Tone Glow 011: Claire Rousay

An interview with Claire Rousay + an accompanying mix, album downloads, and our writers panel on Menzi's 'Impazamo'

Claire Rousay

Claire Rousay is an artist whose music had primarily involved drums and percussion, but has largely expanded into including field recordings, electronics, and more. She was one of four drummers at the center of a Wire feature titled “Resetting the Rhythm” (Issue 433), written by Joshua Minsoo Kim. Kim and Rousay caught up on March 26th via phone, talking about evangelical Christianity, the thrill of having crushes, and the intimate nature of her work. Photos by Katherine Squier.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hey, hey!

Claire Rousay: How are you?

I could not sleep yesterday, so I slept at like 5AM. And then I woke up at like 10 and now I’m here!

Right on. I went to bed around the same time you woke up and I woke up like an hour ago.

What the—what are you doing!!

I was just napping (laughter).

OK let’s get right into it… so yesterday when we were talking—or was it two days ago? I don’t know, time is all a blur right now—we talked about Pedro the Lion and the mix you made. What drew you to their music initially and why do you still listen to them now?

Growing up in evangelical Christianity, I was super sheltered in terms of what media I consumed. So, you know, there were only so many good bands that came out of that and a lot of them didn’t feel as cool because, at a certain point, Pedro the Lion had a secular appeal as well. I’ve always wrestled with the same kind of things that are mentioned in those songs. And even my terminology is really Christian and I relate to that too—like wrestling with things is a very US Church way to talk about stuff, but it’s the only way I’ve been taught how to look and speak about emotions. It kind of bleeds into everything. I reached a point where I thought I was over everything—all the talking points and ideas explored in that music—but with the current state of the world it’s all kind of rushing back.

Even when David Bazan was still Christian, I loved how he had these songs about doubting and dealing with depression. It always felt way more authentic than virtually anything else from [Christian artists]. If you’re comfortable sharing—and I know this can be a difficult thing to talk about—what are some specific topics he covered that spoke to you?

Oh, I don’t have any issue talking about it. I was super involved in the church and as I was growing up, any kind of intellectual stimulation I was getting was from church and theology—I thought I was really smart. I knew a lot, I read books about the Bible as well as the Bible itself. I was digging and digging and digging but then I hit, I don’t know, some solid thing where I couldn’t go any further. I was trying to get myself out of a hole I was digging myself into by looking for more answers, but it was all starting to make less sense to me.

I think that feeling was in those songs. They dealt with things like the inerrancy of the Bible and how a lot of things are just up to circumstance, like how it all could’ve been any other book. It was compiled in such a way that made me anxious to put a lot of trust into it. I’m still reluctant to let go of it 100 percent of the time because I’m super terrified of eternity and Hell. I’m more afraid of eternity as an idea than how it’s manifested. The idea of existing forever is pretty terrifying.

So I was doing a lot of digging and reading a lot of theology. When I was in high school, I described it as being similar to people who know everything about the Star Wars universe or The Lord of the Rings. You know everything about this world but you start to pick it apart and it doesn’t seem viable at a certain point. It does feel like a bubble inside reality and that’s when I started getting freaked out about it.

For sure, like a bubble in the sense that you feel so disconnected from everyone else?

That and it feels like it’s not real life. It’s like real life is happening around you and you’re in your own little way of thinking. It’s less of a worldview and more of its own world, I guess.

Oh I feel that, yeah.

Yeah, so it’s disconnected from the world. In the Scripture, Christians are “in the world, but not supposed to be of the world”—that whole thing. It’s really frustrating to deal with how that looks in reality, and all that stuff is in those songs. It’s Hard to Find a Friend is a good record. And whatever the record after that is—the first track on it is “Criticism as Inspiration.”

Mmm the EP [The Only Reason I Feel Secure], those two are my favorites for sure.

Mixed really well too (laughs).

I grew up in an evangelical home as well and it was always upsetting seeing what the religion would espouse and how that would never manifest itself in any sort of action. That’s like—so I’m still a Christian now—but the thing that I always hate is how I rarely meet Christians who are “progressive.” It’s like… how come there aren’t many Christians fighting for sex workers or who care about trans rights? It’s like, why don’t we care about these things? I don’t know, that shit pisses me off all the time. That’s what I feel you’re sort of getting at with how we can learn all these things in a church setting, but then there’s no actual fruit that feels meaningful, that’s addressing the world as it is right now.

