“House is our pop music”: Exploring the hybrid sounds of South Africa’s electronic scene
"I’m high! I’m high on these issues! On queer psychedelics!" Jam Rostron, better known as Planningtorock, instantly launches into cringe-punctured laughter at herself. ‘All Love’s Legal’, her second full-length release (and the first on her own imprint, Human Level Recordings) is a difficult album to talk about with a straight face, and yet also not one to make light of. A bubbly, elastic dance record with a funky pulse, it shoots straight for your limbs at the same time as blasting its overt equality agenda into your mind, from the moment she declares "fall in love with whoever you want to" over the record’s sparse opening bars, to the thrust of the disco anthem Let's Talk About Gender Baby, which takes the baton from The Knife’s Full Of Fire. It’s politics for the dancefloor, making a battleground out of basslines, and you have to take it seriously while also appreciating the sense of humour it was made with.
Some might balk at titles like Misogyny Drop Dead or Patriarchy Over & Out, the two lead singles that heralded this blinding new project in 2013, but no one could balk at the pan flute riffs and hyperactive rhythms that propel them. And besides, that balking is exactly what Rostron is examining. The head-on approach of the music gives away a lot about Rostron as a person, leading me to wholeheartedly believe her assertion that this album is her most truthful and successful release in terms of communicating a core message. She’s passionate and unfiltered about gender theory and affirmative action, and she’s also a hilarious presence, who periodically comes out with phrases like "that’s fuckin’ mint" and "who’s Miley Cyrus?" in her distinct Bolton accent. Half an hour or so spent in her company sheds light on not only the humourous bounce of the music but also the belief in strategic separatism, cutting out a space for undervalued female producers, that led to her departure from DFA, the formation of her own imprint Human Level and the call-to-arms that is ‘All Love’s Legal’.
This album was turned around a lot quicker than the last one, was that at all because you felt like you had a clearer vision this time?
Jam Rostron: "Yeah, it started here [in London] actually. I was here last summer, when the touring for ‘W’ [Planningtorock's previous album, released by DFA in 2011] was winding down. I love that album, the tour was great, but there’s certain things that I didn’t achieve with ‘W’, and I felt quite down and disillusioned about it. I had to really question myself and what it was that I wanted from making music. And also, I had to realise that somehow what was happening in my private life, and issues that were really important to me, were not happening in my music. Things were not happening together, which is kind of crazy, because I make music all the time, so that also made me feel really down.
"So I set this exercise for myself to write a song about patriarchy, which I’d been reading a lot about, and so I wrote Patriarchy Over & Out. It took me quite a while, just to think about the lyrics and to think about a way to deal with that issue that wasn’t confrontational, and also kind of simplified it. You know like, ‘It’s a construct, it’s a really shit idea, it was always a bad idea, why is it still here?’ And to make it kind of, not fun, but inviting in some way. And once I did that, it was like, ‘Okay, now I know exactly what I want to do with the next album.’ I kind of worked out what the purpose of making music was for me."
What did you feel you didn’t manage to achieve with the last album?
Jam Rostron: “I think I wanted to touch on issues – similar issues that I’m talking about on ‘All Love’s Legal’ – but I thought, ‘Okay, it’s not possible to be that direct, it’s too confrontational.’ I really thought it’s not the way to go, you have to be more ambiguous and give people space, and let them have their opinion. But it just didn’t happen, it didn’t translate. All those intentions just went completely under, and that was really disappointing because it felt like I missed an opportunity to open up a discussion.
"I thought so much about it, and at the end of the day I also questioned this fear of being more direct, and what that was. I came to the conclusion that if it’s a problem for people to talk about these issues, then that’s the issue."
It feels like saying really explicitly political things in music is almost the last taboo. Is that something you thought about at all?
Jam Rostron: "Yeah I did, indirectly. I mean, when I first released Patriarchy Over & Out, it was so blatant, and that was the biggest test. But the reaction to that was great. At the time I remember saying, ‘Okay, maybe everything shouldn’t be so political, the next one won’t be so political’… and then the next one was Misogyny Drop Dead. So this idea of, ‘People will think I’m too political’ – it’s like, well, who gives a fuck? That’s where I am right now. It’s kind of strange, actually, when you catch yourself censoring yourself; you’ve really got to decode that, to know what that is and where it’s coming from."
