Everything Bleeds Into Everything Else: rkss Interviewed

Following the release of rkss' new LP DJ Tools on Lee Gamble's UIQ label, Mollie Zhang asks them questions about brostep, hierarchies in music and creating space in the club

Taylor Swift is definitely not Autechre.

The distinction comes up as I talk to Robin Buckley, aka rkss (or even jkwd), about hierarchies in music, and what makes it definitively good. Unsurprisingly, we don’t come up with any answers – and that’s what interests her.

rkss’ earlier output is catchy and functional. Their more recent work is a bit more confusing, and a bit more challenging. 2017 saw Robin share the humorous Brostep in the Style of Florian Hecker – a piece inspired by computer musician Florian Hecker’s Acid in the Style of David Tudor. The multi-channel work (released as a stereo mix) explores the similarities between brostep and computer music, using Massive’s preset ‘Loopmasters Present Dubstep Synths’ to mimic the avant-garde sounds of Hecker.

In the last few years, rkss’ output has become more critical and more adventurous. Her latest release, DJ Tools, arriving via Lee Gamble’s UIQ label, sees her cast a critical eye towards the dancefloor. Built from a sample pack called ‘EDM Kicks Vol 1’, the record features tongue-in-cheek track titles such as ‘Hardwell, Nicky Romero, Fedde Le Grand, Ummet Ozcan, Spinnin Records and many others,this pack bring you best tools for making’ and ‘key and tempo labeled at 128 BPM. Other Genres that this package may be useful in • Trance • Progressive • Electro House’. It arrives via SoundCloud, tagged thusly: ‘#EDM #BIGROOM #dutchtracks! #inspired’.

Ahead of the record’s release, I chatted to Robin about her shift in interests, the similarities between Vengaboys and Marcel Dettmann and why SOPHIE is brilliant.

Could you tell me a bit about your move away from making more conventional, “functional” dance music – like on the Cutoff EP?

Robin Buckley: I wrote Cutoff when I was in a Discogs kind of headspace – I was really into functional dance music.

I was also into computer music then. I’d seen EVOL perform the year before, and I also saw Mark Fell in 2015 at CTM. He had those car wash floaty people at Berghain, and all he did, if I remember correctly, was play with a strobe light and arpeggiator for 45 minutes. People really weren’t enjoying it. I really enjoyed A) the piece, but also B) the fact that people didn’t like it. I wanted to play with these ideas in a similar way – with dance music as a structure, form or space.

A real turning point for me was when I went to the ICA, and there was a film which featured Lorenzo Senni, Theo Burt, Mark Fell, EVOL, etc.. There’s this one section where Mark talks about the patch he uses for his live performances. It’s so simple, but it’s kind of created his entire career. I thought: “Well I haven’t figured out the live stuff yet, but I might try think about time in the way that Mark is thinking about it.” It can be very loose and fragmented.

So that’s what I was thinking about – rhythm – and then the EDM stuff has emerged from wanting to move away from replicating things that I found enjoyable, and start exploring things that I find really unenjoyable.

You’ve spoken about your distance from dance music, and trying to “connect” through your difference, “rather than era[se] it.” What has it been like to navigate more conventional dance music spaces?

RB: I saw that documentary around the time I started to question my gender, and started to realise that I might not be a straight boy. There was a jolt in my brain where I realised, “oh shit – all male lineups are a serious problem in contemporary ‘underground’ music,” despite the fact that it posits itself otherwise. It’s constantly reproducing these really shitty structures.

I read a lot of Terre Thaemlitz who is really critical of the way these social spaces are constructed. Before, it was really heady because I thought I was a boy, and thought of myself as an ally. Then I started to think – if I wasn’t a boy, what would it mean to be in these spaces? What do I want to bring to them?

I felt like it might be a way of showing people that, for example, the line between men and women is not so binary. Everything bleeds into everything else. I think that’s where I was trying to push myself with my work.

You mentioned that part of feeling othered in dance music spaces comes from being mostly sober. Has that been a defining part of your relationship to this culture?

RB: It has been. I think I relate to people like Mark or Terre partially because they don’t really drink. I’m really drawn to their music for many other reasons too, but I think that’s an underlying thing; you have a different set of experiences in the club. I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, I just have a different relationship to the music. I move through the space differently. I don’t think I “lose myself” in the same way – I’m always quite aware of my body and being in the space, maybe more so than others might be.

I remember Conor Thomas saying that when he saw the DJ Tools stuff live, it felt like being at a rave at 2AM, where everyone’s really into it, and you’re completely sober. That really clicked with me – maybe that’s what I’m trying to replicate. My earlier club experiences were in Berlin, when I was around 18/19. It’s a very non-judgmental space when it comes to drinking and drugs. I never felt pressured to drink, it was just: “Robin does this, someone else does that.”

I think the track titles create a similar effect – they’re somehow simultaneously invested in EDM while also distanced. They don’t quite feel like a joke, but they’re not totally serious either.

RB: A friend and I describe Wham! as aggressively chirpy, and I feel like a lot of club culture is aggressively happy – like you have to enjoy it. If you’re not dancing or having fun, you’re putting it all down.

I was thinking about artists like SOPHIE, and about work that’s kind of ironic but also kind of sincere. How do you put these things together? Virgil Abloh does these deconstructed shoes that never have tags on them, but feature the names of the materials they’re made of. I don’t think he’s making fun of the shoe at all. It’s reverential, but he’s still showing the process from which they’re made, and maybe there is some form of irony in there.