Yeah, and a lot of people are like, “Well the Bible’s a dated document and it’s of that time and that’s why it’s not relevant.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true; I think people, especially Christians who are conservative, don’t want it to be relevant, if that makes sense. Like, they would rather focus on issues that were written about back then and try to relate it to now than talk about all those same issues. I think a lot of the issues are the same, even with the sex worker thing in particular. It’s not being addressed in a way that is relevant. One, why don’t they support sex workers? Two, they could at least be kind to them. And three, do they even know what sex work looks like in 2020? Probably not.

(sighs). There’s also this tendency for Christians to think that you should only be involved in Christianity and Christian stuff because of the whole “in the world, not of the world” thing. And because of that, it forces a total misunderstanding of what the real world is actually like, which in turn further stokes an us-vs-them mentality, which of course sucks.

No yeah, totally, and Christians love playing the persecution card. I truly believe at this point, though, that real Christianity is persecuted, or at least what I think real Christianity looks like. I still care about how Christians act and what comes out of it.

When we talked you said you were “definitely a youth group kid” and that you “spoke for the teens.” What did you mean by the latter?

As a teenager I was giving sermons in the youth group.

Oh wow, that’s hardcore.

Yeah I was deep in it, I was considered one of the smart people in the youth group. It was really weird. There was this crew of high school intellectuals or, you know, pseudo-intellectuals or whatever—I don’t know how valid that statement is. We would get asked to tell our story and try to learn how to preach and everything. My mom was the assistant worship pastor at the church for ten years, and my dad taught second and third grade. We were super involved—I was there like four days a week, it was my whole life.

Wow.

Mmhmm.

I was one of those teens at the church I attended in high school (laughs). I used to carry my Bible around school—

Yeah, me too.

In retrospect I felt like I was pressured to do it, which was dumb. It felt like another thing that stoked the us-vs-them mentality, though maybe not at as intense a level. It was sort of like, “Hey, I’m trying to make a statement that I’m different,” when nowadays I feel Christianity should be more about building bridges with people who are different from in order to make a better world.

It’s really similar being an artist sometimes when you’re trying to do this tortured, lone-artist-in-the-sea-of-whatever. Coming from a white, evangelical church, I went to a public school and it was made to seem like I had all the answers and the other people didn’t. A lot of misguided artists have that mentality also, which is maybe why I ended up where I did, and why I’m trying to undo most of it.

Like as a drummer turned, uh, non-drummer?

Yeah, just like going from playing in bands and now being a solo artist. Even just being any kind of creative person, initially being all “I’m this tortured soul and this is what came out of it” instead of just trying to make an honest piece of work and actually connecting with other people. I want that rather than, “I’m the artist and you’re consuming my art and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

What do you think it takes, or what is involved with creating an “honest piece of work?”

I don’t know, you could also go back to the thing with, “What’s music? What’s not music?” where it’s all in the intention and how you want to present it. I don’t want to say that the intention—in terms of being earnest—is all it takes to make an honest piece of work. Even if the work is autobiographical, there could be a self-centeredness around it, either actually in the work or what it’s surrounded by in terms of interviews, press, how you carry yourself, how you’re talking to other people at shows—I think that’s all a huge part of it. Growing up, I was told to help other people, so I think creating something that helps other people—that has the intention of being something that others can consume and benefit from—would be considered that.

So would you say that’s the primary thing for you right now? If you were to create something you’d consider an honest piece of work, it would involve—at least in part—the music being able to help someone in some way?

Yea, and I talk about stuff being self-centered and being autobiographical even though I definitely use a lot of intimate stuff from my real life, but that’s probably the main thing for me right now. The thing I keep saying is that the world is burning so rather than solutions, everyone just needs a hand to hold—even if it’s from six feet away now (laughter). It’s really important to me that people are offering that in addition to solutions to bigger issues.

You mentioned that when we were talking for the Wire piece, and it’s something that’s stuck with me. Who are the people in your life right now who are there to hold your hand?

Andrew Weathers and his partner Gretchen [Korsmo] taught me a lot about how to live ethically. I really appreciate being around them and watching them organizing a community. I also have Alex Cunningham, the violinist, who is a really fantastic person. Also Jacob Wick from Mexico City. And there’s my partner Samantha who I’ve been seeing for five years.

Can you give an example of how Andrew Weathers and his partner have helped you live more ethically?

Just watching them build up their community and seeing how they live their lives—it’s very different from mine. They essentially built their house in the middle of nowhere but still found the time and resources, both emotionally and physically, to support other people without putting themselves in the middle of it, or without taking the credit for it.

