Actually, some people told me about the contest as a joke, and I thought to myself, 'Hey, that'd be kinda cool.' I mean, with all of the various urban lore about their sexual orientations, it's certainly something I like to deal with in my audio... and what kitchier thing could a drag queen have on her discography? Especially with H&O's track title, Hold On To Yourself!

So I did a full-on digital synthesis remix based on Daryl's vocal and the saxophone solo. The remix starts by pulling the line noise and instrument bleeds from Daryl's vocal track, then moves into a microtonal hit from the saxophone which cancels Daryls voice and, if played on a good system, most of the noise within a listener's environment as well. I tested it at a party, and for about two minutes during the track nobody could hear a word the other was saying, more through sound cancellation and dynamic saturation than through volume.

I see this as a metaphor for the silencing of Daryl and John by unclarified hypotheses on their sexualities and PR machines. Needless to say, I didn't "win," but I know they did hear it and that my mix had "caused quite a bit of discussion."

Link: I've always wondered about the sample used in Fat Chair (on the Chillout Phase 2 comp). What can you tell us about that?

Thaemlitz: One day I picked up a "year in review" type news record from the late 60's. It featured Walter Kronkite espousing the miracles of the modern world, man on the moon, etc. Mixed in with these passages was a journalist recording from the Biafran revolution in which a civilian/rebel is murdered by the establishment regime, in the presence of the two journalists who half-assedly attempt to secure the civilian's safety, coming across more as an intrusion than anything else.

Kronkite introduces the scenario with a glib comment about how not all promises are kept like an American would keep one, and he follows it with more feel-good tidbits. The imperialist dynamics of representation were appalling. I imagined some White, middle class average Joe sitting down in his nice fat chair to have an enjoyable listen to the record, and how the Biafran civilian's murder became trivialized through it's decontextualization on the record.

Then I began relating this process of decontextualization to the use of "ethnic" instrumentation and singing (generally Middle Eastern and Asian) in Contemporary Ambient music. In particular, I thought about the manner in which the concept of music as "universal" conceals the socio-political context within which the original recordings were produced, replacing it with a fetishistic Western concept of Orientalism. And again, here was this image of some White, middle class average Joe sitting down in his nice fat chair to have an enjoyable listen to a record.

Fat Chair, then, was a comment both on the original journalist recording and the use of ethno-fuck in Contemporary Ambient. I tried to create what would initially come across as a peaceful track, but to continually disrupt its quietude with random low frequency hits, annoyingly hidden buzzes, and eventually allowing the recording of the Biafran civilian's murder to come to the surface, hopefully rupturing any sense of escapism the listener might be experiencing.

Link: Tell us about your live debut of Die Roboter Rubato at the Kitchen in New York City.

Thaemlitz: It was a lot of fun. I was able to make some changes from the previous show I did in Berlin, and I think people enjoyed it a little more.

The show is done on stage, in drag, with projections and props, and a costume change of course. The idea is to confuse the fuck out of the audience as to whether the show is "live" or "interactive" or "taped," and make them question their expectations and desires around "live" performance. Kind of an enactment of the "Femme Machine" idea I talk about in the project's accompanying text which is about a convoluted simultaneity of contents.

So the show is set up to be all at once brilliantly virtuoso, and rather disappointing since you cannot place the "authenticity" of the music performance itself. It got good reviews, and the people I spoke to enjoyed it, so I was really happy.

Link: Soil is one of my favorites. It comes across (to me anyway) as being very  bleak, disassociated, haunted, etc. Was this an intentional effect?

Thaemlitz: I've had a lot of people tell me this. It catches me off guard a little, because I tend to think of it as more warm and longing - then I realize maybe I'm wrong. ;)

I do have very strong personal associations with many of those tracks - especially Aging Core, Aging Periphery. If I say I was separating with my wife and partner of 8 years, does that irreversibly alter the cd from having any content other than "heartache"? I hate that type of reductionism, so I hope not....

Link: I do remember reading a couple of posts on Hyperreal's Ambient Mailing list that referred to the tracks on "Soil" as "light" and "upbeat", so not everyone hears it like I do...

Thaemlitz: N/C :)

Link: I first thought Comatonse was a misspelling; What is  Comatonse?

