The answer is to question
Marta Owczarek takes a look back at a performance from Genderqueer electronic musician Jam Rostron, AKA Planningtorock, in Hoxton earlier this year and shares a conversation they had about language, gender and the creative process
It is not a particularly cold night in February, but concert audiences usually need a bit of warming up. This is not the case for Planningtorock‘s sold out show: 10 minutes into the set of the supporting rRoxymore, Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen is already full and dancing; it feels like you’re stepping into a real party. Lots of people seem to know each other and there are many out and proud queer people (and couples). Not every gig serves as a safe space in this way.
rRoxymore is wearing a shiny purple tracksuit and Jam Rostron, aka Planningtorock (sometimes abbreviated to P2R), joins her on stage wearing a matching one, plus sunglasses. The P2R live setup looks simple: a big table (wo)manned by the same Hermione Frank of rRoxymore with laptops, mixers and decks. Meanwhile, Rostron concentrates on singing, sometimes walking around, getting closer to the stage and, at the beginning, they (Rostron uses neutral gender pronouns) walk the length of it, holding a book (though it’s impossible to see what it is).
During the opening track, ‘Public Love’, a background projection screen shows the message “Public displays of affection still illegal in 83 countries between people of the same gender.” Rostron’s voice, like on record, is very powerful and, as with Planningtorock’s overall presentation, androgynous and perhaps a bit reminiscent of Antony Hegarty. This is particularly the case on the Hercules & Love Affair tracks – similarly set to a dance tune with a throbbing, repetitive beat. The lyrics for ‘Public Love’ consist only of the mantra of the title, repeated over and over, occasionally spelled out, transfixing your attention, making your body move without you noticing. Rostron takes another walk in front of the DJ table, raising their arms, encouraging uproarious applause. Next up, the video to ‘Human Drama’ appears on the screen split seconds before Frank starts it up. The room applauds even louder, with lots of people visibly moved – the girl next to me is clutching her chest like it’s going to burst open. The performance is beautifully heartfelt and the refrain “Gender is just a lie” resonates powerfully.
Rostron’s strategy for some time has been to destabilise expectations
With every song, the applause seems to intensify: when Frank and Rostron start ‘The One’, you can barely hear the track itself due to this. Taken from the previous album W, this number seems consistent with the musical and lyrical themes of the latest album, All Love’s Legal. Like a milder precursor, the string samples are creating a build-up but there isn’t a drop and the refrain “Someone’s meaning a lot to me” is powerful but not explicit in the same way as the previous ‘Human Drama’, which quotes one of the biggest statements of feminist theory, “Personal is political”, almost verbatim (“The Personal is so political”).
‘Doorway’ is another track accompanied by the video, showing a prosthetic nose wearing Rostron from the W era. Again, there are far fewer straight-up statements and more of a feeling of what Rostron is talking about: “I know my feelings/Under my deep skin”.
In the context of the new album, you can almost see the seeds that have now blossomed into the flower of All Love’s Legal (there is one on the album cover). For example, the sparse, harsh beat of ‘Doorway’ running on loop could have been the beginning of ‘Public Love’. Also, even on a visual level, the video for ‘Doorway’ focuses on Rostron’s duplicated head and some of the colour changes could be seen as a starting point to ‘Human Drama’, where Rostron’s head is also the focus of the shot, but with a lot more happening in terms of colours and shapes and the head becoming a lot less clearly defined.
It seems that Rostron’s strategy for some time now has been to introduce certain elements to destabilise expectations: the prosthetic nose appears to be an obvious token of the strange/weird/queer tactic, similar perhaps to the sunglasses/colours/flower face-obscuring combo on the new album cover. It is also arguably similar to the rugby uniform-like arms in the next track’s video, ‘The Breaks’, where both Rostron and their younger self/sibling/child have the face prosthetics, while the adult Rostron also posesses massive shoulders. The song is a mixture of strength and anger (“Don’t be surprised if I’m ripping out my eyes/I’m on fire”) and protectiveness (the older person holding the younger) and vulnerability (“We break too easily”).