Andrew is one of those people who doesn’t put himself on all the shows he books—he tries to find people who are local and would work with who’s coming through. He creates these connections for other people. It’s nice seeing Andrew play and then talk with people after shows, even at events where he is not the person who’s being focused on.

He’s one of those people who cares about the community above all else, aside from the music. He does pay-what-you-want shows and nobody is turned away. Even if somebody shows up and all they have is beer, he doesn’t judge them for that, and he lets them experience the event with the same amount of warmth and acceptance as somebody who donated, like, twice the requested amount. It’s really nice how he sets up an equal playing field for people regardless of first impressions or the way they’re presenting themselves in that situation.

Can you share one thing you appreciate about your partner Samantha?

Around month two or three of dating, she sat me down and asked, “Hey, do you have any goals or dreams?” It was a question I hadn’t really been asked before. I was in a weird spot in my life where I wasn’t living super honestly and I wondered, “Do I actually have goals or dreams.” At that point I really didn’t, so I started thinking about those things and she really helped me through it. I wanted to live more honestly and create my own kind of world that I enjoyed living in, which is really interesting because I definitely wasn’t doing that before. She’s really good at asking those probing questions, and since she’s a person who’s not a musician or artist as a main thing, it’s really nice being with her because it takes me out of my little bubble.

Christianity and experimental music can both be like these fantasy worlds. You’re kind of in your zone and think that you know everything about living or about a situation, but you’re really just navigating this fake world—and I’m not using fake in a negative way, it just feels so removed from everything, like it’s its own thing. Sometimes you have to take a step back and let your bubble be penetrated by the real world around it. Samantha’s really helped with doing that.

I like that one of your goals is to be more honest with yourself because it really comes through in your music. You can definitely sense that in A Heavenly Touch. Can you describe what the process was like for making that album, and the goals you had?

The title comes from the whole hand holding thing I like to say—“The world’s burning, you should hold somebody’s hand”—so there’s that. The album is also the first time I really used synthesizers in a recording, and the first time I really focused on creating something that’s aesthetically pleasing to listen to as opposed to the clicks and hiss in my previous works.

I used personal recordings from shows I’ve been at and gatherings at friends’ houses, trying to frame those things in the context of an album because I’m always comforted when I hear recordings of other people’s special moments. I’m trying to do that for other people. That album is a collection of moments that were special to me, that have lasted with me.

I remember how you made a call on Twitter for people to send recordings—is that what’s heard on the last track?

Yes! I did that call for people to send me one minute recordings where they would talk about the last date they went on. I got a lot of submissions and I picked probably 12 of them, layering them in there. I would listen for key words about dates and intimacy. I’m really into the way that a crush or one night with somebody can hold as much weight—or the experience can be as profound—as a five year relationship. I really got those kind of feelings from the recordings. Some of the people are friends of mine so I kind of knew the situation they were in, but there were others I had never met before. Even then, I automatically felt connected to these people even though all I had was their email address and a one-minute recording where they were talking about something that was really good or really bad.

It’s funny how you can feel so connected to someone even after they’re vulnerable for just a little bit.

I think that’s really important and something I want to do with my work. There’s a vulnerability and an intimacy that I really want everything I make to have. I don’t want everything to just be about me, or to be this weird self-narrative thing where it’s autobiographical to a fault. I want my work to reach other people, or resonate with at least one other person.

And they definitely do resonate with people! You can tell. What do you like most about having a crush?

The way I look at my life is really interesting. All the points on the timeline leading up to now… I kind of look at my life as a trajectory of all the crushes I’ve had and how they’ve changed me. I really like having a crush even if it’s just playful and not emotionally intense, although crushing on somebody and the way you’re communicating can actually be really labor intensive for me, emotionally. Maybe that’s why the feeling lasts so long because it’s such a strong desire to be wanted by someone, especially if it’s a strong feeling in such a short period of time.

What’s the earliest crush you can remember having?

Hmm. (pauses). I had a crush in Kindergarten and her name was Rosemary. She was the prettiest girl in class. It was unanimously decided—even if it was unspoken and we were five—that she was the cute girl, and I definitely had a crush on her.

The first time I really put words to it and started talking about it with the other person was in third grade. There was this girl named Madison who I had a pretty big crush on. Now that I look back on it, I definitely have a type and she was not in that line of type (laughter). But I remember us writing each other notes, hanging out outside of school. And then she eventually changed schools and we had a friend who would hang out with her on the weekends because they lived in the same neighborhood. I would give envelopes that had my notes to the mutual friend and she would deliver them, and then she would bring me back Madison’s letters.

