Solo producer and Kanye/Bjork collaborator Arca interviewed in New York for BEAT magazine (Nov 2014)
Photography Daniel Sannwald
Arca is squatting on the pavement outside an organic coffee shop in New York’s West Village, petting his manager Milo’s adorable dog Hank. He closes his eyes for a few moments to let the sun warm his face, then decides we should find a quieter spot to talk. As we walk, he bounces along and chats with a tiggerish, bright-eyed eagerness reminiscent of the excitable animal we have just left behind. He’s wearing a torn t-shirt and an impressively revealing pair of jeans with zips around the top of the thighs, which are almost completely undone and holding the pantlegs up seemingly through willpower alone.
At 24, Alejandro Ghersi has already made a huge impact on the musical landscape. His elastic, unpredictable beats had been making waves on the electronic underground via New York’s UNO label, and underpinned the alien R&B of FKA Twigs on her second EP, when they caught the ear of Kanye West, who drafted him for Project Yeezus, a situation Alejandro recalls as “surreal”, going on to describe making beats at Rick Rubin’s Malibu beachfront mansion when “only four months earlier, I was borrowing money from friends”.
The corkscrewing thrillride of free mixtape &&&&& followed, showcasing his solo production talents once more, and now his debut album arrives on indie powerhouse Mute, a shape-shifting collection of otherworldly compositions, chattering melodies and clattering beats tied together with a visual concept about an androgynous character known as Xen (visualized by longterm collaborator Jesse Kanda). He has also been working with Bjork on her new album, which he won’t discuss in detail “because it’s not my record, and still in incubation” but happily enthuses about her as a fan and now a friend. When we talk, he has just returned from playing some warm-up gigs on the west coast and tickets are selling fast for his first major show in his adopted hometown of London. Smart, passionate and articulate, he discusses the “feminine aggression” at the heart of his music, the impact of the women in his life growing up in Venezuela, and why he wants to drag people out of their comfort zone.
I’ve had 24 hours with your album… I came away with the sense that it was very vocal, despite being instrumental. I was thinking of voices and could hear different characters and personalities.
I’m very excited you feel that… That was something very deliberate, to make a voice but not with the presence of a human voice. To have those melodies sing. I was always thinking of voice but not in any language. And I guess little character studies. But maybe a more honest way of saying that is different sides of one person.
Who did you have in mind? I have heard a bit about the Xen character.
The narrative of Xen was something that I articulated once I had made the music. I try to embrace every first thought, and not question it. I might delete a sound or something but my goal when writing is to never look back, just keep moving forward. Eventually a song that means something to me will lead me in the direction to finish it. And then I try to make sense of it. Once this record was done, I was surprised it was so vulnerable. That was not my intention.
Going with your immediate thoughts seems a confident way of working, are you a confident person?
When I first started making music this way, I realised it would let me get much closer to my subconscious. Whether I am actually doing that or not, that’s my intention: to not have an idea and then my conscious mind say ‘that sounds like whatever’… this blabbering voice in all our heads negating our impulses can be judgmental. So, it’s more about setting up the conditions for that song to pour out.
How do you get into that frame of mind?
It might be sounding like I’m a slave to inspiration. It’s not that, I have to sit myself down and work a lot, because those moments are actually quite rare.
I’m interested in this partly because of the name of your album, Xen. There’s this Buddhist idea of the tao or flow, when you’re doing the work and you’re fully engaged but you’re no longer thinking about it. It’s when we do our best work… and this is zen.
This is the third really weird coincidence! Of course, I know what zen is but I never connected it to my working process. Someone asked me if Xen was a reference to the prefix that means alien, you know like xenophobia. And I was like, no that’s not where it comes from but that’s funny. And someone else was like have you read a lot of Carl Jung? And I was like no, and he said there’s this idea of anima, which is that we have a self inside of us which is the opposite gender. And if in control of that, it can be creatively very fertile. I didn’t know about that when I came up with Xen as this alter ego, or side of me that I am trying to articulate. I came up with that name when I was 13, I used it for MMMRPGs or journal entries or whatever. I didn’t think of Xen again until the record was done.
A rap producer when listening back to a beat might nod his head, have a physical reaction. When I got to something of mine that really moved me, I would close my eyes and move really softly. In my mind, I would be taken over by feminine softness but also feminine aggression, it all came from there.
