machines with human instincts: an interview with jikuroux
The brilliant Sydney producer has shared her sophomore EP, 'Cradle Bay,' a crystalline collection of sounds that position her at the forefront of the club underground.
Jess Lavelle takes her time. She released her first EP Ruptured Pulse in late 2016 under Air Max '97's DECISIONS imprint. Its tracks were marked with glimmering tension, gaseous gasps and pounding metal—a blacksmith's forge submerged in bubbling liquid. The production was ornate and air-tight. She had spent the previous few years refining this craft in private, performing now and again for friends and new fans.
This month sees the release of Cradle Bay, a collection of new work accessing similar aesthetic themes. Each track conjures and disturbs the imagery of motorised bodies, ghoulish apparitions and late-90s sci-fi. It's the creepiness of Resident Evil fused with the tangible intimacy of the queer club scene within which Lavelle is a fixture. Here every moment is precise, a thousand swirling thoughts carefully distilled to their most essential parts. It is always worth the wait.
We meet on a cold morning and sit at a table in her backyard. Her black cat Belly darts through and around our wooden chairs and the shins of our legs, resting occasionally in warm patches among the grass. We chat for an hour or so. It's only as I'm leaving that I learn it's her birthday. She is matter-of-fact about this revelation and casually explains that she'll spend the day working in retail. This seems typical of Jikuroux. She manages to be direct and warm all at once. The same can be said of her musical output — both melodic and coldly mechanical. Cradle Bay is a machine with feelings.
Hi Jess. You just got home from Berlin. How long were you over there?
I was there for two weeks. I was playing a show at Säule — which is a stage in Berghain — as part of a DECISIONS and CTM Festival showcase. It was really good.
How important to you is the idea of cultivating an audience or fan-base overseas?
There are just generally more opportunities overseas in terms of creating fan-bases, which is important in terms of getting paid and being able to keep doing what I'm doing. At the end of the day, more genuine personal connections are always going to be more important to me than having 'fans.' I'd rather have friends, you know?
Genres and subgenres of electronica and house are, needless to say, pretty facile ways to categorise your musical output. Where do you locate your work?
I've always found it really hard to categorise my music. I think it's a consequence of coming from Sydney, where there's no original local sound. In Berlin you'd have techno, or in the UK you might have grime, but here everyone's doing their own thing. I think because of that disconnect from any local movement, the music that I make just takes from all of the different kinds of music that I listen to. At its core it is dance and club music, but I also try to think about how the music will act in different environments — what it's like when you're playing it in the car, or at dinner or something. I guess it's 'forward-thinking club music,' but that's such a naff way of describing it.
I like that.
Yeah. It's kind of the most true way to characterise it.
You co-founded EVE—a queer and inclusive club night. Club music is so much about the environment in which it is experienced, being designed for communal spaces. How do you personally go about creating queered aural or club experiences?
That's kind of a hard question. [Laughs]
It's pretty huge, I'm sorry.
That's okay! I could talk about it for ages. Because I was a DJ before I started producing music, that will always influence the way that I create a track. I try to create a space within the music, as opposed to thinking about how my music is consumed within a space. I think that's more important. At the end of the day, whoever's running the party doesn't necessarily guarantee it to be a "queer night". Part of it is how you run it, and making sure to be as inclusive, accessible, friendly and safe as possible. At the same time, there will be issues within that process and it will always be flawed. I consider EVE to be a queer party, but maybe not everyone does. I think that's a really important thing to recognise. Dance music generally is built on queer experiences and dance music is queer. The very idea of going to a space to express yourself in a functional way, working outside of surveilled systems, is very queer.
You've been characterised in previous pieces as somewhat of a musical recluse, playing your cards close to your chest, being reticent to share your work. Do you find those kinds of comments to be an accurate representation of your approach to your practice?
I think that mainly has to do with both my anxiety and not wanting to add to the existing trash of the internet. I want to be able to very specific about where my music sits in that kind of landscape. My creative output is always going to be personal and so it's very hard for me to navigate with my anxiety at what point I'm willing to share my work. Although, after releasing the first EP, I now care less. Then again, I've always been less inclined to publish my work. It has never been as important as making my music.
Or it existing within those club spaces for a night.
Exactly. I make music for my friends first and foremost. My music is special to me and I want to be able to control where it goes, in a way.
Your production style is often described as having an 'icy' or 'wet' tone. Those kinds of words sometimes assume cold emotionlessness. What role, if any, does emotion and personal experience take in your work?