This all serves set up the next song, ‘Steps’, which Rostron introduces with “Now I’m gonna play a really serious one, so prepare to cry.” The background photo is that of Rostron as a 16 year old and the song is about some close friends experiencing mental illness:
Sometimes my heart is on the ground
And it’s me who is walking all over it …
I’m walking on my heart, I’m walking on my future
This track has a wistful but very rhythmical drum machine beat, along with an amazing keyboard solo that Rostron plays live. The following ‘Beyond Binary Binds’ is a complete change from that – a quick shambolic mix of beats and sounds, with only the title suggesting it is meant to disrupt more than just the slower, calmer mood in the room. Frank then seamlessly segues into ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’, a chopped up anthem released on an EP last year, which is still as intriguing and relevant (“2013, our time is ahead”). It is also joy-inducing: Rostron jumps up and down and so does most of the audience.
From here, it’s a case of hit after hit, as Frank and Rostron rip through All Love’s Legal‘s title track with some truly anthemic, revolution placard-worthy lyrics, such as “Fall in love with whoever you want to” and “Love is the one gift that gives life its purpose.” This is followed by ‘Let’s Talk About Gender’, which Rostron says they recorded in a register they can’t sing in and asks the audience to bear with them. You can see Rostron holding their throat but they hold the sound too and at the end of the song they, adorably, make an “I made it” gesture with their fist. “Thank you so much for your support for this record, it was a big deal to me – we love you!” screams Rostron through the noise of the audience, before disappearing offstage. The noise is nowhere near stopping, so it’s no surprise that Rostron comes back a minute later to finish off with the extremely danceable, on-point and just-all-sorts-of-wonderful track ‘Patriarchy Over & Out’, which I want to dance and sing to at every party I ever go to, or just every day, really.
Here’s Marta’s interview with Jam Rostron, transcribed by Ghia Zaatari:
Are you excited about the album premiere? [All Love’s Legal had not yet been released when this conversation took place.] You already released a few of the tracks on singles or EPs, like ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’ and ‘Patriarchy Over & Out’, a while ago; is the full length a continuation of these two? Are you still in touch with these ideas? Or do you sometimes wonder, why has it all taken so long?
(Laughs) I am very excited about it. I am glad you asked: in relation to time, the whole thing is an ongoing thing. It really is a continuum. I take those thoughts and things I explored through the record and I just continue with them. The nice thing about the prospect of the whole album being released is that people can have a chance to listen to all of it, and so that when we start touring they will know it and then the fun really begins, we can enjoy it together.
There was a reason why I released ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’ and ‘Patriarchy Over & Out’ – it’s because before I was not able to have an opportunity like that. I was always on a record label and, this time, I decided not to go with DFA Records and instead release [it] myself, so I had the freedom to release it in a style, in a time, in a method of my own and really experiment: how these tracks function, how are they working. I’m glad I did it because it was so helpful for me to finish the record.
Tell me about your label Human Level. Apart from it being a tool for you to control your artistic process and allowing you to space out your work better, you are also releasing other people’s work on it. How is that going for you?
I am surrounded by really talented people and other queer or feminist or female producers who are making amazing music but it’s not getting a place, it’s not being released. It’s something that I really enjoy doing and I get a lot out of it, facilitating other people. I work on Planningtorock all the time and I love it and it’s very important to me, but after a while I am a bit like, enough of me.
Do you use it specifically to give a platform for queer and feminist artists?
Initially, it predominantly was for female producers – I used the word “female”. I’d rather say “queer producers”, but the music industry still works with binary gender in the mainstream sphere, so I would use the word “female”, or even “identifying as female”. There are a lot of female producers that I find very inspiring and I want to help out, get their music out there, because it inspires me too. Human Level is very small and very slow and limited financially, but that’s all part of it as well. You can think of it in intersectional terms too: it’s a label that takes into consideration its own limits and circumstance. rRoxymore is one artist that I released through Human Level; we have been friends for a long time, she also performs with me with Planningtorock. So we are connected really strongly and she has inspired me as well on this record in terms of music production. I think it’s really fun, you get a lot out of it: It’s an exchange, it’s overlapping.