A rap producer when listening back to a beat might nod his head, have a physical reaction. When I got to something of mine that really moved me, I would close my eyes and move really softly. In my mind, I would be taken over by feminine softness but also feminine aggression
Where does that feminine aggression come from and how does it connect to your music?
Feminine aggression has a lot to do with using softness, vulnerability as a weapon. It can be more of a weapon in certain situations than blunt force, I don’t mean being manipulative. The women in my family are Venezuelan and have a fire in them, and I grew up around that and witnessed how powerful and dangerous that can be. It’s a stitching together of body language or posture. Gestures. A power that they don’t carry in a superficial way. Elasticity. Softness.
When I heard you hadn’t done many interviews, I thought of a shy, bedroom-dwelling producer. But then I saw your photo shoot in Fader, taking your clothes off and rolling around, and I thought: he’s not shy.
No, I’m not shy. I just didn’t think the music needed it. When I understood that this record was going to be the way it is, I took a deep breath and decided I needed to stand by it and explain it to someone who doesn’t know why I made it.
Why did you want to be shown in that way?
When I was thinking of a way of presenting myself that made sense, I thought of my heroes. Bjork or Marilyn Manson. Someone who, regardless of what their music sounded like, understands that there is a latent power in theatre and drama.
You’re tearing your clothes off… wearing fishnet. Do you like the fact it might take some people out of their comfort zone a bit?
I think every opportunity to say something should be taken and I didn’t want to be passive in any way. I like to be confrontational.
Hip hop hasn’t been the most welcoming culture to gay men historically, how do you relate to that?
The people I relate to most like Missy or Busta, operate as unhinged personalities. That picture of him wearing one giant pant sleeve dress at the VMAs… all those beautiful Hype Williams videos, it was so influential to me. And it wasn’t really necessary for me to decide whether this culture was accepting of my sexuality or not at that point, because the music was so strong. I’m not so much a fan of a genre but specific people. I love it when people build a world.
Working with Jesse Kanda, how have you created your visual world?
I told Jesse that when I listened in my mind’s eye, I could see this being and it wasn’t man or woman, it was a genderless creature standing in a spotlight on a stage, very slowly moving to a huge crowd of men and women, and everyone in the audience is aghast. Both attracted to and repulsed by this thing. Jesse had all these questions about this thing that I could just answer immediately. In hindsight, there are some parallels with my own life. It’s a single, alienated person. Jesse took my facial structure and moulded it in 3D, so we share bones in a sense. We tried to make the connective tissue between me and this fantasy as rich as possible, so people could feel it.
Last night, I was at this event and I was tapped on the shoulder and taken to a small closet. There was a woman sitting in this dimly lit, draped room, some psychedelic droning, and she made me sit while she told me a story. As she did, she spooned red wine from a glass into my mouth and leaned in closer and closer… It was all very erotic and overwhelming. Just as we were about to touch, she broke off and ushered me back into the party, whispering a message into my ear.
That is so amazing! I think it’s really so cool.
Perhaps in the digital age, people are hungry for one-on-one experience. I listened to your album on the subway home afterwards and wondered about how people, you, others, are creating personal communication with music… saying something one on one.
I think part of the reason I decided to be so open is that the more personal something is, the more relatable it can be for someone completely different. That’s how catharsis works. You see someone in a much more unfortunate position than you, and by experiencing their sadness you are connecting with yours in a way that allows you to live in a more fulfilled way. So your mind isn’t all fragmented.
What did you ultimately learn from the Kanye experience?
I enjoyed working on the record and I’m really happy I did it. But I’ve realised I’m much more at ease when it’s just me and a performer in a room. That allows me to use every bit of empathy I have. Rather than being in a really high-pressure environment with lots of people. &&&&& was a bit of a response to this. I am very grateful, and I think Kanye is incredible, but I immediately wanted to define myself and complicate how people might see me by doing something different.
How did you start working with Bjork?
When I first started with Milo, he asked me who was my dream to work with? She was the first. He laughed and asked can you list some other people. After I released &&&&&, I guess he sent it and she wrote a very short note saying she liked it. I totally lost it! I remember exactly where I was when I got that email. Finally meeting her, I was so grateful that music could so easily bridge two people from very different parts of the world. And not just Bjork, making so many friends from all over the world, it’s what I’m grateful for most out of making music.
What did you take away from working with her?
If I hadn’t met her, I don’t think I would have had the bravery to confront myself as much as I did to make this record. And I might not have had the bravery to stand by it as it came out.
‘Xen’ by Arca is out on Mute Records. This was first published in BEAT magazine.