The Black Madonna: "Dance Music Needs Some Discomfort With Its Euphoria"
The Black Madonna prays at the altar of disco and house.
Bond Music Group
The members of Rebel Disco are being tight-lipped about their newest hangout. Though they haven't dropped dime on its location just yet, however, they've ecstatically announced the headliner and inspiration for tonight's "We Still Believe" party, The Black Madonna. Per Rebel Disco's Facebook: "We are excited about our new venue and even more excited about our special guest."
Such anticipation is warranted, given that the Chicago-based artist (also known by such monikers as the "Avenger of Comiskey Park" and "Patron Saint of Abandoned Daughters") is one of the more unique DJ/producers to come from the Windy City in recent memory. A resident at Chi-Town's trendy Smart Bar, The Black Madonna's intoxicatingly synthy and sample-heavy sounds (which trip between the realms of nu-disco, old-fashioned disco, and soulful house) have been released on such influential labels as Home Taping Is Killing Music and Classic Music Company.
Up On the Sun got the chance to speak with the Black Madonna (born Marea Vierge-Noire) over the phone prior to her trip to Phoenix for tonight's gig.
What's the explanation behind your current DJ name, The Black Madonna?
She comes from a lot of sources: Haitian traditions, European veneration of a dark version of the Virgin Mary. There are a lot of ideas regarding the origin of the figure we often refer now to as The Black Madonna. I've loved her since I was a teenager and I read a book called "Longing For Darkness" which connects The Black Madonna and Buddhism's Green Tara. She's my gal. There was really no other choice when I decided to produce on my own. I knew the name I'd pick.
You work with a pastiche of different sounds, but what genres do you specialize in?
Well, personally, when I'm making stuff, it's primarily house and disco. I do have a history in techno before I worked under this name, but I was just kind of getting my feet wet. The partner I was working with at the time was very techno-oriented and I really enjoyed doing that work and I'm certainly really proud of it, but when I started working alone and whether it was coming out of my brain, house and disco would be the things that I personally really drill down on.
For the disco stuff, it's really oriented more towards the kind of sound that you would hear in Italo or Euro disco, that core of stuff. But [with] house, I'm all over the place. Obviously, I live in Chicago and come from Chicago house and found my way back to a lot of the disco records that I loved through house music that maybe sampled it, things like that. Certainly, that's primarily where my tastes lie, but I'm kind of all over the place.
What's your particular fascination with disco? Why do you love it so much?
Well, I couldn't tell you, other than that, from the very first time I heard anything that sounded like disco from my mom, you know, I've loved it. We were coming out of that era when I was a kid, so I'm not completely generationally removed from it. It's just really special music. I'm pretty exhilarated that you still see songwriting [in] disco, and not just tracks. I mean, some of it is, but you listen to something like -- not that this song is original, but a disco cover -- but if you listen to Sylvester's "I (Who Have Nothing)," it's just so devastating on a level that somethings that maybe doesn't have that richness and the songwriting portion of it.
Some of those records, for all the reputation that disco had for being fluff, it ended up being so much heavier than anybody gave it credit for. To me, it's just that those are many of the best songs. Now don't get me wrong, I know that I play a lot of disco, but I play a lot of straightforward house [too]. I love house music, I play techno, I'm all over the place. While I certainly gotten better known for disco, straddling all of those worlds is really important to me too. But disco is special to me in a way that nothing else every will be. It's just in a league of its own.
You've been an outspoken supporter of analog in the past. Do you still mix and perform exclusively with vinyl and analog?
Yeah. Well, I primarily play my own. Occasionally, if I'm flying somewhere and I can't bring enough records to play the length of time they want me to play, I will supplement it with a little bit of digital. I very much prefer not to do that. And for the most part, even if I bring digital with me, I almost never use it. I'll just bring a little hard drive or something like that and use the CDJs. I've found that I can generally get enough records into my suitcases to make it. Overseas, there's a lot of stuff with weight limits and things like that, how much stuff you can take with you, my load is obviously very heavy, but I've found some ways around that. You can also ship your records in advance to getting to Europe, that's another thing, but you gotta re-weigh them every time you get on the airplane, so it doesn't really help that much.
But when I went to Europe this last time, I played a couple of sets that were four hours or longer, which is a very long time by American standards and played almost exclusively vinyl for all of it. So, in general, basically its just records. I don't really care for the digital stuff, it just doesn't suit my tastes.