Emotion does play a strong role, and I think I do make more "emotional" club music. I'm not sure if that's based on the fact that I love melody. At the same time, I don't want people to think I'm saying "This is me! The music is about myself!" It's not. It's all about how you project yourself upon it. I think that's also a big part of queered aural experiences as well — you will always project your queerness towards the music. With the "ice" thing, I'm a winter baby. I've always liked the stark and beautiful aesthetics of ice.
Who do you admire?
My partner Celia and my cat Belly. I really admire my parents as well. I was having a conversation with my dad yesterday about how we used to make songs on Garageband together when I was a tween.
That's really sweet.
It was so cute. I remember coming into his office one day and he had made this hilarious song. It was called The Seagull Song and he'd sampled seagulls and like… a cat's meow. I was just like, "This is amazing." Musically I've always loved Nguzunguzu. They're kind of the reason I started listening to dance music. Before that I only really understood dance music as being brostep or EDM gross vibes, but their track Delirium showed me that dance music could make me feel in so many ways. There are so many incredible artists. Ziúr is such an incredible person and her music is just so fucked up, but in the best way. When I was in Berlin I got to hang with her for a while and she's such an inspirational person, so honest and down-to-earth. And her music is crazy.
What do you think the Sydney club scene is missing?
Support. That's the main thing. We do have quite a strong community, especially for house and techno, which I think is really great. But there are issues like lack of venues and lack of support from venues. It's really hard to get grants. There are so many obstacles and very few mentorship systems for encouraging young people. Those kinds of more systematic things are really absent. Before EVE, there wasn't a club night in Sydney that was playing that kind of music, or was willing to give people who had never DJ'd before a platform to do that.
The other thing that Sydney is missing is touring, in the sense that it's so important to have the artists who have pioneered those sounds to be brought to Australia and to educate people in that way, as opposed to just having me DJ that music. It's a very different experience. That's why we brought out Venus X and Lotic and stuff, cause it was all music we were playing and we just wanted them to have the space to educate our audiences. So, it'd be cool if we could get funding for that but we can't. [Laughs]
I was looking through your Twitter feed and noticed an interest in the self-sufficiency of the biosphere. The defence mechanism of an armadillo, the deadly gases of an Ethiopian volcano. The cover art for Cradle Bay is soaked in mud alongside exposed electrical wires and a bright orange butterfly. How did you decide on that image and what was the conceptual thinking behind it?
That was done by Jarred Beeler and then edited. I'd hung out with him when I was in Berlin last year — he's an amazing photographer — and he was showing me some of his stuff and I just loved that image. I wanted something really murky. That's kind of my vibe. It was autumn when I wrote the EP and the ice had melted, so murky water seemed like the next logical step. I love playing with duality and having something both beautiful and sinister. Not to be like "I love nature", but nature is so beautiful. And I think dance music has recently taken this turn towards being mechanical and digital, and while that's true of my music, it does still have a human instinct and so that's really important for me to represent visually.
I'm conscious of a general interest among a lot of queer artists that I know in futurism, robotics, augmented bodies and mutation — imagery of the Resident Evil, Aeon Flux and Ex Machina variety.
Love all of them.
Same here. Your Tink/Manson edit Bio Weapon obviously also comes to mind. In doing some research, I discovered that Cradle Bay was the setting of 1998 science fiction horror Disturbing Behaviour. What accounts for you own interest in these topics and their symbolism?
Yes! Well done for finding that out — I didn't put that in any press release.
I don't wanna blow your cover.
[Laughs] No, it's fine! I've always loved sci-fi, I mean … how could you not? I was actually really sick one day and wanted to watch a shitty, 90s sci-fi film and picked Disturbing Behaviour, which is set in Cradle Bay. All of the names of these films' settings are so good. Even Sunnydale from Buffy, you know? It's just so iconic and creepy-sounding.
I don't want to speak for all queer people and this is just my own understanding of it, but I think that interest in that imagery can come from the lack of queered bodies represented in media. At this point in our lives, we can't separate our bodies from technology and that gives people the ability to exist within a loosely-defined digital "space" on their own terms, and to understand the self as no longer just a body. But at the same time, bodies still walk down the street and still receive abuse, so at what point can you really isolate yourself from that? I think that's always on the mind of queer people—like, I have the ability to create my own space but that space will always be violated by something. And it comes back to the armadillo thing, like how can you protect yourself using tools provided by such an inherently cruel technology industry?
What comes next for Jikuroux?
I'm gonna work on releasing a 20-minute original production mix that'll be kinda different. It's called Erotic Gestures of Sound and that is all I will say.
Text and photography Joe Brennan