The Soft Pink Truth Finds His Way Back to the Dancefloor
a.k.a. An interview with Drew Daniel that touches on house music, disco, queerness and dick jokes hiding in plain sight.
When it comes to dance music, it’s fair to say that no one has approached it quite like Drew Daniel. Over the past few decades, the Baltimore artist (whose musical career began in San Francisco) has zigzagged across the electronic and experimental map, most prominently as one half of Matmos—his wildly creative collaboration with partner M.C. Schmidt, who Drew simply refers to as Martin—but also with his solo project, The Soft Pink Truth. Although the moniker originally began as an outlet for Daniel to make something resembling house music, his creations have never really resembled the “functional” (and often forgettable) dancefloor fodder that populates most 12-inches.
Many people first encountered The Soft Pink Truth via Daniel’s trio of cover albums, in which he approached three notably macho and aggressive genres (hardcore punk, black metal, crust punk) from his own unique—and explicitly queer—perspective. For the uninitiated, such an undertaking might seem like more of an academic exercise than a musical one—and for what it’s worth, Daniel literally is a professor in the English department at Johns Hopkins University—but in reality, the records were incredibly fun. As a legitimate fan of the music he was transforming—albeit one who also felt conflicted about his fandom, particularly in the face of these genres’ troubling tendencies toward reactionary politics—he took on the source material with equal parts reverence and irreverence, and created some thrilling work in the process.
All that said, his most recent album, 2020’s Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase?, offered up something totally different, ditching the covers premise and instead offering a lush suite of beautiful, largely ambient sounds. As musical left turns go, the LP was pretty extreme, but it also wound up arguably being Daniel’s most acclaimed solo release to date, and likely introduced The Soft Pink Truth to a new batch of listeners in the process. Many artists would follow up a successful record like that with more of the same, but “more of the same” has never been Daniel’s style. Last month he shared a provocatively titled new track, “Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This? (Dark Room Mix),” a soulful, eight-minute-long deep house cut which seemed to indicate that Daniel had returned to the most unlikely of places: the dancefloor.
“Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This? (Dark Room Mix)” is taken from a new EP, Was It Ever Real?, that’s set to drop on August 19 via Thrill Jockey, but before it even arrived, Daniel announced that he also had a new double album on the way, Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This?, which is due to surface on October 21. Taking cues from disco and house music, and also featuring contributions from two dozen different artists, these records aren’t just another unexpected change in direction from Daniel; they’re potentially the most ambitious work he’s ever done as The Soft Pink Truth.
Looking to find out more, I asked Daniel if he’d be up for an interview. Though he’s currently on tour across the US with Matmos—the full rundown of remaining dates is here—he set aside some time for a late-night call last weekend, and went deep, not just about his new music, but also his own creative process and the role of queerness within it. He also explained the surprising origins of the title Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This?, and why he finds it to be such an intriguing turn of phrase.
(Please note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Shawn Reynaldo: A few weeks ago, you shared “Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This? (Dark Room Mix),” and it immediately struck me as the closest thing to a proper deep house track that you’d ever done. What inspired you to go in that direction?
The Soft Pink Truth: To answer that, I have to jump into a tangled pile of origin myths, both for this track and the project in general. The first one dates back to 1992-1993, when I was a go-go dancer at Club Uranus in San Francisco. It was a queer club that mostly played techno and industrial, like Front 242 and 808 State, and sometimes things like James Brown and Public Enemy, but it was pretty strongly an industrial club. I was friends with one of the DJs there, Lewis Walden, and he described something that happened one night while he was DJing. He was doing his set and a woman came into the booth and asked, “Is it going to get any deeper than this?” It was a complaint about the music and a kind of interesting, tense moment, but we just thought the question was such a striking piece of language. It became a kind of mantra for us, a way of complaining about any situation that you're stuck in.
