Interview by Daniela Rodriguez
Melissa Dyne and Khaela Maricich, popularly known as the electronic duo The Blow, are also the founders of WOMANPRODUCER, an online archive of women, trans, and gender non-conforming producers and sound artists throughout the history of recorded sound. This month, they’re expanding the project to a series of live performances and panels at National Sawdust, hosting artists like Neko Case, Miho Hatori, and Pauline Oliveros. Earlier this week, Rare Candy met up with the pair to discuss the power of information, heritage, and community.
Rare Candy: When I think of starting a project involving women and gender non-conforming producers, an archive isn’t really the first thing that comes to mind. How did you come to that decision, as opposed to doing another type of project, like a performance?
Melissa: When we first started it, we decided to make the website, and the reason it turned into an archive was that we didn’t want to talk about our opinions about each of these people. We just wanted to share the materials that we found and make it easy for people to access it because it was hard to find on the internet. It was really buried. We wanted to make it easier for people to just click and go and see images and interviews, and let it speak for itself.
Khaela: It’s a loose archive, to be sure. Basically, the point was to inspire ourselves and inspire other people. We started coming across images of women and trans artists or producers or sound experimentalists throughout the 20th century, and every time we saw that it rattled my sense that producing was something that women didn’t so much do. There’s an image of the skinny boy and the girl next to him and he’s the producer and she sings. And I’ve fit myself into that. It’s just every time I saw a picture of a woman with a computer or some big, weird synthesizer, it just rattled that image and tore it apart. It was really exciting.
We didn’t start discovering these people until a couple of years ago, after we’d actually already been producing together for a number of years. We were shocked that we’d never known about Wendy Carlos or Daphne Oram, or that we’d never even thought about Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell so much being producers. Or even Missy Elliot. You can’t find a picture of her in the studio or an interview with her about producing.
Melissa: And if you do find information, it’s so buried. It’s in another interview where they talk about something else –
Rare Candy: And there’s just one line about [producing].
Melissa: Yeah, exactly!
Khaela: It’s like, “Kate Bush in a dress, Kate Bush in a cape, Kate Bush with hair flames – oh, she used the didgeridoo on this song.” So for us, just the power of the information on its own was really stimulating, and letting people, like [Melissa] said, do what they want with it, but trying to help make it more prevalent.
Rare Candy: So it was very much a dual intention: tying yourself to a greater community, but also promoting that community.
Khaela: And a pretty invisible community at that - we’re imaginary hanging out with Wendy Carlos while she’s making the soundtrack for Tron.
Melissa: Or a heritage, in a way. We live in an exciting time, technically, so it was neat to find someone from the 40s or the 50s who was also playing around with oscillators. Women were a part of that story, and that story was never told to me. I heard about Brian Eno, but he was just a tiny kid when [Carlos] was doing these things. Where does that really come from? The fact that there was a trans community and women that were involved in the development of this concept of synthesis in music, I thought was fascinating. And it became, “Oh my god, there was something missing in my life, and now I feel like I’m a part of it.”
Khaela: Especially because being in the studio is pretty isolating. You’re often alone, and the spaces you’re going to to find camaraderie or knowledge are often websites or forums. And they’re not necessarily super welcoming of women. You’ll find threads like, “Who’s the hottest synth player?” I don’t want to say across the board, because obviously there are feminists who are dudes in the music community and want to support that, but that’s not the first thing on their minds. They’re not reading Simone de Beauvoir and then inviting you to talk about your favorite ways of using gear.
So I think that’s what was especially revolutionary: seeing these people who were actually seminal artists who were really important in the development of synthesis.
Like Daphne Oram, who founded the Radiophonic Workshop at the BBC. She decided [the BBC needed] an experimental soundspace like the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center.
Rare Candy: Like the French.
Khaela: Right, she was inspired by the French musique concrète, then went back to England. She wanted them to make a real experimental center, but it ended up becoming something that could make jingles for their TV shows, which is why she ultimately left. But she was the first person to be commissioned to make electronic music by the BBC, ever. In 1957. So that’s a really big deal. And a lot of the techniques she developed are actually ways that people make electronic music now. The ways people conceive of doing it are things that she helped invent and develop. So you can’t just say “Oh, there was a woman there.” She was a powerhouse.
Melissa: Also, Pauline Oliveros. It’s amazing that we get to have her be a part of this project. We get to perform next to her and talk to her. And she was the woman with all of these men around her in the 40s and 50s.
