Interview: Rene Kladzyk
Photo: Olimpia Dior
Ravelin Magazine invited pop sonic performer Ziemba [René Kladzyk] to catch up with cult hero SSION [Cody Critcheloe] about their new album “O.” Read on for a condensed transcript of their conversation about the enigmatic power of the color blue, Forrest Gump, and SSION’s rules for performing.
Accompanying images are by Olimpia Dior for Ravelin Magazine, from SSION & Ziemba’s recent show together at Secret Project Robot in Brooklyn, NY. Future events by SSION include the Ladyland festival taking place in NYC in late June and June 9th with labelmate Actually Huizenga at Northside Festival at Rose Gold. Ziemba has upcoming shows on May 23rd at Trans Pecos. Ziemba’s also performing at Elsewhere for Jonathan Toubin’s Soul Clp. You can also catch Ssion’s record release show at Bowery Ballroom on June 30th. The album follows in July with a vinyl release from DERO Arcade.
Ziemba: The number one thing I knew I wanted to talk to you about was the color blue, and your love of the shade of electric blue in old VHS tapes. I also have a fixation with that shade of blue, and had a real moment with Yves Klein. I’d love to hear your take on the connection of color stories to musical manifestations.
Ssion: Usually when I’m doing an album, there’s never really a set in stone color, but for some reason with this album I knew that it felt blue, but not in a sad way. And it stuck around. I always knew that I wanted to incorporate blue in the cover, and then the VHS electric blue color sort of just became the main color that I was attracted to. That’s the aura of the music to me, without thinking too deeply about it. I was mostly just going off an impulse, an intuition, a feeling that that color felt super alive. It has a retro and nostalgic thing with VHS tapes, but it also feels really modern too, and there’s something kind of electric and alive but also zen about it, just because blue in general feels a little bit blue.
Z: It’s also a mysterious color, like I don’t know if you heard that Radiolab episode where they were talking about how blue is always the last color that people identify in different cultures, and how there was no language for the color blue until a couple hundred years ago, and a lot of ancient texts describe the shade of the sky as red, but that our perception of blue is a very strange and kind of murky phenomena.
S: No, that’s cool.
Z: I was thinking about Yves Klein while I was listening to your record, and I wrote down this quote of his; “first there is nothing, then there is deep nothing, then there is blue depth.” Which I think so perfect, it’s kind of funny for thinking about the way that you engage with nihilism and more uplifting content, a lot of “O” feels like a kind of post-nihilism, if that makes sense. Its blue depth.
S: Yeah I could see that. I remember I wanted it to feel like a smart record but I also wanted it to be humorous, and I think of it more as irreverence, rather than a nihilistic thing.
Z: Oh, no I wasn’t trying to say that I think it’s nihilistic, more that I thought it was acknowledging and referring to nihilism and then looking on it from afar with a different perspective, so post- in that way.
S: Yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with that.
Z: I just finally saw All That Jazz for the first time, and then I saw the Comeback music video not long after, and I’ve been thinking about how that’s such an interesting role to cast yourself in.
S: Well, I knew I wanted to do that for awhile, because when I stopped focusing on music and started just directing videos for other people, during that time period I read the Bob Fosse biography that came out, which was incredible. I got really excited by it, and I felt like I had become a full on director at that point. When I started thinking about the song and thinking about the idea of making a comeback, I fell in the love with the idea of the boy band situation but in a punk rock way. And looking to cast a younger version of myself to play me, I thought it was just a funny thing to do. I also thought it was a not too heavy-handed comment on how that happens a lot with gay guys, they end up dating their twin, or they pick out these younger versions of themselves. I also just love the beginning of All That Jazz and the way its shot. That role of the director, I relate to that, even the decadent glamour side, it’s attractive to me.
Z: Totally. It’s a very particular form of romanticism, how much pressure there is to take yourself to the brink. Or that in order to produce the most beautiful things you have to destroy yourself in the process. That sort of idea is so pervasive.