With regards to unlearning, it’s actually just catching yourself; we have a lot of baggage
A lot of songs on the album are very political and you have made a lot of statements on how you wanted it to go in that direction. Is making art that’s so direct, perhaps even aggressive in expressing those ideas – is it a weapon in itself? You having your label is another way of engaging with that, but do you have any other ideas on how to further this agenda, like you say in ‘Misogyny’, “2013, our time is ahead”? It is sort of like a call to arms: “This is something that needs to happen right now and everything is going to be better.” What are those things that need to happen? What needs to happen for misogyny to drop dead? What needs to happen for patriarchy to be “over & out”?
It is interesting to hear the titles thrown back at me. With the words “misogyny” and “patriarchy”, I thought a lot about how I felt about these constructs; especially with patriarchy, my personal feeling is that it is old fashioned, it’s out of date, it was never really a good idea, it spoils things, it’s in the way of progress and that’s how I approached writing those lyrics.
What I would like these tracks to achieve is more about putting these ideas out there and hopefully provoking a bit of a discussion. I think that’s also why I went for the shock tactic, choosing such blunt words. Obviously misogyny is a very heavy and dark subject, but at the same time it’d be fun to create a comfortable space and actually not anything aggressive, but a space where you can actually think and talk about it. That’s also why I wanted the tracks and the album to feel quite happy; talking about these issues makes me happy because it helps me deal with them, it helps me learn new stuff and unlearn a lot. That makes me happy and I hope the record will have that ability too.
I actually wanted to ask you about that lyric from ‘Human Drama’: “There’s a lot to learn but even more to unlearn.” Where do you learn stuff from and how do you unlearn certain things? What are these processes to you? I was wondering if there was inspiration from feminist theory or do you read stuff on the Internet? You use social media a lot to post about things that don’t only have to do with you and your music.
It’s a real mixture. I am following writers and really anything I can find on topics related to gender politics, to feminism, to these new terminologies like “intersectionality” or “transnational feminism”, “post-colonial feminism” – I am like a sponge. With regards to unlearning, it’s actually just catching yourself; we have a lot of baggage. I have learned a lot from my friends.
It’s interesting that you say you wanted your album to be happy. I was reading a lot of articles about it, saying that it is one of the few so explicitly political records since punk. But what you are saying is aesthetically the antithesis of that – because punk is angry and not happy. Not a lot of dance music is that political, so it’s interesting that you want to keep those challenges to the status quo in a positive space. Maybe it’s like a different way of introducing these ideas to people.
It’s interesting to think where you think about these things, actually with whom, in what situations – and is there possibly a better and easier place to do that. I was very aware and sensitive myself about making the lyrics and the tracks, I wanted to make sure not to make them confrontational in a sense of no longer being accessible. I was trying to make it in a way that everybody had access to it [and] could get into it. ‘Patriarchy’ is the first track I worked on and it was almost like an exercise: how can I write about this without making it personal, but to analyse the construct that it is. I feel like I achieved that with that track. It is an easier, functional way to think about these issues.
I don’t have an essentialist way of thinking about a true voice or a real voice or a natural voice
In ‘Human Drama’ you sing: “Gender is just a lie” but, like you said, [in] a lot of the industry and a lot of the world, gender still exists in binaries. Do you use female pronouns?
That is actually something I have been trying to unlearn. It is really hard. I am aware of it. It is personally sensitive. It depends on the individual. Part of reason of calling myself Jam was removing my gender.
Would you identify yourself as Genderqueer?
What pronouns do you use? When I write this article, would you be ok with me using the singular ‘they’?