Khaela: Early 60s.
Melissa: Well, in the 50s she started working with electronics for the first time.
Khaela: And then she was with the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
Melissa: And I just think that’s interesting. But now what’s coming out of these modular synthesis stores are things that she literally did with tape. People are reinventing what she actually invented by playing the tape with her fingers. That was her thing, and now you can buy a little guitar pedal that does that, with one knob. I don’t see her name on that, but it probably should be.
Khaela: She doesn't have the acclaim of Philip Glass or Steve Reich and she’s their contemporary.
Rare Candy: Moving back to the archive, do you see yourselves as curators of the history of women producers?
Melissa: I don’t see us as curating. I see us as trying to call attention to something that many people are feeling. I feel like we’re standing up, but so are others. Neko Case is interested in this, and has been for years. We’ve been having these conversations in our living rooms and we should just start the ball rolling. I feel like it’s nobody’s to curate. It’s more collective, in the sense that we all have information that would be nice to know.
Khaela: Especially, too, because we’re doing this in-between doing a lot of other things. By no means do we want to pretend that we’re doing something exhaustive or “The Book of Women Producers.” We’re just finding things and passing them along as we get excited about them.
Melissa: We live in the internet era. We live in a world that rewards clicks. That’s the algorithm Google is based on, and that’s how people are finding information. When we first started with URLs it was because we thought they should be clicked on a million times so that they stay circulating, because they will go away. That was something that we talked about. It’s a loose archive in a way, because it will go away, but maybe it’s just the impetus. Just start something.
Rare Candy: I wouldn’t put it down as lesser than something exhaustive.
Khaela: We don’t want to be the authorities. We just want to be enthusiasts.
Rare Candy: Still, not everybody has access to those exhaustive archives like the Columbia Music Review of whatever. This is definitely more accessible and gravitating towards being for everyone.
Khaela: We love the populist approach.
Melissa: We like pop, too.
Rare Candy: You were quoted with saying “Photograph yourself with your gear,” and you began by archiving music producers of whom you could find pictures. What was the main reason for starting out with pictures?
Khaela: It’s just powerful to see it. Especially because of the way representation works. The thesis of all of this is the people that are women, or trans, or a gender that has a more undefined name, that has always been the object. Like, there’s a sound world and you stick the woman in it and she sings. So, it’s about shifting that perception, and about being able to be the author of your own sound. The examples that we gave before of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, [they] are looked at as characters and amazing icons, but they are the authors of their own sound. Like Hounds of Love by Kate Bush, she produced that herself. You always want to think there’s some other guy in charge. Joni Mitchell said once, I can’t find the quote, that her genius was attributed to whatever man was in the room. So that’s the shift: you can be the author of the sound, you don’t have to be a character. You can be the master of that sonic world.
I think it has to do with music. Our homebase is the art world, but we make music too, so we’re trying to be native speakers to both. When you release music in the music world they put a photo of you. I think it’s because it’s hard for people to have this intangible object - they want an embodiment of the music. But really, people embody music in themselves. If you love Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” you can listen to the song and say, “I don’t remember all those sounds,” because what you’re really imagining is your love for the song and your memory of it. It seems that there needs to be an embodiment, some kind of object.
The object is the person that makes the music, the conveyor. Male or female, in the music world, there is an objectification that happens of who made the music, whereas you don’t necessarily know what Richard Serra looks like. Many artists in the art world don’t present a representation of their visual image, that’s not part of the package. You just see what they made. I think that’s just a casualty of the ephemerality of the medium.
Melissa: I also think that the visual element is easy to grasp — it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. In writing, like we were saying earlier, there could be just one sentence on somebody producing, but with an image, it’s just there. You can’t deny it. It’s kind of like a song, it just is what it is and it speaks for itself. That, to me, felt powerful. Like Suzanne Ciani, when you see her with all the knobs, it’s great. Plus, I’m a gearhead.
Khaela: Plus, you’re the driver. If you’ve got the gear, you’re the one in charge. And gear looks cool.