So you're not going to be caught dead using Serato then.
I used to use it. I went through a period where I thought that I was gonna try to keep up with the technology, but I realized I hated it and I sold my Serato at Gramaphone Records. I had some kid meet me, who later became my friend, Joe. I met him in the record store, sold him my Serato, and never looked back.
When you release albums is it on vinyl or do you use cassettes?
No, its just vinyl at this point. Sometimes they'll do a digital version for online record stores that do digital, but just records primarily.
And it's in smaller runs of like 300 or so?
Yeah, sometimes they've done a second run of things. I've had a few releases that have sold out and they've decided to do another pressing or whatever. But generally, most vinyl labels start with runs of 500 or less, that's a pretty normal number in record-making these days. Usually, we sell them all out, so that's good.
Going back to your early days, I read about how you released and helped create mixtapes on cassette. What's your take on the resurgence in popularity of cassettes?
You know, it's not that much in dance, you don't see [cassettes] that much. You'll see it in the margins, the techno techno people that are kind of positioned between noise and techno. I do see it there. I don't see that many mixtapes any more. You do see releases that are cassette-only releases, you know, original material: noise, drone, those kinds of world, which I am involved in to a degree.
I don't make any of that, but my husband does. And so, while I don't make it, I'm fairly present in some of those communities and you definitely in the noise world -- like hard noise, power electronic, that sort of thing -- you definitely see tapes there. And I like it. I have a cassette deck [laughs] in my living room. I think its good to keep the technology around. I like that its handmade, usually. Some of it is obviously fetishism, but I like to see it.
How do you choose the artists that you remix or that remix you? Like The Revenge remixed "We Still Believe."
I actually usually don't choose that. The label will present an idea, and they'll say, "Hey, we'd like to have such-and-such do a remix. What do you think?" And I say, "Great." And in that case, The Revenge is a good associate of the owner of the label Home Taping is Killing Music, which was one of the first labels that I was on. And he did a great job, the remix is really good and I was honored to have him do it.
But generally, I try not to remix [laughs]. I use them, and it's almost always a good friend who I really admire, like someone I think is crazy good that I'm also really good friends with. I don't think I'm a very good remixer and I've failed pretty spectacularly on a couple of occasions. It's not even that I'm a bad remixer, it's that I'm not even good at delivering necessarily a specific sound that somebody is asking for. And, a lot of times in a remix, they'll want you to sound like maybe something that you have done previously. "We want a remix that sounds like this record that you did before. And I'm really bad at that.
So I'm always afraid to take on a remix, because I'm fairly sure, like 75-80 percent sure, that I will completely blow it [laughs]. But I have done two remixes that are getting ready to come out. One is for my friend Chrissy Murderbot, who is one of my very, very best friends and he's got a new disco project. And then I just did another remix for a friend in the UK who is going to do a release on Home Taping in December and his release is really great.
What's going on with your imprint?
Well, I'm shooting for the summer. I don't think I want to rush it that fast, so it will probably be winter of this year. I need it to go for a little time because I'm gonna go to Europe a couple of times and I wanted to spend a little time traveling, to the degree that I can, which is not real extensively with Smart Bar. I wanted to not rush it, but I think we're looking at winter. And it will definitely be all original, very personal. I'm trying really hard to write a project for Shawn J. Wright from Shaun J. Wright from Hercules & Love Affair. Whether it ends up being any good and he wants to do it or not [laughs]
But we've been talking about trying to do something together for a long time. But my hope is that I can get that done first and then move on and figure out what the label's gonna be like.
Your mixes, besides being fun to listen to, they seem very personal and emotional and very intelligent. That's all intentional, right?
Oh, absolutely. There's always some kind of idea or thing going on. I'm really uninterested in doing stuff that...I love the throwaway aspect of dance music but it's not me. So, usually when I'm doing mixes, they're related to something specific. When I did the "Little White Earbuds" mix that was right after I lost a parent and it was kind of all about that. And the mix that Resident Advisor posted this week, that was in the midst of a pretty devastating time for me personally. The records all have pretty specific stuff going on with them.
The main thing is just, for the process to hold my interest long enough, I kind of have to feel like its fixing me or doing some kind of work or that I'm working through something. Otherwise, its just making a track. And that's no fun. So, yeah, it's all personal and usually there's an idea, a specific idea. That's an important piece of it for me.