Yes, I’ve no problem with that. It also depends on language! There was an interview in a French magazine and the kid who interviewed me was also a really nice queer kid and he totally tried to do the same thing. He said it was difficult in French but he found a way around it, so if you could, that would be great.
What is it like in German? There are three grammatical genders.
It is interesting in Germany. In some way, they’re backwards but in some they’re making progress. There is a new law now for children born in Germany: you don’t have to say if the baby is male or female. There is a possibility of a third gender or to be non-gender-specific in your passport; it is really exciting.
“The personal is so political” – you use the big feminist theory statement in the lyrics for ‘Human Drama’ and you did say that a lot of the album was drawing on your personal experience. I read in another interview that you said ‘Steps’ was maybe the most personal track. How would you contrast that with what you just said about how, with a lot of tracks, you were thinking of how to write in such a way that anybody could be a part of them?
I think actually ‘Human Drama’ is the most personal of the personal but ‘Steps’ is indeed personal. It actually is about two close friends of mine and manic depression. It is about their conditions and how heartbreaking it is to witness that level of self destruction. That track is specifically about that. Music and lyrics – it is a fantastic language – they are very flexible. I don’t know about you but whenever I listen to music, if I like it, I very quickly feel like I own it; I think it was made for me. And this is something I hope happens with the record, that people take it and do their thing with it, it can be theirs too.
Were you trying to queer it in a sonic way too? We have been talking about the lyrics but how did you approach it musically? Was that consistent?
I tried at every step of making the record to catch myself and think about my decision-making and that was also about the sounds. There are a few things that happened with producing this record; on the one hand it had its limits because I had financial constrictions, but also I wanted it to be part of the record, thinking in terms of an entire circumstance, who really has the time and finances to indulge [and] spend a lot of time producing music. I wanted to produce it from a more punk perspective where I didn’t procrastinate that much production-wise.
Sonically, I also wanted it to be quite instant, really fun. In relation to the sounds, I work with digital presets mostly and I have one big Yamaha keyboard that I use a lot, but most of the sounds are synthesized which I love as well; I’m a big fan of digital production. But you get this sort of generic palate so there is a process there of actually pushing. There is a norm within those generic sounds, just playing around with them into something else that doesn’t feel norm or normative.
You also altered your voice?
Is that to remove the gender format as well? It’s sometimes really high and sometimes really low. Did you alter it both ways?
The vocals are not altered on all the tracks, which is kind of a fun thing. I think playing around with the vocals is just fun and I really enjoy pushing it around. I don’t have an essentialist way of thinking about a true voice or a real voice or a natural voice. I don’t really relate to that or think or work in those terms. I just see it as this other potential sort of tool; the voice is so amazing, it’s so fast and flexible and so connecting. I really like instrumental music, but I really love the voice. It’s a really interesting instrument. I would develop different methods to actually get a lot out of it, as much as possible, and playing around with who really owns it, who does it belong to. The fun thing is I think now, in producing in general, that’s become quite an accepted thing. I know with my last album I did this quite a bit and people had a problem with it, but it didn’t seem to happen now, this is what you do and who you are. It’s another layer onto you and that’s fine, which is really exciting.
Who is deciding what is of value and what is not?
What can we expect from the live show? Hearing an album in its recorded version is very different from seeing it live and I’m sure it’s also very different to you.
That’s exactly where we are at the moment: me and Hermione (rRoxymore), who I mentioned earlier, we are thinking about how we want to be on stage. I mean we want it to be fun. I want it to be dancey. There were dance tracks on my last record but I think this show will be quite dancey all the way through. All the videos will feature in the show. I’m trying to find a way to push the videos a bit more.
You also direct the videos, don’t you?
Yes, they are my favourite languages – video and music – and, when they come together, this other language that happens. I think it’s just the most powerful thing. I would like to do way more with them in the future. I would love to do a short review or even TV series and play around with sound and narrative and music.