"When I first released Patriarchy Over & Out, I remember saying, ‘Okay, maybe the next one won’t be so political’… and then the next one was Misogyny Drop Dead. So this idea of, ‘People will think I’m too political’ – it’s like, well, who gives a fuck? That’s where I am right now." – Planningtorock
And the inviting element comes through in the more upbeat sound, is that what you were going for?
Jam Rostron: "Oh definitely. Because there also seemed to be a phase of a lot of music that was sort of melancholic and so-called mysterious, and I was like, ‘What is that? What is this production right now that’s portraying some kind of emotion but isn’t really attached to anything?’ I didn’t quite understand it. It became a bit of a trend and it started to creep me out a bit. I mean, there are elements that are very heavy on ‘W’, but I felt also that a lot of the lighter stuff or the humour that I thought I was portraying totally didn’t translate at all, and I was disappointed that I didn’t manage to do that. Definitely with this record – it’s not that you can’t make melancholic music, I mean Steps, I cry every time I listen to that myself, I find it very moving – but ‘All Love’s Legal’ definitely has lighter elements, there’s more space in it, as well as these heavier things."
I love the colourful little track Beyond Binary Binds, it reminds me of this new wave of London producers like SOPHIE or Felicita. Have you listened to them much?
Jam Rostron: "No, not really – that track, for me, it was almost like an exercise, to try to turn that idea, Beyond Binary Binds, into something that feels a little familiar in the beginning, and then it just bursts open. It’s quite a literal thing. And also it’s just me getting into dance music and being playful with it. I don’t censor myself when it comes to music, if I like something or am inspired by something I just bring it in, I don’t think in terms of who’s doing what and what’s in or what’s out or anything like that. But if it does remind people of something that’s fine too, that’s great."
I just think it’s interesting because I think they’re on a similar wavelength, reacting against all this melancholic music that’s gone before by making this bright, squeaky dance music.
Jam Rostron: "After ‘W’ I got asked to DJ a lot, which I really love, but that really did educate me. When you’re DJing, you’re out for three or four hours, you’re in that environment, you’re watching and sharing how people are exchanging with music. It was a really important insight for me into dance music and the power of it and what you can do with it. It was also an interesting thing in that it reminded me how fantastic music is in the sense of – you know, anybody can go to a club. You can meet all kinds of people at clubs. Anybody can make music, a lot of people are just self-taught, it’s one of the few fields where most people are just self-taught, and you don’t need a degree, you don’t need to be validated by an institute, and that’s kind of special, I think. It’s one of the reasons why I still make music actually, and why I want to be part of that world."
"Anybody can go to a club. Anybody can make [club] music, it’s one of the few fields where most people are self-taught. You don’t need a degree, you don’t need to be validated by an institute. It’s one of the reasons why I still make music actually, and why I want to be part of that world." – Planningtorock
Did you play any of the album out when you were DJing before you put it out there?
Jam Rostron: "No I didn’t actually – the remixes I did, the Misogyny Drop Dead remix by Pursuit Grooves, I DJ that a lot. That’s killer, isn’t it? She’s an amazing, really underestimated producer, I don’t know why she doesn’t get more exposure."
Well that links to something else I wanted to ask about – in an interview for Dummy a while back you mentioned something about separatism and being interested in it as a way towards equality.
Jam Rostron: "Yeah, strategic separatism. It’s this idea of strategic separatism but also affirmative action. When I made Human Level I wanted it to be a space or a place that supports queer producers and female producers. When I started to mention this to people, the first thing you get is, ‘Why do you want to make a female-only label?’ What I find really interesting is that there are so many male-only labels, and people say, ‘Ah, but it’s not meant to be like that.’ But it is. They make a choice. They choose – and that’s a decision – they want male-only labels, or they’d have women on them.