That’s so cute.

Yeah! And it was just my first time corresponding with someone in that kind of way where we’re not being fake or overly nice, but wanting something from this person that they could give you, and them wanting you in that same way. It was just the first time I experienced that, and it was such a strong experience. I still remember passing off the notes and what the envelopes looked like—it’s really wild that that much sticks with you.

Do you still have the envelopes with you, or at your parents’ home?

No, I got rid of them. It just kind of fell away, I don’t know. I would also hide them from my mom because I wasn’t allowed to have a girlfriend. And growing up there was a lot of pressure not to date anybody who wasn’t a Christian, specifically somebody who wasn’t Christian and not from our church.

From your church, too? Wow.

That way they could vet my crushes and meet their parents in a controlled environment, and honestly a really fake environment—like a lot of people who go to church don’t act the same way they do outside of it.

It was really interesting having a crush and also hiding it, not wanting my mom to find out I was into somebody who was not super into their faith. Turns out she was actually Mormon and moved to Utah when I was in sixth grade.

Can you give an example beyond these early years of when you had a crush or date that ended up defining a period of your life?

I was on tour a year ago. And I don’t usually do tour crushes or hookups—or at least act on it because I think people on tour are at their least desirable and grossest. I’ve been trying to be better about that—turns out you can be really clean on tour if you give a fuck about how you present yourself. But I had a hookup on tour, I was going into that situation not knowing the person, interacting with them throughout the whole night, and we were continually delaying going back to where we were staying. I can remember what I was drinking—I was bumming cigarettes from her and I remember what she was smoking and it’s so insane to remember, like, the weather.

Even the way that somebody new kisses you is really interesting to me, and that’s like a super personal aspect of having an intimate experience with somebody. That moment where you realize (chuckles) what their kissing style is. Things like that really stick with me. I can kind of remember that whole night. I’m not getting the same thing out of it as I would a long relationship but I definitely feel like that night was as profound as a long relationship can be.

You vividly remember these dates, crushes, experiences that you have. What’s your intention, then, with recording them?

If I’m having a good time I like to record the audio of my experience, or at least a little snippet of it. That’s less due to my poor memory—because I have a good memory, especially if it’s an emotional experience—and more of me wanting to capture that moment as a keepsake. It’s like taking a photograph, but recording seems less invasive. Even if it does take you out of the experience for a while, I think it’s worth the sacrifice to document it. You want to keep the flow of what’s happening and to feel good without taking yourself out of the moment. I think sometimes that helps you remember it too because you’ve made a point to act differently since you wanted to document something special.

This is an aside but I just told my “quarantine crush,” who is now my partner, that I’m talking with you. I’ve been telling them how much I like your work and they just said, “Hi Claire!”

Aww, that’s so cute. Did that crush turn into a thing during the quarantine or did it happen before?

We started talking four-and-a-half weeks ago, so it was before more people in the United States were taking COVID-19 seriously. We felt connected immediately—we feel like we’re very similar people, both with our interests and our personalities. We’re both super encouraging, too. I was added to a group chat with them and two of their friends and I was encouraging one of their friends and the friend was like, “Oh my God, I thought this was Finn texting”—my partner’s name is Finn—because it’s definitely something they would have said.

Aww! Yay! That’s so nice.

It’s fun, it’s also nice because it makes life more tolerable right now (laughter).

That totally makes sense. I’m sure exploring new conversations in a fresh relationship is interesting during this time because there’s so much you’re experiencing but from a distance. Like, it’d be different if all this weren’t happening.

Exactly. We met up once early on, prior to sheltering in place, but we’re obviously not gonna meet now. It’s really nice though.

Aww, that’s cute.

Let’s talk about your album with Mari, if I don't let myself be happy now then when?—what’s going on with that?

Mari wants to write an essay called, like, “An Ode to Emo Ambient,” which is really funny. We’re really into that kind of zone, we both like a lot of electronic, more-or-less “ambient music” but we also really love emo. The name of the album is a Jimmy Eat World lyric so we connect on that level. The album actually started because a label requested that I make a record in a very specific style—I’m usually turned off by that. I sent it, they said it wasn’t good enough, and then they kind of just stopped talking to me. I sent Mari the record and I was like, “Hey, does this suck? What’s wrong with it?” and she was like, “No, it sounds great. Honestly it would sound really good if you added this here and here, but I’m not trying to force anything on you.” I told her that I could delete some tracks and make some space, that she could add things she was into or think would fit.

