Berlin’s favourite non-binary northerner on the emancipatory magic of melody
Lottie Brazier
12:40 6th November 2018

Revelling in back-catalogue track names like ‘Misogyny Drop Dead’ and ‘Patriarchy Over & Out’, it’s plain to see that Planningtorock (aka Jam Rostron) has long considered the battle against gender norms something of a crusade. But the British producer and musician – preferred pronouns they/them – has a new album, Powerhouse, that looks inwards as much as it punches out. And, in doing so, reveals much that’s poignant and fascinating about the interplay of unique vulnerabilities within marginalised identities in the context of today’s oppressive class structures.

Harnessing the warmth and directness of old-school House and shameless 90s production influences, Powerhouse is a deeply personal investigation into Jam’s complicated childhood in Bolton. Released via DFA – James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem is a fan – this fourth album is also tied up with their 'non-linear transitioning' as a non-binary femme. Jam previously explored this through tracks like ‘Let’s Talk About Gender Baby’, co-produced by their close friend Olof Dreijer of Swedish duo The Knife, and Powerhouse goes even deeper on songs like ‘Transome’ and the deft, funky ‘Much To Touch’.

When I speak to Jam over Skype in Berlin (Planningtorock has been resident in the German capital for 20 years now), they explain how music is part and parcel of gender expression, and a key technique of self-exploration: “For me, it’s really about attitude, it’s like how a beat or how a melody sounds, it creates an atmosphere and a presence, and then together with the lyrics you kind of create a space. And in that space there is attitude, there is character, there is expression.”

For Jam, it’s emancipatory on a level which is complex and difficult to define: “It’s a place where I push out my queerness more, my ideas about my queer politics, and just also my queer self. Definitely through frequencies. I love that word, attitude.”

GW: A big theme on the album seems to be you uncovering and confronting your past. Is this a really important part of the transitioning for you, of 'making Jam'?

“Yeah, definitely. I think that it’s also maybe something to do with the time in my life. I left the UK. I’ve been living in Berlin for nearly 20 years, and I think I really had to get away in order to find myself – meet myself. And it sounds really cheesy, but I think that everyone does it in their different ways. My childhood was difficult but there was also a lot of love in there too. I love my mum, my dad’s not alive anymore. My dad was quite ill, my mum is still chronically ill, my sister is autistic, and it’s hard to live in society with those sorts of ailments and as a disabled person. There’s not so much support so it’s a struggle, and my family definitely use tools like love and humour. I feel so fortunate, because that’s the best way to cope with things.

“But growing up with that very intense situation, with a family with a lot of needs. I had to sort of get out and work out who I was as well. And it’s interesting that you asked that in relationship to my coming out more as queer and beginning a non-linear transition. It’s nice to go and share this with my mum and my sister, who have been very supportive. The way that they react to it is also fun. I’ll tell them that I’ve started taking a bit of testosterone – they’re both on a lot of medication because of their symptoms and their conditions and they’re both like ‘oh great!’. They’re not like, ‘ooh, what does that mean?’ It’s almost like, join the club: we’re on a lot of stuff as well! So I’m not saying that taking testosterone is like taking medication or anything, but they’re very accepting and embracing. That’s been a very nice experience for me, and definitely part of the record as well.”

GW: The video of 'Beulah Loves Dancing' has a whole story behind it about your relationship with your sister and her love for house music. Who shot the film?

“It was literally on the phone. We put the phone on the dashboard. I’m so proud of how this video turned out, because I was really nervous. I didn’t know how it would be for my sister, and my mum’s super shy, she’s hiding behind my sister in the video. And it’s hilarious, she would just say things sometimes, and you can see from the video that we’re giggling. But it was really lovely to film, but I wanted to do it in such a way that meant that my sister didn’t feel intimidated. So rather than do it with a standard camera, I thought ‘let’s just put the mobile on the dashboard, and that’s it’. So it’s super lo-fi. The best thing was playing my sister the track in the first place, on my headphones. First of all I was so relieved that she loved it, she just laughed so much, and was like ‘there is so many other things that happened when I was dancing!’ and the story where one of the paintings fell off the living room wall because she was jumping up and down so hard. And it’s lovely to share those stories, because that’s how our childhood was. It was really funny, and it was nice to be able to take that anecdote and push it a little bit further. Push it out into the world a bit.”