That’s really interesting and also completely consistent with your previous collaborations with The Knife or Bruce La Bruce; those are all very visual as well. Do you have any plans for any new collaborations coming? You mentioned a few remixes.
It’s so nice when you get remixes. There are a few that I like even more than the originals, so it’s really exciting and so touching when people make such an effort and make something so lovely. I don’t have any plans right now because, to be honest, I am busy administrating the record; I’m doing everything myself, which was a decision… I really needed to do that, not to go through any filter of a label that is run only by men, to make it very clear – also to the public – where this is coming from. But it’s a shitload of work. I am literally doing four jobs at the same time. It’s a lot. Rather than collaborations, after this record I would like to focus on releasing more artists like rRoxymore. One of the remixes was made by this producer called Mokadem; she is quite unknown, I really like her stuff and I think she wants to release a few EPs. I would love to release something of hers, for example. That for me would be a nice thing to do after going on tour, just a different thing to experience.
You talk a lot about expanding limits. We touched on this with the learning/unlearning, the queering [and] going out of binaries. I feel like this is something you also do, as you go about your art and not just in your art. You’ve done a free birthday track, or you [did] that awesome feature for Dummy magazine. The industry always does these top 10 lists but, in your end of year list, all tracks were top ones. I really liked it! You know people are obsessed with these formats and it’s a hierarchy embedded into something that is not necessarily hierarchical.
It’s really damaging actually. The great thing about music is that there is so much of it out there [and] enough for everybody to like. What one person might love, the other might hate. That is the great thing about it; everyone has their own taste. I have a problem with giving scores and with Pitchfork and The Guardian and all this music and cultural journalism and magazines; the scoring is so damaging. I left school to escape from that sort of valuing. Who is deciding what is of value and what is not? I really, really hate it. So I just made everything number one. I think everything is number one.
What is your everyday tip for expanding of limits? Because it’s not a one-time thing of sitting down, reading a book and thinking about it, but something that happens constantly. We spoke about how you get ideas from friends and post on social media. Do you have tips for everyone about how to learn and unlearn and widen their limits?
It is about questioning!
Is that same as queering? Is queering a kind of questioning?
(Laughs) Yes! Everything we do is genderised. I feel like I’m always genderised in the public sphere. And I have to resist that, reject it and always need to develop ways to help myself throughout that. One thing that’s very important – and it’s been a big help to me in the last few years for sure – is having a community of friends which gives you support and a comfort zone where you can share these experiences and also question certain things that happen, whether in your work or personal relationships. But I think, more than anything, it’s questioning, because we are so conditioned right from the beginning. You have to reclaim how you feel about things. Is that helpful? The answer is to question.
Yes, thank you! The answer is to question. That’s such a great way of thinking.
P2R’s All Love’s legal is out now.
1. rRoxymore (left, at a laptop and mixing desk) and P2R (right, at the microphone) on-stage at UT Connewitz, Leipzig, Germany on 25 Feb 2014. A stark spotlight shines at the top between them. By Alexander Klich, shared under a Creative Commons License.
2. Artwork for All Love’s Legal album, shared under fair dealing. Negative-effect image of P2R in sunglasses, holding an upright flower with a long stem in front of the lower half of their face, against a bright pink background.
3. Headshot of P2R with a prosthetic nose. Also frontpage image. By Springfestival graz, shared under a Creative Commons License.
4. P2R on-stage at the Elevate Festival at Dom im Berg, Austria, 2 June, 2013, with a painted black line going down their face, following the outline of their nose and mouth. By Springfestival graz, shared under a Creative Commons License.
5. Artwork for Mokadem remix of the track ‘All Love’s Legal’, shared under fair dealing. This is white (or slightly pinkwashed in some browsers) with ‘PLANNINGTOROCK’ written in small red capital letters up the left side and ‘All Love’s Legal’ in large, painted, bloodlike red letters, moving at an upward angle into the top right corner and filling much of the rest of the page.
Still shot of the cover of All Love’s Legal (album), with the title track playing.