S: Yeah, but I think I’m at a point where I don’t really necessarily believe in that. Like I don’t think you have to destroy yourself to make something beautiful. And I honestly don’t think I write very good songs when I’m depressed. I think I have to come out of a depression to be able to actually say something smart. Because when I’m depressed I just end up writing really trite, clichéd kinds of things, and you kind of need an outsider perspective to be able to put an interesting spin on it.
On the one hand though, I really do love working. I get excited to work on something, and even excited about the brutality of it. Especially when we’re shooting a video, we just shot one in Kansas City, and it was a really intense experience. We built this enormous set and it was a lot of days in a row of not really sleeping. It’s kind of a creative boot camp in a way. It’s having to deal with a lot of people and a lot of chaos and a lot of problems, and always be able to make it work. But you’re also collaborating– it’s an amazing experience, its really brutal, but ultimately it’s kind of the experience that I live for. Those moments of really intense creativity, as cheesy as that sounds, if you find that when you’re making music or making a video. And I don’t find that as much when I’m sitting at home painting. That’s a meditative thing for me, but I don’t get that same kind of intense high that I get from surrounding myself with a lot of people and all coming together to make something. That’s the ultimate for me.
Z: What are your preferred symbolic objects?
S: Preferred symbolic objects. Like stuff that I own? I don’t own a lot of stuff. I kind of live out of a suitcase. I have a room in New York that has clothes and books and hairspray and some random things.
Z: I more meant in your music videos. You play a lot with absurd and surrealized real world situations, like the Perfume Genius music video that you made, with the feathers at the end.
S: Oh, that video for me was all based around Forrest Gump.
Z: Oh really?
S: Yeah, because Forrest Gump is one of my favorite movies– I remember when I saw it as a kid, I just couldn’t stop bawling. I think there’s a gay undercurrent to the story where its like this boy, the town outcast who everyone’s calling a retard, and he doesn’t have a father figure and is extremely close to his mother and has one friend who’s a girl, and the girl lives out this gay fantasy. She indulges in all these crazy cool subcultures of the time and he vicariously lives through her. So that was what I was playing with in the Perfume Genius video. The girl that Mike is with, she represents this Jenny character, and they morph into each other and she takes him on this journey. So there’s all these literal [references], like ‘dear lord make me a bird so I can fly,’ she does that prayer, so that was those feathers at the end. The cheerleaders are all wearing free bird uniforms: my favorite scene in Forrest Gump is when Jenny’s on the ledge and she’s gonna jump to the Lynyrd Skynyrd song Free Bird. Bubba Gump shrimp: they’ve all got shrimp on the table. And it also goes through time periods too, which you probably wouldn’t necessarily know, but there’s like 50’s to 60’s to 70’s to 80’s, like when they’re in the boardroom it’s more 80’s feeling.
Z: Oh yeah totally!
S: And in the bathroom its more disco, 70’s feeling, when there’s the Elvis there. Remember when Forrest was a kid, Elvis was staying at the bed and breakfast that his Mom owned? And in the Perfume Genius video Elvis has the peg leg, and you know Lieutenant Dan has the peg leg, it’s all references to that.
I mean it doesn’t make as good of a [story], like when that video dropped Mike’s statement about the song was about the gay panic, the gay shame, which is a much better way to grab a headline than being like, ‘It’s like Forrest Gump!’ [laughs]
Z: But even if you don’t have any context for the video it’s really beautiful, and sometimes it’s nice when you have your own frame that it cropped up out of, but then you hear all the other interpretations that people have and you’re like, ‘oh yeah it could be that too.’
S: I wouldn’t have been happy if it had been a video that people had been like “this is like Forrest Gump,” I never want to do that kind of thing, I’m not into that. I just kind of used that movie as a jumping board visually, to tell a story. Like a psychedelic version of that basically. I’m not attracted to videos that are just parodies of another video, like that song Fancy, dressed up as Clueless. It’s cute and I get why it works, because it’s a pop video and its very easy and flat, but I’m not interested in that kind of blandness really.
Z: If you have your room in New York but you’re kind of floating, do you have any sort of sanctuary, or a space where you feel like you can really be you?
