Jaime Brooks on Elite Gymnastics, the Internet, and the End of the Music Industry

Jaime Brooks on Elite Gymnastics, the Internet, and the End of the Music Industry

Housekeeping matters out of the way first: This is a free post for Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter, paid subscribers also receive a weekly Baker's Dozen playlist with critical musings around the music on it. But wait, there's more! I'm running a sale on monthly subscriptions until the end of the month (that's through this Friday), 50% off so you'd pay $1.50/month for the first six months. You can grab that deal right here.

OK, so let's get into it—Jaime Brooks is an artist who I greatly admire for her work under the Elite Gymnastics, Dead Girlfriends, and Default Genders projects. She's also someone whose perspective on popular culture I strongly respect and take into great consideration, to the point where she's shaped my own way of thinking over the years. I've wanted to talk to her for the newsletter for forever, and I hope you enjoy the following conversation.

it’s yours!, by elite gymnastics
from the album snow flakes 2022

What's your life been like these days?
I put out the album last year. In the old days, I used to lock myself up in a room when the mood hit me and try to get as much work out of that feeling as I could before it went away, because I wasn't sure when it was gonna pop back up. With this last album, I would try to keep more normal hours—I'd get up early, make breakfast, go work on it for the amount of time I'd spend at an office job, when I had one of those. So I was doing that for a while, and when I first started it I had a sweet remote job that allowed me to juggle the two things. Partway through making the album, that circumstance changed, so a bunch of lovely people bought the album and gave me a little bit of breathing room to figure out what to do next.

Since then, I've been tending to burnout and trying to figure out what the big projects are that I'm going to work on this year. I'm trying to write another column for The New Inquiry about what's going on with live music, so I've been reading books on that. I'm not sure what the next thing is, though. It's a chaotic and anxious time for everyday routines, because I'm not settled into one that's going to meet my needs and pay the rent. There's some uncertainty and lateral thinking about planning that's been going on as I've navigated that situation.

Have everyday routines been beneficial for you in the past?
In previous situations that I've been in, I didn't have a ton of control about when I could create. Throughout the aughts, I was really immersed in party culture on the weekends, and on the weekdays I was trying to keep the disguise up through five-day-a-week office job shifts, trying to hold on to that source of income so I could keep doing ridiculous stuff on the weekends and trying to figure out to sleep, going from different peoples' couches in between the weekends. Until recently, I was stuck in a constant payoff-withholding loop. I was putting myself through chaotic and stressful situations that I would embrace under the idea that it was going to pay off later.

My post-pandemic approach is less focused on the payoff and more about how I do things sustainably. How do I create a life that includes the things that fulfill me while also meeting the—the same thing everyone wants. I've made breakthroughs in the past couple of years in terms of structuring and organizing that. It worked better for me, it felt better for me, and it allowed me to get past some creative barriers that had impeded me in the past. But it's also uncertainties combined with looming catastrophes behind every door. It's not a huge improvement, but I'm happy about it.

I did want to talk to you about your writing in general. As a writer, writing is the only way I really know how to create. I don't have the access to the creative perspective that a musician has.
There was never an MC Larry mixtape or anything like that, or did you know it was music writing for you right away?

I played music when I was younger, and I did part-time conservatory stuff for the clarinet. From fifth or sixth grade on, though, I was like, "Right, I obviously want to write about music."
At some point, while you were being trained on the clarinet, you must have intuited that the thing they were teaching you to participate doesn't really exist anymore as a going concern in culture. Maybe it helped you cultivate a love of music, but it didn't leave you with an obvious place to put it. That makes sense that music writing would come out of that situation.

Yeah, I never thought about it that way.
I'm thinking about this stuff a lot, because I'm trying to understand music in the early part of the 20th century—before the Beatles, basically. Something I've learned about that time was that there were shitloads more people who could play instruments, which meant that there was more demand for children to learn all different types of instruments, and the music teachers who existed were also points of connection to what passed for the music industry back then. You'd hear a lot of stories like Nina Simone, who was super poor but demonstrated aptitude for the piano, and her music teacher connected her with what ended up being the music industry.

