Pulling The Hard Stance: An Interview With Prostitutes

With the release of James Donadio's hyperbolic EP Nouveauree this week, the man behind the Prostitutes moniker talks Cleveland, track naming and defying expectations

Photo by Rodriguez Cleme

"I’m not into ‘pride’, especially regarding something I have no say in – like the fact I’m American," says James Donadio in an e-mail to me a few days after our initial Skype interview, conducted from his home in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s an addendum to a YouTube video he’s sent over; a scene from the 1991 film Body Parts, in which Brad Dourif plays a struggling artist, one of three characters transplanted with the limbs of serial killer Charley Fletcher. The clip shows him in the height of a confrontation with the film’s protagonist over his newfound success painting dark, twisted and violent imagery with the aid of Fletcher’s arm. "I’ve got no complaints," Dourif says, emphatically enunciating each word. "The world is my fucking oyster. I’m a ten-year-old kid on the street corner, flying a red white and blue kite, you hear what I’m saying?" It’s these words that appear as a vocal sample at the end of one of the tracks on Donadio’s new EP Nouveauree, released this week under his (dubiously-named) Prostitutes guise. "It’s both an homage to Brad Dourif and a sort of half-joking, ‘I’m an American’ proclamation to the mostly non-American electronic scene," Donadio explains.

At times, it’s easy to forget Donadio actually is American. Having previously released records on Diagonal, Opal Tapes, Mira and Perc Trax imprint Submit, he has recently become a firm staple in UK electronic music circles, despite having only played over this side of the Atlantic once. These releases tread delicate lines between noise, punk and techno, toying with conventional and more confrontational ideologies of sound and forcing them brutally against each other. Now, following the release of his excellent fourth full-length LP Petit Cochon earlier this year, Nouveauree marks a particularly grisly turn in the already weighty Prostitutes back catalogue. Named after a term coined by Joe Perry for a speedball; its five tracks bruise and batter you relentlessly across a half hour runtime, leaving you unsure as to whether you’re supposed to be dancing or dusting yourself off and calling the emergency services. It’s the kind of music you’d imagine Patrick Bateman being into, if he’d ever grown weary of Huey Lewis & The News and traded evenings at Dorsia for all-nighters at Storm Rave, a wrap of Es tucked into his Hermes socks.

Take ‘So Goddamn Gaunt’ for example, with its driving squelches that spray and splatter over sharp intakes of breath, congealing and clotting in the throat. Donadio works to push the boundaries of sensory toleration to the extreme; tongue firmly in cheek as the pneumatic drill of ‘Hate’s In The City’ duels with pounding kick drum; the desire to flail with wild abandon battling the want to lie down in a cool, darkened room with a damp flannel pressed to the forehead. The final B-side track ‘Punk In The Street’ borders on ridiculousness, a blaring foghorn swells like a knocked lip, smothering everything in its wake.

For all the wanton aural haemorrhaging though, there is a stark minimalism to these tracks too. Each mutation is clean cut, not an ounce of fat in sight, and there are often moments of lingering, thoughtful pause in there too. This isn’t just carelessly thrown together abrasive technoise, but expertly constructed chaos, with a razor sharp edge.

While researching for this interview I discovered the titles on this EP all reference Aerosmith lyrics. I then went back through your previous releases and discovered this is a recurring theme: each of the song titles are taken from fragments of lyrics from a specific punk or rock album. What is the thinking behind this method, and how did it initially come about?

James Donadio: It really started on Psychedelic Black. I was listening to a certain album at the time and a lyric was stuck in my head and I thought it would be a great song title. I then decided to just make all the titles out of the lyrics for continuity’s sake. That process then was applied to every release since. It’s fun to comb through lyrics of songs you thought you knew inside and out. Plus, they sound much better and slightly less pretentious than the ones I was trying to create.

A lot of artists would say they don’t like listening to other music while they’re creating their own but for you it seems to be something of a driving force behind the creativity.

JD: I am constantly buying and listening to music, so it’s impossible for me to turn that off. The inspiration aspect comes from the excitement or the mystique not really the sounds. I don’t hear a new 12" and want to jack a sound or style. If anything it’s usually older records that I’ve heard 1,000 times over that drive me to try something new. To tie this in with the song title question, that whole process works as a sort of corral to keep my mind focused.  

This new EP feels a lot heavier than a lot of the stuff you’ve put out before, if that’s possible. There is a kind of aggression to it that hasn’t been there before.

JD: I think ‘Hate Is In The City’ is the first thing I did that was the closest I had to direct four on the floor techno. I never thought I could do something like that, so I was really excited and I started doing more tracks like that. I was going to start pressing white labels I wanted it out, because I knew it was just something of the moment and I knew a year from now I’m not going to want to hear it. Besides the ‘Punk In The Street’ track which I didn’t want to include, but Michael [Kasparis who runs the Night School label] wanted to just for how ridiculous it is, it was just me wanting to do one quick stab at straight techno.