I know that people making song requests to DJs is regarded as tacky. It’s seen as not showing trust and respect for the DJ, their aesthetics, the story they're telling and the journey they want to take you on. We live now in the age of people asking, “Yo, can I get the aux cord?,” and I've had experiences where people offered me money if I would play a song that they really wanted to hear. I get why people make fun of the kind of person that would go to a club and get up into a DJ's face like that, but I also think a song request is kind of a juicy subject. It's a moment of tension and a moment of complaint, and it's somebody who's risking mockery to say, “This could be better.” That's an emotion that maybe we need a lot more of. I don't know, but something about that question just stuck in my head and I thought, “I want to make music about this.”
Deep house is an amazingly strange genre. It's so monotonous and relentless, and yet it's so emotional and you're so involved. A lot of the greatest moments in deep house have a vocal with a kind of pain in it, even if the song itself isn’t about pain. Take a song like Robert Owens’ “I’ll Be Your Friend” or the surges in Hardrive’s “Deep Inside.” When that track says “All you need is love,” the way the vocalist hits the word “need,” it’s emotional. That's something that I never thought I would do with The Soft Pink Truth. A lot of my early records were more in dialogue with electro, used sample collages and contained a fair amount of irony and humor. That seemed incompatible with the emotion of deep house.
Still, I kept thinking about that phrase, “Is it going to get any deeper than this?,” and while I was making the music that became Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase?, I asked Angel Deradoorian to sing the phrase. I started to make a song, and just kept working on it and changing it. I first made two versions, then three, five, six, seven and eight. I just kept starting from scratch and returning to the phrase, and in the process of doing that, the songs that became the double album Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This? emerged. The tracks “Deeper,” “Wanna Know,” “Deeper Than This?” and “Moodswing” are all built out of the DNA of the exact same song.
It was an obsessive process of returning to the same moment over and over again, and eventually I finished that double album and sent it off to Thrill Jockey, but I still had this weird feeling that I wasn’t done and hadn’t produced the final version of that song. So I asked this kid Daniel Clark, who's a singer in Baltimore and has a project called Precious and Taken, to come over. He has an incredibly strong and very soulful, very beautiful singing voice. We did a couple of sessions with him singing, “Is it going to get any deeper than this?,” and really hit upon something that felt like, “Maybe this is what I was imagining all along.” That became the “Dark Room Mix” of “Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This?,” and it brought to mind the social spaces where I often used to hear deep house. Not to get TMI, but that was often at sex clubs, places like Blow Buddies in San Francisco. These were spaces where gay men were moving around in these dark, maze-like environments, and they would often play this very repetitive, dubbed-out sexual house music. I wanted to make something that would be my contribution to that zone.
Once I started to think about the sexual context, there's also a dick joke hiding in plain sight, in terms of the idea of bottoming and being penetrated. The question “Is it going to get any deeper than this?” could be on the mind of the top or the bottom. It’s kind of a freebie.
Is there any reason that all of your album titles are phrased as questions?
It honestly came from a love of house music. The very first house music I ever heard was that Todd Terry record as Royal House called Can You Party? That inspired my intense homage / ripoff of calling the first Soft Pink Truth album Do You Party? In gay slang, the “Do you party?” question is a way of asking, “Do you take crystal meth?” That was another innuendo moment on my part, and although I’m not going to front—I’ve never done crystal meth—during my time in the nightclubs of San Francisco in the ’90s, a lot of people were, especially at places like the End Up and the ultra-after-hours Sunday party.
As for the rest of the Soft Pink Truth releases and their titles, I like the uncertainty of a question. It’s the opposite of mastery, and the opposite of saying, “I know the answer” or “We all agree.” It’s a representation of what it’s like to not really know where you’re going, and when it comes to dance music, I don’t feel like I’m in a position of mastery or am even all that great at it. I’m sticking popsicle sticks together with glue. It's a hobby, I love to do it and it's fun, but I don't necessarily think that I know what I'm doing, and I think the questioning spirit is about that.
I’m 51 years old now, and when I was finishing these new records—both the Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This? double album and the Was It Ever Real? EP—it was around the time I turned 50. That’s a time when you start to look back on your own past, and it gets less and less clear to you. You don't look back and think, “Here's the cumulative wisdom, and now there's a clear story.” As you look back, it actually gets more and more beguiling and strange, to a point where you're like, “Is that what happened? Is that even what it was?” That's why the question “Was it ever real?” seemed important to me as an anchor for the EP.