I didn't learn an instrument growing up, so it seems like an alien concept to me, but I like this idea of there being musicians everywhere, and people making a living playing the clarinet and teaching it to other people. These instruments left our culture at some point to get replaced by amplified instruments in the '60s, and computers in the aughts. Sometimes I find myself thinking about a song I liked in the past ten years and how I'd love to hear that played by a bigger band with more instruments. In a past era, that's what partying would've been. Instead of going to see a bloghouse DJ, I would've gone to see a big band, or someone playing a sick clarinet solo. These are the things that are fun for me to think about lately, which is why we're talking about your clarinet lessons.

secret garden .NUXX, by default genders
from the album main pop girl 2019

When did you start actually making music?
I started out writing lyrics to songs that already existed. I was 15 and I did a really edgy rewrite of Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis." That was the first time where I found a little corner to myself and thought, "I'm writing songs now!" When I was 17 I got a cheap guitar at a garage sale and pirated a really primitive digital audio workstation that was available at the time called Sonic Foundry Acid—I think it's called Vegas Acid now, Sony bought it at some point. It was a really primitive version of what Ableton Live is, and I started making stuff on there from 17-21. I moved to Minneapolis, sat around in my $600 one-bedroom apartment that I shared with the person I was dating at the time, making fake Wilco records or fake Smog records or fake Jim O'Rourke records.

I'm always curious to hear from people who make music with the assistance of computers about what the moment was where they realized that they could do anything they wanted through making music with a computer.
Arguably, that moment never happened. There's ten people that moment happened for out of ten million, the rest of which it happened for in a fake way—and I'm one of those ten million. I love doing it, and I'm going to keep doing it, because it's the closest thing in my life to a religious practice.

When I look at my personal growth and social life, the things in my world that don't have analytics links attached to them, music has improved those things immeasurably for me. There was a point, later in the aughts, when everything shifted over to MP3s and the curatorial impact of the types of people who start blogs and contribute to private torrent trackers—I was participating in that hardcore, as a DJ at first. A lot of people didn't know what they were doing in those days. If you were the type who spent a lot of time downloading MP3s, sometimes a venue would pay you to come play the best ones for a crowd of college kids. That was the first time that I maybe thought the computer music stuff was a marketing skill, and as I was trying to do that, I realized I wasn't as good as DJing as other people, because I was super interested in disconnected entities.

Back then, Black Dice had a record out on DFA, and labels were paying for these weird remix pairings between artists that didn't make sense. That was really thrilling to me, because I didn't feel like I fit in to anything that was going on before that. Sometimes, I think about how my life would have been different if I had the confidence to try to send a demo to Drag City or something. Maybe there's a completely different version of this that I would've done. But I was DJing, and I realized I wasn't very good at DJing because I wasn't focused on the rhythmic stuff, just the conceptual stuff. I wasn't good at the fundamentals of getting people to let loose and party. I migrated over to making original stuff because people around me knew that I was doing that, and they wanted to coax that out of me.

I started playing shows, and then me and Josh Clancy started working together. He was a real pro graphic designer who was an outsized presence in the Minneapolis scene. People in other cities knew who he was just because of his graphic design. We'd go to New York and there would be label owners excited to hang with him because of the work he'd been doing. We started making recordings and people liked that stuff, but Josh already had multiple careers, and I had some weird sense of justice that made it hard for me to monetize stuff that's really important to me, like music.

Back when you first heard about Elite Gymnastics, I don't think we thought about ourselves as people who were getting on a professional track. I think that's why it was easier for us to blow it up when we stopped getting along. We wanted to be good. Neither one of us was super interested in the version of it that tried to adapt to the market to survive as a commercial concern. We didn't want to do that, and I still don't want to do that. I'd rather do that as a writer and try to get a Substack going, or one of the revenue streams that's available for that, because then I'm not endangering my music, which is much closer to my heart. There was a moment where we looked at it and said, "Let's try to be a part of what's going on," but I don't know if we ever got to the point where we were like, "We could do this as a career!"

The next thing I did after was Dead Girlfriends, and after that I was like, "Fuck this. I'm never relying on the fucking industry or staking anything serious on the idea that I can trust any of these entities with baseline respect." Since then, the passion for making and playing music, and learning more about it, has been more important.

Tell me about the role being a member of online communities has played for you as an artist. How has it been important for you, and how has it changed?
There's this guy Douglas Rushkoff, a post-McLuhan-type thinker that some of my friends are really into. I was reading some stuff where he was talking about this concept called "going meta," and what the tech companies did in the 2010s. The goal is to become an order of magnitude bigger than your competitors so that you basically open up a new strata of economy above the existing one. I was also reading the Miles Davis autobiography, and I was really interested in the parts around the late '60s where he talks about how many records he sold up until that point, and how he'd always been one of Columbia's most important artists because he'd sell $80,000 for album that came out. When the late '60s and early '70s came around, Woodstock happened and there was this whole new strata of the music industry that opened up above the existing one.

Miles Davis was a mainstream celebrity in the '50s, and when this new industry opened up above him he had to go be a part of that, which changed everything about his music and how his career worked. Another example Rushkoff uses is, at some point in the last 20 years, the New York Stock Exchange was purchased by a stock exchange for derivatives, which are an abstraction of stocks. So the derivatives company ate the thing it's speculating on.