That’s not a take on my work, though I do think all of this feels like this particular historical moment that we’re in. Something isn’t just ironic, but it’s informed by and aware of irony. It doesn’t separate them, but brings them together somehow. I’m sure someone’s written eloquently on this. I haven’t figured it out yet.

When you mention SOPHIE and irony, I think it just goes to show how our relationships to all of this stuff is far more complex than we might think – you can’t fit any of it into discrete categories.

RB: It’s multi-faceted! Multiple contexts are happening at once. It’s the complexity of being able to hold these different things at the same time. It’s being able to think about how the Labour party can do good things but, say, also want to invest in the police. How do we deal with that? Not through unequivocally supporting Labour, but asking, “how do we confront the fact that they want to do really shitty things, while also acknowledging that they could make many people’s lives a lot better?”

Our era is complex. It’s not about being didactic and labelling something “good” or “bad,” ironic or not. It can hold all of these things at once. Of course SOPHIE did that McDonald’s ad a while ago, which I assume funded her for the next couple years of her career. It’s that question – “yes, we love SOPHIE and the work she does, but could she have been as exciting and different if she hadn’t done that ad, and supported McDonald’s and everything that it represents?”

On that note, I remember you tweeting about SOPHIE’s live show, and being excited about the kinds of spaces she was creating. Could you tell me about what and why?

RB: It was really amazing. It was at Heaven, which is a gay space, but historically it’s quite a cis-gay-male space, and it’s kind of conservative. That was interesting because SOPHIE brought in all of the queer kids who are part of a new generation in which all of these lines have blurred.

People talk about gender as a binary or a spectrum, but actually, gender isn’t even a spectrum. It’s this multi-faceted thing that’s all over the place. I felt like that’s what I was seeing there. It’s malleable and dependent on context; it sits with complexity. It’s not a question of “gay or not.”

The performance itself was also incredible. I haven’t been so enamoured with a performance in a long time. People were moshing and crying; the teenagers were wailing, but people were also cuddling. That’s not something I’ve ever experienced at a concert.

I feel like those unexpected reactions from the audience are a common thread across SOPHIE, Mark Fell and your work – I’m thinking of your 2017 Ohm show here. Could you tell me a bit about, for lack of a better term, “fucking with” the audience?

RB: Friendly fucking? [Laughs] To go back to SOPHIE, she mentioned in an interview that she just wants people to have a reaction to her music. That’s something I’ve said before as well, I don’t mind if someone hates my work, as long as they hate it. Ambivalence, for me, is the distressing thing. I was on at 1AM at Ohm, which isn’t Tresor but it’s kind of in Tresor, and some people just want to come, dance, be cool and wear black. I wasn’t giving them that at all. I started playing Vengaboys, which in that context, is a really specific gesture. It’s techno, it’s danceable, and in theory, it’s something that people might like, but aesthetically, it’s something they’re not meant to.

That really informed my work moving forward. I want people to be like, “whoa, what was that?” And then leave thinking about what happened, or about their relationship to club culture or music in general. It’s not that I want everyone to have epiphanies, I just want them to think a bit about why they’re in the space. Why are we here? What are we doing when all of this bad stuff is happening, and we’re just at the club trying to get fucked? It’s not a judgment. I love being here and listening to this too, but how do we hold these different things at once?

I’ve definitely asked those questions in reaction to your work. You did a show on NTS [I was mistaken – it was actually Noods] and I remember being surprised that you played Taylor Swift. She’s kind of contrary to the connotations of an Autechre residency. What made you interested in exploring your relationship to musical value in this way?

RB: With Taylor, I have a lot of feelings. Mark Fell put 1989 into his top albums of the year for Boomkat. I checked it out for the production, but that was also around the time I started thinking about gender. I started having these basic, 12-year-old feelings of wanting to embody that kind of femininity. I was quite literally listening to Mark Fell on the one hand, and Taylor Swift on the other. What does it mean to have this history of being into cool, edgy musicians, but also having these “I just wanna be Taylor Swift ‘cause she’s cute,” kind of basic teenage feelings?

I’m not glossing over the way she embodies whiteness; I’m definitely not pro-Taylor Swift in a lot of ways, but in general, I find it strange when people are very hierarchical about underground culture, or about it being “better” than the overground for whatever reasons, like not being sexist, when in reality it very much is. It’s not about saying the underground is just as bad, it’s a question of what do we want from the underground? What do we want from this moment?

There are definite rules and aesthetics that might not be ones we need to maintain. Are some of the social aspects of brostep, for example, so different from those of computer music? If that’s the case, what makes computer music great, and brostep “shit” for example? I think that’s what Taylor Swift plays into. Why is Vengaboys cheesy or bad? What’s different between Vengaboys and Ostgut Ton 12” #3? I’m genuinely asking, because it’s just kick, hi-hat. There are differences – I’m not flattening them – but I’m trying to figure out what makes one better than the other, or vice versa.

Those hierarchies are difficult to name, which is why they’re more important to. Who is perpetuating certain idea of what music should or shouldn’t be? How much do we want to buy into Berghain, and how much can we criticise it? There isn’t an answer. They’re all weird, amorphous things.

rkss’ debut LP DJ Tools is out now and can be purchased directly here

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