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Escape Velocity

Dirty Baby: A Coffee With Drag Terrorist Christeene
Jamie Ryder , September 4th, 2018 08:57

The world’s preeminent “drag terrorist” sits down with Jamie Ryder to discuss her new album, touching on loving Missy Elliott, talking to birds and performance in the age of Trump. Contains NSFW video. All portraits by Michael Sharkey

It’s pitch black save for a few fairy lights strung up the staircase. The twinkly horror-movie tones of a music box ping out of loudspeakers. The few men visible are shifting about uneasily. I’m not too sure why playground melodies and nursery rhymes are so creepy and appropriate in slasher flicks and psychological thrillers the cinematic world over, but they certainly work as the studios intend. We might speculate that it’s the songs’ divorce from their original and expected context that puts us, as audiences, on edge — when such wholesome, naive melodies are sounding in darkness, it’s a signal that something’s not right.

Somebody’s coming down the stairs. A few steps from the bottom they’re hoisted onto a waiting back, fireman style, and carried slowly, brushing past bodies. Not much of them is visible save for a mass of long black hair. Adding to an already-palpable ambient disquiet produced by hijacked childhood signifiers, the figure appears to be clutching a large bunch of balloons; a steady, rasping groan has now joined the music box. After a brief walk the figure is deposited gently on a low stage and rises, still groaning. The lights go up. We see a crude mask, a microphone, a shredded t-shirt, lofty heels. Balloons bobbing, the figure twirls and we realise that their fastening strings aren’t held by any hand — rather, they disappear into a pair of tightly clenched buttocks.

Christeene, for it is she, reaches down ceremoniously and begins loosening the buttplug to which her balloons are attached. Somebody is already screaming. After a few moments of careful twisting and jerking, there’s a short exhalation and the balloons are floating daintily over the crowd, their bright red cargo tracing little figure-eights in the space just above the upturned heads.

When I was told I’d be speaking with Christeene, who released a new album, BASURA, this year, I assumed the person to actually show up would be Paul Soileau, the Louisianan artist and performer who has been delighting/repulsing as Christeene for almost a decade. But I’m informed near the date that it’s Christeene that I’ll be meeting and nobody else. I rework my prepared questions and worry about my article. How do you properly interview somebody in character? How might you approach digging outside the character’s fictive lifespan? Is there a way to examine and discuss artistry and performance in reasonable depth with somebody that’s already performing, and necessarily can’t acknowledge that they’re performing?

Luckily, Christeene is rigorously media-literate and a total pro at feeding journalistic reality-tidbits through a convincing and natural character lens. Or maybe she’s just a really good actor and everything she told me was fake. I ask her if she really drenched fashion designer Rick Owens in urine for her video for ‘Butt Muscle’, a gleefully sticky production which features numerous nude writhing men, penile power tools and a functioning dildo made of human hair (no, seriously). In an ornate Southern drawl (read “No” as “Naw”, drop the “g”s, read “thing” as “thang”, “I” as “Ah”, &c.), Christeene sets me straight.

“Did I really pee in his mouth? Well, that was a lot of pee, so I would let you guess that probably not real pee was streaming out of my dick that long. Let’s enjoy the wonder of film and the imagination of Hollywood.” (“Hallahwuuuud.”) A willingness to confess to some form of artifice so early on seems like a good sign, so I press ahead (and just to be clear, I didn’t take the obscene quantities deposited on Owens in the video at face value). “It was a big, strange, new collaborative experience,” she tells me, “and it was the first time I started letting myself fall into other people’s worlds and not be so controlling. It’s almost like an Alice In Wonderland, falling into a hole thing. Yeah, I was in his hole.” She pauses for a few endearing yuks. “I think you should always hold onto your identity, no matter where you go. Be the way you are out on the streets, and don’t become what those fuckin' streets want you to become! Which most of the time is safe and boring.”

Christeene is basically a pat antonym of both adjectives. Her brand of drag — punk-influenced, loud, visceral, proudly DIY — has won her famous fans like Owens and his partner Michèle Lamy, and has led to some serious touring time and a bevy of videos, most directed by her longtime collaborator PJ Raval. Her riotous live shows match the often-elaborate music videos in tone, style and content; they’re grimy and explosive spectacles of feverish dance and scatological humour. Her art has taken her as far as Berghain, where she paid the notorious super-club due deference by demanding that everybody masturbate in her best gravelly Schwarzenegger voice before leaping headlong into the front rows to perform her signature track ‘Fix My Dick’ (sample lyric: “crack your back while working that pole / I’ll let you chew on my crab cake, to hell with the first date.”)

I watch as Christeene sets her drink aside to gently shoo a bee off of the lace curtains. “I love bees,” she says, staring at me with alarmingly blue eyes, “because they remind me to be respectful of the shit around me. The natural shit on this fuckin’ earth. We are, as people, bulldozing the fuck outta everything. They’re pollinating our food, girl! You get rid of the bees you’re dead!” Does she carry the little bottle of sugar water to feed weakened bees as some amateur conservationists do? “No. I got enough sugar already.”

