2016: The Year in Charts

DJ Sprinkles Talks Deep House, 'Culturally Critical' Audio Production & the Value of Boredom

Johnathan F. Lee
Terre Thaemlitz

In 2003, the DJ and producer Terre Thaemlitz wrote an essay to accompany his Lovebomb album. "Pop, country, jazz, soul, R&B, classical... all of these musics overflow with 'love,' a term so abundant that we grant it the authority of meaning without inquiry," Thaemlitz noted. Much of Thaemlitz's art attempts the difficult, vital work of inquiry -- locating shared assumptions around such disparate topics as love, house music or popular audio compression technology, and placing them in social, economic and political contexts to better understand the impacts of their tacit adoption.

Unsurprisingly, this often leads Thaemlitz to take up strongly critical positions. "People who want to critique their academic system or their museum or festival a lot of times will hire me as the hired gun to come in and bitch about the things that they themselves as curators can't say, because they would be fired," Thaemlitz tells Billboard Dance over Skype from Missouri, where the DJ grew up. "Spreading myself out and being an asshole in multiple fields rather than just one gives me a critical flexibility that I wouldn't have otherwise. But it's not freeing. It puts me in employment positions that, on the one hand, are not as confined, but on the other add an anti-social component to what I'm doing."

Thaemlitz, who has lived in Japan since 2001, played a brief spurt of dates in the U.S. as DJ Sprinkles in September, including a stop at the Good Room in Brooklyn. New York is where Sprinkles acquired his reputation as a DJ at Sally's II, a now defunct transsexual sex workers club in Midtown Manhattan. (Thaemlitz identifies as non-essentialist, non-op MTFTMTF transgendered.) Thaemlitz's productions as Sprinkles or K.-S.H.E. hew towards deep house, which Thaemlitz defines as "not energetic and kind of blue."

Projects released under Thaemlitz's own name push in other directions: the most famous example, Soulnessless, from 2012, contained a solo piano tune, "Meditation on Wage Labor and the Death of the Album," that was over 29 hours long. That's not an arbitrary length -- it happens to be the maximum amount of sonic information that could be included on a single mp3, which caused an assortment of playback problems in iTunes.

This experiment illustrates Thaemlitz's interest in the radical potential of song construction, as much as what a tune actually says. "It's really important to find methodologies for audio production that in some ways parallel the trajectories of the cultural analyses I'm trying to think about when making stuff," Thaemlitz explains. "How do we -- as people that are constantly being bombarded with audio signals and songs and signs -- actually possess those enough to reflect on them and twist them and do things with them on a subcultural level that aren't about profit? How can we use them in ways that are culturally critical?" 

One of these production methodologies Thaemlitz relies on across different monikers is sampling. Thaemlitz values the practice "as a starting point for something that is instantly non-original and non-authentic. Rather than to be singing from my heart like a rock and roller -- that kind of authenticity is always incredibly suspect for me. That's the same kind of authenticity that imbues a lot of people's rigid notions of their own sexuality and gender."

Another culturally critical production strategy involves "not delivering on certain structural build-ups." "[My tracks] have build, but they never quite get to that 'hallelujah' moment," Thaemlitz explains. "That's deliberate to keep things in a mode where you have tension. Boredom is also all about tension. The tension of expecting and wanting -- it's about desire and unfulfilled desire."

"Learning to cope with boredom is really important for life," Thaemlitz continues. "People have less and less capacity for boredom. I'm coming to all this production stuff with a criticality to the live stage -- the idea of not delivering on full-on, energetic, get-the-crowd-moving stuff is an important step to get people to the point of actually listening."

This doesn't always square with Thaemlitz's DJ gigs. Much of the crowd awaiting DJ Sprinkles at the Good Room was hoping for a Saturday night full of "hallelujah" moments -- one group of men Snapchatted vigorously in front of the DJ booth, while a would-be partier in the middle of the dance floor asked his friend if the DJ was, in fact, the same one on the top of the bill. After 15 or 20 minutes, the crew by the booth left, presumably to find a club with a more Snapchat-friendly soundtrack.

When asked about the gig, Thaemlitz describes it as "pretty much my usual experience," before admitting: "I have no idea what people are wanting these days." At the Good Room, Sprinkles stared at the audio equipment with solemn focus, occasionally exchanging words with DJ Aakmael, who delivered the opening set.

Thaemlitz suggests that going to a club for a "woot woot hands in the air" experience can be at odds with the political potential that once existed in those venues. "When you look historically at the changes and the influences that these kind of scenes can have, it's not happening by people having a good time," Thaemlitz says. "The clubs were the first spaces for public safer-sex education, for condom distribution. This was happening in the clubs rather than the public schools, because those were the spaces that were open enough to allow it. When you're talking about those kinds of things, that kind of social organizing, that's really different than just talking about what music sounds like and if you're having a good time at a party."

For Thaemlitz, that aspect of clubs started to disappear around 1992, yet Thaemlitz continues to DJ and produce deep house. This tension imbues the best known DJ Sprinkles' album, a remarkable, elegiac, historically grounded record titled Midtown 120 Blues: "It was me critiquing Mule [the label], as well critiquing myself for doing that kind of music in that era, and what it meant for me to be doing that album as something that was already over," Thaemlitz says. "We're always working in concessions and hypocrisy. It's not about solutions. It's about struggle and it's about awkwardness and discomfort, endless discomfort."

One concession the producer aims to avoid is becoming too focused on a single pursuit — audio production, lectures, or the essays that appear on the the website of Thaemlitz's label, Comatonse Recordings. "I would never want to be singularly anything," Thaemlitz declares. "That's a death knell. Then I wouldn't be able to keep doing what I'm doing — I'd have to make specific concessions to that market, and rely on it solely."

"It's safer for me to have a strew of burning bridges behind me," Thaemlitz decides. "Have one smolder out in time for another one to be rebuilt."