To finally answer your question, I feel like I went meta. In the aughts, I was a local operator in Minneapolis that people would come up to so I could explain to them what happens on the internet. They would ask, "If Pitchfork says Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is good, what's up with them? Are they actually good?" Now, my place in society, my economic situation, and the fundamentals of my life have changed, but I'm existing at a higher magnitude of where I was before. Instead of being a local person asked to explain the internet, people all over the internet ask me to explain these things. I'm not a member of the conversation, I report on it. I went a level up. It's hard to explain what I mean by this, but hopefully in that giant explanation it makes sense.

Do you enjoy using the internet at this point?
I don't know if I have a choice about it. As far as social media goes, the experience of using the apps, especially on phones, is so addictive. Especially in a tactile aspect. There's been times in the 2010s where I didn't have a phone at all, so I have a different experience from people who are younger than both of us, who have never been in a world where Tinder doesn't exist. It's just part of the world to them.

I spent most of the 2010s not single and not interested in being single, so it's easier for me to imagine life without that stuff, and look at what it's doing to people from the outside. The loops that people get caught into, with TikTok and the dating apps—I can't do that stuff. I can feel myself getting stuck, and I can see the time disappear. I can't afford to use my time that way, and I don't want to, because I don't think it makes me a better or more interesting person. The time I spend trying to put more interesting stuff into my brain—books, pre-media-consolidation documentaries, music—that stuff grows my brain in more interesting directions than social media feedback loops would.

I'm still on the internet, I still know what's going on when there's a big story, I see it—I'm just participating less in public-facing ways, because it seems like a very bad time in history to be doing that. We're gonna look back at this time in a few years and see things that were part of our everyday lives as horrible—like lead, or those McDonald's Beauty and the Beast cups that had cadmium paint or whatever on them. That's what public-facing social media is right now, and I'm very concerned about limiting the hold it has on me. But I'm an isolated trans person in the modern internet age. If I wasn't on the internet doing public-facing stuff, I would just disappear into the cracks where ten million people like me have since time immemorial.

I really loved your latest album, and something that's really appealing about your music to me is the use of breakbeats. Whenever I hear breakbeats, it's like a huge dopamine hit for me. Tell me about your own love of breakbeats and what role they play in your music.
I'm not sure at what point I decided to sit down and commit to them. Breakbeat hardcore from the '90s is so hard to talk about because the British ravers all call it hardcore, and the Americans obsessed with the Anglophilic era of the '90s call it UK hardcore to differentiate it from hardcore punk. So many sounds that recur in that music—the sound clips, the pitched-up samples, the rolling pianos—that stuff shakes loose old drug particles in the brain, even for people who haven't done that many drugs. That's the main thing I connect with it.

As the bloghouse era was in decline, I started to realize I didn't need to hear any more DFA-style production in dance tracks, and I was really bored of that. The Frankie Knuckles remix of Hercules & Love Affair's "Blind" was a real moment for me, I was so excited about it and it seemed like an apex of what dance music had been building up to—this song that had been one of the big swings from that scene. I was really excited to experience that song in a crowd of people, and when somebody finally played it out, it cleared the dancefloor. That was the moment where I accepted that things were changing, and what I thought was going to happen in music wasn't going to happen. Maybe it was moving towards what I was interested in and comfortable with at some point, but it wasn't anymore.

So I started looking for something else that felt good and would let me hold on to the feelings of attachment I felt in that life, and breakbeats did the job. It led me not just to the UK hardcore-type music, which I love and still listen to regularly, but the music all those samples originally came from—R&B, gospel, funk, all the music that popular music now is based on. It became a conduit through which I could connect with all different aspects of musical history. The more I put into it, the more I felt like I was getting out of it.

One of the things about breakbeats that was stressful on the initial incarnations of Elite Gymnastics was that, when we were a four-person group, we hadn't played shows yet and I'd come into practice and say, "Breakbeats!" and everyone else would have to try to find ways to incorporate that. I liked the challenge to replace the bad associations that had been put there from the late-'90s marketing push with the way I felt about it. Nowadays, you hear it more.

The predominant type of percussion in popular music ove the last 15 years have been loops from the Roland TR-808 drum machine, and there's so many different ways to do that type of sound. I can't explain why I never wanted to do it. When Elite Gymnastics were starting out, there were Salem and jj and various people getting into trap music fairly early on, as that type of carpetbagging goes. Salem predates "Harlem Shake" and "Turn Down for What." I liked it in the context of their music, and even though I was a huge fan of the Atlanta-type stuff that popularized that type of production, I didn't want to focus on that. The breakbeats felt like a place where I could feel more free to find a mode of expression specific to me, instead of what other people were doing.