Speaking of bulldozing, it seems a good moment to tackle politics. Drag, as an art form principally concerned with challenging dominant, normative conceptions of gender presentation, is inherently political — it deals directly with marginal experiences, obstacles to queer expression and the construction of identity (the latter being an activity all people engage in, something queens have historically explored and/or skewered, often to powerful effect). It’s both a vehicle for exuberant self-expression and activistic anger. I’d read Christeene claiming to have “given up” on politics in November of last year, but apparently her sarcasm didn’t translate in print. She’s engaged, and fierily so. “[Trump’s win] was a hard thing to watch go down. PJ lets me hang out and watch his TV because I don’t have one, and we watched [the election result] at his place. The pendulum has swung, you know? So grab hold. And figure out how to fuckin’ break it in half.” One thing that seems to get to her is the privileged conception that America’s problems begin and end with Trump; that his removal will constitute a “return” to a happy equilibrium, that everything will be fine once he’s out of office.

“This bullshit of ‘disbelief’ — fuckin’ get off that train! It was happening since day one! I’ve been screaming about this shit, and I’ve been doing it since before that son of a bitch got elected. I was screaming about Bush. It doesn’t change. Don’t give me that disbelief bullshit. It’s been in front of your face. Don’t give me ‘disbelief’ at racism, ‘disbelief’ in controlled media, or ‘disbelief’ in how money can control everything. It’s been going on forever. To me, disbelief is the biggest form of cowardice there is, and of not participating in a solution. You can stay in your disbelief limbo forever and that’s basically saying ‘I don’t like to talk about politics.’ You have to engage, you have to take a side. And who you pair yourself with will stick with you till you’re dead!” Christeene has a way of sounding her heavier sentence enders for some extra theatrical gravity, and she gives “dead” a ghoulish Count von Count tremor. “That’s like a seal, you know? That’s some Mordor shit. On the road it’s just a lot of conversation. I’m not a green room queen at all. I get the fuck in the room before and after the show and we sit at the table with everybody, hang out, and talk about what the fuck’s going on. And how beautiful I am.”

With politics addressed, we get into the art itself. And besides the bees, Christeene has a special affinity with birds.

“The bird is the inspiration,” she tells me earnestly. “It’s what you hear in the morning or when you’re going to lay down your head somewhere. You got to pounce on that voice quickly!” For BASURA the bird seemed to work overtime, with lyrics appearing in sudden flashes.

“I’ve always found the best way to express my insides is through writing in some janked-out prose poetry flavour. And I got so many things in my machine [here she indicates her iPhone], the little voice memo thingies — almost too many. That’s how I record hooks. I always hear the words. I compose in my head and when I sit with the producer I usually sing them the entire song and then say ‘Now let’s find the sound sound that’ll accompany the thing in my head!’ That’s the Jessica Fletcher in me, if you wanna talk about sleuthing — finding that sound, finding what’s 100% or at least 99% what’s in your head. It’s never really 100, but if it is you got gold. And you can’t turn the bird off, ever. I never stop working. Most artists don’t. You cannot muzzle a bird.”

BASURA is an imposing document — the lyrics are relentlessly graphic, the drums are punishing, and numerous tracks feature Christeene’s vocals treated liberally with effects, giving them a metallic, bathroom quality. I liken the sound to someone singing into a toilet, which she seems to be pleased with.

“I’m excited. I’m thinking structurally now. Instruments, bands, new ways to express what’s in me… the nasty kind of Huey Lewis and the News saxophone, or Vangelis. I’m really interested in going on some dates with the saxophone. I would kill to make something with Missy Elliott. My God! One of the best lyricists in the world. I get goosebumps, look. The look, the story, getting through the machinery of this fucked up music industry and surviving. She is the queen to me. Her bird I would kill to met. Her bird’s an eagle on fire that fucked a phoenix. It’s burning hot and made of mirrorballs. That woman is unstoppable, and she brings me great joy. I can never stop learning from her lyrically and structurally and fashionably and everythingally. Just write that down. Good lord.”

As we depart, Christeene cleans up the table and brings our cups downstairs to the kitchen. “Thanks y’all,” she calls to the Soho cafe staff, who are practiced and unfazed. It’s funny seeing her in a domestic setting, affable and considerate, knowing that in a few hours or days she’ll be on a stage somewhere howling about animal lust and scaring first-timers. But for all the “feral”, “terrorist” stuff, vulnerability is an unimpeachably important part of the Christeene character. The songs, although often furiously paced, delivered in a punk holler and peppered with did-I-hear-that-right allusions to complex sex acts, deal openly with complex emotions, difficult experiences and genuine pain. And for all the “animal” sobriquets applied to Christeene over the years, that’s about as human as it gets.