We kept all the titles the same and Mari added electronics and voice and guitar, and attached this narrative throughout the lyrical content about changes and transitions that they’re going through right now that I went through a while ago. Or, I guess you never stop transitioning and never stop coming out as trans, but you kind of go through this initial period where it’s your life. I feel like I made that record at that time in my life, and Mari added the lyrical content and electronic elements that tied it all together in that time in her life. It was a perfect collaboration after years of playing in each other’s bands and just being friends.

You also have an LP coming out on Second Editions, do you mind spilling the details on that?

I was commissioned by an arts group here to do a piece for the public library, like a site-specific composition. I recorded it and I really liked it. It was new for me because I hadn’t done anything like that—it was really different from a lot of the stuff I do. So I did that, showed Second Editions and they were like, “Yea, we should do a single-sided LP” and that snowballed into, “What if we do a contrasting side?” I thought it was a good idea and I had just made a piece that was, like, the opposite of an empty library (laughter) that’s like me visiting Jacob Wick in Mexico City to do some shows there.

I made a bunch of recordings, but I really didn’t want it to be tourist art where I’m, for example, on a busy street and people are speaking in Spanish and I then present that as my own work. I have a lot of problems with people who do field recording work where they use other people’s day-to-day life without their permission—essentially as a tourist in their environment—and then monetizing it. So all the recordings I made from that, with the exception of one little bit, were made inside Jacob’s house. I recorded our conversations together, him making dinner, and he has a cheap electronic keyboard I was playing around on—things like that. It’s really busy and collage-like.

The opposite of an empty library.

Yup.

More Eaze & Claire Rousay’s if I don't let myself be happy now then when? is out now on Mondoj. Alex Cunningham & Claire Rousay’s Specifically the Water is out on April 17th on Astral Spirits. Claire Rousay’s A Heavenly Touch is out on April 17th on Already Dead Tapes & Records. Subscribe to Rousay’s Bandcamp here. More details on Rousay’s Second Editions LP coming soon.

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Tone Glow Mix

Every now and then, artists will provide a mix personally made for Tone Glow. Mixes will always be available for streaming and download.

This mix was informed by my early influences, favorite artists, and the recent conversation I had with Joshua. Many people featured in this mix mean the world to me (some friends, some not). I’m not the most experienced with making mixes but wanted to try something new. I hope you enjoy this messy pile of ambient/emo/dance/folk/experimental/etc.

—Claire Rousay

Download links: FLAC | MP3
Streaming links: SoundCloud | YouTube


Download Corner

Every issue, Tone Glow provides download links to older, obscure albums that we believe deserve highlighting. Each download will be accompanied by a brief description of the album. Artists and labels can contact Tone Glow if you would like to see download links removed.

Franco Tamponi/Francesco Valgrande & Alessandro Alessandroni - Insetti (Musical, 1973)

In 1973, seven nature-themed library music LPs were released on a slew of different, fake labels (excepting Cardium, none of them have any other known releases). All were highly limited and only two of the releases didn’t have any audio files circulating on the web, or at least that was the case until a few days ago. Insetti is now out in the world, and the only record we have left is Scienza e Biologia.

The whole album is relatively maddening, far more aggressive than what’s generally found on the other releases. The A-side finds Franco Tamponi (who’s also credited as Francesco Valgrande here) delivering sputtering, pointillistic synthwork (“Microcosmo veloce”), rapid-speed synth string pieces fit for cartoons (“Moto perpetuo”), and slightly atonal shlock that’s lovingly playful (“Moto drammatico”). The B-side is just as fun, with Alessandro Alessandroni primarily in that familiar early electronic/library music blips ‘n bloops mode. The “Microbatteri” tracks are particularly thrilling, their sparseness and reverb giving the semblance of rod-shaped bacteria sliding about. “Sincro uno” has a dumb little bassline (phrase used completely affectionately) anchoring it that, surprisingly, reminded me of Kieran Daly’s recent work. —Joshua Minsoo Kim

Download links: FLAC | MP3
Listen to other albums in the series on Bandcamp: Biologia Marina, La Natura E L'Uomo, and Ittiologia.

m/s (Minoru Sato) - Perturbation Field and the Equilibrium (WrK, 1995)

One of my favorite things about this CD is how immediately after pressing play, I wasn’t sure if an error had occurred while ripping it. I assume everything is fine, but that doesn’t take away from how much of Minoru Sato’s 74-minute debut feels like little more than a monotonous fizzling. Released on Sato and Toshiya Tsunoda’s WrK label, the release is aligned with both artists’ interests in auditory perception and tuning into sounds that are “hidden.” A diagram included with the album shows the use of fluorescent lights and a solenoid coil, and a detecting of “the perturbation of electromagnetic field in between luminescence and quenching through the astatic equilibrium.”