There’s certainly an element of danceabilty to it. Was that informed by your experiences playing live at all?

JD: The more I do shows [the more I want] the people to move. I want them to at least have fun, I want something exciting and that’s sort of spilled into my recording. Now I feel like that’s where I am and where I want to go for now. Playing live has definitely informed the way that it turned out.

My live sets are different to my records, much more immediate, a lot of the live stuff is made specifically for playing, and when I played in Switzerland last December these people were going crazy. They were dancing – they called me out for an encore, which was very embarrassing. It just struck me that this can work, I can maybe make a few people dance. I’m used to going to shows where people are engaged, not standing there scratching their chins or whatever, that’s pointless to me. But being cerebral [too], having both is always one of my main concerns when I make music. It’s kind of got to have a dichotomy to it, otherwise it’s completely flat.

You mentioned before that your song titles are "arbitrary". Is there no connection for you other than just what you were listening to at the time? I find the notion of naming electronic music tracks quite interesting, as there is less of the direct link at you get in songs with lyrics, but I often feel there must be some informed process of decision-making.

JD: I write all the titles down, then when I am done I put them in an order that looks pleasing to the eye. Titles for instrumental music, especially within techno and electronic genres, need to be visual and interesting. Not to guide the listener, but more to fuck with them. Making people believe that this amalgamation of kicks and squelches is actually something more than kicks and squelches. It’s not.

I guess we should go back chronologically a little bit. From what I can gather you were in quite a few bands before you started this project.

JD: Yeah I’ve been in bands since I was a teenager.

There was one called Speaker/Cranker, right?

JD: Sure. There were four of us and I was playing bass, and we were backing this guy who was a Vietnam vet. He was completely crazy and he would do these shows where he would just mime instruments on the microphone. You had to witness it. So we’re playing with him but the guy obviously was not at full capacity so he wouldn’t show up to practices. We just started playing improvised and then we played out, then two more of our friends came along and joined. One of them was Jim Jones; he was in an alternate incarnation of Pere Ubu and also in Electric Eels and The Mirrors. He was a really good friend of mine who passed away, [he was] a huge part of my life. So that was kind of Krautrock improvised, and so was the band after. There was no practicing or planning. I got tired of that.

How did that develop into you doing a solo electronic project using hardware?

JD: When the last band just naturally ran its course I tried to put something together then I realised I was just trying to find people to fit in. What’s the point in that? Let me just do something on my own. I used to work with Fruityloops years and years ago, and that stuff was terrible. It was really flat; I would never want anyone to hear it. Then I was like, I want to use some machines, twist some knobs, so I started buying cheap equipment and then it just started progressing from there. There wasn’t really much thought to it. There wasn’t a big plan to go solo.

You do seem to have pretty broad taste in music. I was listening to a drum & bass mix you did the other day.

JD: Before I got into techno I was into drum & bass – when Photek was releasing those EPs and early No U-turn and all that. People ask for mixes and the concept is, like "you want me to make a mix of other peoples music to promote my music?" It’s completely ridiculous. So I decided I’m going to do these mixes of genres that are completely irrelevant to what I’m doing. The people who asked for the mix when they got it were completely befuddled, they thought I had sent them the wrong thing. I pulled the hard stance. I don’t want to play into anyone’s expectations.

And did you go out raving?

JD: If there were local shows. People brought in DJs, usually at smaller clubs. But they always had acts I wasn’t into. I can’t even think of who at this point, but I’d usually go to smaller shows that were being put on.

What’s the music scene like in Cleveland? I saw you tweeted recently that Cleveland is 218 years old and the music scene is 250 years behind that.

JD: Yeah, it’s small and it’s insular. Bee Mask, Chris Madak, he lives in Philly now and John Elliot [of Emeralds], right now he’s in Albuquerque, he may be coming back, he took a sabbatical from Cleveland. The main players that got things going here moved on and left. There’s still residual people, there’s still these noise shows where the same 15-20 people show up.

I couldn’t draw people here with a pencil and paper. The last time I played here I think there were eight people. It’s just the way it is. That’s how this town is. There’s that saying about New York, that if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. I always say with Cleveland, if you can make it here, you’ll never make it anywhere. You just get bogged down in this circle of playing for friends and doing the same shows. I’m usually dumped on bills with hardcore bands or punk rock bands, which is fine. I probably prefer that to be honest.

The record shop Bent Crayon seems to play a big role in the music scene there, from what I can gather.