GW: I’m quite a big fan of 90s Chicago house…

“Oh nice one! Totally, me too.”

GW: To me some of those tracks have a really defiant energy, and radical strength in the face of adversity, like Frankie Knuckles and Larry Heard. I can totally hear this on Powerhouse, that kind of directness.

“Well it’s interesting because it’s my sister that got me into house, and she’s a lot older now, her life has changed a lot because of living in a world which is so biased to the abled, and that’s designed for abled people. It’s taken its toll on her. But as a teenager, it was like she discovered it on the radio, and that was it. She was just obsessed. And I got into house music exactly like you said, and also political house music was as well – where it was coming from. I love the simplicity of 90s house production. It’s super catchy, super emotional, but also super simple. That’s something I like a lot. So my track ‘Transome’, I really didn’t want to let it get too busy: I just want the beat to have loads of attitude, and for it to make you feel really good about yourself. And then the synths are super choppy, super 90s, almost a little bit abrasive. I love that 90s production sound, so I can hear how there’s a whole spectrum of music from the 90s that has kind of always been present for me when I’m making music."

GW: In your family, you all seem to listen to music for different reasons. Did your mum listen to music as a kind of shield, to feel safe?

"When I think about it now, it would always charge her batteries. I always thought of it like she was putting it on, like armour or something. Sometimes it would be really tough for her. She had to face a lot of difficulties in fighting for my sister’s rights, and there was a lot of prejudice that she experienced. Especially as my sister’s type of autism wasn’t recognised until the early 90s. My mum knew that my sister was autistic. I can’t imagine because I’m not a parent, but it must be heartbreaking to be told all this shit about your kid, when you know. So she would get a lot of strength from listening to Aretha Franklin, or Ray Charles. So I think that had a big effect on me, to see her with music. Music can not only move you, but it can really make you feel as if you can achieve stuff. It can give you that strength, and for my sister it was definitely a safe space, a place where she could be herself on her terms, and feel really good about herself. This new record made me really be grateful for having this really strongly in the house, it being all around me, and it also helped me to discover music generally. It’s been my way out too, it’s totally saved me. To be able to make music, and have it as my job."

GW: There’s some music which obviously encourages you to wallow in it, and I don’t get that at all from your music. Are you OK with music that does that?

“That makes you melancholic? Yep. I went through a period of really thinking about what melancholic music is, and who is making melancholic music. Some songs are really sad because they have to be, because that’s what they’re about; that’s how it is. But I went through a period of thinking that people who are not really sad, and are making sad music, I was thinking that was almost like a privilege. That’s why I love Beyoncé and her last album; taking difficult times and making bloody good music out of it, and empowering music. Music which says, 'this was really difficult what I went through, but I’m not going to let it beat me.' I felt great talking about things in such an honest and transparent way on Powerhouse, because it was out of a complete need of human sharing, to learn. But doing it in a way that’s enjoyable, that brings you to a positive place, I think that for me that’s very important, especially now.

“After my second album W, I really got thinking about what the purpose is of music, and what I wanted to use music for, in a really practical sense. I love how you can use music for all kinds of things, all kinds of situations. situations. We do need more empowering music and there are so many artists right now like Janelle Monae or Beyoncé or Cardi B that I look up to because they make empowering music./p>

GW: I’m hearing a real directness in your lyrics on Powerhouse as well, especially on ‘Much To Touch’. It sort of has that raunchiness of Hi-NRG.

“Yeah. ‘Much To Touch’ is a really good one, again I wanted to find a way to explore when you’re told that you’re ‘too much’ for whatever reason. Whether you come from a class where you’re used to being loud, or expressing yourself in a way that other classes find a little bit unbearable, or if you’re a disabled person and that’s too much for whatever situation you’re in, or like especially femmes or female identifying people, women etc, constantly get told that they’re too much for whatever reason. So I just thought, ‘Fuck this! Am I too much? Let me give you some more!’

“I’m not apologetic at all for whatever my ‘muchness’ is, and I think it’s something that should be really owned, and really celebrated. When I first sang it, I had to laugh for about half an hour, because I found it hilarious, in a way. And so it just wrote itself after I got that lyric. It became really central. And also with a track like ‘Transome’, it’s also celebrating me discovering a different kind of queer beauty about myself, and sort of 'making Jam' as you said. And also in a tender way, it’s also about intimacy with my partner. It’s the most saucy track I’ve ever written, and it felt really liberating."