You seem to be the antithesis of most DJs. Does that come from your own personality or is that intentional as well.
Different in what respect?
Um, you're not a hype machine. There's so much hyperbole in the DJ/dance music world and that doesn't seem to be the case with you. I've interviewed a ton of DJs over the years and never had someone be as cerebral during the interview. From your music to your politics to your interviews, you seem like an antithesis of most DJs in the game today.
I'm certainly different than that stuff.
Hmm...I don't know what it is. I was always such a weird kid. I just think it's not any different. My dad's a musician, a very, very gifted musician, and who has done that his whole life, that was his job my whole time growing up.
And I remember my dad saying to me as I started getting into playing music on the road, "You're gonna go out on the road, and you're gonna think that all the other people in music read books and you're gonna be shocked because one outta 10 is going to read books. And you're gonna be the one person in the club reading, sitting in a booth, sitting at the bar, waiting to go on, reading a book." And he was totally right. That's changing for me. Right now there are a lot of crazy smart people. The Smart Bar residents are all highly intellectual people, across the board.
No pun intended
There's no one I can think of that's not just stupid brilliant. And the conversation that that community of people is having is making up for legions of people who are raving in baseball fields. The people in that community are just beyond smart: Nathan Drew Larsen is a genius, his partner Samone [Roberts] is a brilliant woman, Justin Long...All those people, they're all legitimate intellectuals and I am relieved and honored to know them and to be around them, which I think many people feel in many disciplines.
Certainly there have been many moments where I felt intellectually isolated, but not at Smart Bar. Everybody at Smart Bar is so smart. I mean, really, even the name of the club, it comes from that book Confederacy of Dunces. It's a reference to a line in it, when [a character] says, "I want to go to a smart bar."
I think part of it is the history of Smart Bar, the punk rock credentials of the club. Our owner, Joe Shannahan is a brilliant man. So, I might be different from the larger scene, the larger piece of dance music, but, in my world, pretty much we're all reading out of the same prayer book. You know? All of these people are very, very bright.
Well, in the '90s, I was really active in the Riot Grrrl movement when I was I kid -- I was in an organization that they called Riot Grrrl KY in Kentucky. And so, one part of it is kind of this weird, visceral thing because they look and dress like we did in the '90s and so we see a Cossack come out and hit somebody, that looks lie everybody that you hung out with when you were a kid, with a horsewhip. When I watch the video, people say my stomach hurts, I feel nauseous, and I really did feel nauseous when I watch that video.
So some of it isn't even like a thinking thing, its like a body thing, since with some of them -- when I look at them as a part of a continuum of the worldwide attack on women, which happens in all small micro-aggressions and then it happens in ways that are overt like that. But it's all a piece of the same thing, and its all a thing, whether we're conscious of it or not, is designed to create a second class. And so that part of the thing that I experience when I see that, I feel a sense of kinship in that there's virtually no woman on earth that's not experiencing some form of subjugation, whether its physical or spiritual or intellectual. We're all a piece of the same thing. And so I feel a strange closeness to them.
Vladimir Putin is obviously insane and you could probably write a textbook on his psychosis.
Do you think the reason that Russian society is threatened by Pussy Riot isn't so much that they're revolutionaries but that they're females, and very strong-willed, uncompromising, and outspoken females at that?
Sure. Some of it...well, there's a lot of factors, and I would hate to dissect what's going on in Russia and even in the Ukraine with a blunt tool, but some of it, I'm sure there are cultural factors that have to do with them specifically being women. But I think there's also a larger thing that's going on, and with them, we're more in touch with them because we're experiencing it through art and that means their method is working and their message is getting across.
In general, my sense is that, like many people before them, [Putin] is exploiting fears about a whole variety of "others," you know. In this case, I think you see them drawing down on certainly the incredibly long and draconian rules against queer people in Russia. These things are different but related. Someone benefits from having a class or classes of people that are considered others. And you can an other, you can exploit the fears of a whole group of people who are worried about the same things that everybody is worried about, where the money is gonna come from, how they're gonna put food on their plates, how they're going to send their kids to school, all that stuff.
And if you have a group of others, whether they're women who aren't behaving right or people that are going against religious norms or queer people. When you have an other that you turn into a criminal, then the real criminals who are the people who are embezzling billions of dollars and doing the things that are actually causing economic problems for the underclass in Russia, then if you have someone else you can blame and create a criminal out of, then you yourself don't have to face that.
