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Escape Velocity

Infinitely Inspired By The Club: Total Freedom Interviewed
Alexander Iadarola , August 19th, 2014 07:29

The DJ sets and collage edits of LA's Total Freedom dissolve R&B, pop and rap into churning noise and razor beats, distorting time and space in the club. He meets Alexander Iadarola to discuss a fascination with club cultures, and folllowing the impulse to fuck with dancers' pleasure centres

In conversation with LA-based DJ and artist Ashland Mines, aka Total Freedom, he insists - as he has elsewhere - that he doesn't make music. Perhaps the reason why he's so often treated as a composer in his own right, rather than "just a DJ", is that his extended mixes and collage tracks are so unique and compelling that that they come across to the listener as carefully wrought and considered. The previous weekend he'd played a fantastic set at Moma PS1's Warm Up series during which, out of a lull of numbing sounds, he played his truly harrowing yet euphoric blend of Nguzunguzu with Lil Jon's classic 'Get Low'. Everyone in the courtyard screamed along to the tune's brutal, uncanny clamor. The space was palpably changed, made unfamiliar and pleasurably uncomfortable by the track's rapid change in pressure.

When I suggest this to him - that his approach to both DJing and production comes across as more than the sum of its parts - he seems surprised and sincerely appreciative. It's perhaps odd to hear such a powerful and unique DJ speak so self-effacingly, but ultimately, a conversation with Mines mirrors the range and complexity of his work. Indeed, perhaps the most technically accurate description of what Mines does is curation, but even that leaves something unaccounted for. He has certainly been involved in curation - in the form of the Blasting Voice double LP compilation for Teenage Teardrops, as the organiser/mastermind behind a number of parties including LA's now-closed Wildness (later immortalised in a documentary by his friend and fellow organiser Wu Tsang), and a month-long performance series for Suzanne Geiss Gallery in NYC, as well as other gallery projects. But as a DJ he does a lot more than line-up and blend records in an interesting order.

His work, at its best, is collage. Full of mercurial, ontologically searing jumps between sonic temperatures, freefalls and truly euphoric ascents, it works with time, pacing and the evocation of images in truly complex ways. To reduce his music to, for example, "putting a Beyonce a capella over a noise track", misses its most vital aspects, those parts that are hard to put into words. Anyone who has heard a Total Freedom mix knows that he does something no one else is doing, and that the really astonishing aspects of his approach are not really formal, but instead emerge from the deeply personal way in which he creates narrative arcs and discontinuities between the tracks he merges in the mix.

I meet Mines in a park just off Essex Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. During our interview he offers astute, measured observations on a variety of subjects, from club culture and the social politics of space, to the role of intent in his work.

What makes a great clubbing experience for you, both as a DJ and on the dancer/listener end?

Ashland Mines: I guess on the DJ end, it sounds cheap, but really no matter what the situation is, if the system I'm playing on is powerful, I'm happy. I've played extremely turnt-up, beautiful, powerful vibe parties and clubs where they have a really fucked up sound system and I'm like, why am I playing here? Conversely, I've played like the worst fucking lounge ever, where I shouldn't ever be there and no one I like should ever be there, or it's just like empty, but there's a crazy system - I'll just enjoy that experience, feeling like a little toddler brat, knocking things down or something. Just feeling extra powerful, even if it's just by myself; especially if it's some fucked up thing where it's a dysfunctional club environment, just being able to act dysfunctionally inside of that and do it powerfully is an extremely nice situation for me.

I think what the organisers of a club put into it is a big part of what you're going to be able to take away from it. If people just show up to a space and want to not think about the space at all, but only think about how they can get people to come to it, just Instagram flyers and not really thinking about anything except for having these names on the flyer and this location. Putting more into it, and feeling out a space, feeling out the community that could be in the space, feeling out who could work within this space or within an idea for a specific space - I think that's rarely done, and when it is done, even if it's not really my thing, I'm impressed. Or turned on in some way.

