Interview with DJ Sprinkles on music and gender identity – Part 1

Marcus Barnes

dj sprinkles studio tips title 300x159 Interview with DJ Sprinkles on music and gender identity   Part 1Terre Thaemlitz AKA DJ Sprinkles is an enigma to many house music fans, someone with a reputation for producing great music and someone whose identity is a source of intrigue.

Sprinkles is pansexual and transgender, she speaks regularly on matters relating to her sexuality, as well as creating music and visual art that explores the themes of gender politics, ethnicity and identity. Overall she is one of the most interesting subjects I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. Here’s the first half of a recent chat I had with her.

When did your love affair with music first begin?
Well, if it’s a ‘love affair’ it’s always been a dysfunctional one. I’m not one of those people who produces audio because I ‘love it.’ I approach it as a communicative medium, like a language. Not a very clear language at that. In my childhood I had multiple and contradictory relationships to music. From the listener/consumer side, I listened to the radio constantly. My dad had one of those old mono cassette recorders with the built-in speaker and microphone, and I would sit with it in front of one of the stereo speakers, waiting for songs I liked to come on the air so I could record them by holding the recorder up to the speaker.

I also had a little phonograph player, and two or three Ronco and K-Tel compilations. I was born in ‘68, so this was all during the Seventies. My siblings and I would also collect old tube radios from the Forties and Fifties that our grandmothers or neighbours were throwing out. Come to think of it, we used to love playing with big, old metal vacuum cleaners, too. Any kinds of old powered utensils or tools. Great noise machines with great, bubbly metal designs.

That kind of interactive listening and noise-making was countered by being forced by my parents to study violin from the age of five to 13, through an extra-curricular orchestra program in public schools. I had absolutely no say in the matter. I hated classical music, as well as the very simple music I was supposed to practice. I refused to practice, ever. It was just an awful stress. I actually did the old trick of recording myself practising once, and then just played that tape in my room whenever I was supposed to be practicing… although I can’t imagine I really fooled anyone.

That went on for nine years, and I never even really learned to read music in all that time! My poor instructor! In fact, I was only able to convince my father to let me quit the orchestra on the condition that I joined the band instead. And even then, rather than getting to choose an instrument, my father went to the band instructor and asked what instrument they needed most – so I was stuck with trombone.

Trombone is actually pretty cool, but not at that age, and not when you really just want nothing to do with any of that s**t music. So all of those power dynamics conditioned my sense of musicianship, and my absolute inability to ever be a musician. Of course, to this day I still refuse to identify as a musician, or artist, in rejection of that entire school of musicology rooted in performance and creativity, blah, blah. I consider myself a media producer. And that distinction is not just a word game. It really has to do with how one uses sound.

Who or what sparked your passion for music in that early period of your life?
Definitely roller disco. Indoor roller disco, with lights, sound system and DJs.

Can you recall some of the very first songs that really inspired you ?
Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swingin”, Rose Royce’s “Car Wash”, Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More”, Vickie Sue Robinson’s “Turn The Beat Around”, Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady”, George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby”, Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good” … and then the late Seventies electronic wave came with stuff like Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Let’s Groove,” Gary Numan’s “Cars”, The Gap Band’s “Humpin’”, Midnight Star’s “Freakazoid”, etc.

I guess for Brits it sounds weird to have Numan mixed in there, but in the US it was all R&B chart stuff… I was also into the Monkees, which people tend to dismiss, but they really had some brilliant social satire going on. I think that sarcasm and social critique somehow set the stage early on for my developing interests in those directions. I still listen to them a lot, actually.

And what was your life like in general around that period?
I was born in Minnesota, then the family moved to Missouri… both are considered the Midwestern US, but Missouri had the bonus Southern culture thing happening. I was a nerd who wore glasses with face distorting “Coke-bottle” lenses since the age of two, so in terms of socialization, all of childhood was pretty much s**t. Daily physical and emotional bullying, basically.

Can you recall if there was a specific moment when you realised that you were of a different sexual orientation to others?
Well, the conventional language around sexual and gender “coming out” stories don’t really apply to my experience. There was no “coming into oneself”, no crystallising “self-realization”, and that has greatly informed my affinity for non-essentialist approaches to identity constructs as “social strategies” rooted in cultural domination, rather than as “subjective essence”.

I was basically denied any “coming out” story, because I had grown up being socialized as “non-boy” then “non-straight”, all of which branded me a social aberration or threat, even though I was the one being constantly threatened. And in the Evangelical Mid-West, this also took on biblical proportions.

It started very early. Even in the first grade the other boys wouldn’t allow me to eat with them, so I ate at the girls’ table. At that age, the difference between boys and girls was largely a difference of social castes, and wouldn’t be justified through arguments of physical difference until we were older. Basically, rules of childhood like, “don’t hit girls or boys with glasses,” unravelled my boyhood enough to push me out of that caste, and of course my days of acceptance in girl circles were also limited.

By the time adolescence came around, and my peers were struggling with their identities, worried about what people thought about them, I already knew that they and the world at large couldn’t give a f**k about who I actually thought I was. My own personal identifications made no difference to anyone, since I had already been so heavily branded from without by dominant cultural mores.

Their perceptions of me never changed. So that’s how I was “raised homosexual,” but not in the contemporary sense where that implies having a supportive or nurturing environment for sexual deviation. I was “raised homosexual” in the exact opposite sense, which was all about learning how both sexual conformity and variance are informed by homophobia and shame. I think it’s a really common “queer” childhood, actually. But the language of LGBT Pride somehow performs its own exclusions that render such things invisible by over-emphasising the role of positivity in evaluating life experiences, just like dominant heteronormative culture.

I don’t see LGBT Pride as an overcoming of shame, nor as a counterpoint to mainstream dominations. Pride is more of a “when in Rome…” strategy, with Rome being dominant heteronormative patriarchy. I don’t want anything to do with prides of any kind, since they always trace back to nationalism orclanism.

How did you go about working out who you were and telling friends and family?

I basically just snapped one day around age 15 when I realized my previous years of attempting to assimilate were pointless. There was no way to transform how people saw me or to fit in. So if they wanted a faggot, I’d give them a faggot… f**k ‘em. Since most violence was coming from males, I began actively using female clothing and accessories as a means of disassociating myself from maleness – on my own terms. Of course, the people around me continued with their own disassociations of myself from maleness on their terms.

Then all kinds of new troubles began, both at home and outside. And a lot of those things never did get worked out, even within families. I think this is particularly likely when one’s act of “coming out” doesn’t take the shape of “coming into” the standard and accepted homosexual or transgendered identities their friends or family have seen on TV.

Western individualist culture patently rejects any models of identity that are about perpetual flux and irresolvability. We are told to find ourselves. We are told to resolve ourselves. We are told to be individuals, in the singular sense of the term… F**k off already.

Identities are just strategies for mediating social organization. They are never who we are. They are what we do. But that idea, and the refusal to identify, or the insistence upon multiple and contradictory identifications, is hard for people to accept. So my refusal to share any ‘team’ identification with my partners immediately breeds mistrust, regardless of which ‘team’ they are on. It’s hard to sell that stance of “mistrust” (which is a mistrust in identity, not in a person herself) as a more honest foundation for developing complex social interactions… although I sincerely believe it is. It doesn’t necessarily generate stability [laughs], but it increases the chances of a deeper inter-personal connection, as opposed to just an inter-identity connection.

Come back next week for part two

Catch DJ Sprinkles at Oval Space on 25 October

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