Primal Scream TherapyAJA

Primal Scream Therapy

Photo by Laura Bemrose.

The debut LP from AJA is long overdue. I had heard of her notorious live shows years before news of any ‘official’ release. Part of the reason for this is that her music, although clearly written and produced with meticulous detail, is nonetheless a live experience. Indeed rarely do electronics sound so alive. Although brutal and harsh in timbre, it’s clear that this music has a carnal intimacy to it. The shrieks and shudders of noise jump and twitch like muscle spasms. The sharp shifts in dynamic genuinely make my body respond in reflex. Listen to the new single from her upcoming record, ‘Tuck It, Tape It’, on full volume and try not to jolt upright involuntarily when it kicks in.

AJA’s live performances also have a kind of psychoanalytic pull to them. Throughout the course of a show, she draws the audience deeper into their psyches. The cacophony of screams and noise bring (or force) to mind the return of childhood repressions. Fear, trauma and anxiety come to the fore in the safe enclosure of the stage. She even compares her live shows to witnessing childbirth. It’s unsurprising to me that lyrics are of secondary importance to AJA. Because her squeals and squarks are fundamentally pre-linguistic. They come from a place that is deeply embedded in the mind but rarely accessed. As with primal scream therapy, there is an understanding that no progress comes without some carefully controlled regress.

But unlike a lot of the screamy noise power-electronics of today, AJA’s music is actually fun. Her theatrical costumes and shapeshifting visual persona have more in common with Marilyn Manson than Merzbow. This gives AJA’s sound a unique queer identity. It is like a drag performance pushed to the extremes. Queer art today often takes the body as its subject. With Arca’s bulbous torsos and Lotic’s twisted skeletons, the body becomes a metaphysical abstraction. The anatomical ambiguities and contorted limbs can reflect the psychological anguish of gender dysphoria, or the experimentalism of queer sexuality. AJA projects these themes through the lens of psychedelic noise. Her music is like biting into a lemon. Bright and glossy on the outside, but with a fleshy interior that tastes acidic, bitter, and sharp.

In anticipation for her debut album on Opal Tapes, we spoke to AJA about gender, performance, and death metal.

When I was researching for this interview I thought there were two AJAs — the style of music you used to play is so far away from what you do now!

I started off making punk and experimental music when I was 16 and then when I was 18 I started an experimental project with a producer called Andrew Course and we made this really thrashy extreme music. It was like Crystal Castles on crack. That was my first taste of production. But after that I had this idea of trying to bring these punk roots into the mainstream. I was so sick of hearing the same old shit all the time. I was also really frustrated with how women were being represented, so I kind of subconsciously started trying to make music that was more commercially viable but with quite intricate production. But when I was writing pop music I was just always missing something. I was trying to be something that I’m just not. And it was when I saw Emptyset at Norberg festival that it all changed. I got back to England and cancelled all my shows, cancelled my EP release and got rid of everything. I wanted to completely start again from scratch.

What happened at Norberg?

Norberg festival spiritually reconnected me to experimental music and I just thought ‘what am I doing?’ So I moved to Berlin and joined a grindcore band called Batalj and just started learning to make harsh noise and power electronics. I was learning about hardware, synths, noise pedals. I had to reconnect to my roots and it was such a special time for me. I felt like a kid again, rediscovering a part of myself that was dormant for a while.

And I see you’re playing Norberg festival this year?

Yeah - I guess that’s where it all started for me. I absolutely love Norberg festival. It’s the most inspirational live event I have ever attended. I did an early performance there that was basically just an improvised jam that ended up lasting hours. I love playing environments that are smaller and tight-knit. You know the audience are going to ‘get it’. It’s so nice to know that all your hardwork and vision will be received in the right way. Sometimes I play shows and I can tell I am going to be misunderstood.

I suppose your live sets are quite extreme and theatrical, so they’re naturally going to be quite polarising.

When I was in Berlin I tried to fit into that ‘female noise artist’ trope: no makeup, no costume, all in black. It’s kind of rare to see a noise artist in a bio queen/drag queen kind of look. So it took me a while to come out of my shell. I now collaborate with a costume designer called Lu La Loop. She makes individual costumes for me, depending on where I’m performing. I’m wearing a new costume for Norberg festival, for example. I also make my own acidic visuals, based on queer and drag influences, around gender and sexuality and so on. I love the combination of bright pink colours and obscure grotesque aesthetics with dark, dingy noise. That’s the juxtaposition I go for. I was super influenced by AIDS Wolf and Skin Graft Records for this - these female fronted artists who really didn’t give a fuck. I just want to get to the core of how I’m feeling; the core of whatever emotion I’m trying to process. I feel like the more open I am, the more the audience can sense that energy. Strange and magical things happen when you perform from this place within yourself. I want people to just lose their inhibitions and lose themselves in the performance.

vv Photo by Simon Parfrement

There’s that track on your new album, ‘Tuck It/Tape It’. I guess there is something specifically queer, or drag, about your costume performances.