You put so much thought in, and obviously have a concise vision of parties and club nights. I wonder, for you, what is the potentiality of nightlife?

AM: I actually don't know what I want people to take away from it. Or even a number one fantasy for what some kind of club experience that I provide would do to someone outside of the club. I guess it's kind of self-reflexive when I think about what I am inspired by in club nightlife. I won't really know what's going on, or I'll choose to not end up at the thing that we're all supposed to be going to when I'm in town here, and I end up at really goofy stuff. I can get a lot out of a dysfunctional, stupid club that's not playing music I like, and not full of people that I'm definitely going to be friends with. I can go there and really zone out on elements that are involved.

Like what?

AM: Just, like, looking at some dusty old club lighting hanging from the ceiling and listening to whatever abrasive, gay music is playing. I guess going into spaces like that is inspiring to me in terms of psychedelically breaking it down, what's happening there, and what could be happening there. I always say that I'm infinitely inspired by [the] club. It doesn't bore me when it's the most boring and the most dysfunctional, or the most functional and boring, you know - I'm still inspired by it, or captivated by it, entranced by it. I'm usually trying to think of ways to fuck it up which I've never considered before.

How would you describe this fascination?

AM: I don't know. There's just something about having this box with speakers and lights in it that's kind of a worldwide standard for a way to escape, that's funny and cheap and just interesting. Part of being transfixed by a club environment is also who is there. That's usually why a dysfunctional space, where they're not making money and there's not enough people there, is more interesting - because you can see who's there, who is escaping. And not even to think about anything more than seeing what they're presenting, what they wanted to bring to the table that night. That's always really exciting to me. I guess that's especially why I like going to gay clubs, because when they're functioning in a dysfunctional way, and not being a spot that's raking in tons of money, they still have a function for the people that run it - maybe - and definitely for a small community of people that need a space like that to feel themselves out, where they can't in their day-to-day life, possibly. On a more basic level, that's happening in any nightclub, I think.

Can you talk more about your impulse to want to fuck it up when you're in a club?

AM: I think if I was going into club environments and being bored by it because I'm not seeing what I want to see, or hearing what I want to hear, maybe I wouldn't waste time in clubs [laughs]. But I think it's even more fun to look at a canvas that's empty and think about what different ways or different directions it could be pushed [in order] to, I don't know, fuck with my pleasure centres. Or things I don't like - amping them up to upset myself, or possibly other people.

How do all of these reflections transfer to the way you approach your DJ sets?

AM: Well, I don't know. I don't really know how to answer that. I guess I would say that my name is like a goal more than a reality.

You mean 'Total Freedom'?

TF: Yeah. It's not a reality. I answer to a lot and stay in a lot of boundaries, especially [in] a situation where I'm getting booked just because people know my name, but not really anything about what I do at all. Like "Oh we heard this name is cool, so that's who we're going to book." That's really how it works a lot of times. And [then] having to appease a random crowd or business owner who's like [indignantly] "I hired a cool DJ! What are you doing?" I'm just going to say that [it's] not 100% of the time [that] I'm just going for broke in terms of throwing shit out that I would particularly respond to, or throwing shit out that I want to upset people with. A lot of times I'm just trying to not upset people. But when I'm able to just be in an environment where I know that I can go as crazy as I want to, and my day and mind and week are set up [in a way] where I'm capable of doing whatever I want to do... I just want to drag people through as much as I can drag them through, in terms of emotional experience in a club.

Can you talk more about total freedom as a goal?

AM: I used to have a different DJ name, and one time I was making a flyer and didn't want to write my old DJ name because I was bored or something. I stream of consciousness wrote 'Total Freedom' and was like "I guess that's my new DJ name". I didn't like sit down like 'Where am I going to go with this career', or 'Where do I want to bring people with my music?' It was not like that at all. It was just a random name I chose - or didn't even choose, literally just fell on the table and I kept it.