It’s also kind of a sampling joke. I don't want to get into too much legal trouble, but there's a second of an organ stab from a gospel song called “It's Real.” That’s a song of faith, sincerity, commitment and belief, and by me taking it and turning it into “Was It Ever Real?,” I’m standing at a distance from those things. My music was made in a spirit of doubt, and although I don’t want to act like I was sitting and crying in front of my computer, the idea of dealing with and inhabiting doubt was something that I related to more than the idea of knowing the answer.
Is your use of questions at all rooted in a desire to provoke dialogue? It seems like many of your releases have been based on a desire to examine things, and specifically your own relationships with various genres and the world at large.
With the trio of cover albums, those were kind of like love letters to scenes in which I couldn’t call myself a fully sworn-in member. I grew up in punk and hardcore, and was inspired by it, but also felt a little alienated from it because of queerness. It's the same with black metal, where I got a lot of inspiration from some of its ideas, but also felt very alienated by its racism and weird reactionary tendencies. With crust punk, there’s more of a class issue involved, because I’m just another bourgeois homeowner. I'm not a gutter punk. I don't beg on the street and dumpster dive. So even though I find the politics and commitment of the music really powerful, I can't say that I'm living that life.
Questions are a way of asking where you stand in relation to a scene or the values that a certain kind of music projects. At the same time, The Soft Pink Truth is fun, and I don't want to cloak it in a lot of theories and agendas when I'm often driven by pleasure.
When it comes to dance music, specifically genres like house, techno, drum & bass, etc., the idea of functionality often enters into the music-making process. Producers want DJs to be able to play their tunes, so they’ll structure them a certain way. Do those kinds of concerns ever factor into your creative process?
I'd be lying if I didn't say that I sometimes have hopes about certain tracks, but I think I also make it kind of hard on myself by being a little bit perverse about it. But what you say about functionality is correct, and it’s not limited to just dance music. The rise of ambient music is maybe the ultimate example of the functionality imperative, in the sense that if ambient music is annoying, then it’s not working properly. That’s something I struggled with a lot when I was assembling Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? I didn’t want to make something that was this amorphous kind of pillow music, but I was scared that people’s response would be, “Why did you put gravel in the smoothie?” It’s even more scary for me with this new suite of music, just because I’m approaching house and disco shapes more explicitly than ever before. Maybe it'll work for people and that will be great, but that might be because it’s something that they’ll listen to at home in the spirit of trippier disco records that suit that kind of environment. I don’t know though. I'm very much at sea about how people will respond to this music and what they'll get out of it.
Is it true that The Soft Pink Truth began when Matthew Herbert basically dared you to make a house record?
Yeah. The very first song was “Soft Pink Missy,” which he really liked and put out. Then Playhouse put it on one of those Famous When Dead compilations, and it made the rounds from there, which I really didn’t expect. House music has been in the DNA of some Matmos songs. “Stupid Fambaloo,” which was on our second album, was a swung house track. Martin often says that “Freak ‘N’ You,” which was on a FatCat 12”, sounds more like The Soft Pink Truth than Matmos. The early Soft Pink Truth material was a lot more plunderphonic. It was about chopping acapellas from hip-hop, R&B and dancehall records, and collaging found sounds from a lot of genres. The track “PromoFunk” was literally built out of the promo bin at KALX Radio, using CD singles that had been mailed to the station that nobody wanted. That was the era of so-called “microsampling,” and artists like Akufen got a lot of attention at the time, although the spirit of the very tiny snippet is also rooted in pioneers like Todd Edwards.
With the last few records, I haven’t stopped sampling completely, but it’s not nearly on the same level as before. On the new double album, there are probably four total seconds of samples of other people’s music. That’s been a fun challenge for me, as I’ve tried to see how far I can take things when I’m just working with musicians that I’ve asked to play certain elements.
Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? really surprised a lot of people, just because it was essentially an ambient album. It also wound up being one of the most critically acclaimed releases of 2020. When you think back about it now, were you nervous about putting out that LP, and were you surprised by the response to it?