Personally, I’m drawn to the unglamorized nature of the whole affair. There’s a constant buzzing that persists throughout the whole piece, changing in an extremely slight and largely imperceptible manner. While this goes on, flecks of electronics constantly arise, like moths pressing up against light bulbs at night. It was only after hearing Perturbation that I realized how refreshing it is to hear a longform “drone” that’s not inviting, that’s the least bit warm. This is the hiss and flicker of dying fluorescent tube lights—let it soundtrack your dark and banal days spent indoors. —Joshua Minsoo Kim

Download links: FLAC | MP3

Mel Bentley - Red Green Blue (Vitrine, 2015)

There’s a lot of high praise I could give Vitrine, the short-lived tape label run by Allen Mozek (of Good Area, the duo featuring both him and Gabi Losoncy). There’s few labels that felt as important as it during the past decade, and it—along with the whole Regional Bears / Penultimate Press / Careful Catalog / Pentiments / Swill Radio / Recital / Oath of Janta / The Gift of Music sphere—felt and continue to feel like folks pushing the music typically heard on Kye (and everything in that whole world) into a new era (I know, I know, I can hear everyone groaning about me mentioning Lambkin again, sorry).

Red Green Blue was one of the label’s overlooked and underrated releases. It’s all poetry and music-as-poetry. The opening track features nothing but Bentley’s voice, but it’s followed by “Redacted,” a song that contains Bentley’s poetry as heard through a recording device, and then accompanied by the various sounds that surround the space—walking, glassware, tapping. It makes one think about the act of reflecting on one’s own work, and how the environment can color one’s impression of it, adding new dimensions. It also just captures how hearing one’s art can feel like… boring work? It’s great.

Things continue to be meta on “Sender,” which finds Bentley describing the methodology informing the piece before actually reciting it. The latter tracks contain some screeching and electroacoustic bits that grant the spoken word a sad veneer. There’s also a short piece titled “Some Rain” that involves rain hitting against an object in a fun little rhythm, occasionally accompanied by the sound of cars passing by. It has a homey charm to it; for the only track here that doesn’t have any words, it feels like the perfect embodiment of the album: it finds a curious balance between presenting itself as small and insignificant, and coming off as dignified. It sounds like being in your 20s and wanting to make sense of your life, of everything. —Joshua Minsoo Kim

Download links: FLAC | MP3


Writers Panel

Every issue, Tone Glow has a panel of writers share brief thoughts on an album and assign it a score between 0 and 10. This section of the website is inspired by The Singles Jukebox.

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Menzi - Impazamo (Hakuna Kulala, 2020)

Press Release info: Menzi hails from the Umlazi township of Durban, where he rose to prominence as one half of Gqom pioneers, Infamous Boiz, whose influence is now felt shuddering from speakers in clubs across the world. Aside from producing, Menzi also runs the annual Gqom Bloq party, Festive Road Block Umlazi, and recently has supplied beats for some of South Africa’s biggest acts (Moonchild Sanelly, Mahotella Queens, Zolani Mahola and Zakes Bantwini), but it’s this EP for one of the hottest labels on the planet that will surely put his name on the global dancefloor map.

Daring to mess with the machinery of Gqom’s sharply defined style, Menzi opens it up like Hellraiser’s puzzlebox to truly invoke and unleash the sound’s darkside spirits. The title tune’s cinematic intro ratchets new levels of industrial drama to the sound that follow thru in the pained hollers and BM-style screeches of ‘Minimal Surge’ and the sheets of acid rain drone that soak ‘Underground Abaphansi’, while the percussive ballistics of ‘QGM’ and the jaw-dropping ‘Zulu Warrior’ recall the deep fwd sound design of Nazar’s experimental kuduro style, and Uganda’s Ecko Bazz plays the role of shaman or spirit guide in the pitch black midnight tone of ‘GQOM Tera.’

You can purchase Impazamo on Bandcamp.