S: I mean I’m a gypsy. I don’t know if that’s politically incorrect to say right now. I don’t know and I don’t care. But when I moved here in 2010, that’s kind of the shape my life took. I’m in New York right now for a couple months, so I have a room and I have a bed that I like, but I was just gone for three months on tour. I don’t know if I do have a sanctuary really. And maybe that will become important to me one day to have a place, the place, but right now I’m really enjoying being able to go and meet new people. I love traveling, I love being in hotels. I’m emotionally and physically built for that kind of lifestyle. I’m the kind of person who gets off tour and gets kind of depressed. I like it.
Z: I feel you. Ok, a couple other related questions that I’m curious about. Do you have any rules for when you’re performing? Have you created any rules for yourself as a performer?
S: Well I try to do this thing and it doesn’t always work, but I always try to go in there in the mindset of like, ‘you know what, you’re gonna make this work no matter what.’ That’s sort of the goal—let’s just make this work, no matter what the situation, no matter who’s there, no matter if the sound sucks, make it work. Figure out a way to make it work, enjoy it. And sometimes I’m better at that than others. That’s the main rule.
And then also to be soaking wet. I want to make sure that when I get off stage that what I’m wearing is soaked through. That’s a goal for me.
Z: Oh that’s good. But also back to the first rule, I want to clarify because it’s kind of two things: make it work, and enjoy it. Do you make sure that you always enjoy it when you perform? Or when things are getting fucked up, do you have a psychological tactic for not letting that fuck up your ability to enjoy the experience?
S: Unfortunately it does, for instance when we were on tour with Beth [Ditto], most of the shows were really really great, but then every once in awhile you play one that’s just, you know, for some reason it’s just difficult to connect with people.
S: You know, or I just couldn’t get on that plane. And it does, because you give a lot, and if you’re not getting it back or feeling that energy back, then it drains you. The show has this weird ability to completely drain you of energy, or to make you feel like you could be shot out of a cannon afterwards. It does drain you sometimes and it does affect me, there are times when I’m just like ‘fuck, that was not a good show, that didn’t go well.’ But it’s just like, I did everything I could. I did a good job, there’s nothing else I could have done. You know? You have to roll with it.
I don’t think you have to destroy yourself to make something beautiful.
Z: Ok, more rules questions.
Z: Do you have any rules for songwriting, like self-imposed guiding principles?
S: Well for this album I remember I kept being like, I really want it to feel alive. I didn’t want it to feel too slick. I didn’t want that. And I also wanted to make sure that, you know what? Its like, I love songs. I love songs and I care a lot about the production, especially when it comes to my record and how its going to sound, and sort of the journey that the production goes on, like within the course of a song or on the album. But at the end of the day, I’m like a real big believer that if the song is not good, it doesn’t matter how you dress it up. You know what I’m saying?
S: The amazing thing about songwriting and the most frustrating thing about it is like, sometimes writing a good song is really easy, and sometimes its really really hard, and you just have to let it go. You can overwork things, and they can turn into shit if you’re not careful. I love a good song. One of the main guys I was working with on the record, Nick Weiss, is an electronic music producer, he does Teengirl Fantasy; a lot of their is stuff is more ambient, more experimental dance music. And when we started working together his whole thing was, the music can kind of be whatever it wants, but it’s all about the topline. Well, the topline is hugely important in pop songs, but—you know what I’m saying?
Z: I don’t think I know the term “the topline.”
S: The topline is like the vocal melody—
Z: Like the main melody?
S: Like if you’re a pop writer, if you’re in LA writing pop songs, they have people who come in, topline writers. And a lot of the time those topline writers aren’t even singing in words—there’s a beat being laid down and they’re just like [vocal riffing], you know doing that kind of stuff, and then they’re like, ‘Ok that’s the hook,’ and then they lay down words to it.