I was terrified. I remember playing it for Max Eilbacher, and I remember playing it for Martin in the car, and I was thinking, “What have I done?” I knew it was too late and I couldn’t go back, but I thought people would think the album was some totally self-indulgent ego trip, or would maybe just think it was schmaltzy. I thought I’d become the Nowhere Man from the Beatles song and I was making my nowhere plans for nobody. I really didn't see that record connecting with anyone all that easily, so I was really surprised—and honestly, moved—by the response. So many people have told me, “Yeah, I put that on and I just let it play four or five times in a row.” It’s wound up being a record that people tell me they return to frequently, and that's not just about something I did. It’s also rooted in the vibes playing of Sarah Hennies, the voices of Angel Deradoorian, Jana Hunter and Colin Self, and Martin’s piano playing on side two.
I don’t want to be like, “I’m an auteur and I just saw it all.” What really happened was that a lot of people gave me some very beautiful things to display, and I just let them breathe. Toward the end of completing that record, I made the decision to focus on two 20-minute flows, and not see the album in terms of songs. I wanted to create two side-long experiences, and that might be why people who like it play it a lot. It doesn't stop, it just keeps flowing. It's also obviously true that COVID made a lot of people sad and scared, and while they were stuck at home, they wanted something comforting. There's nothing wrong with that, and it’s not my place to tell anyone how they should respond to fear.
I will say it was fun to get to play it live. I got to play at last year’s Pitchfork Festival, and it was very emotional to sit and share that music with so many people, especially because making it was such a lonely process. A lot of people had sent me files, but ultimately I was by myself in the basement, just whittling away at it. I definitely drove Martin insane too, because I must have played him 17 or 18 different mixes of a 20-minute song. It's extremely punishing to ask someone “What do you think of this one?” over and over, and at a certain point, he was like, “You have got to shut the fuck up. I don't care. I'm not even in this band.”
When discussing Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? in interviews, you mentioned several times that the album was very indicative of where you were at in your life at the time as a then-almost-50-year-old man. Part of that meant that you were no longer all that concerned with being on the cutting edge of dancefloor culture. However, now it’s two years later, and you’ve made these two new records that are very much rooted in dance music. Did some sort of shift take place in your creative headspace?
Well, I don’t think this new album is particularly contemporary. When I listen to what I think of as cutting-edge electronic music, stuff from producers like K Wata and pent, the music often has very sharp, sudden cuts and dropouts and chasms and a lot of processing-intensive shifts. There's a lot of cool, forward-thinking electronic music right now that foregrounds sound design. I don't think of what I'm doing with Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This? as being about that. I’m not foregrounding the most futuristic sound palette. It doesn’t sound like hyperpop. It doesn’t sound like umru or people like that. My goal is to create something more reflective.
There's this cool word, polychronic, that gets brought up to talk about artworks where there seem to be multiple time periods overlaying each other. An example would be Renaissance art that seems to be about ancient Greece, but is also medieval, but is also somehow about the 16th century. There are three time periods happening at the same time, and I like that feeling. So I'd like to think that maybe when I'm doing something like covering Coil’s “The Anal Staircase” or reinterpreting Willie Hutch’s “Now That It’s All Over,” a soulful ballad that is part of a Blaxploitation film soundtrack, I'm returning to the past and working with models of how dance music of the past was created. I'm also slower than the dance floors of now. As I understand it, today’s dancefloors are at 140 bpm or 160 bpm. That's where the energy is. I, on the other hand, like this stately, 120 bpm chug. To me, that feels like home.
I don't know if what I'm doing is contemporary, but I'm not worried about that. I want to reward people's ears and create something that is beautiful. I never really thought that that was what I wanted to do, but Shall We Go on Sinning So That Grace May Increase? showed me that maybe I wanted to go that route. The question of disco and of queer disco in particular, I don't think we're done with it. I didn't studiously examine other people doing “disco revival” music, and there are a lot of ways to go about that, but it’s inescapable that there’s a lot of interest in returning to that cultural moment again and again.
