Interview: Elite GymnasticsPosted by Allen Huang
James Brooks is Elite Gymnastics, and Elite Gymnastics is James Brooks. The project of this New York-by-way-of-Minneapolis resident has been slapped with many labels: emotional-rave, neo-electronic, Chillwave, and many other “I’m-not-sure-these-are-real” genres. But ever since embarking on the Mythical Gymnastics tour with electronic music It-Girl Grimes, Elite Gymnastics has been able to add one more adjective to it’s at-capacity stable: honest.
Even though he does an excellent job of answering most questions on his personal Tumblr, SSGMusic sat down with Brooks between sets and talked about his well-documented love of both Eastern and Western pop music, his special bond with Grimes, and the stark differences between last tour and this tour.
On “Gangnam Style”:
It’s good that it was “Gangnam Style”, because “Gangnam Style”, you know… it’s like a dude who wasn’t trying to crossover.
I love the contrast between Girls Generation who hired an American producer and released an English single and Psy, who is not trying to reach Western audiences at all. He’s just like, yeah, here’s a really regionally specific song that, like, even if you translate the lyrics you still need what it’s about explained to you. And that’s the thing that people like; I love that. That’s the most I could have hoped for. That’s the kind of thing that reaffirms my faith in humanity.
On Amanda Todd:
I’m still struggling with the right way to… like at tonight’s show, you couldn’t really see it. And if you didn’t know what it was you wouldn’t… I mean the Amanda Todd thing didn’t happen until the middle of the tour. It’s something that emotionally and intellectually I’m just really consumed by, like it’s difficult for me to think of anything else. And during that part of the set, which tonight that’s unfortunately where the technical difficulties were but that’s the part where it kind of goes to a dark place. It’s just there to sort of create… like a lot of the stuff about the stage setup, like the umbrella and the Totoro dolls, it’s not necessarily there for entertainment value it’s just sort of there to create a situation where I’m most comfortable presenting the fullest expression of this stuff that I’m trying to express. And Amanda Todd’s something I’ve been thinking about all the time, so it’s something that has to be represented.
When I first found out about that, my fullest intention for the show that night was to do a brutal, 20 minute harsh noise set with that as the backdrop for it. But I felt like that would have been unfair. Still, that night in San Francisco, the only visuals were the Amanda Todd stuff, and that ended up being a really special thing. I didn’t think it was going to be, it was at this dance night, and literally as soon as I get off the stage some DJ is like “ALLLRIGHT EVERYBODY THAT WAS ELITE GYMNASTICS! LET’S GET CRUNK!” and then playing some Trap or whatever it was just f***ing brutal. But the moment that me and like the 15 kids that showed up that actually cared had in the middle of all that was extremely special.
On Connecting with the Fans:
One of the weird things about this tour is that there’s always kids at the shows, even in places were I wouldn’t expect there to be, that are like, following the Tumblr and that never happened before. I mean, all of Elite Gymnastics live stuff before this tour, there was never people… well part of it is I never really gave anybody anything to dig into because the other guy was still around, and he was into this militantly superficial, highly aestheticized, inhuman vibe. The human element, there wasn’t one to connect to. There wasn’t me on the Tumblr, until I started doing that a couple months ago, which seems like years ago in my mind.
On The Differences Between Last Tour and This Tour:
I wouldn’t call it necessarily “reactionary.” The last tour there was a lot of emotional outbursts. It was very violent. I was very frustrated. I just posted this big thing on the Tumblr today about how I hate when laptop artists present what they’re doing in a dishonest way, like try to make it seem like a rock band when it’s not. And something we were doing on the last tour was presenting it as if it was something that it wasn’t.
The reason why the guitar is still there is sort of an acknowledgement, it’s wrecked. I don’t know if you can see the guitar on the stage but all of the strings are ripped off of it, there’s only one string [that] still works and I never actually pick it up. I just stomp on it during the most aggressive part of the set and try to wreck it. Because it’s just a representation of the last incarnation of the band, where it was me with a guitar and Josh with drums, trying to pretend we were a band over these backing tracks. I didn’t talk between songs. If I did talk between songs, Josh would get mad because he wanted to be this cool, SALEM thing, where we didn’t talk and the aesthetic did all of the talking. And that’s just not me.
That’s the biggest difference. You could see me in the show last time, in the anger and the frustration and the aggression, but that’s a side of me that usually doesn’t come out. This time it’s more actually me. I knew that’s what I had to do, create a situation that’s comfortable. I was going to talk.
