Expatriarch Generations: James K interviews Planningtorock

The third installment of Expatriarch Generations finds sloganeering producer/performer Planningtorock selecting James K as her newcomer artist. James K is not just a fresh face in the music biz; she’s new to Berlin, having relocated here from New York last May. Aside from doing guest vocals for Physical Therapy and Mykki Blanco, James K self-released her solo EP one year ago, four tracks of experimental pop with atmospheric ambience and dubbed-out jazz elements. The Rhode Island School of Design grad is currently finishing her first full-length album, slated for release next year via NYC-based label UNO, joining their roster alongside Arca and Fatima Al Qadiri. Planningtorock and James recently exchanged questions and thoughts on this month’s episode of Expatriarch Radio, now transcribed here. They will team up again on November 21 for the Hot Topic party at SchwuZ in Berlin-Neukölln. James K will perform live, and Planningtorock will DJ afterwards along with Matt Sims and Sick Girls.

Rum EP by James K

James K: So you were just on tour. I heard that you don’t prefer to tour that much. Why?

Planningtorock: I do and I don’t. I like playing live, but touring is really exhausting, and it puts you in a funny mental space, doing the same thing over and over every night. But what happens is, being away, I think I don’t want to tour anymore, and then when I’m home, it’s like, ooh, it’d be great to be on the road again! Grass is greener… What about you?

Yeah, I feel like I really enjoy touring, maybe because I haven’t been doing it for that long. I enjoy seeing the new cities, but what I like most is to play for different audiences. Personally, I don’t go into a show with a definite idea of how my set is going to be. Whenever I have done that, I’m disappointed. Trying to be a perfectionist is not working out for me. How preconceived is your show?

I wish I could do a show that is more spontaneous. If a show is organized to a certain point, and it works, it’s amazing. But then when it doesn’t, you can’t react on the moment. We do change setlists and edit things, and I make videos while I’m on tour. Sometimes I can see or feel that the language between the image and the audio isn’t connecting strongly enough. Ideally it would be nice to do that even more, take more risks. But people come and say, “But I just want you to play that song that I like!”

How much do you take the audience into consideration?

I think a lot, actually. But then when you take it all in, you’ve also got to have a filter. Expectations are funny, aren’t they? You have to sift through the ones you really need. That, together with challenging your own process. I have friends and know successful artists who have done that, being more playful, and the crowd have just hated it. That’s quite a difficult thing.

But it’s good to not always give what people expect, because then you get stuck in that hole.

Exactly. But it is a funny thing, though, your own relationship to your music. What is overly familiar to you is not familiar to everybody. When you play live, there will be people there brought along by their friends, and they don’t know your work. Remember that.

I have a quote from Roland Barthes: “Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing’, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image … the photograph is the advent of myself as the other.” I wanted to talk about that.

The whole mask/helmet thing – they were just ideas, and then they would just land onstage, and then because I was the person wearing them, people would see them as alter-egos. I had to think a long time about that, this “othering” of yourself. I feel like I only started a little bit with that, because there was never a strong enough narrative together with the imagery. I suppose it’s characterization, and using that to say things you can’t say when it’s just you. I love comedy for that reason. You can have somebody stand there and say a lot of shit, and you don’t take it personally because it’s an act. I think music and lyrics are the same in a way. They are from you, but people take them for themselves.

I wanted to ask you about time. That’s another thing about touring. I want to change my relationship to when I’m recording and when I’m filming. This schedule really hinders potential other work I could be doing. I feel like I don’t want to do the norm of putting out a record again.

I think it goes in waves for me. There are times when I can be really productive, and there are times when I get stuck, which is natural. I think it’s helpful to have different outlets – it’s a matter of knowing when you’re stuck so you can move on to another thing. In terms of releasing things, that’s a whole other issue for me. I have a lot of stuff I want to release, but it’s been out of my control. It’s a matter of waiting to get it out there.

I was also thinking about when you create something, how relevant is it if you reacting to something that’s happened just now – or sonically it’s relevant right now. I was thinking it would be funny to put my first album that nobody knows up on SoundCloud, and lots of Planningtorock fans thought it was a new record! They were like, “Wow, amazing!” How weird. I couldn’t stop laughing. This was ten years old.

That’s pretty random, in a way. I think that talent and timing are what you need.

The two T’s! (Laughter)

And timing is totally random. To work at what you love to do, and to produce, is always the most important. But the timing is random. Of course you can listen to what’s going on and make something that’s going to be popular, but that’s not the conversation here. Neither of us do that.

But there’s personal timing. I have so many artist friends who struggle because they are in contracts that limit them, and the people who control them do not understand that for an artist who lyrically work topically, that they have to get it out quite fast. If it’s too late, it’s really too late. I know you have some tracks that you couldn’t release. I hope that side of the business is going to die soon. The whole Angel Haze thing – her album being held back so long. She’s writing very much about what’s happening to her right there, right then, which is what’s really fresh about it.

But I also think that freshness can stay relevant. I don’t know if it really matters.

But I’m thinking more about the person who made it.

Well, it’s a struggle, and that’s what you get yourself into being a musician or an artist. Timing isn’t always going to be on your side. If you know that, then you’re all good. Just don’t expect anything! It’s about not having expectation. It’s only a struggle if you get wrapped up in that.

Maybe I shouldn’t say this about myself, but I’m pretty punk – I never rehearse. A lot of it is economics. You’ve got to have money to be able to rehearse in a space. But I’ll do a show and think, OK, that worked, that worked, that didn’t work, I’m going to change that. That’s the best place to learn shit, right in front of the people.

Yeah, rehearsing too much can create expectation. But there’s a balance. To never rehearse, maybe that’s not a good idea.

(Laughter) The thing is, if you’ve been playing quite a lot, you’ve got stuff to fall back on. I’ve had times where the music completely stopped and I’ve done a cappella stuff. I like that energy, that tension. Performance is so bonkers. “We’ll stand on this stage bit, and all those people will stand over there and watch us, and we will do things”. What the fuck is that? It’s so weird. This agreement in society. There is a performer and there is an audience. It’s magical.

I started with open mics.

Really? Comedy?

No, not comedy! (Laughter) I wish! No, just playing guitar and singing. But at every open mic, it’s like that kind of unexpected… “What’s going to happen?” It’s a really good challenge to do those. So, last question: In creating a mythology behind a persona, the lines of reality and fantasy become blurred. What is honest expression to you? How is it important to your work

I don’t second guess it. For me, honesty is about integrity.

Do you think you can read bullshit?

I mean, I talk about integrity, but I do like shit stuff too, because bullshit has its role. Without bullshit, you wouldn’t know what integrity was, would you? (Laughter) It’s all out there. I think you need all of it!

Hot Topic vs. Expatriarch Generations - Nov. 21 at SchwuZ w/ James K live + DJs Planningtorock, Matt Sims, Sick Girls