Perhaps it’s related to the dystopian moment that we're in. The rise of racism. The rise of fascism. The rise of explicitly white supremacist politics. Fear. The overlay of new plagues and pandemics makes a lot of people remember the era of AIDS and the way that queer utopian dance culture seemed to be an alternative vision to reactionary political ideas. At the same time, that space is also shot through with melancholy, because it was taken away from us. My experience of learning about dance music came through my first boyfriend Doug. He was an illegal party promoter in the Bay Area, and he died of AIDS. Disco and house music are deep emotional wellsprings for me, and with this new album, maybe I'm reflecting a little bit on that past, and reimagining elements of it.
Listening to the EP and the new album, they don’t sound like old Donna Summer records or something that Giorgio Moroder produced. To me, it sounded a lot more like Arthur Russell’s disco stuff or the work of someone like Patrick Cowley. It reminds me of the period during the late ’70s and early ’80s when disco started to get a bit weird. Was that something you sought to reference?
Absolutely, but more than that, I didn't want a lot of arpeggiating synth basslines. In fact, I didn't want synthesizers to be the dominant element. I have a lot of respect for people that are great with them, and Martin is certainly one of those people, but I don't think of myself as a synth whiz. The disco chassis that really excited me were the classic records of bands like Chic and the work of Nile Rodgers. There's also a Russian producer, Boris Midney, whose music I really like. He has a song called “Love Spell” that he released under the name Caress, and it has these long, lavish-sounding arrangements that foreground lots of different instruments, which come in and out with dub effects. Maybe the ultimate example would be the 12” version of “Date with the Rain” by Eddie Kendricks, this sweet and soulful disco that enters a studio space that’s a little unreal. Hearing that, I wanted to make music that would congeal and build up, then kind of melt and drift away. I began thinking about how to build up a groove and then have that groove dissolve.
“Deeper,” the first track on the album, and the song “Moodswing,” those are my didactic attempts to try and pull that off. I imagined something that starts off like a mirage in the distance and slowly pulls into view, building and eventually becoming quite lavish with tubular bells, string sections and guitars, but then collapses into drone and leaves you with a “How did I get here?” feeling of free fall. I wanted it to sound as though the songs themselves had taken poppers.
In comparison to past Soft Pink Truth releases and even the Matmos catalog, these new records you’ve made feel rather soulful and organic, in the sense that there are a lot of what sound like “real” instruments as opposed to clicks and cuts. Having not previously gone this route, how did you approach essentially trying on a new style of music?
In a way, it was driven by a social urge. I got friends to contribute elements because I knew they could do things that I couldn't do. I didn’t want to sample somebody's saxophone record. I wanted to have a friend, someone that can really play the saxophone beautifully, give me something that was special and was from them. So I asked people like Andrew Bernstein from Horse Lords and John Berndt to play saxophone, and that dialogue, where I’d say, “Here’s what I have in mind,” it seemed more compelling to me. I did retain this kind of behind-the-scenes dictator ability to chop, edit and process the music, and they had to trust me to do that in a way that was sensitive. Regardless, that felt like the way to try and make this music.
I feel lucky that I'm friends with Mark Lightcap from Acetone, who's an incredible guitar player and who really loves and understands so much American music that I also love. I could go to him and say, “There's this one Gladys Knight & The Pips record and I really love the sound that they get, can you approach that?” He would then do something, but would also give me a lot of variations and things that I never could have predicted or come up with on my own. That process was repeated on a large scale throughout the album. Asking Tom Boram to play harpsichord or Úna Monaghan to play Irish harp gave the arrangements an opportunity to open up and flower in a way that I don’t think The Soft Pink Truth ever has before.
The most extreme case was Ulas Kurugullu, a string player and arranger based in Istanbul. I played him some Barry White records and sent him MIDI of some very skeletal soft-synth string arrangements that I’d come up with, but I also told him what my target was and gave him some examples of The Love Unlimited Orchestra. The way that disco strings move as a mass is not something that I feel like I could ever pull off with samples alone. You need to have players, so on some songs, I used 36 tracks of strings to provide that movement. That was important to me.