Thaemlitz: The idea behind the name Comatonse (pronounced "coma-tones") is about the passive-aggressive nature of Ambient music - conventionally relaxing, but also potentially violent in its inversion of melody and noise. A coma could be seen as a passive-aggressive state imposed on the victim. I decided upon the munged "Italo" spelling because I figured if my own name was difficult to spell, why not make my label's name equally miserable? ;)

My original plans for Comatonse were to revolve around more abstract works like Erik Dahl's Anti-Instrumentations. Actually, the Instinct album Tranquilizer (which is mysteriously missing the title track) was a compilation of tracks I had intended to release as separate Comatonse singles. But money and distribution never really happened for the more digital synthesis type of work I became increasingly interested in, and I surprisingly found that I was able to get support for my own projects on other labels such as Mille Plateaux.

There were only two Comatonse releases from 1993 to 1997. Then in early 1997 I had a lot of requests for a re-issue of Comatonse.000 [Comatonse.000.R1]. After that I decided to start putting out more esoteric projects (which, for me, pretty much means semi-normal dance stuff like G.R.R.L.), and "collector" colored vinyls with full-color jackets. Fun stuff to balance the more serious "Terre Thaemlitz" albums.

Link: Tell us about Comatonse's vinyl releases: comatonse.000.r1, (your re-release), comatonse.001 (Erik Dahl's Anti-Instrumentations), and comatonse.002 (Chugga: Theme for the Buck Rogers Light Rope Dance)

Thaemlitz: Comatonse.000.R1 is a clear-vinyl reissue of Comatonse.000, my first 12". I was really happy that people remembered this single, and that Instinct was totally cooperative with its release (unfortunately they control the rights to Raw Through A Straw and Tranquilizer). It also contains a short unreleased track called Pretty Mouth (He's Got One).

Comatonse.001 compiles the first audio made with Erik Dahl's original port of C-Sound (an audio programming environment) to the PowerMac platform. The audio was definitely years ahead of its time. I love this record (it's not self-serving if I've never made money with the record, right? ;)

Comatonse.002 is by Chugga, my pals Lester Fuero and Jeff Hanes that I've previously produce for the Abtrakt Workshop 2 and Synthetic Pleasures 2 comps. They're all about the '70s, so their mixes are pretty straight-up disco with a little overly-minimal bent. I did two remixes for the b-side, which I made deliberately "early '90s ambient" to go along with Chugga's own interest in retro.

Comatonse.003 is my eclectic electronica project /G.R.R.L. and the first CD on Comatonse. Each track is a different genre of electronica, from old-school breakdance electro through drum'n'bass. I was getting a lot of pressure from labels to do dance music in different genres, so I figured I'd shut everyone up.... ;) This also includes a vocal collaboration with Chiu-Fen Chen called China Doll (Kill All Who Call Me) which is an homage to the Frank Chickens.

Comatonse.004 is my new project Terre's Neu Wuss Fusion, which is pretty much just like it sounds - jazz-fusion-funky-ambient-whatever. The track is She's Hard with a studio mix on the a-side, and a live version recorded in Belarus on the b-side. This is currently out in Japan, and will be available elsewhere in May.

Comatonse.005 will be out in June, and is by L.A. "Ambient terrorists" Ultra-red. This 12" is based on audio from their Sound Bodies installation in Griffith Park, and is made with source tapes from the Gay cruise scene and people fucking in the park. There is also a remix by Chugga.

There will also be other releases around June or July, so people who are interested should keep an eye on the website. I still don't have US or European distribution (only Japan), so for most people the website will be the only way to get this stuff.

Link: What are your plans/predictions for your future, musically or otherwise?

Thaemlitz: I'm having fun playing with all of these different genres, so I'll continue doing this for a while and see what happens. (For those who only care about the electroacoustic stuff, those will always be the Terre Thaemlitz releases.

Projects with other names will be released under project names. I will have a few electroacoustic things coming out on Mille Plateaux this fall. In August they will release the collaboration I recently completed with Jane Dowe, Instititutional Collaborative. Then I should have my next solo electroacoustic project out in October.

Link: I appreciate the use of your imagery; what's the story with "Miss Take"?

Thaemlitz: Miss Take is my drag personna, hopelessly trapped between fabulousness and tragedy. She uses everyday items found at shopping malls to subvert dominant culture.

Link: Thanks Terre for your time and input; any parting advice?

Thaemlitz: Thanks, Link. Keep it safe and sweet....

If you haven't already, visit Terre's own Comatonse Website for much more information and insights.

This interview posted May 16, 1998

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