But anyways, I sort of got off the point– at the end of the day I want to make stuff that’s interesting and I want to make stuff that is catchy and connects with people, but I still, it’s a weird balance of things that are catchy and ideally somewhat universal, but then have some sort of a blade to them. I don’t want it to be flat. I don’t like things that are flat, there needs to be a nuance to it, there needs to be something smart and funny. That’s important to me, especially with songwriting but also with the production of it, and with the visual presentation of it.
That’s why I always feel like people now, there’s so many wars within art and music about people ripping each other off. ‘This was my idea first,’ but it’s funny because it’s not even that. People are pissed off because someone is ripping off what they’ve ripped off. It’s like “this is my thing. I saw this movie and I decided to copy it first,” and now they’re coming along and copying it. And I can’t even argue—I reference things like crazy, I will lift stuff..
Z: There’s a Bob Fosse quote about that too that’s like, “Of course I steal, but I only steal from the best.”
S: No, I don’t know if its that. I’m talking about the nuances, you know what I’m saying? That to truly make it your own thing and to infuse it with things that are your heart and soul, so that way if I’m going to reference Bob Fosse and All that Jazz, it’s gonna be within this greater context of something. It’s not just me making a video, like if that whole
was just me doing Bob Fosse, what good is that?
Z: Yeah but it’s a process of framing. Like Bob Fosse is referencing vaudeville stuff in the aesthetic choices he made, and there’s a whole history to his creative evolution and the references that he was pulling from, and nobody exists in a bubble.
Z: I completely agree with you, even though I’m also at the far end of the spectrum in terms of not really believing in the ownership of an idea at all. Like I’ll write something and it seems like its separate from me the moment that I made it. You’ll write something, you’ll come up with an idea, like you’re plucking from the ether but it feels more like it just needed somebody to name it or let it out, but its not necessarily from you, because you are this amalgam of all these different floating things around you.
Z: It’s just tricky with capitalism, and people wanting to be able to make a living as an artist, because then you feel pressure to own your ideas.
S: No totally, totally. And that’s why! Because there’s the random situations where someone is wanting advice on how to make it as an artist or how to do something DIY and I always feel so bad. I want to be a positive person but I never know how to give advice about those kinds of things. ‘How do you make money?’ I’m just like, ‘uhhh.’ I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I don’t know, its like how much money do you want to make? What’s important to you? Do you need a Mercedes? If you do then don’t be talking to me. [laughs] You know? I don’t know.
Z: Do you remember your dreams?
S: I very very rarely remember my dreams, and I don’t smoke pot. I can’t handle acid, I can’t handle shrooms. I used to be a total stoner but now I’m not, I don’t even drink that much. Like one or two drinks I’ll be like sloshed. Which I think surprises people, they think I’m a crazy party person but I actually very rarely remember my dreams. It takes like a real whopper of a dream for me to remember it.
Z: Have you ever had a prophetic dream? Of the whoppers you remember? Have you ever received a message in a dream?
S: I feel like that happens when I experience déjà vu. I have déjà vu a lot where I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve been here. I’ve done this.’ And so like, that was a dream that I’ve had that I just don’t remember. I would say I’ve probably just dreamt it before, and that’s when I’m having déjà vu. And I like mention it too, every time, ‘Oh my god I’m having déjà vu right now,’ this is good, I’m right where I need to be.
Z: Yeah, I feel affirmed by deju vu. It normally makes me feel like I’m in the right place, or that this should be happening. Ok, one more question. Which character in Valley of the Dolls do you identify with the most?
S: Is that the one where the guy has the boobs?
Z: No… Sharon Tate’s husband has the debilitating disease, and she thinks she’s worthless without her boobs. I thought the one song on your album was referencing it, so I was like, I feel like he’s seen Valley of the Dolls.
S: I have seen Valley of the Dolls; yeah that girl Contessa she’s singing that, ‘I’m a doll in the valley of the dogs,’ yeah. You know I haven’t seen it in so long I don’t know. I’m definitely the Miranda meets Carrie of Sex and the City.
Z: Maybe you’re Dionne Warwick, just blessing the characters of Valley of the Dolls as they’re popping pills.
S: I’ll take that, that sounds great.