It was the same with vocalists. Whether it’s Jamie from Xiu Xiu, Jenn Wasner from Flock of Dimes or Angel Deradoorian, these are people who have an immediate vocal charisma that makes you want to listen. You cock your ear for what they're giving you, and there's just something intimate about the way that they show up out of the speakers. I wanted that, and I was lucky that they were willing to work with me on this. It became a social process of exploring. It was conversational, and often involved a lot of takes, where somebody would do something and I'd say, “Well, can you try it this way?” Some of the folks aren’t even associated with disco. Id M Theft Able is a hardcore, improvising experimental musician. He doesn't work with these kinds of structures ever, but he has a very deep voice. He's a big guy, and I kind of imagine him in my head as my Barry White. I had him ask the question, “Is it going to get any deeper than this?,” and that's the deeper male voice at the end of the “Dark Room Mix” of the song.
Looking at the credits for the album and counting all of the singers, speakers and players, there are something like two dozen different artists involved. Presumably you made this album, at least in part, in the context of COVID lockdowns and social isolation. How did that work, and was your decision to work this way at all driven by a desire for the community that was being denied by the pandemic?
Absolutely. COVID made life feel like one of those awful calendar-flip montages where you just get up, make the same bowl of oatmeal, open the laptop, get on Zoom, make dinner, watch some Netflix and then repeat. It was so strange and it amplified a lot of my already introverted and hermetic tendencies, but it also left me really wanting connection and other people. It was hard to do that safely. We did a masked studio session with Martin, Koye Berry and Tom Boram at Tempo House in Baltimore to track the harpsichords and pianos, but otherwise it was mostly people recording themselves at their homes, whether they were in Istanbul, Dublin, London, Venezuela or somewhere else. A lot of different folks contributed across wide distances in order to help me make this feeling of something played by lots of musicians. That was part of my goal within the model of disco arrangement, creating the feeling of lots of people coming together around a groove.
And yes, doing this also let me hang out and stay in touch with my friends who were spread across the planet. I could reach out to someone and say, “Hey, we haven't talked in a while, but I've made this song, and I would love it if you could try to sing along,” or “I would love it if you could try to play guitar here.”
As we’ve mentioned, you actually have two upcoming releases. The Was It Ever Real? EP comes out this month, and then the Is It Going to Get Any Deeper? double album comes out in October. Why did you decide to split the music into two separate releases?
If I was more of a conceptual mastermind, maybe I would have made all of this music and then picked one style and made a more streamlined presentation. But I got on a manic roll where I was creating a lot of music, and I noticed that there were certain songs, like “Was It Ever Real?,” that did not make sense on the album, even though I was really attached to them. So ultimately I decided to split the difference along genre lines. I think of Was It Ever Real? as more of a house music statement, and Is It Going to Get Any Deeper? as something that reaches farther back to disco, soul and cosmic psychedelic music.
Organizing the releases like that seemed like a way to solve the problem of having created so much music, but I do also tend to think in terms of 25-minute musical spans. The four songs in a sequence on Was It Ever Real? felt like a coherent unit, and I hope that each of the four sides on the double album feels the same. Taken together, they are five different 25-minute experiences that I hope people will enjoy.
You’re on tour with Matmos right now, but do you have any plans to take The Soft Pink Truth on the road once these records come out? And if so, what will those shows look like?
I have committed to playing in Baltimore. There's a great jazz musician and composer, Jamal Moore, who's going to have a piece played by this ensemble, Mind on Fire. So I’m going to be on a bill with Jamal right when Is It Going to Get Any Deeper? comes out. I’ve asked Koye Berry to play piano with me, and we’re going to find some way to present this music. I literally can’t afford to get the entire 14-piece disco band together, but I do want to find a way to share some of this music. It might be a more ambient distillation of it, or it could be something really sweaty and bumping. Plans are afoot, so watch this space.
Zooming out a bit, The Soft Pink Truth has been going on for over 20 years now…
Oh my God. Holy shit.
