Terre Thaemlitz, a widely recognized creator of electronic music often labeled as “ambient” music, seems to be continually creating new projects. After his widely popular releases Tranquilizer and Soil, Terre has just finished a few more projects, which will be discussed here in some detail. In addition, Terre will bring us up to date with his relationship with Instinct Records and the progress his own personal record label, Comatonse.
How did you come about being a DJ in NYC?
I was living on the Lower East Side, going to school, and had amassed a rather large collection of local deep house. I was involved in a few activist groups like ACT-UP, and began spinning at benefits. I eventually wound up spinning three nights a week for the House of Magic [Tragic] in a midtown transsexual club.
What made your interests change from that of a DJ to composer?
I kept losing jobs because I refused to play major-label house. The ultimate irony was that the House of Magic fired me only a month after the club clientele had voted me “Best DJ of 1991,” all because some rich Johns were complaining to the House Mother. It was such bullshit. Anyway, even though I was unable to locate a ‘scene’ in which I felt at home, I knew there were people producing records I enjoyed- and the records were getting bought by people like myself- so I figured I would try making music and see who I met that way. I had a lot of idealism back then about community and a sense of identity- which both fed and was shattered by my involvement in activism. It was a very rough time which has really affected the way I produce music- leaving rhythm and order for more diverse and occasionally contradictory sound sources. Basically I’ve been trying to use sounds as metaphors for alternative strategies for direct social action.
How did you become established with Instinct?
Jared Hoffman, the president, saw me spin at Electric Lounge Machine- which was the first weekly all-ambient event in NYC. He asked for a tape of my own material, and that was that. I think back then they were expecting another Moby, and were kind of disappointed as I moved further away from what they felt was “marketable.”
Did they ever want you to make tracks that were not ambient in nature?
Sure, they’re really moving Acid Jazz and Trip-Hop, so of course they would love things that fit into those genres. I’ve actually been producing a group from Memphis called Chugga, which are my friends Lester Fuero and Jeff Hanes, and they have a rather old-school hip-hop-break track on Abstrakt Workshop 2. Instinct was interested in the Chugga album, “Memphistophelis,” but the terms weren’t right. I hope to get it out on Comatonse Recordings later this year. A 12″ of remixes from the album are coming out for sure, hopefully this spring.
Have you been influenced by other styles of electronic music lately?
Sure, but influences can repulse as much as allure. I just finished a project called G.R.R.L., which is my first all-rhythmic project. Each track is done in a different style of electronica- many of which are styles I do not particularly care for, like techno and jungle- but they are done very ‘sincerely’ and convincingly, picking out those elements I do care for in each one. It is about trying to find a sense of placement within all of these various audio scenes which are actually signifiers for identity constructs- and the manner in which a person’s sense of self involves contradictory and even undesirable identity constructs.
I’m actually still most influenced by ’70s jazz-funk and disco. I think this is because they are both populist and leftist signifiers, which is the inherent contradiction I associate with the Contemporary Ambient movement.
I noticed some notes (in French?) in the inside back cover of the Tranquilizer release. What is the translation?
It is very anti-transcendental poetics. The exact translation is “Herd the poets and drain their precious blood into a pool for me to piss in. Let them walk across the red congealed surface of piss and blood and marvel at their divinity. Let them feast on my slow turds like a priest of the Marquis de Sade. And when the day is over, let them rest their heads in the clouds and once again find beauty in it all.” It is an anonymous quote.
Did you set out to take a different approach to composing Soil in contrast to composing Tranquilizer?
Tranquilizer was done with MIDI synths and samplers, whereas Soil was a mix of MIDI with computer synthesis. I was finally able to start using some of the computer techniques I had picked up. Also, the tracks for Soil were done as a singular project, whereas most of the tracks on Tranquilizer were originally planned for release on separate 12″ through Comatonse.
What are your personal favorites off of each release?
If I had to choose:
-Tranquilizer: “2AM On A Silo” (because it led to much of what I am doing now)
-Soil: “Aging Core, Aging Periphery” (for purely sentimental reasons)
I noticed you shared responsibility with Taylor Deupree on the design for the Soil release. What aspect did you influence? Have you had design responsibilities for any other releases?
I created the imagery for all releases but Web. Taylor did the final typesetting at Instinct.
Is the picture of the condom on the inside of the insert for the Soil release intended to convey a message to the listener?
The image of the condom references the phallocentrism implicit to conventional definitions of such processes as the masturbatory nature of music production and the “artistic” or “creative” processes.
Will you be releasing any more projects on Instinct?
It is unlikely at this point.
How is your personal label Comatonse progressing? Do you find it ordinary for people to think the labels name at first sight is comatose? What does Comatonse mean?
Many people mistakenly think the name is Comatose or Comatones. The correct pronunciation is “Coma-Tones” – as in musical tones which induce comas. It’s a rejection of the “blissed out” attitude- I think listening is an active social process, and Ambient music is not about transcendence as much as an explosion of the politics of passivity- as exemplified by the turmoil of consciousness in a comatose state.
What future releases are planned for Comatonse?
