Photo by Elias Johansson
Electronic music is rarely ‘about’ anything in particular. Unlike heart-on-sleeve singer-songwriters, electronic musicians must convey their message through the medium. The sounds you hear, the impact they have on your body: that’s all you have to work with. Rarely is there anything else ‘hidden’ in the work to pick up on: no ambiguous code to decipher, no secret narrative to follow. If there is, god forbid, a ‘concept’, it is usually an accessory to the event. You can take it or leave it, it’s the sounds that ultimately matter. But despite its abstract nature, the titles and artwork for electronic music can be surprisingly important. They often work as the only guide for the audience on how to approach a piece. Inspired nomenclature or sleeve art can sharpen a vague emotion into a powerful weapon.
The titles and artwork that accompany Lotic’s music have a definitive ‘physical’ quality to them. The covers for 2015’s ground-breaking Agitations and Heterocetera show contorted bone-like structures, like the deformed skeletons of animals poisoned by radioactive waste. Track titles like ‘Amygdala Hijack’ and ‘Fractures’ and even Lotic’s own alias (meaning ‘situated in rapidly moving fresh water’) tell a similar story. One of an organism trapped in an unusual or difficult environment. I can think of no better metaphor for describing Lotic’s music. Their work often deals with the difficulty in surviving a hostile world, and the near-insurmountable task of creating an environment that is friendly to you. “Being queer or a person of colour in the West”, they once wrote, “you’re always on the outside looking in.” This is likely never truer than in Lotic’s hometown: Houston, Texas.
The new environment that became home for Lotic was the Janus community and their legendary parties in Berlin. When the Janus parties first started, it was one of the first times I had seen people dancing to experimental sounds in a big way. When I first started clubbing, the music they played in most London clubs was straight – both as ‘hetero’ and as ‘linear’. The queerness of the original Loft parties had, I assumed, been permanently co-opted. Queer clubs were doomed to continue playing the same old disco classics; mainstream clubs would remain decidedly unqueer. It’s fair to say that my vision of the future of club music was bleak: a tech-house kick stomping in a straight club, forever.
But the Janus parties are a ride. Famous for their high-octane dynamic shifts and dramatic sound effects, they became the arena from which Lotic’s sound flourished. The use of sound effects in Lotic’s music is of particular interest to me. There’s often an argument made that popular culture is a big part of how we index gender stereotypes and gender roles. This is why TV, film and adverts are often the focus of feminist writing. Lotic, and the music that surrounds them, make a lot of referential cues, wrenching sounds from their original context and replacing them in a DJ set or track. During a Lotic set, you can hear broken glass, horror movie screams and an R&B vocal hook in the space of five seconds. In what is perhaps the apotheosis of recontextualised sampling, Lotic soundtracked 2016’s nightmarish presidential election with a self-released re-work of Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’, dubbed ‘ELECTION ANXIETY/AMERICA IS OVER EDIT’.
Their latest project, Embryogenesis, explores “the restrictions of assigning certain dance genres to specific racial groups or cultures”. The piece is a collaborative work with American ballet dancer Roderick George, setting classical dance styles to Lotic’s explosive club workouts. The piece investigates the potential to dissolve boundaries between ‘high art’ and ‘popular culture’; between ostentation and banality; between the mental and the physical. The show is part of the impressive schedule at this year’s CTM festival, in Lotic’s new hometown. In anticipation of these performances, and with news of another album on the horizon, we caught up with Lotic to talk biology, sex clubs and the meaning of life in their first interview in over two years.
You started 2017 by tweeting that your New Years’ resolution was simply to ‘not die’. What do you have planned for 2018?
[Laughs] Yeah, I made it! It was one of the worst years for me and was pretty bad for a lot of the people closest to me, too. So I think this year will be a lot of mainly trying to get back some kind of stability. I think everyone is just trying to reclaim their time [laughs].
You must be keen to get this new album released!
I’m excited beyond belief to get this album released. I kind of forgot in the last two years how much time and effort it actually takes to make it happen (partially because of my impossibly high standards), but I’m honestly so proud of the work that I’m more than willing to do what’s required to get it all juuust right. Can’t wait!
What can you tell us about this new record?
I can say that it’s definitely a bit of a reaction to the wildness of the world. I spent the last two years really trying to get to the essence of who I was as a musician, in a sense. But also trying to make sense of the purpose or place of the musician. So serious, I know [laughs]. But this will be my 17th year as a musician! I’m a sax player turned theory student turned singer turned electroacoustic musician turned DJ-producer turned composer.
