Redefining the perceptions of house music is just one of the many goals of the genre-bending new Poisonous Relationship record, A FAGGOT IN A TEMPEST. Poisonous Relationship is just one identity of Jamie Crewe, a Glasgow-based musician, artist and filmmaker who explores themes of gender, sexuality, mental health, and politics through surprisingly personal and poetic dance music. Tracks like the first single “Give Me My Heaven!” express the joyous nature of house music, with familiar piano stabs, hi-hats, and soulful, feminine vocals, while also giving way to something sparser and almost desolate in its minimalism. The album begs for multiple listens, each plaintive note bringing the songs just short of an emotional resolution that never fully arrives.
While deconstructing the essence of “dance,” track by track and sound by sound, Crewe seeks to build their own sanctuary, invite their friends, and create a space where the music they always wanted to hear plays forever, like the endless nights in the big cities they didn’t grow up in. When we spoke to Crewe, it was after a long year of unrest and turmoil for the queer community worldwide, and our conversation veered from the personal, to the political, and back again—much like the music of Poisonous Relationship itself.
How do you fit what you do as a musician into your practice as a fine artist? Does that art come from the same place, or are they completely different?
I do think they’re quite separate. There have been points of my life where people have known my music more than they’ve known my art, and they assume that I’m a performance artist, or something—which is not the case. Other times, I’ve had people tell me that I basically have to choose one. I’ve had people tell me, ‘No one will take you seriously as an artist if you’re doing music like this.’ For me, I’ve always felt that my music and my art were separate things, and I think I can do both. I think specializing can be weird. It’s like, ‘Professionalize yourself, concentrate, you only have the capacity to do one thing, and you need to be good at it.’ I think everyone should just do everything. I find myself talking about the same things in both areas, but I really like music as music. I don’t need to make it artwork. There’s enough stuff going on in the music for it to be valid on its own, and the same is true for my art practice. Stuff I couldn’t do with music, I do with art. Every now and again they come together. I’ve written scores for the past few films I’ve made. One was just locked grooves on vinyl, and then I did an improvised piano solo over it. That’s where the skills start to crossover, and I’ve noticed that more in the past few years.
I feel like that’s a very 21st-century thing. It seems like a lot of artists of our generation don’t want to confine themselves to one practice. Not only artistically, or for inspiration, but also practically, even just financially, honestly. You have to hustle.
Yeah, the luxury of being able to be one thing is maybe not relevant today. Not that I make any money [laughs]. Just the spread of it. It’s something that really clicked with me through getting to know [NY-based artists] Colin Self and Alexis Penney. I remember when Alexis started writing his sci-fi webcomic musical, he was emailing me about it and I was like [cautiously], ‘OK, let’s give it a go…’ But then he send it to me, and I was like, ‘This is really good! This is amazing!’ Maybe everybody can just be a photographer-writer-musician-comic [artist]. Maybe everyone can just do everything. It does feel very in the climate.
It’s also very queer. Trying to find your place, and realizing that you’ve already done the work to invent yourself on some level, so why define yourself in one way?
In some ways, you’ve gone beyond what you’re supposed to be doing anyways.
Your new album, A FAGGOT IN A TEMPEST, continues your work with minimal house music. What is your relationship with that genre? It almost seems like DIY house, which is kind of an oxymoron, since by definition house is very communal. It feels like you’re going against that, and making something that’s more confessional and personal.
I think it’s partly that my relationship with nightlife and dance music has always been slightly off. I grew up in the countryside until I was 18, and then went to a small city. Dance music was something I got into as a teenager, but I listened to it on my CD Walkman walking across a field to school. When I think about the community that forms around house music and dance cultures, it’s always something that I was a little bit displaced from. Like, I was in rural Derbyshire, listening to house and disco music, and I was super into downtown New York drag and trans performers from the late ’80s, because I was a big Antony fan. I got into Ethyl Eichelberger and John Kelly and Kabuki Starshine. It was always this relationship with the city as a place where queerness happens, and dance happens, which I was always really excited by but always out of step with. In some ways, I think that has continued as my context for making music: dislocation.
At the same time, you seem to be part of a somewhat global scene of independent dance producers making their own music. Do you still see yourself as isolated as when you first began?
I’ve started having a bit more sense of community in the past few years in a very international way. I’ll talk to someone like Jonathan Roshad from Newbody, a duo from LA who do amazing house music. It’s very retro—not to say ‘retro,’ but it has very specific references. People like The Black Madonna as well, she’s been really interesting to make contact with and have a bit of dialogue with. So yeah, I do end up doing this sort of DIY thing. I was never trained in music, and I can’t play any instruments—everything I make, I program. It was just because someone happened to give me Ableton and a sample pack that I was like, ‘OK, maybe I can feasibly make the kind of music I always wanted to make.’ So suddenly, I started doing bits of production, and making R&B or dance songs. It does feel, in a lot of ways, that the music came up in isolation with me, geographically and culturally. Sometimes I feel really sad about it, and I wish I was somewhere where I could go out every week and hear music that I want to hear, and have that community. But in other ways, maybe I just need to unpack my specific experience of what dance music is, with its contradictions and specificities.