… and throughout that time, you’ve always been very explicit about how the project engages with queer culture and queer perspectives. As a gay artist who’s been out and making music for quite a long time, do you feel like audiences and the industry at large—including journalists and other artists—has genuinely paid attention to those queer issues and perspectives you've explored in your work?
Well, I'm not going to complain or feel like people missed the point of what I was doing. It's certainly a time now when people are so much more open about talking about queerness, interrogating what it does or doesn't mean and discussing its limitations. Culturally, it's kind of the best of times, worst of times, right? On the one hand, we're witnessing some of the most frightening rollbacks and reactionary legal challenges to the survival of trans people, the legitimacy of gay marriages, the possibility of gay adoption and so many other things. You name it, it's under attack. At the same time, there's also so much more visibility and so many more spaces in which queerness is assumed or affirmed.
Like everybody else, I’m torn between hope and fear these days. I do wonder if rainbow capitalism destroys utopian hopes by making people believe that by just manifesting your identity, you're automatically on the right side of battles for social progress. If I’m being honest, one of the most disappointing things to me right now is seeing transphobic gay men. It's such an obvious thing, or at least ought to be, that we should have solidarity, but I see the opposite in many spaces and it's distressing.
As far as what queer music does or doesn't mean, there are more models for that now. There's a twinkly constellation of ways to be musically queer. In the past, it perhaps felt narrow because people would only bring up artists like Erasure or Boy George, but I always thought that Coil and people like Sleazy from Throbbing Gristle were also great examples of queerness. And why not someone like Pauline Oliveros? You can just keep multiplying models, and it doesn’t have to entail a specific sound. Joe Meek doesn’t sound like Lou Harrison or Perfume Genius, you know?
Do you see queerness as playing a particular role in your current output?
When it comes to my own music, I do hope it manifests a certain kind of fugitive, itchy queer perversity and restlessness. That said, I want to let the form of the music be the model. I'm not here to attach an identity category to it to help it survive.
I do associate queerness with a refusal to take seriously a world that doesn't want you to survive in it. That refusal is liberating. It doesn't mean you're always being comedic, but I think there is something to taking a permanently camp attitude to a straight world that’s invested in a set of norms that I find to be really suffocating and limited. That's not to say that camp can't be weaponized towards shitty ends, and campy mockery of other people can easily turn into straight-up class snobbery. But a queer urge towards a sort of militant desire to find out what's possible, that has real value to me, now more than ever.
A lot of your releases over the years have had an irreverent, almost prankstery sensibility to them.
That's true of the cover records. Now that I'm in my 50s though, I'm getting schmaltzy. I’m interested in a certain kind of melancholy space where sweetness, loss and pleasure can all swirl together. If you look at the cover art of Was It Ever Real?, there's a murky, shadowy figure behind the lettering. That's actually a found photograph from a bookstore in San Francisco called The Magazine, which sells a lot of old gay porn magazines (and a lot of vintage magazines in general like Life), but also has a lot of found photographs, many of which are erotic. I don't know if they were taken by gay men or if they were just collected by gay men, but with this particular photo that I used for the cover, there's a nude male body in bed. He’s smiling, but he’s in shadow and you can't really see his face. You can just barely make it out. It’s from the late ’70s, and to me, it's a haunting material trace of a lost gay world. Why was that photograph in a box of found photos? Why isn't it in somebody's photo album on the shelf? Well, it’s probably because they're dead, and by me recirculating that image and holding it close, I feel like I’m connecting certain dots. That’s important to me, as is maintaining a kind of reverence and care for the queer past. I don't feel like I'm done with it yet, and that's why I keep returning to these structures and loops and playing them again. I just keep asking the same question.
Do you think that you have another openly irreverent record in you at some point?
I don't know. Never say never. I didn't really see this direction that the project has taken coming, and I don't know what the future holds. There’s a Nietzsche quote that says something like, “I love not knowing the future,” and I think that's true in my case.
Shawn Reynaldo is a freelance writer, editor, presenter and project manager. Find him on LinkedIn and Twitter, or drop him an email to get in touch about projects, collaborations or potential work opportunities.