That's a very common tactic that we see over and over again. It's really difficult to watch that happen to a bunch of women artists and queer people, because its terrible when it happens to anyone, [but] at this moment it feels very close to home for me.
This is sorta getting far afield from dance music...
Oh, that's fine.
...but on the subject of fearing the other, the Arizona Legislature literally just passed a Kansas-style "religious freedom" law tonight that's essentially going to allow discrimination against LGBT people.
But it isn't that far away [from dance music]. You could say that we're getting off the topic, but we're talking about dance music, right? Which is women and gay people and people of color and any kind [of other]. If you were a straight white guy, you're leasing dance music from those people, you know, or certainly house music. If I'm listening to high energy and playing a high energy set, that music comes from very specific territories and very specific people.
So when we say that it's off-topic, it isn't, because when you are attacking queer people now, you're attacking the next Patrick Cowley, the next Sylvester. And, conversely, with women, when you attack women you attack the next Loleatta Holloway or whatever. Dance music is so based in those groups of others that as much as we have tried in the last few years to kind of bro-ify it and make it super white and super masculine and super hetero, you can't. And so those issues are still there.
So, in essence, what you're saying is that dance music, even dating back to its roots, has always been a refuge for or beacon to the others of society.
Yeah, absolutely. I think that's kind of the point. And I think for every terrible un-nuanced article about some phony EDM culture war that a blogger who's paid per word writes how the more important part of it then the music fits that's become theoretically a part of dance music: Is it bad, what did it mean, that sort of thing. The things that we're not talking about that is important is that a lot of that stuff, a lot of that new culture, whatever it is, edges out the queerness in dance, it edges out the women. It turns them into go-go dancers, it sort of takes it and it becomes a kind of fraternity. And that's the thing that I'm way more interested in than is the music good or bad.
Of course the music is shitty, all of the new EDM stuff, it's the worst. That's a given. It's such low-hanging fruit. Yes, the music is bad, but why is it bad? Where did it come from? What are we saying with the adoption of this spin into a system that used to embrace diversity? What does it say when we kind of back away from those original ideas, at least certainly in American dance music, which was always a mixed crowd, if not outright gay. Certainly, "mixed" would be the most optimistic interpretation of what this crowd was like. We're talking about black, Hispanic, gay, transsexual, transgendered communities that a lot of this stuff was coming from and that we're inclusive of all kinds of people. But what happens when we're saying, "Okay, now dance music isn't that any more. Now it's a fraternity."
Do you hate the term EDM? It ostensibly stands for electronic dance music but it's become this buzzword and commodity.
Well, the worst part of it is that it doesn't mean anything and it doesn't come from the listener. It's not an organically grown term. It's an idea that was grown in a Petri dish on an executive's desk, a way to explain this thing that we were going to brand and market and sell, which they've done very effectively. Certainly, business is booming and that's fine, I guess. One has to imagine that, with a bit of luck, their Disco Demolition moment is right around the corner. But probably not, because Disco Demolition happened because a variety of factors coming together, but there was this kind of revulsion to dance music because it still certainly represented some of those things that straight white men feared.
So the guys that are going to parties at Soldier Field now, dance music doesn't lend itself to any of the things that they fear. It's a total kind of beer bong genre at this point. And so, I wish we would have our disco demolition moment, but I fear that we have strayed so far away, in mainstream dance, from anything challenging that the likelihood of it offending anyone into action, even as a revolt against it, is very low.
You've got images of the famous Disco Demolition Night t-shirt on your Twitter page, you call yourself the "Avenger of Comiskey Park," and your mixes are very disco heavy. What's your obsession with disco and that famous night?
Oh, I love it so much. I love Disco Demolition. It's the worst thing in the whole world, but it's this amazing moment that I both love and hate. Every year it's my Disco Demolition Night tradition that, all day long [on July 12], I troll Steve Dahl on Twitter. He's just the worst kind of personality. And, I don't know, the things that I love about Disco Demolition was that that was the moment that stadium rock lost interest in being John Travolta.
But then, on the other hand, I hate it, because as much as Dahl protests to this day, it absolutely was a reaction against the black and Hispanic and gay elements in disco and he can say it until he's blue in the face that it wasn't, but it was. Whether he felt that way about it or didn't, it doesn't matter. He was tapping into that white cock rock had been displaced from its throne and that kind of guy needed to fight back. And he tapped into that weird fear at the time and it very literally exploded.