I obviously started Lotic as a DJ-producer project but I felt it was important for a debut album to somehow try to represent my entire musical history in a way that was more obvious than anything else I’ve done. At the same time, the world felt like it was so quickly shifting towards fascism in a way that made being a musician feel completely useless, especially after doing Agitations.
What has changed in your approach to music since Agitations?
I was already pretty upset about what I was seeing and experiencing so I had to ask myself why I was making this album, or any music at all. I had to, like, stand outside of myself, and put myself in a position to make something that I maybe would’ve wanted to hear as a young black gay kid in Houston in this kind of landscape. I had to remember how hopeless you can feel in times like these and deliver some kind of strength and hope. I had to shut everything out except for violins and harpsichords and, like, Beyoncé in order to really deal with all of this [laughs].
I was intrigued to read that you have been listening to chamber music recently.
My life became very ‘write, listen to chamber music, write, twerk, write, read, write’. Lots of meditative walks. I had to let go of my own anger, or re-direct it, in order to 1) continue for myself 2) continue for the sake of my career. And then I lost my flat early last year and wasn’t making money and became super depressed and abused alcohol and entered a rocky relationship and was just generally over everything! So the album kind of became my own salve. I ended up needing it more than I was initially expecting. It became the only constant in my life. It became my lifeline.
Photo by Elias Johansson
I’ve never had the good fortune of seeing you play live so I am super excited about coming to Berlin at the end of the month for CTM. The festival’s theme this year is ‘Turmoil’ with the tagline ‘uneasy times calls for uneasy music’. Do you consider your music to be ‘uneasy’?
I honestly never thought of my music as uneasy [laughs]. At least, not besides the moments during a DJ set where it’s deliberate. But over the years I’ve heard it many times. At university when I was studying and making electroacoustic music, I remember never following the brief because I just wanted to use my voice for everything. Like, yeah this song made of field recordings of rocks is cool but my voice is already right here! Or even just the pressure to play jazz as a saxophonist. I guess I kinda always stood out but I never really realised that I maybe made people “uneasy” until I started getting press. Everything’s exaggerated, of course, but when your work is just the ideas you have privately, naturally, and you see “LOTIC IS DISRUPTING CLUB MUSIC” it kinda makes you stop for a second. I milked it as fuck, though. My fault.
My immediate thought is that there are probably few ‘easy times’ for a queer person of colour.
Yes, of course people will naturally revolt in shitty times. And, yes, a part of me will always have to revolt every single day. But that’s my burden! And I’m learning to carry it gracefully. But that’s what [Embryogenesis] is about, the balance of trying to live daily life in a country that’s not as diverse as the one you’re from, where navigating queerness is foreign to you. How do you balance being annoyed by ignorant questions and obnoxious staring that cut at your humanity with being a loud, proud, fierce-ass, beautiful-ass bitch? It’s a daily dance, and this piece is a very small way for us to both let off some steam and to attempt to answer that question.
I guess that links to your alias and a lot of the artwork that comes with your music. For me, they seem to always show an organism in some awkward environment. Are you interested in nature?
That’s interesting that you picked up on that. I definitely always kind of wanted to be a biologist. Before I finally accepted that I was a musician, that’s what I wanted to be. I didn’t realize it was so obvious [laughs]. Slightly embarrassed… But yeah, I always want to work with sounds that are at least a little organic-sounding, even if they’re all kind of highly distorted and made to feel metallic. Part of it is of course my training, but part of it is also again that escapist mindset I had in the suburbs of hot-ass Houston. I always fantasised about living in the mountains by a river because it was the literal opposite of cars and sweltering concrete highways and strip malls and food chains. Hell, I still fantasise about that cabin [laughs]. Me and my boyfriend talk about it a lot. I’ma need high speed internet, though.
The Janus parties were the first time I heard experimental, or queer sounds on the dancefloor. How do you think this change came about? Did the queerness bring the experimentation or did the experimentation allow for the queerness?
Well, thank you! You can’t take the queer out of the queer, hunnie! Honestly, I never liked the ‘experimental’ thing. None of us were really experimenting any more than any other artist normally does. I guess so many people are so comfortable working in an established genre, but for us that was never really going to be fulfilling. We weren’t getting bookings. The people we wanted to see DJing in Berlin were not being invited to Berlin. We had to transform an old sex club into a night club [laughs]. It just felt necessary, so we forced it. We’re definitely all grateful that anything substantive came of it (shoutout to Berghain!) or even that people regularly came then and still come. But people caring or understanding was definitely secondary to our needs.