JD: It’s been around almost 20 years, Bent Crayon. John [Cellura, Bent Crayon owner]’s my best friend. He’s on top of everything – it may have been hard in other places, but here it’s easy, the record would just show up and he would say, here’s the new batch and I would go through it. And this was pre-internet, or pre-big internet. Chris, (Bee Mask), John, all the Emeralds guys, he is the main connection [between] all of us. He was the one turning us onto records, or getting records for us we couldn’t find, or putting on shows, doing in-stores when no one else cared. I can’t say enough how important the store is and how important John is. To the scene, and to me personally.

I suppose now more than ever the Internet plays a big role for artists in terms of getting their work out there, and finding inspiration from other scenes. I guess for you particularly, having put out most of your releases on UK and European labels, it must be even more important. How did those collaborations come about?

JD: Well they all contacted me, shockingly. It feels like a fairytale that I’ve been able to work with them. It seems like I don’t say no to anyone, but when it’s Diagonal and Mira and Submit and Spectrum Spools, I wouldn’t say no to these labels, because I respect and love them. It’s kind of a false flag; I’m the prolific guy who can’t say no. But I’m not going to say no to quality.

How do your live shows tend to play out?

JD: I like to start off shows with spoken word dialogue from films or records. Mostly ones that at first listen have no frame of reference. It’s sort of a tactic I use to startle or confuse people, but the majority of times the PA is still blasting some mundane cold wave pabulum, or the audience isn’t even paying attention so it all falls fantastically flat on its face. For the shows I have coming up this fall I am using intros that have specific references (to me at least) to the city I am playing or the crowd. One of them has this talking about Frisco, and my girlfriend was over there recently and she was talking about how people just hate it when people say Frisco, they hate the city being referred to as that. She was like "you’re gonna piss them off!" and I’m like, "Perfect!" I didn’t even plan it. I thought it was going to be a tribute and now they’ll be mad.

As long as everything’s served in plastic bottles you’ll be all right

JD: Sure, I can take a plastic cup to the head.

I got hit in the head with a bottle once.

JD: Really? Did it smash?

No, which is probably more worrying really. It was when I lived in Newcastle, actually near where Stephen Bishop is based in Redcar. I was going to talk to you a bit about him, seeing as you put out Mirror & Gate Vol 1 on Opal Tapes with him. He runs the whole label from up there and doesn’t compromise by moving to a big city, or London. The problem in the UK at the moment is everyone feels like they have to go to London to "make it", particularly in creative circles, so it’s nice when people have these little bubbles of doing interesting stuff further afield.

JD: I was unaware of the geography. I was speaking with him maybe like two months ago, as he worked with Tusk festival and he was telling me how in the UK arts funding is split up and the majority of it is for the London area. I had no idea.

How does that play out in America?

JD: [In] smaller cities there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on, you don’t really have to go to LA or NY or Chicago. Sometimes you do for larger name acts. The whole funding thing is a different situation, that goes by small grants and organisations, and there’s usually no state or city funding for any of that. It’s some wealthy corporation puts together this board and they give away some money to a poor sap who eats ramen every night and thinks what he does is important. Even with the internet there’s stuff going on in smaller cities you don’t even know [about] ’til you get here. That’s why it’s important to go to record stores and talk to people, the people who really know and really have a grasp of what’s happening, aren’t online chirping about it all the time so you gotta talk to these people. When I go to a city I must bore people to death. I ask so many questions about everything.

People don’t ask enough questions these days

JD: I met Paul [Régimbeau, aka Mondkopf] recently – I played with him in Brooklyn and his friend who was living in New York too and we talked for an hour outside and I was just drilling them with questions about the political situation in France. I was bringing up things that they don’t talk about [there], and they were looking at me like, "Why do you wanna know this?" And I’m like, "You’re in America, you can say what you want!" And they were very open, and I think they were sitting back just like, "Why don’t you just wanna talk about techno?" I just wanna know, I don’t get a chance to meet these people so I’m very interested in finding out.

As someone who is incredibly prolific, can you tell us about anything exciting you’re working on at the moment?

JD: I was asked by Karl O’Connor to do a record for Jealous God but not under the name Prostitutes. He wanted me to go outside what I normally do and make something, well, "different". That ended up being harder than I thought. Eventually I had the brilliant idea to get people way more talented than myself to help out. I asked two of my favourite people, and coincidentally label bosses to contribute, John Elliott and Michael [Kasparis]. John added synthesisers and Michael did the vocals. While we were working on it, it became glaring clear this was a fully realised group and not me and some friends. It’s called The Rancor Index and it’s nothing anyone is going to expect. The EP will be out late this year or early in 2015, granted the earth is still intact.  

Prostitutes’ Nouveauree EP is out now on Night School Records

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