May 26, 2017
From American classical composers to Latin American mega clubs to the aesthetics of the Transformers comic book film franchise, Crampton unpacks the disparate identities, experiences and musics that inform her fourth album Spots Y Escupitajo.
Listen to Spots Y Escupitajo, the new LP on Vinyl Factory by experimental electronic musician Elysia Crampton, and you’ll immediately be bombarded by various sounds: sinister laughing, car wheels screeching, glass shattering, lava-like bubbling. It can be a jarring experience, yet the ear is immediately drawn in, and you find yourself trying to decipher some sort of code, meaning lurking behind the chaos, the indescribable aura making the hairs on your neck stand on end. And it’s there–ever so softly at first, obscured by the paranoid samples and ominous instrumentation–and then it becomes clearer: subtle commands to move, to dance, a demented, repetitive piano melody spiralling out into electronic swooshes or distorted, booming voices intermittently pushing through the fray.
Elysia Crampton is a Native American of Aymara descent. One of the things that makes her music so emotionally impactful is this process of reclamation — a struggle to overcome dominant narratives of individualism in favour of familial kinship that gives the music a sense of tragedy, but also wonder. During our discussion, Crampton mentions taypi, an Aymara term that signifies a space of spirituality, where opposites converge. She navigates this realm effortlessly, and suddenly, guides you through the fear her sounds may incite and towards something beautiful. There can be joy in pain, and Spots y Escupitajo is a testament to that fact. Grit your teeth, and you might come out the other side all the better for your experience.
We converged with Crampton recently over email to discuss the release of the LP, the artists that inspire her, and of course, Michael Bay’s Transformers.
What is the significance of the “spots” on the record, the 20-second suites of music?
The spots are just that: drops that work as audio signatures in a way. In the context of the record, I wanted to open up the possibility for them to be enjoyed as unique compositions themselves, sonic miniatures that could come together to express a larger sense of narrative in the project, through texture and color and stuff.
What is the narrative of the project? Is there a specific story being told, or a message you’d like the listener to take away?
I think there are many narratives to the album. Many of the songs are based on experiences I had or multiple moments gathered into one setting or horizon. I enjoy sharing music because I feel there’s enough space in the work for others to live their lives in it—to see and create and live their memories and experiences through it.
There are a lot of samples of sinister laughter, tires screeching, screaming. Are crime and violence a theme in these pieces of music?
I think as I am both a product of violence and a testament to my family’s resistance to such violence–my body being a document of flesh substantiating a form of survival in the face of brutality–those textures and markings carry through in the music. From an Aymara context I write from the place of taypi, where opposites converge, where weeping crosses to melodious noise, where worlds reverse; I’d like to think that the sounds have the agency to transform into something else in this context, as in a process of conjury or divination – or more, like a form of supernatural communion.
You’ve described your music as “severo”: can you explain what that means?
Severo is Spanish for “severe”. My Friend 5TARB01, fka Lexxi, came up with that term years ago as a means to describe the music my friends and I had been making, which continues to become, grow, and evolve.
You’ve said that this LP honours classical American composers like William Grant Still and John Adams, but also Central/South American club producers like DJ Rodiño, DJ Saiber and Mega DJs from Cochabamba. Can you talk more about the cross-section of those two genres and how they come together for you?
As these are musicians that have inspired me, I feel their work or methods of contact converge in my own labor and output in some way. Becoming aware of this, I wanted to make the effort to define those names, and perhaps through that acknowledgment attest to that convergence enacted or embodied through me, against colonial boundaries and forms of logic, and as testament to a form of Aymara relationality wherein a thing is able to occupy disparate worlds simultaneously.
I don’t want to simplify the music, as it comes across as complex, but the LP seems very dark and anxious. Do you think that is a fair assessment? What mindset were you in when you recorded it?
I think any assessment a person would make in regards to an encounter with the work is fair – there’s enough room in the work to house varied or differing feelings about it. Personally, the project documents a form of jubilation in or through despair. As I mentioned, this comes from the space known as taypi, where weeping turns to melodious noise.
I’m fascinated by this idea, that these brutal sounds can be transformative and hide something jubilant and positive. It gives the piece a completely new context, for me. Is taypi something you explicitly sought to channel through your music, or did you tap into it organically though your creative process?
That’s a great question. For me, I always go from feelings—working with concepts only goes so far and never seems to get the job done for me. I’m a dummy so that probably explains why things never come out right then I try and stick with the script or follow guidelines I’ve created for myself. I’ve tried public speaking a few times to discipline myself but I can’t help but love self-sabotage in this regard. It’s just all the academic posturing, the juridical defence logic, the value logic — I don’t like having to reproduce all of that in order to tell my family’s story, to connect with others in a meaningful way. I’m dumb and I’m broken and I’m messy — that’s always been my starting point.
I’d love to talk about the track ‘Armor of Choqui Chinchay’. I thought the spoken word piece was mesmerizing. Where is it from, what does it mean?
“Armor of Choqui Chinchay” was a poem I wrote as part of a talk I gave in London last year. When I set the lyrics to music, I wanted to change the acting style to another character, something beyond myself. I based the character on Transformers a bit, which is another common trope in South American club culture, also found in the old artwork style my friends Chino Amobi and Seychelle Allah had created and used to paint in. The imagery of the song “Armor of…” plays with English language formation a bit, describing the colours of an imaginary scene or moment. The song feels dumb and kinda sexual to me now, although at the time I was trying to describe the impossible: an encounter with my Ccoa, Choqui Chinchay.
Is the Transformers aspect where the artwork for your album American Drift comes from as well? I ask because that artwork really struck me at the time and I always wondered what the choice behind that aesthetic was.
Yes definitely, the design was based on my love of those films. I kept thinking about this Andean oral history of a boulder that cried tears of blood, and imagined that image in light of the visual language of those movies—the movement and the massive spaces.
Can you talk about how your Latinx heritage influences your music as an artist living in America, especially as immigration continues to be at the forefront of national politics?
Truth be told, I have not one drop of Spanish blood in me! I am Native American and was raised by my Aymara family. Yes, it is true some of my Aymara family speak Spanish and I’ve lived alongside Mexican and Chicanx communities for much of my life growing up in Southern California, but I hate that identifying with my Latinx kin has come at the expense of my Native American heritage. I also think there is something changing in communities that used to define themselves in terms of Spanish domination.
Regarding immigration and national politics, I don’t think conversations about borders can happen without addressing the colonial occupation known as the United States, yet that fact remains excluded from so much of the dialogue. It’s incredible to me how people can talk police brutality or anti-immigrant detention without acknowledging the fact that the carceral settler state was formed and remains on stolen land. We need more acknowledgment of Native American life because, in contrast to what the government might have you believe, we weren’t all vanished. Many of us persist, in spite of the odds, and it is our contemporaneity that is defining us, not static notions of the past related to a linearized notion of time.
You bring up an extremely valid point, both regarding the false perception of Latinx and Native American identities being mutually exclusive, and the serious work America has to do in owning up to its colonialist past and present. I’m curious, do you see a path forward within American culture to resolve these issues? What do you wish to see happen?
I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that beyond the fact that I’m here living and speaking as a fleshy document signaling my family’s survival tactics. I think admitting things is a big step—including the realities and details of that history in our quotidian, daily encounters and conversations, for example. Another issue is the privileging of the progress model of time in our understanding of justice, which constricts our conversations and actions to the field of rights and legislative reform, while silently reinforcing a linear notion of time.
For us Aymara, the past is here, what we see. The future does not lie ahead but is behind us, something we carry. To move forward is to also return. This is but one other way of understanding what has been called space-time, out of many possibilities.