Default Genders’ James Brooks: ‘I Totally Failed’
The former Elite Gymnastics leader tackles the debate over his song "On Fraternity," criticizes music-biz sexism, and opens up about his own perspective as a survivor of sexual assault
In a week, James Brooks has gone from a cult artist — fewer than 11,000 Twitter followers at last count — to a lightning rod for broader debates about the role of male feminists. Although his former project, Elite Gymnastics, drew some critical notice for 2011’s Ruin LP and last year’s remix-oriented Ruin 4, his only half-intentional breakout was an EP called Stop Pretending, shared via Bandcamp on July 29 under the name Dead Girlfriends. No publicist or label backed the effort, though it should probably be noted that Brooks’ girlfriend is Claire Boucher, also known as Grimes.
Pitchfork quickly awarded closing track “On Fraternity,” a pointed condemnation of rape culture, its “Best New Music” designation, with Jenn Pelly writing, “This is a song about why it is worth fighting fearlessly against a patriarchal world where women are second class citizens.” But the song drew criticism for “mansplaining” just as fast. In the spirit of Sheezus Talks, our feminist discussion of Kanye West’s high-profile new album, SPIN convened seven female culture writers and thinkers for Dead Girlfriends’ ‘On Fraternity’: A Roundtable, wherein Jessica Hopper noted that “critics and fans assumed” that Brooks was “addressing — or even trying on — a woman’s everyday fear of rape and harassment.”
Brooks has since rechristened the project Default Genders, apologizing for upsetting people with the old name and acknowledging that it “had an effect I didn’t want.” Reached by Skype at his home in British Columbia, he came across as self-effacing, but also dismayed that a song born out of his self-imposed withdrawal from the traditional music industry ended up hurting people who interpreted it so differently than he’d hoped. His new alias should help clarify things. “I wanted to try to use a name that was going to get away from people framing my project as a feminist project rather than as a personal one,” he explained. “Personal projects and personal feelings are much more complex and nuanced than the idea of a project that exists specifically to advance one political point of view.”
A day before leaving to accompany Boucher on some Grimes dates in Scandinavia, Brooks talked with SPIN about sexism in the music industry; his own personal experience with sexual assault; White Town’s leftfield 1997 hit “Your Woman”; and the “uncompromising” Taylor Swift.
What kind of reaction were you expecting?
Honestly, I had no idea. Usually when people dominate certain aspects of the conversation around music the way that that song did for the little micro-hype cycle, that’s the product of a lot of money being spent paying professional people to call up outlets and get them to run stories. I didn’t spend anything. Literally all I did was make the thing, put it on Bandcamp, and tweet about it, because I had no idea what anybody was going to do with it. I had no idea how it fit into what people were expecting me to do based on what I’d done before with Elite Gymnastics. I had no idea how people were going to respond to the vocals being so much more up front, and the lyrics being decipherable. I really didn’t know.
I don’t want to make the mistake of conflating the lyrics with what necessarily was going through your head, but on the song “Words With Friends,” you sing, “The way they all just stare at me / When I try to talk about these things / That I have a heart at all strikes them as quaint.” Or in “On Fraternity,” you sing, “The way they act like even bringing it up / Means you’re the one with a problem.” Weren’t you kind of expecting a little bit of resistance?
Before Stop Pretending came out, I made this post on my Tumblr eviscerating the aspects of the music industry that I’ve been in for being sexist. One of the things that happened with Elite Gymnastics was that, because it was kind of like a buzzy act that had an ambiguous image, and you could project what you wanted to on it — all you really knew about it was it was two white guys making of-the-moment electronic music or whatever — I got led into some places and made privy to some information and some points of view in the music industry that maybe I would not have if anybody had any idea what my politics were. A lot of people were exposing me to a status quo that I found to be really fucked up. A way of looking at women, and a way of looking at women’s role in the music industry, as well as people of color — the matrix of domination is in full effect in the music industry.
And so, “On Fraternity” — it’s called “On Fraternity.” I don’t want women to hear it and not be able to relate to it. I don’t want to tell any of the women who are listening to it that your reaction to it, positive or negative, is not valid. But the purpose of “On Fraternity,” in the context of the EP especially, is to call out my male peers for creating a situation where other people are victimized. I totally failed to do that. I guess if there was any reaction I was expecting, it was that the people, especially in the music industry, who are doing this stuff that’s upsetting me would have a problem with it. But based on the little mini press cycle that that Tumblr post got, and people becoming aware of who I am and my politics over the past year, people had already had that reaction to me. I did irreparable damage to this project’s commercial prospects and industry prospects before anyone ever heard a note of it, just by saying the stuff that I was saying.