But now, there's breakbeats everywhere. You've got maximalists, the PinkPantheress thing—people are finding more ways to get into it. I'm excited about that, but not necessarily more excited than I am about any other sound in music. Ultimately, the point of getting into breakbeats for me, now that I look back on it, was how they connect to all these different pieces of music. That was the real reward of it—finding the connections between what I was doing and the early masters of what we now think of as the drum kit. The loops themselves, I don't think other people have the same relationship with them. I think it's just a sample pack to them, it doesn't matter who's playing it.

The music that's being made now is much less interested in where those samples actually come from than I am. It seems to be more about how video games sounded in the early aughts than anything that was ever actually club music, or the music that's being sampled in the first place. Occasionally, something happens that's really inspiring to me, but what I'd like to see is more reaching into the past and inspiring people instead of people fetishizing a 1.4 megabyte WAV file that they have no other context for.

reverse chronological order [part 2] (revitalized by snail cream), by default genders
from the album pain mop girl 2020

I've always really enjoyed what you've done musically.
You might've been the first person to write about Elite Gymnastics at Pitchfork.

It's possible.
You're part of the origin story!

That's nice. To me, it's more about your music.
Honestly, those of us who were there back then in that hilarious and stupid time, where there was money flying around that, for reasons, there is no longer flying around in that space—we should all just be happy we were there.

I think that's a good way to look at it. But, yeah, I've always admired your cultural perspective as well as your music, and it obviously feels like we're in some broad transitional phase with something more ugly and sinister on the horizon. Where's popular culture at right now, to you?
I've been thinking about this a lot. Streaming devalued recordings. You go back and look at what people were paying for CDs and albums, it's way more money than people are spending on recordings now. The only exception to that has been vinyl. During the aughts, the file-sharing era, the bigger indie labels got vinyl into Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters, and there were USB turntables. They wanted to turn it into a more boutique, luxury type of product, and they succeeded. You had outrageous first-week sales numbers for Vampire Weekend on XL and Arcade Fire on Merge and Grizzly Bear on Warp—which, Warp is a small label, nothing against them. Grizzly Bear did, like, 40,000 copies on Warp, and then their RCA album however many years label, I don't know if it charted it at all.

So, basically, in the aughts the indies had their run of vinyl, and in the 2010s the majors were like, "I love these Best Packaging Grammy types of albums, we should do that!" So they started making shitloads of vinyl, and vinyl has a limited production capacity because there's only so many factories—they hadn't built more since the old days. All the production capacity is now redirected towards random reissues from the back catalogues that some idiot at those companies thinks some idiot collector will pay extra for.

It's a speculation boom, like what happened to comics in the '90s. So the majors were decreasing the consumer experience by raising prices and being scattershot about what they were putting on the shelves. The market was growing, and people liked the product and bought into the prestige—until last year. If Taylor Swift's Midnights hadn't come out, the vinyl market would've declined for the first time in 15 years.

The current models don't work. Vinyl doesn't work. Streaming doesn't work. I strongly suspect that the live music space—the stadium and arena shows, the festival shows they're all focused on—that doesn't work either, because of COVID. COVID's way worse than anyone wants to admit that it is—at least, that's what I believe. People don't have to listen to me, but I believe that repeat infection leads to long COVID, immune and respiratory problems. So it feels like we're all bear-hugging old models and trying to squeeze everything we can possibly can while they're still good.

And it doesn't feel like things are good right now, but I think it's going to get worse. The vinyl market was holding up the whole market for recordings, period. I think I looked into the Bandcamp sales at some point, half of all the purchases are physical, and most of those are vinyl. If you start seeing some industry-wide crash in terms of vinyl, that hurts Bandcamp too. The past few years, I think, might actually be better than what's coming. Even though we have this huge devaluation of recordings through streaming, the job wasn't finished until vinyl was there. And live music? Well, we just had lockdowns, so everyone's buying tickets to everything that they possibly can, because they're worried we might never get to have these experiences again, and the water and drinks costs more now—and maybe they'll stop buying that stuff, too.

I think these past few years are a transitional phase, but as far as I can tell, it's gonna get way worse than it has been. We're gonna look back on this time and be nostalgic for the fact that there was a constituency and market for some type of recording. What if the fundamental prestige that drives attention towards new albums is in danger by all this crazy stuff economically? What if people stop seeing recordings as important and that attention goes elsewhere? Those are the questions I've been asking myself because it seems like that's the direction things are going.

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Jamie Larson