What are your experiences making this type of music in Glasgow? For a not-so-big city, it has a rich musical history. Is there some sort of community there?
I moved to Glasgow three years ago, and it’s so much better for all aspects of culture than Sheffield. When I was in Sheffield, I would do maybe one or two gigs a year, and it would be at DIY spaces, mostly in a punk context. Apart from a few friends, nobody really knew what to make of it. Almost as soon as I got to Glasgow, I started getting gigs. People were there, and people reacted, which I’d never had before. It’s cooled off a bit now, but there was a point where I was gigging once or twice a month in Glasgow, playing bigger crowds, and that was really unexpected and nice for getting a sense of audience. In Sheffield, there never feels like there’s an audience, it feels like you may be able to scrape together enough of your friends to come out that night. So Glasgow is much better, as with queer stuff. I have friends that think Glasgow isn’t queer enough, or they’re disappointed with the level of queerness, but I’ve come from Derbyshire and then Sheffield, so to me it’s really buzzing. Specifically, at the moment, the queer presence and community of friends I have around me is a really great and diverse group of queer people. So I’m super happy and thankful for that, and I get support from a lot of people with my music.
I think, for a lot of reasons, this past year, our community tended to gravitate towards art that served as an emotional life raft of sorts. When you talk about queerness and depression, were you also dealing with current events?
I felt really unwell over the world this past year, especially accelerating over the past few months. It’s just been a level of anxiety and stress—and it’s not just the world, it’s also layers of personal stuff. I’ve been so split between wanting to do something, to not be passive, but also wanting to absolutely get away from it. I’m totally split over which is the best impulse. And also I’m really split over, like, ‘Am I mentally ill?’ or ‘Is everything as bad as it seems?’ And it’s not an either/or, I think it’s probably both. Do I need to just calm down? What do I need to do? It’s been really difficult. I bought a secondhand Playstation 4, and I bought Final Fantasy XV and that’s helped me level out my anxiety [laughs]. That was really important. But then, you don’t want to level out your anxiety to the point where you don’t do anything when something can be done.
Do you think that queer artists have a duty to be at the front lines of activism, or is it OK to be like, ‘I’m just going to play Final Fantasy, because I’m just a human and I can’t bear the burden of social change all the time?’
I think it’s really important that no one feel obliged to do anything but survive on their own terms. I’ve been thinking, ‘Is this the point where I just go live in a cottage in the Highlands and just not pay attention?’ Obviously, that’s an expression of a certain kind of privilege to be able to detach, but when I think of other people it’s like, ‘Do whatever you need to do.’ On a personal level, the question is, ‘What are my capacities? Can I do something?’ But that’s so unclear, because in some ways I’m like, ‘Yes, of course I can,’ and then on another level I’m definitely depressed and traumatized and dealing with so much stress and complicated things in my life, maybe I’m not obligated to do something. Should I push myself further? Am I being cowardly, or am I really at the end of my tether? Do I actually need medication and professional help?
On a personal front, what are you going to be working on in 2017?
I’m doing more art stuff, which is great. I just got shortlisted for the Margaret Tait Award, which is for artists working in experimental film in Scotland. So I may or may not get that. It would be amazing if I did, because that would give me a big new commission and £10,000 to work on it. And, musically, this record took forever by my standards. I started working on it in 2013, and it’s been finished for a really long time. I did my Master’s degree in Glasgow, so that slowed things down a bit. Also, I was looking around for ages for someone to master the record, and I didn’t want it to be a straight, white, cis man. It took me months to find anyone, but then this woman Rena, who is a producer, composer, and sound engineer in London, contacted me and she ended up mastering it, and she was a total delight throughout the whole process. So the album ended up being a totally self-initiated thing, with the help of a few really good people. But I’m so excited to make new music. The new idea is ‘pastoral garage,’ because I was thinking about all of the guitar textures in UK garage, and how I want to extend that. That also comes from the fact that I grew up listening to dance music in the countryside, and trying to get my head around what that means. How can we think about what dance music would sound like if it came from the countryside? And what does that say about intersections of queerness and race—because, obviously, the countryside is overwhelmingly white. Trying to break down a little bit of my position and context, and hopefully make some good, exciting, weird, increasingly specific music. I’ve always done a lot of genre stuff, like wanting to do house or wanting to do garage, and I’m trying to break that down a bit because I wonder how fetishistic that might be. Like, an idea of what house music is. So I’m excited to get into that, and make some florid, pastoral garage.