I was going to say: “On Fraternity” has been called a feminist song. And it’s certainly coming from a point of view that’s trying to be feminist. But what it’s also about is calling out other men. You sing, “That’s why I wanted out.” And you put this out without a publicist, without a label. Is that part of what you’re singing about here?
Yeah. I feel like pop music is at its best when it allows you to relate to it. I grew up listening to stuff like, I don’t know, even something like “Silent All These Years” by Tori Amos: There’s tons of personal details in there, but one of the reasons it’s so successful as a pop song is the main emotional thrust of it is something you can project yourself onto. That is sort of like what “On Fraternity” was about from my perspective, yeah. And that’s part of the reason I changed the name.
What made people specifically think that it was about the female experience of rape is the name, the juxtaposition of the name Dead Girlfriends and the lyrical content of the song. But because people saw, just like, “Aw, I hate the patriarchy, and I love Andrea Dworkin, and my project’s called Dead Girlfriends,” they immediately assumed that — especially if you don’t like the song, because the song sounds like Xiu Xiu, and it’s not necessarily the most successful song in the world — I think a lot of people heard it, and they’re just like, “What the fuck is this?” And then they’re like, “Why is this a ‘Best New Track’? Is it because of the politics?” The idea of a white indie guy using feminism as a way to get over in the industry I think horrified a lot of people. And that idea horrifies me. The song was supposed to be about calling out white indie guys for being sexist. So the idea that paying lip service to the idea of feminism is the way to position yourself as the next new thing, that’s the worst thing I can think of. I don’t live in Brooklyn. The place where I live, people don’t know who Claire is, let alone me. I’m never around people who care about being cool. The wider implications didn’t necessarily hit me right away when people started getting upset about the song. So that was a big reason for the name, because I felt that that name, Default Genders, still telegraphs a lot of the things that I’m interested in, but it doesn’t explicitly frame “On Fraternity” as a song that’s about violence against women.
How else could it be framed?
Even just singing about the rape experience, that’s another weird thing that’s hard to talk about. Obviously women are much more vulnerable, and it’s perpetrated against them much more than other demographics, but the rape experience doesn’t belong to women. It’s my place as a survivor of sexual assault to sing about that if I want to. I don’t want to make that a big issue, because the point of “On Fraternity,” like I said before, was to call out other men for creating a situation where victimization is enabled, and the silence that allows victimizers to run around and act with impunity is also something that my peers in the music industry perpetuate. So I don’t want to make it about me, like, “Oh, it’s about my rape experience.” But it’s not like I wrote those lines from a place of complete ignorance. The fact that so many people assumed that, based on my race and my gender or whatever minimal biographic information people know about me? That was the roughest part of it.
I don’t want to belabor this, but on Tumblr you mentioned that your song “Here in Heaven 2,” from Ruin, was relevant. That’s such a painful song, lyrically. Is that about your own sexual assault experience, then?
It’s more just about living as a survivor of it. This is something — nobody ever asked about it in interviews because the conversation around Elite Gymnastics was so focused on the aesthetic. You couldn’t even hear the lyrics; like, I’m not blaming anybody else for this.
If you bought it on vinyl, you could read the lyrics. If you bought the LP, you knew what they were.
One thing that was great about going on tour — anybody who saw the show knows that it was definitely a complicated experience — but one thing that was really great was that I met all these people who had picked up on that, and were really happy to be exposed to somebody talking about it openly and talking about the difficult issues that people who’ve been victims of sexual assault have when they’re trying to get over it and get on with their lives and have normal sex lives and relate to people who haven’t been victims of sexual assault.
So “On Fraternity” was not new ground for you.
This is stuff that has come up in my work before. Even the first Elite Gymnastics song that got any notice [“Is This on Me,” from 2010’s Real Friends EP] was just a paraphrasing of an Andrea Dworkin speech about slut-shaming. This stuff has always been there. I hope nobody thinks that I just opportunistically pivoted into this point of view in order to get people’s attention. A lot of the people who have weighed in from the feminist perspective on “On Fraternity” are great writers, and a lot of good writing was done as a result of that conversation. But a lot of people who were writing about that song and talking about the song, they were exposed to it literally in the context of somebody sending it to them and saying, like, “Hey, have you been offended by this yet?” It was like a bunch of people who never would’ve been interested and never would’ve been exposed to what I was doing otherwise and had no broader context for it besides having that song shared with them under the pretense that it was this offensive thing that had happened. If you even listened to the rest of the EP and considered the lyrics of “On Fraternity” in the context of — there’s another song on there called “Omerta,” which…
It has no lyrics.