So, on one hand, I kind of feel like I love it because it was right after that that so many incredible things happened in dance music, because nobody gave a shit about it any more. I should be so lucky that nobody would give a shit about dance music any more. But, on the other hand, seeing somebody burn books or records or any kind of art doesn't make your stomach turn, then you're a part of the problem.
I'm assuming that your nickname, the "Avenger of Comiskey Park" is tied to that.
Its just delusions of grandeur. [laughs] I'm probably not avenging anything. But that said, that one time I did play a Disco Demolition [party] right when I started getting really serious about playing disco and it was like right when I really started to learn it was a very different kind of mixing coming from house, which is everything is pretty straightforward. And it was one of the first times I ever felt like I did a good job playing disco and it was this really crazy raucous party. And right when I was finishing my set, the power in the building went out, and they couldn't get it back on and the whole event got shut down. That was it.
And it was this really amazing shoot-the-lights-out finale to this night where we were talking about disco amongst ourselves, a certain community of people in Chicago. And now all of us talk about it all of the time. But it's a moment that felt really special at the time from other people that were interested in it and for all of us to be in one place on that particular day that was the anniversary. So maybe we were avenging something, I don't know. [Laughs] Probably not.
You've spoken in previous interviews about the patriarchy that exists in the DJ world. Do you believe that there's a subjugation of female DJs, eiterr on a social level, professional level, or otherwise?
Yes. I almost want that to be my whole answer, but yes to all of the above. From the professional beauty qualification that exists for female DJs but does not exist for male DJs, to the disparity between women and men, we aren't separate from the gender inequality in dance music. And then there's little things, like safety concerns in clubs. There's a whole different layer of things that women have to think about when they're just trying to go to work that men never consider.
There are also way-talented female DJs who don't play into the whole mix vixen archetype -- like DJ Irene, Jennifer Cardini, and Cassy Britton, etc -- wouldn't you agree?
Yeah, for sure.
Does the dance music world need a shakeup or paradigm shift? And if so, do you think its likely to happen? Or just more of the status quo.
Dance music needs riot grrrls. Dance music needs Patti Smith. It needs DJ Sprinkles. Dance music needs some discomfort with its euphoria. Dance music needs salt in its wounds. Dance music needs women over the age of 40. Dance needs breastfeeding DJs trying to get their kids to sleep before they have to play. Dance needs cranky queers and teenagers who are really tired of this shit. Dance music needs writers and critics and academics and historians. Dance music needs poor people and people who don't have the right shoes to get into the club. Dance music needs shirts without collars. Dance music needs people who struggled all week. Dance music needs people that had to come before midnight because they couldn't afford full admission. Dance music does not need more of the status quo.
How do you think your style as a DJ and selector has evolved since you first started playing out?
Every show is practice and an experiment. It's always just practice, no matter who is in the room. I've been pushing the boundaries as far as what genres I'm playing. My life as a record collector, the digging process, are a huge piece of it. Becoming technically comfortable and confident with unsequenced records, with bands and things like that, has allowed me more latitude to dig into disco and soul. I buy a lot of private collections, sometimes by the inch, and see where that goes.
You background in dance music started off with attending raves and performing in your native Kentucky. Are you kinda jazzed that you will be performing at an off-the-radar kind of place for Rebel Disco's party here in Phoenix?
It's really important to me to get out of the clubs whenever possible. My agent, Eli (who is amazing) has been really great about letting me continue to go to these kinds of spaces and helping me go to new underground spots in other cities when its possible. I actually throw and regularly attend these kinds of events myself still. So "undisclosed location" is still my favorite venue to play in. Benjamin Leatherman
How much vinyl are you lugging to PHX? Any rarities or obscura?
I don't shop too much on the new release wall, mainly because I can buy more if I buy used. Sometimes I purchase collections by the inch. I haven't pulled records yet (I'll do that at like 7AM tomorrow). So Im not sure what I will bring yet, but I can tell you one bag will be on wheels and one will be on my back. I'll shove my clean clothes in the headphone pocket.
I imagine you do your best to work around the hefty airline baggage fees
Yeah I weigh everything down to the gram when I go to Europe. I take all the records out of their jackets to save weight and space. [My] record packin' game is tight.
The Black Madonna is scheduled to perform tonight at Rebel Disco's We Still Believe party. More info can be found via Facebook.
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