I have several 12″ planned, including a clear-vinyl re-issue of Comatonse.000 with a previously unreleased outro to “Raw Through A Straw,” and a Chugga 12″ I did some remixes for- though it’s still not slated for release on Comatonse due to budgetary constraints, but some English labels have been talking to me about it. Depending on distributor interest and my financial situation, I have some CDs lined up which I would like to put out on Comatonse, but they may end up on other labels so that I can live.
Has Erik Dahl continued to make music?
Unfortunately not. He still dabbles, but spends most of his time trying to develop new programming environments, such as for the Be box, but I don’t know where that’s going.
Do you have any planned collaborations or wishes for future collaborations?
I have many collaborations lined up, and I am in the middle of one with Robin Rimbaud (Scanner) which I am very excited about. One of the G.R.R.L. tracks, “China Doll (Kill All Who Call Me,” features a collaboration with Chiu-Fen Chen doing vocals. Also, Ultra-red (the founders of Public Space in LA) are working on a Chugga remix. My primary collaboration (which is almost complete) has turned out to be with a grad student in computer music at Dartmouth (he’s currently operating under the alias Philo T. Farnsworth), and it’s really exciting to actually work with someone who uses similar methods as I. So there’s lots of stuff being produced with great folks that I’m really excited about.
How have the previous collaborations that you’ve been a part of worked?
Basically digital tape swapping. We generate sounds independently, then trade tapes and work with the material the other person provides. It’s kind of like remixing, which works well for me as a strategy since my methods are slow and I’m fairly anal retentive and probably not the best person to work with person-to-person.
Was your Web release with Bill Laswell inspired by Soil or was Soil influenced by Web in any way?
Web was completed before Soil, and was a big deal for me because Bill is very open to experimentation, so I was free to leave the beats behind and work with longer and more complex structures. It was also at this time that I started incorporating direct computer synthesis.
What do you think about ambient artists who have developed interests in more recent popular styles of electronic music such as drum and bass? Is this a band wagon effect?
For people into a very social club scene you can expect styles to come and go. That’s not a put-down. It’s just a fact, because that interaction is what motivates them and gets them excited about production. But for people like myself, for whom the ‘scene’ has not really worked out (due, among other things, to an emergent aversion to astructural beatless audio), those stylistic changes aren’t so influential. That doesn’t mean I can escape influence, I am simply more influenced by other types of audio production which I in turn absorb and replicate just like anyone else.
What should we expect from listening to your Die Roboter Rubato?
You can expect exactly what the CD reads: “Piano interpretations of Kraftwerk titles.” But do not expect obvious metric renditions of Kraftwerk melodies- they are very improvisational, inverting melodies, etc.
How did you draw inspiration from Kraftwerk, or is the release your own interpretations of Kraftwerk’s output?
I’ve loved Kraftwerk since I was a kid, and have developed a rather complicated relationship to the music over the years which is simultaneously politicized and hyper-personalized. Die Roboter Rubato, which consists of music and an accompanying text, is an attempt to clarify the inter-relationships between my own strategies for listening, and certain strategies outlined by Kraftwerk themselves- both of which are referential to larger cultural strategies.
Tell us a bit about Couture Cosmetique, and other current projects.
Couture Cosmetique (was) released in the US in April by Caipirinha Productions, and in Japan in June by Daisyworld. Couture is 99.9% computer synthesis, and is as far removed from Soil as Soil was from Tranquilizer. The primary concept is to draw parallels between my involvement with Electroacoustique Ambient music production and Transgenderism as strategies which seek to complicate and recontextualize cultural signifiers. The subtitle pretty much explains it all: Transgendered Electroacoustique Symptomatic of the Need for a Cultural Makeover.
I am also currently working on a project called Means From an End, which refers to the manner in which content is derived from contextuality, our understandings of which are based on previously accepted conclusions (end-points). It also refers to the fact that I often process my sounds from the fade-outs of songs, which represent moments of departure and referentiality, as well as give nice sustaining notes. The CD starts with 7 two-minute shorts, each of which consists of a repeated 10 second jazz trio edit run through really noisy and overloaded filters derived from dominant media and leftist political speeches (going with the idea of jazz as a populist and leftist medium). The sound gets pretty severely digital and ranges from ugly distortion to super-synthetic microtonal blasts to overt remnants of acoustic sound sources.
Have you, like Erik Dahl, made the transition to completely computer based composition?
Yes, it works well for the types of sounds I want, and the thematics I am interested in. But I’m not a media-facist. When I work in a different genre, such as with Die Roboter Rubato or G.R.R.L., I work with different tools that I feel fit the project.
Have you continued to DJ through the years?
Yes, although not as frequently. I don’t shop around for gigs, so I only spin if someone asks. But I strongly feel that even for computer music, DJing is an optimal means for “live” presentation because it has a capacity for real-time manipulation which affordable computers can’t quite deliver yet.
I am also working on a stage performance of Die Roboter Rubato, which is a ‘spectacle of the antispectacle’ clouding the lines between ‘live’ performance and computer composition.