…Well, and also the word is the Italian word for the code of silence that people in Italy are forced to maintain in order to protect the activities of the Mafia. It’s all kind of there. So I’m kind of sad that it was misinterpreted so wildly. The context was there if you were looking for it. But that’s not the conversation people wanted to have.
I read your Tumblr post about the coked-out white men in the music industry. Was there anything in particular that really made you, I guess, “want out”?
It’s tough, because I don’t want to implicate any of my friends, or I don’t want to say anything that’s going to damage my friends’ relationships with people that I nevertheless would rather not have a relationship with. There’s lot of stuff that maybe when I’m 60 and I don’t give a shit, I’ll write the Tumblr post to end all Tumblr posts and completely out everybody. But basically, especially in America — as opposed to Europe or Canada — if you’re a fan of independent music and you like any artists that are female, even the most high-profile ones probably have some kind of horror story about a person who’s probably making more money than them, as a publicist or as an A&R, or some other kind of behind-the-scenes thing, that just kind of victimized them in some kind of really horrific or inappropriate way.
Something else you’ve talked about on Tumblr is White Town’s “Your Woman”: Another song from a male feminist, also written so that it could be from various perspectives. It seems like there’s an obvious relationship there with your new EP.
That guy’s perspective on writing lyrics, how it was about a specific thing in his life but he wanted it to be able to resonate with whoever was in a similar situation in their own life — he recognizes that pop music serves that purpose — that was hugely influential on me. Taylor Swift obviously is the other huge influence there. Taylor Swift comprises probably like 70 percent of the music that I’ve listened to voluntarily over the last year. Her shadow looms huge over everything that I’ve been doing.
What is it about Taylor Swift that’s so compelling to you?
There’s two things. One of them is just the way that she speaks directly to her audience. It’s so unpretentious. I’ve always perceived her to have this weird outsider complex. She resisted all of Nashville’s attempts to pigeonhole her into a role either just as a songwriter or just as a singer. She really wanted full creative control over her own thing, and she got it, just by being so uncompromising. And if you look at her lyrics, she really resists any attempt for anybody to place her within any kind of a crowd. She values her own individuality so much. Even the constant barbs against hipsters on Red are sort of mirrored by Stop Pretending’s constant barbs against punks. She just hates scenes and she hates crowds and she values the individual. And she communicates with her fan base on an individual-to-individual basis. I really love that about her music and her lyrical point of view. It really, really resonates with me.
Let’s talk about the musical progression from Ruin to Stop Pretending. You said something to Pitchfork last year about how you were “trying to rebuild my own canon where Joy Division or Radiohead doesn’t matter, but Tori Amos or Sarah McLachlan or the Spice Girls or George Michael or Des’ree or the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack do matter.” Is this the result yet?
A lot of that was when the material was in its infancy, so a lot of those specific touchstones didn’t reflect into it. It was a really simplistic way of talking about it. It’s not necessarily embarrassing to go back and read that now, because I know where I was coming from, but one example of the way that line of thinking played out in the finished material on Stop Pretending is that I needed to stop caring that there are probably more people in the world who like the sound of Ian Curtis’ voice than there are people who like the sound of Conor Oberst’s. I just needed to refocus the project on what was important to me and not on any outside expectations. That’s above all what I was trying to do. It’s not necessarily that I was trying to create a competing canon, but the important part of that interview is that I wanted to create a personal canon.
You originally posted an image of an eight-song track list for the EP that eventually became the four-track Stop Pretending. What’s going to happen with those other tracks?
There’s probably like seven or eight other songs that are as close to completion as the Stop Pretending stuff was maybe a month or a month and a half ago. That stuff will come out. I just don’t know how yet. There’s a few things that are maybe of a piece with Stop Pretending. But there’s also a lot of stuff that’s very different even from that. There’s some stuff that’s more jungle-y type stuff, there’s a lot of things with pitched or distorted vocals as opposed to the more singer-songwriter-y stuff. There’s one song that’s just full-on industrial, and another song that’s lounge piano. It’s a lot of weird stuff.
Are you going to play any of this stuff live in the near future?
[Groans intensely.] The Elite Gymnastics live show — it never really worked. Fundamentally, no matter what weird performance art stuff I was doing in between songs, the actual performing of the songs was still me, who’s, like, I’m comfortable with my voice, but I’m not a technically impressive singer. It’s just an awkward dude singing over a laptop at the end of the day. I haven’t figured out how to fix that. I’m really antisocial, so I don’t have any idea how to go about getting a band together. I would like to do live performances one day. I’ve seen glimmers of what it would be like if I got my shit together and was able to do it in a way that was not asking so much of the audience. But I haven’t figured it out yet. I haven’t figured a lot of stuff out yet, as everybody is probably explicitly aware by now.