Melissa: The idea of WOMANPRODUCER isn’t necessarily about women or trans, it’s about the fact that when I say I’m a producer, for example, that’s not known and understood. And ultimately, that’s how everyone wants to be seen. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, if you did the production, you did [it] and you deserve the credit. But I don’t think that’s the world that we live in quite yet. Even if it’s something that’s written in the liner notes, it’s skipped over in the interview. Neko Case is a great example. She’s a multi-instrumentalist and great writer and singer, but she produces all of her own records and she’s a photographer. She does all of her own artwork. And it’s difficult for people to get to that. She developed her sound that is so unique, and it is hers. Like Kate Bush or Bjork, it’s unmistakable. It’s her voice.
Rare Candy: Was there a connection between what you’ve learned through WOMANPRODUCER and how you approach performance as The Blow?
Khaela: We got there before we found all those people!
Melissa: When we started working together, really making songs together and not just performing together, we were both coming from a pop ideal because we both like pop music. Who doesn’t like pop? It was also finding ourselves individually in how we play music. How do we access it? Are you a guitar player? A synth player? What is the voice that you’re writing with? We started going into electroacoustic and getting away from musique concrète, which is a lot of the way how you use a computer, how pop music is made. For our last record, we meticulously recorded every sample and we made everything ourselves, and then we cut it up. Once we had done that we were like, “We did that!” And then we wanted to jam a bit more.There’s also a big well of pop music in the jam. So we started incorporating that.
That’s actually how we started working on WOMANPRODUCER. We were in studio, making instruments and crazy signal routing and incorporating that into a pop, and as we were doing that, we had done this before us. Everything we looked up was a bunch of guys, and it didn’t seem like that was totally true.
Rare Candy: How did the transition from an online archive to live events then come about?
Khaela: A long time ago, when we were just starting to produce our own record and we were kind of freaked out – Melissa’s old friends with Neko Case – and we stopped in her town and had lunch with her. I remember we were like, “We’re doing this, and we’re kind of scared!” and she said “I’ve produced my own records for years and nobody even knows.” We were like shucks, that’s inspiring to know that you do that. That’d be cool for other people to know. When we made a website and started tweeting about it, she was really supportive. So the idea of getting to talk to her more about that, and talk about it publicly, was always there.
And then, our friend who does curation at National Sawdust approached us and asked if we wanted to do something there. It seemed like a great opportunity to document more, to bring people together and get the camera on them because it’s pretty hard to get people to document themselves. As much as documentation happens, the studio’s a pretty private place. So we thought of it as an opportunity to generate more materials and add them to the archive.
Melissa: And broaden the art, broaden the website, broaden the archive. Production is a big word and there are a lot of aspects of it. Everyone has a different way of associating themselves when you talk about yourself as a producer. It can be somebody who never touches a knob to somebody who’s a total engineer. We need people to speak for themselves, and that was the impetus for making it live. Just let them talk about it, it’s their art.
Once we started bringing it up to people, everyone was just so supportive. I feel like every artist we talked to, barring their schedules not working out, was just really excited.
Khaela: Everyone immediately said “yes.”
Melissa: It seems very timely.
Khaela: When we asked Zola Jesus, she said, “Yes, absolutely.” People want to be asked about being producers and they aren’t being asked.
The other thing about making it an event is that an archive is the past and we want the present and the future. We want more of a community of people we can talk to about this stuff. And we’ll take guys, we’ll take any gender of people we can talk to about production, but it’s super exciting to bring people who look like us, to some degree. We wanted to make it super diverse in terms of age and genre and ethnicity. It would be cool to have more of a gender spectrum, there’s nobody who’s trans or non-binary, but we want it. We want it as broad as possible, because that’s how you get to hear the weirdest, coolest music.
Rare Candy: Do you see WOMANPRODUCER morphing into something else as time goes on?
Melissa: We definitely want to do more events. It’d be nice to do some in different cities.
Khaela: Yeah, because then it feels like you have more friends. That’s how music worlds work – the people you play with you become friends with, and you spread out the system of support.
Melissa: Yeah, and you inspire each other.
Khaela: We’ve talked about making a series of video interviews, not just with us interviewing, but conversations with artists in their studios between two producers. That’s in the works.
Melissa: I find when you approach people, they always want to talk about what they’re doing right now. Like, Yuka Honda’s going down to South America and doing all of these recordings and she’s going to put that into something for her part of Thursday’s event. I have no idea what she’s doing, but she’s excited about it and that’s what we want to hear. As a producer, that’s an infinite well – you’re always searching for the next thing that will inspire you.
Tickets for the WOMANPRODUCER SERIES at National Sawdust on 10/25 are on sale now.