"A lot of it for me is about creating a space, because space is gendered, heavily gendered, and definitely on professional terms. It’s not given to you, as a woman; you really have to make it. Human Level was part of that. I really wanted to cut out a space for this record and for other producers that I think are doing very interesting stuff that do not get the exposure that they deserve – to make that space, because it’s not going to happen otherwise. That, for me, is strategic separatism – as a means to an end, not that I believe in separatism at all, but the use of affirmative action to address this huge imbalance."
The press bio for this album also mentions that you’re working towards “queering sonics”, could you expand on that?
Jam Rostron: "When making this record I wanted to really question all my steps, question my choices, and also just think of [queering sonics] as an idea: what are normative sonics? What is normative music? It’s kind of obvious with the vocals, the playfulness and the pitching; because I don’t believe in this essential thinking of there being a ‘natural voice’, I just don’t believe in it at all. It’s just about pushing things, bringing them together to a place where I felt like it’s something new and also it’s saying something else. It’s tricky to talk about, but it is definitely about moving away from certain norms in music."
When you say you don’t believe in a natural voice, what do you mean?
Jam Rostron: "Well, it’s a very essentialist thing to think. I mean, my voice is never the same once. It’s like this idea of a ‘truth’, or a ‘real you’. I think what you hear on the record is much me as anything else; in fact I think it’s even more me."
"I don’t believe in this essential thinking of there being a ‘natural voice’, I just don’t believe in it at all… My voice is never the same once. It’s like this idea of a ‘truth’, or a ‘real you’. I think what you hear on the record is much me as anything else; in fact I think it’s even more me." – Planningtorock
I was reading an old interview of yours recently and the interviewer asked you something about Miley Cyrus, and you said, "Who’s Miley Cyrus?" I thought that was quite funny and I was wondering if, after all the hoo-ha last year, you know who she is now and what you thought of the whole debate about her?
Jam Rostron: “That’s so funny, that’s fucking mint. That’s a tricky one. I tend to not to like to talk about those mainstream artists because I think they get enough attention as it is, and I like to listen and look in a different direction. There’s a lot of issues with that, because it’s like, who’s exploiting who? Who’s saying that women can’t be sexual? It’s a very deep topic, and on top of it all, it’s a monster business. We’re talking massive money, and you can’t get away from that. I don’t really pay that much attention to it, but it feels to me like when mainstream acts hijack certain issues they do it in a very superficial way, and it’s just like an identity thing or a fashion thing, but it never actually happens in their music or in their content or their message.
"They just sort of use it, because it seems to be the trend or whatever. I also find it strange to talk about people that you don’t know. I’ve no idea what she does or what she wants or who she is or what her circumstances are, so I don’t really feel qualified to have that much of an opinion on it."
I think what’s more interesting than Miley Cyrus herself is the way that everyone, as you say, jumped on the issue like it was a trend this past year. But then what came out of it felt so binary, all the responses were like "women should have their clothes on" or "women should not have their clothes on" and that was basically it.
Jam Rostron: "Yeah, I mean I think Sinead O’Connor’s reaction was diabolical. I also didn’t quite understand why, if you actually want to say something to that person, why wouldn’t you send them a private message? I didn’t understand that. If you really care for that person’s welfare, managers know managers, it’s not that hard.
"I find it really sad because I feel that women should be able to be as sexual as they fucking want to be, but because society is so sexist, it’s very difficult, because you immediately get objectified and it becomes a commodity. Your sexuality, your sexualness, is immediately commodified, and that’s the problem. I wouldn’t mind if she masturbated on stage, I wouldn’t give a fuck, I’d think it’s brilliant, but that’s the environment that she’s in."
Yeah, it’s so difficult to unpick. The reason I wanted to bring that up is because it’s in direct opposition to the spectrum you’re trying to present in your work. Like, “fall in love with whoever you want to.”
Jam Rostron: "Yeah, absolutely, it’s more about completely opening these things up. That’s actually one of my favourite things on the album, it’s just a little opener, but it made so much sense to me and it’s a very simple statement but it’s the truth. It’s just that easy. It really is that easy."
Human Level Recordings release 'All Love's Legal' on February 17th 2014.