Interview with DJ Sprinkles on music and gender identity – Part 2

Marcus Barnes

sprinkles 300x225 Interview with DJ Sprinkles on music and gender identity – Part 2Here’s the second part of my interview with DJ Sprinkles

How easy or difficult did you find the process of self-discovery?
Of course, constantly trying to evaluate one’s relationships to cultural dominations is tiring and depressing. It’s why people embrace dominant social and identity patterns in the first place, to maintain (or attain) some mental and social stability. But making those social and ethical concessions required by a life of mainstream “normalcy” is also tiring and depressing.

Any honest person in their 40s or 50s will tell you the same, regardless of their sexual or gender persuasions. I know a lot of people my age who pursued the straight and narrow, and are surprised to find themselves trapped in lives they truly and deeply hate. They really struggle with it, even admitting the very idea of hating where they are and who they’ve become, because to do so goes against the value systems they embraced since childhood. I hate life, too. I hate myself, too. I’m just not surprised by those revelations, because I had to deal with them decades ago. [Laughs.]

What role did music play in how you developed and evolved as a person?
Especially in my teens, electronic music – exclusively electronic, such as techno-pop – provided an alternative cultural soundtrack to the sounds of rock and country embraced by those who gave me a hard time. Clearly, there is a lot more electronic music in the world today. It fills the pop charts, including electronic rock and country. But back in the Seventies and Eighties in the Midwestern US, electronic music and disco were explicitly associated with homosexuality and perversion. The anti-disco campaigns were brutally homophobic.

What inspired you to progress from being a lover of music, to somebody who actually plays and makes it?
As a DJ in the late Eighties and early Nineties, I kept getting fired for refusing to play major label tracks. I collected and played independent deep house from New York and New Jersey, but couldn’t find a place to play in New York that accepted it. So I quit DJ-ing, and decided to release a record in the style of those I liked, wondering if it would somehow put me in contact with people making the records nobody seemed to be playing.

What else did you dream of doing when you were younger?
I think I really thought I would be an illustrator. I drew constantly. And traced constantly – which is similar to sampling in audio production. By the time I was in high school I did a lot with photo copies, like brushing them with paint thinner and then rubbing the black carbon off onto other surfaces, etc. So that kind of production strategy rooted in copies and fakes was there throughout. Again, thank you, Monkees, for the inspiration! [Laughs.] I think my parents expected me to be a doctor, so that idea was also in my head, but clearly didn’t happen.

How did you go about learning how to DJ and getting involved with playing at clubs?
I just taught myself… which is why I’ve never been very good in a technical sense, but that’s not so important for my style of mixing. Before ever getting a mixer and dual turntables, I used to make cassette loops of little passages from songs, and then layer those tracks. The way I did it was to tape a microphone to one side of a headphone, then dangle it in front of a speaker.

I would use a tape player to play the loop tracks through the headphones, then layer in other sounds in real time by playing records through the speakers, recording it all through the microphone onto a second cassette player. It was kind of an elaborate extension of recording songs off the radio as a child. So when I first heard about DJ mixers, I was like, “Oh, s**t! That’s exactly what I’ve been needing all these years!” As for playing in clubs, I just went around with cassette tapes, and handed them to managers at various clubs, saying I was available. I didn’t even go at night. I just went around in the afternoon or early evening, and introduced myself to the managers… most of the clubs were kinda tragic bars during the daytime. Those were different times. I don’t think many people could get DJ gigs that way these days.

When you started out did you focus on transgender clubs, or were you always open to playing wherever?
I did focus on queer contexts, yes. But that was primarily where electronic music functioned in the U.S. at the time, so it wasn’t unexpected or strange to have that kind of focus. It was pretty much a precondition of the genre.

How do transgender clubs differ from so-called ‘regular’ clubs… if at all?
Well, there are as many kinds of transgendered clubs as there are kinds of transgenderism. These days house music has become popularized, but back then there were explicit connections between the emerging genre and queer communities. So there was no “aside from the clientele.”

The clubs were very much about how the clientele – as deviants and outlaws – literally, with regard to the policing of sexual activities. You have your own violent history with this in the UK – socially moved and organized around their sexual and gender object choices. There was no internet, so people did things in person. Even personal ads back then were often done by sending letters written on paper to PO boxes, hoping for a reply with instructions of where and when to meet. There was no internet-style private access to porn, either. Accessing porn meant physically going to the porn shops, or secret distributors, and interacting with others.

I know people today talk of how the internet has helped people organize and be in touch, but it has also done away with many of the secret and unsanctioned spaces where people used to physically meet. So clubs served a very important role in queer lives, in ways that were not simply about dancing or partying. They were safe houses, essentially. That’s why The Shelter was called a “shelter.”

And that meant the “wayward children” entering those safe houses were also from all different backgrounds. They weren’t all like-minded people who met online before agreeing to hang out en masse at some club. For example, at Sally’s II, which was a transsexual sex worker club, a lot of the male clients were straight-identified. But those issues of closeting and secrecy in their lives did not inherently make them the “enemy,” just as the “gender deception” of the transgendered people did not make them the “enemy” within those walls… even though both may be seen or treat each other as enemies on the street (generally the transgendered folk being treated poorly). So there were a lot of inversions and twists of dominant cultural relations happening. I don’t think you will ever find that at a ‘regular’ club… and they’re pretty much all ‘regular’ these days.

You’ve reached a stage in your career where many music fans place a mystique around you, how does it feel to be held in such high esteem?
I guess it feels awkward, because I never learned how to take a compliment. The pro musician move is to flip it into a generic compliment about having amazing fans, or thanking the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for making all of this possible… What a horrible question for you to dump on someone. [Laughs.] The reason it’s horrible is that it baits a response rooted in subjective feeling and affect, when the only possibly interesting issue buried within that question has to do with how music and media industries manipulate the audience and producer emotions through the marketing and sale of egos. It just reinforces the age-old conflation of esteem with success. That’s pretty much the opposite of everything I am interested in.

Did you ever worry that your sexuality or gender might overshadow your talents as a musician?
With so many people just wanting “music for music’s sake,” it’s a struggle to make themes heard. I absolutely wish issues of gender and sexuality would always overshadow the music. Unfortunately, even when they do, a project’s specific content is too easily transformed into an illustration of some attribute of “the artist’s” identity or character – the latest piece of an artistic ego-puzzle in process – as opposed to opening up social dialogues on themes of sexuality, gender, class, race, ethnicity and other things… Again, an industry focused on the marketing of ego constructs stops us from using sound to represent social issues, because it always insists on tying everything back to the “talented ego figure”.

What music can we look forward to in the coming months?

I just wrapped up two remixes for Francis Harris’ new album (one as Sprinkles, and one as Terre Thaemlitz), and will be doing some DJ support for his US and EU release tour in December. That wraps up my remix commitments for now. I’ve been turning down remix offers to try and focus on my own productions in 2014. I have some ideas for both house and electroacoustic projects, so we’ll see if I can get my shit together on any of them.

You’re soon to be playing at Oval Space in London, what’s your experience of playing here in the capital?
Yes, Oval Space on the 25. I’m also performing “Soulnessless” and DJ-ing in Sheffield on the 24 and 26 respectively. What’s that Alan Partridge line about the capital? “Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.”

I get the sense that when it comes to music, London is kind of like Tokyo in Japan. It has the money, it always has plenty of stuff happening, and you can have a good enough time, but the more interesting stuff is usually happening elsewhere in the country. I think that’s pretty much the history of electronic music movements in the UK, isn’t it?

Catch DJ Sprinkles at Oval Space on October 25

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