Before, we had one set, it was one WAV file that we couldn’t change, and one video file that went along with it that couldn’t be changed. And we were stuck with that the entire time. The things about it that did not work became very apparent very quickly, and there was nothing I could about it. I was trapped in it, and I was raging against the feeling of being trapped in that set. Making a decision to have more control over it… and sometimes I lose control of it, but that’s something that’s in the moment and way better than being on rails the entire time. There was this Marvel comic in the 70’s called “Howard the Duck” and the tagline was “Trapped in a world he never made,” and that was me last year. I always feel good even if I mess up a lot because at least it’s honest, at least I know what I did wrong. At least it was something that was representative of my real flaws.
The biggest complaint that really hurt me last time, was the complaint that we were lazy. Josh did not have time to actually learn to play any instruments, so what he ended up doing on stage, it was very obvious that he didn’t really know what he was doing. I mean, Josh is not a talentless person, he’s an amazing designer. But he’s not a musician, neither of us are musicians. The idea of us being on stage trying to demonstrate technical ability is just a ridiculous thing. But he demanded that he be presented like he were a technical musician, because that’s the image that he wanted to project, that’s the aesthetic that he was in love with. And because we weren’t good at that, people ignored all of the things that I was good at. And people called us lazy. They’d say “this guy can’t sing, this guy can’t play drums, these guys just don’t care enough to put a good show together.” And maybe people still think that, but I hope that because I’m being more open and more forthright about what I’m doing, and now that you can see that it’s one person that’s responsible for all the music, and there’s less diffusion of the responsibilities, people understand that this is my life.
I’ve been around Claire [Grimes] pretty consistently for two or three months now, and seeing her connection with fans and what her music and what her being a woman in the industry and doing it all herself means to people, that sort of changed my outlook a lot, because I wasn’t really thinking about, like, kids, when I was doing Elite Gymnastics before. I was thinking about all of the arms-crossed, 20-something, music critic, DJ-assholes who I was mad at for ruining my 20’s. When I started hanging out with Claire more, and just sort of seeing this whole other side to it, it made me more optimistic about what I could be doing with music and who I could be reaching with it and what kind of conversation I could be inspiring. It just made my world bigger.
On Going Solo:
[Josh and I] didn’t really work together that much. It was more just sort of a partnership that was a theoretical one, something that existed in the abstract. For the last year and a half, anything music was me by myself, and anything aesthetic was me and Josh in a room. We did work together on that, but the art direction was me, all of the substance and the ideas and stuff, like, “ok, the album cover is going to be this word in English and this word in Korean and it’s going to have a box around it.”
What I wouldn’t do again is trust anybody in a professional capacity to have any control over my thing because that drives me insane and I think people should be very careful about what they do in that respect in general. I see it all the time with Claire. Because she’s getting so big now, everybody wants to claim responsibility for it or claim a piece of it. I have one friend in Minneapolis I still talk to, but if you go there and ask around about me I’m sure you’ll find like twenty people that will claim some kind of responsibility for any success that I’ve had.
You really can’t trust people. Like The Notorious B.I.G. said, “Mo’ money, mo problems.” You start having any kind of success at all and it’s like a crucible that can warp even the healthiest and most positive and long-lived of relationships. So few relationships actually make it through the pressure of “What do I do now that this person I’m close to, has stuff?” I’m not that big yet, but I experienced that with Josh. He was pretty much ready to quit before RUIN, he didn’t like RUIN. He didn’t like “Here, in Heaven”, he didn’t want to release it at all, then he just wanted to release the other four songs, then he didn’t want release RUIN 2 at the same time… it’s just, like, I had to fight for all this stuff.
I mean I’d love to work with people in a collaborative situation that’s not like a business partnership. I’d never partner with anyone again, but I’d work with other people for sure. I’d love to work with Claire on something, we talk about different things. But because she’s an important person in my life, I wouldn’t want to just have just some sh**ty song on my album that’s just like ‘featuring Grimes’ or whatever, and doesn’t reflect the seriousness of what that relationship means to me. My friend Mike, Blood Diamonds, it’d be cool to collaborate with him. I really want to do something with Kitty Pryde one day, I’m the world’s biggest Kitty Pryde fan. And, God willing, G-Dragon or HyunA.
On RUIN and What’s Next:
RUIN is sort of reflective of a place I don’t necessarily want to be in anymore, but that’s not going to be as obvious until the next stuff comes out. Like, “Andreja-4-Ever” is obviously very different than the RUIN stuff, and the Spice Girls cover that I started the set out with, it doesn’t sound like anything on RUIN. I mean, the idea of referencing the Spice Girls as opposed to the stuff that was being referenced on RUIN, which was pretty standard issue My Bloody Valentine/Joy Divison/The Smiths type stuff, hopefully [it] sort of communicates that I’m in a different place.