I feel as though Lucy [Lu La Loop] and I are interested in exploring what is ‘between’ gender. I definitely identify as female and I definitely bring lots of femininity to the costumes, but I really find the idea of ‘asexual being’ very interesting. The illustrations I do and all the whole visual component of my work stems from queer interests. I do feel quite passionately about supporting the LGBTQ+ community and I really enjoy playing in places which hold a safe-space policy around this.

Do you feel like your audience has changed, or become queerer, since you started using imagery and costumes?

To be honest, when I’m performing I don’t really see much [laughs]. I’m either hyperventilating or spinning around in a frantic circle. I’m usually on another planet so I can’t really comment [laughs].

I understand you have also done some workshops related specifically to gender too?

I started teaching workshops over a year ago on field recording manipulation, hardware, costumes and branding: the whole shabang. I was lucky enough to work with Huddersfield University for their Music, Gender and Identity course for a researcher called Liz Dobson. I taught a workshop of young girls, and it was amazing to be part of raising a generation of girls to have the confidence to produce and experiment, and not be intimidated by misogyny in the music industry. The girls were amazing, they were so switched on. I feel very passionately about trying to empower women, girls and non-binary people. To be honest, I’ve had some shitty experiences in music, and I want to lead with positivity and tell girls: you can do it, and it’s really fun.

I personally find the crowds at events with a good gender balance are way more fun anyway.

Yeah I’ve played at festivals before where there’s like two women — it’s bizarre. But at Norberg they don’t really shout about how great they are with the gender balance, it just is. And that’s how it should be. I’m not that bothered about events that boast about being ‘50/50’ or whatever. It shouldn’t be a big deal. There’s so many fucking amazing female artists out there - bookers don’t have an excuse not to in my opinion. There’s no goddamn excuse anymore!

It strikes me that you have been performing and producing for a long time, if you’ll pardon my impatience, why has it taken this long for your first proper release?

I’ve been trying to find the right label for a long time. This album was finished about a year and a half ago, so a long time. Now I’m on Opal Tapes, I’ve been pinching myself every morning when I wake up [laughs]. I’m so happy to be with them. But the process of making this album has been quite tough to be honest. I’ve had so many people let me down and I’ve discovered things about labels that aren’t in line with my politics, so I’ve had to drop things. I just knew that I had to get this out, somehow. Plus I don’t really like contacting people, I just want to perform [laughs]. The album uses a mixture of field recordings, hardware and sample packs that I made myself. I was really inspired by Puce Mary, Samuel Kerridge, AIDS Wolf. I think that album is a subconscious expression.

Is it like a collection of live recordings, or more ‘written’ in a conventional sense?

It was very meticulously written. Every bar was taken into consideration. The whole album took two to three years to write. My live performances are about 90% improvised, but the album is more of a self-contained journey. It has its own story.

I love the singing on ‘Black Stain’. How do you relate to your voice when you perform?

I definitely see my voice as an instrument. I don’t do much singing live, I just open with some opera… [laughs]. I love processing my voice in a way that makes it like an instrument, especially when you tune it down and whack up the chorus. I use it more as a background sound, covered in delays and reverbs so it’s just a drone. A lot of my tracks don’t have lyrics actually, which I guess is quite unusual. I used to write lyrics but I’d never really stick to them and there’s something really magical thing that happens when I perform. I don’t really have to think and this sound comes out of my mouth [laughs]. It took me a while to accept that.

In an odd way, I feel like the use of vocals in that way is quite similar to death metal too.

I kind of grew up on metal so I really love a good scream [laughs]. I do scream a lot in my performances. I really honed my scream over time. When I went on tour with Batalj, we did 25 dates in a row and I was screaming every word. Luckily I can do it now without wrecking my throat. It’s quite satisfying. It’s really cathartic to release energy in that way.

There does seem to be something quite psychoanalytic about your music. It’s almost like witnessing an exorcism.

That’s exactly it really. It feels like I’m being exorcised sometimes. My shows are fucking intense. They’re like watching someone give birth. And you just have to deal with it. I found myself through making that brutal noise stuff, and the screaming really channeled the heart of everything I was dealing with then: childhood traumas and loads of negativity. Before I went on stage I used to think to myself, ‘OK, what do I want to deal with?’ I used to try and put myself back into a situation and kind of ‘relive’ it in a safe space, trying to express how I felt then through the performance. But that was a year and a half ago, and I’m kind of at peace with a lot of that stuff now. I used to get nervous thinking ‘how am I going to conjure up all this aggression if I’m no longer feeling it?’

But I can see my sets going in a different direction now. I want them to be more more fun. I’m creating a virtual-reality experience at the moment with the University of Nottingham, with a kind of music video coming later in the year. I’m looking forward to reaching a different audience with that. The stuff I make now is still crazy and manic and noisey. It’s still like 160bpm wonky noisey techno with some fucking banshee whales or something over the top. But whether it’s aggression or pain or humour, there’s always going to be this manic ridiculousness to it. That’s just who I am.

AJA’s debut album will be released on May 2nd with Opal Tapes. You can also catch AJA perform at the next Edited event, a tribute to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.

  • Published
  • Apr 02, 2018
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