I guess I have also noticed a recent turn in queer spaces towards more experimental sounds. Is this a new trend or has there always been an undercurrent of queer experimentalism that has simply been ignored in recent years?
It’s always kind of hard to say. Venues have a lot to do with this, right? Like I said, we basically made a club because nobody wanted to hear glass breaking at 130bpm in Berlin in 2012. I think the political environment has a lot to do with this too; the economy. Sometimes the financial stakes are just higher; a club just needs to stay open. Other times, the emotional stakes are higher, so people go out just to feel and they’re totally down to be served whatever you have on the menu.
Is it true you were a shy child?
Oh my god I was so shy! Up until like 4 or 5 years ago, to be honest. So, I’m definitely still an introvert. I always say I’m a ‘social introvert’ [laughs]. Like, I love being around people, but only when I want to be around people. But growing up, yeah, music was basically all I felt I had. The shyness definitely just came from never feeling like anyone wanted to hear what I had to say. I was an ‘Oreo’ to the black community, and the gay community has a lot of fucking work to do with internalised shit with regards to femininity. And racism, to be honest. Plus I was weird [laughs]. Even within my musical experiences.
So the music was precious to you back then too?
Of course. I’ve always mixed R&B and New Orleans bounce and black women anthems into my sets because those things really informed and freed me. Those were always the things that made me feel good in a world that doesn’t want me to. Everything I’ve ever done pays homage to these musics, including Embryogenesis and this new album.
Do you consider yourself an optimist?
It’s kind of crazy, but I was always very defeatist and pessimistic before moving here. That’s a big reason I made the move: I didn’t want that for myself. Who would? Now, I would say I’m maybe a realist? Happy and excited about the future but not quite yet on the optimistic side, just because I have a pretty good understanding of history and human behaviour [laughs]. But I’ve been generally happy since being here, and I never thought happiness was, like, a state of being or an outlook. I always thought it was just a temporary emotion people sometimes feel. Isn’t that crazy? Isn’t that a crazy fucking existence? But that’s just what it’s like for so many artists in America, for people in general. Add in darker skin or queerness, and it does kinda feel like “what’s the point?” No venues, no money, lots of “no”s.
So, for me, it was leaving the environment that made me feel so bad. And I am well aware that this isn’t an option for 99% of the population of the planet. I almost didn’t go through with it. I was sick and depressed for a year when I did. But I just knew I had to try because there was nothing waiting for me at ‘home’. That said, the grass is greener, but she’s still malnourished. I happen to have my dream job, but I’m not in any way immune to or free from the things that factored most into my move. They’ve just been suppressed. If anything, I struggle a bit with guilt because of the privilege I’ve had to create my bubble. But don’t cry me a river!
What do you do to stay hopeful?
I’ve learned to really focus on the things that make me feel good, rather than the things that upset me. To be honest and loud about when I’m not feeling good. I’ve learned to ask for help, which is a work in progress [laughs]. I’ve learned to ask friends to sit with me and cry when I need that. I’ve learned to take frequent walks, to write things down, to really take moments to re-centre, to meditate really, I guess. I’ve also really learned how to listen. To disagree without having to fight or have your day ruined, without letting it upset you. To empathise. Empathy definitely doesn’t come naturally to me, but it has become one of my main priorities.
Also, I watch a lot of comedy. Crying and laughing are such similar emotions, and I’d definitely rather laugh. And to be honest, comedians have perfected the game! A good comic will point to all the ways life is trash but will also remind you of the scale of human existence. It’s funny to be told by a stranger that your tweet about pasta or your selfie at a Holocaust memorial is shitty because it’s able to re-contextualise our lives. A joke about debt can ease your fears about checking your mail or answering the phone. Comedy is a subtle reminder that the Earth is billions of years old and that the small shit really doesn’t matter but also that your pain is real and that you’re not alone. Comedy will always be one of the best reminders that we ain’t shit [laughs]. But in the most beautiful way! We ain’t shit, but that’s also OK. We don’t have to be. None of us asked to be here. Life is kind of absurd! But it’s beautiful.
I know this all sounds a bit like ‘Becca who shops exclusively at Whole Foods and is kinda vegan and just discovered yoga and collard greens, which she refers to as kale’, but it all really helps. You have to somehow be able to place yourself above what’s ailing you. Self-care is real.
Catch Lotic’s new show, Embryogenesis, at CTM festival next month.