Leah B. Levinson: We received gqom through a narrow siphon. The product of a whole city's dancing—the soundtrack to its taxis, too—the gqom we know had fermented in Durban bedrooms for nearly a decade before its bit-reduced mp3s shot through WhatsApp file transfers to arrive in the hands of two UK producers. Their label, Gqom Oh!, has spent the latter half of the past decade disseminating and promoting the Durban artists responsible for this sound. In that time, Durban has birthed a parallel, more palatable house-oriented style—sgubhu, heard notably in the music of Distruction Boyz—and gqom even found its way to the sounds and artists incorporated on the Kendrick Lamar-curated soundtrack for Black Panther (via pop artist Babes Wodumo, for whom Menzi has also produced). Regardless, this history is complicated and so much underlies it including a historical resistance to radio airplay of gqom in the genre's own hub.

While a four-on-the-floor style of music called gqom had already existed in Durban by the mid-aughts, the music saw a shift around 2012 resulting in a second wave with the sound that captivated DJs in the UK. The major distinction of this second wave sound is its broken beat: always pulsating, floating just above a steady foundation. Gqom is distinguished for its minimal, skeletal structures that skew to darker sounds, incorporating voices as phantoms, phonetic vocalizations floating in the air. It inherits house via osmosis and contingent growth, skewing it. The dances that accompany and inform it are wobbling, shaky and smooth writhing, dipping, and twisting. Bodies and voices join together within both the sound and its spaces, producing movement.

Menzi is faithful to this second wave sound, but returns it polished, creating a more elaborate architecture atop that skeletal foundation, even incorporating sounds of footwork, trance, and gabber. In the darkest gqom, voices arrive out of the ether, chanting, disembodied and finding space; they could be situated anywhere or nowhere. A voice on "Underground Abaphansi" calls out as though yearning to find a body for its own, refiguring the shoutout or producer tag from being a tool for representation to a realization of representation's impossibility. The primary motif of "GQOM Tera" is like the voice of a cynocephalus, it's a wittily blended human-dog hybrid: barking, breathing, and snarling. This beastly sound appears, to me, to be a composite, elongating and transmutating a sample used on Citizen Boy's "Ghetto Mafia," a track at the heart of the 2016 global breakout Gqom compilation Gqom Oh! The Sound of Durban. Here it's so much more menacing, dense, and evolved, given breath, dynamism: a different beast. I hesitate to ascribe it too much meaning of my own as I lack any nuanced historical, cultural, or contextual understanding, but I can say this much: It's thick, heavy, hallucinatory, and elegant. It wavers and shimmers with figures emerging from just beyond the light.
[8]

Ryo Miyauchi: It’s sobering to return to gqom like Menzi’s after witnessing the underground turn to much faster rhythms in search of a new sense of danger. A standard behavior for gqom, the drums in Impazamos stick to a stiff shuffle without a change in expression. The commitment to such strict form can feel stubborn, but antagonism is precisely what this record is going for. “Minimal Surge” and “Underground Abaphansi” channel battle music from other local dance scenes. The skeletal construction as well as its menacing, hellish atmospherics bring to mind the more vicious strains of early dubstep; distant moans and grunts echo the blood-thirsty war cries of footwork. These tracks leave a lot to the imagination due to their overall sparseness and lack of actual physical activity. But Impazamo stimulates the senses through its evocative sonic fragments, filling in enough of the blanks for one to get the picture. Rather than stir up chaos, Menzi silences the desire for it by showing a peek at how much damage it can leave behind.
[6]

Jeff Brown: This EP hits you right out the gate and doesn’t let up. While I’m unfamiliar with gqom, I’m struck by the mixture of traditional Zulu and new crackling electronics. These songs build up with reverse percussion, and the pitch-shifted chanting reminds me of Burial Chamber Trio or Sunn O)))’s Black One except as dance music. It’s definitely darker than many avant-metal albums, and the pounding rhythms make these tracks as heavy as them too. The foreboding atmospheres on this record allow for an engaging sound built for nighttime car rides and club walls.
[7]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: I laughed during my first listen of Impazamo—it was during the middle of “GQOM TERRA,” when the sound of animalic heaving provides a rhythmic and textural accompaniment to the steady, shuffling beat. There’s something so admirable about gqom’s minimal productions and its unwillingness to succumb to easy methods of ensnaring the listener. While Menzi’s dark atmospheres surely aim to keep audiences transfixed, the percussion work has a different effect: it’s surprisingly self-effacing, forcing one to think more intently about the music, to work towards being hypnotized. I played the EP on loop, allowing it to serve as an installation piece in my bedroom. It was only through speakers that I realized how spacious these tracks really are, and how much it felt like I needed to meet Menzi where he was if I wanted to get the most out of these songs. If you let it, Impazamo makes you feel small—it’s wonderful.
[6]