I always bring up the goal thing, because if people are thinking literally about my name, it's like 'It's not really - it's kind of a struggle...' [laughs] So I don't want to just act like I chose that name because I'm really feeling that. It's more like 'It would be cool to really feel like that', and definitely try to feel like that.

You make music that's really interesting and weird, it's good to hear you talk about it.

AM: I would like to say that I don't really make music any more. I would say that I've been forced into situations where I'm like 'OK, I made this song' or whatever, only because someone actually tricked me, and forced me, and locked me in a closet until I finished it.

Give me an example.

AM: Doing remixes for friends or whatever. Obviously I want to be involved with my friends' projects collaboratively whenever I can be. But, yeah, that's when I'm forced into it. And that's more of a situation where I'm like, ok, I'm making music. Otherwise, any edit of mine that's on my Soundcloud is just something that I accidentally played once when I was DJing, and was like 'Can I pull off playing that again? Eh, probably not, I should make an edit of it.'

It's never planned.

AM: No. Pretty much, I'll be playing at Mustache [Mondays, a club night co-run by Mines in LA] or something, and be like 'Oh, that blend was crazy, I should really fuck that up more and make it into a real edit'. Most of the stuff that people hear of mine is just various powerful things put together in a way that makes them… I don't know. I guess maybe there's a stamp on it that makes it sound like something of mine, or I have a style or something. But generally I just use other people's power in some way, and make it more, um, something. Something of mine.

I guess it's common practice among people writing or thinking about your music to refer to your mixes as 'pieces', or your version of an album or something. It's almost that they're so much your own thing that it becomes your own music rather than being "just a mix".

AM: You mean DJ mixes in general?

No, your mixes specifically.

AM: He-hey, cool! Well, that's great. I'm glad someone thinks it's cute… [laughs] That's another thing. I don't know. Every DJ I know makes a mixtape in like four seconds. It takes me months to put a mixtape together, because I just overwork them and think about… I'm just paying attention to - not even content, you know, it's more like emotional landscapes or whatever.

I couldn't find any documentation, besides a few photos on Wu Tsang's website, of the piece you, he and Kelela did for the Charming For The Revolution: Gender Talents & Wildness series at the Tate. Could you describe that piece and talk a little bit about it?

AM: Getting to the conceptual base of that piece is pretty murky waters for me. I went to London to see the spaces we were going to potentially do the thing in, and kind of just went off of that, and went off me and Wu's excitement for one of the spaces and what was possible there. Kelela and I were actually pretty new friends at the time, and Wu and Kelela had even more recently become close and had done one collaborative project together prior to that, this movie thing.

I think initially what the programmers wanted Wu to do, and wanted me involved for, was they just wanted to throw a Wildness-esque event in the Tate for the closing of the thing, and we were offended by that request. [Wildness was a performance space/party Mines organized with Wu Tsang and Nguzunguzu at a bar in LA, frequented by a community of immigrant trans women who have a decades-long engagement with the bar] Not offended, but bored by it in some way. It's like "No, we're not going to try to throw Wildness in your institutional, weird space."

Totally decontextualised.

AM: Yeah, and also, why? Why would we even try something that's not in any way possible, and was still boring if it was possible. So we just kind of went off on what kind of thing we could present on a similar budget, similar scale. It was a three-day program that ended with this performance that we decided to do. Kelela wrote a melody and then I built a song around it, and Wu and I collaborated on a way to present it in the space.

I felt I hated the actual performance, but the process was one of the most exciting projects I've ever done, actually. I mean, I was just in this giant oil tank underneath the Tate for a week straight with this huge sound system, working with Kelela's voice, on Ableton, writing a song in this echo chamber. I genuinely hate London, but it was one of my best experiences in life when I was there. It was a really extravagant way to write a song or compose music. Usually I'm just on shitty headphones with my shitty old-ass laptop. But there I was, with my shitty-ass old laptop connected to a Funktion-1 in this huge room.

Total Freedom's mixes, edits and collage tracks are all available for streaming and download at his Soundcloud page