Marshall Gu: The appeal of gqom for me is that it feels very much like industrial music by way of house. The word “gqom” translates to “drum,” and the beat has always been the focus. Are gqom’s beats groovy? Not typically, no. But they are martial; designed to physically overwhelm. And yet, what defines gqom is also its limitation: with very few other sonic elements, it’s up to an extraordinary producer to really make their beats stand out, and it’s why I prefer artists like FAKA in the long-run: they blend outside influences into gqom’s relentless beats, like on “Inhliziyo” or “From a Distance,” the latter of which is described as a “Gqom-Gospel lamentation for dick.” On Menzi’s debut EP, a song like “Minimal Surge” just does not invite replays when the ‘few other sonic elements’ center around building towards a demented laughter. Elsewhere, “Gqom Tera” should threaten, with the howl and snarl of wolves laid over beats while Ecko Bazz chants ominously in the center of the ritual, but by the time Menzi folds in the rattling drum sound halfway through, it’s already played itself out. And outside of “Zulu Warrior,” the other songs on this EP don’t have enough rhythmic variation to distinguish them from one another. Does the EP bang? Does it slap? Sure, by design. But does it do anything more?
[5]

Vanessa Ague: Durban-based DJ Menzi is a part of South Africa’s gqom movement—a genre of dance music that embraces a mix of complex rhythmic patterns and driving electronic sound. “Impazamo,” the title and opening track of Menzi’s new EP, is a surreal explosion of menacing music, with catchy beats that emerge from a series of sparse, uncertain sounds. But as the record continues, hypnotic atmospheres are replaced by tedium. The fiery mystery of “Impazamo” gives way to songs that are much more predictableand much less compelling. The songs blend into each other as each beat becomes indecipherable, each thunderous drone less urgent; the feeling is that of monotony rather than entrancement. The EP’s final track, “Zulu Warrior,” is a refreshing jump back into the arresting world of “Impazamo,” with its relentless pulse and crashing melody, but it’s a long road to return to that thrilling sound. This is the sort of music you want to get lost in, but being in the removed, distilled setting of a recording—instead of the sensational rhythm of the club—Impazamo falls flat.
[5]

Evan Welsh: Gqom is minimal and repetitive in nature and the songs on Menzi’s Impazamo decisively fall into those categories. Menzi introduces interesting approaches to the Gqom sound with dark, industrial tones but the brevity of Impazamo’s exploration results in this experimentation feeling like little more than ephemera. With how short these songs are, they’re not given the time and space to expand beyond their initial minimalist structure; these tracks don’t go anywhere, or even stick around long enough to become an entirely enveloping, sparse atmosphere in their own right. It feels as though the music here has more to say but we’re only given excerpts.

There is a feeling of frustration I’ve associated with this release—maybe it’s because right now if I want to listen to something clubby I really need it to be able to fully take me from this world and there just isn’t enough here to do so. Maybe the timing of this release has nothing to do with my reaction towards it. But self-psychoanalysis aside, by the time I was returning to Impazamo for the third and fourth time for this review, it felt tedious.
[2]

Sunik Kim: I'm normally averse to self-consciously dark, ‘cinematic’ club music, but Impazamo, like most gqom, stands apart from the usual ‘orgy of sound design’ that characterizes much music in this vein. Gqom, like most club music, has a specific rhythmic formula that makes it immediately identifiable; so the challenge doesn't lie in ‘innovation’ or breaking the mold as much as it does in sharpening the music’s physical impact within the boundaries of that formula. I’m sure there’s a whole debate about this that I’ve missed, but I believe the best club music is functional—in the club setting, it simply works. That's often why the club music album—with its ambient intros and interludes, forced vocal features, and flashy effects—often flops. Here (90 seconds of ambient intro aside) Menzi zones in on that functionality, rarely deviating from a relentless stream of martial rhythms and vocalizations, and only relying on timestretching and other effects to serve the rhythm, not act as a novelty or gimmick. Criticisms that arise when listening to this at home—repetitiveness, a feeling that the tracks are a bit indistinguishable—likely evaporate on the dancefloor.
[6]

Average: [5.63]


Still from Castro Street (Bruce Baillie, 1966). R.I.P.

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