GW: You worked with Olof Dreijer from The Knife on this track.

"Yeah, he’s recently moved back to Stockholm, but we still have a studio here in Berlin that we built together and share with other producers. I was working on this track, and I had a beat on the track already and I just played it to him – I love him, he’s such a cutie – he was like 'Oooh. Wait, I can hear…' So he took my beat and he played it live in the studio setup, and so that’s how it worked. He then gave me the beat back and then I arranged it and put it all together again. But his studio is right next to mine, so we play each other stuff. This track was very organic, easy.”

GW: Is there anyone else on board with the live shows you’ll be doing for Powerhouse?

"Running in parallel to the album, I’ve been making a live show. For this album, the show is co-produced by Berghain, in Berlin. And also a theatre in Leipzig, and another theatre in Dresden. They’ve supported me, financially, to pay for rehearsals and recruit a team, so I’ve now got a lighting designer and a stage designer. I can have performers with me on stage. So I’m doing a show with four other dancers and performers, which is a mix of queer identifying, femme identifying, non-binary identifying and trans identifying performers. So it’s quite a queer pose. I’m really excited about it because in the past I’ve always been quite DIY, I’ve always put shows together where I’ve made the videos, the music and toured with different musicians, but this is the first time I’ve got a set, which I’m super excited about. It’s going to premiere here in Berlin in January, and then there’s a few other dates in Europe, then we’re hopefully bringing it to London in spring next year.

“Usually when I do a concert I don’t really say very much between songs, I think that’s a real art. There are some artists who can just do that, and they’re just amazing. I always find it a little tricky, and I wanted to try and change that for myself. On ‘Beulah Loves Dancing’, at first I was thinking, ‘Oh, there’s me, my Bolton accent…’ it was a bit tricky. But now I love it. What I’ve been rehearsing is taking that anecdote, and taking it even further in the show, and actually talking a lot more about how it was when I was a kid, this relationship between my sister and music. We did a couple of secret test shows in Leipzig this year, and that bit was just the most fun. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was like standup comedy, but I was just walking up and down the stage with the music in the background, and me just chatting. People just get it, and it’s a new way for me to connect with the audience."

GW: You live in Berlin now, but you’re originally from Bolton, and you return to Bolton quite a lot on this album revisiting childhood memories. I’m really interested to know if there’s a difference between the personal connections you’ve made in Berlin and those you have back in Manchester?

"It’s funny with Bolton, because when I first left I was really glad to leave. And that’s nothing to do with my family, I just had to get out. I grew up in a tiny village basically on the outskirts of Bolton and there was a bus every six hours to Manchester when I was a teenager. It was really… oh my god. I couldn’t wait to get to a bigger city, and Manchester was the first one, and then I was in London for a little bit, but then I ended up in Berlin. For me being in Berlin was such an emancipatory experience – because suddenly, for example, nobody knew what class I was. Nobody knew what my dialect was, they just saw me as a Brit. So I was somehow freed up from the constraints of the society and the culture that I was brought up in.

“When I reflect on this, it makes total sense that was the point where I could start to make my own work, and when Planningtorock was created. Over the years, I also really appreciate where I come from and what I’ve learnt and also a lot to do with the humour in the north. There’s definitely a humour shared with my family and friends up there, and I’ve made new friends in Manchester as well, especially through the queer community. I find it really sad that half of Bolton is boarded up, it’s a really poor town. England’s crazy, there are so many places which have been completely forgotten about. It’s really sad, depressing."

GW: Also with Brexit especially. Do you think that you might have to move back to the UK?

"It’s good that you asked that because I follow it a lot, because of my mum and my sister. That administration at the moment is very brutal, it’s very hard on basically on any minorities, anyone on welfare, anybody that needs support and help. It’s strange because I get worried about not being there enough, with my mum and my sister. I just find it really crazy that Brexit was meant to save the UK money, but it’s going to cost it billions now. What was it about, apart from the UK administration not wanting to have human right laws anymore? Basically I think that’s a big part of it. But instead of wasting all that money, they should have put that money into sorting things out with the EU. That would have been way better.

"Every time I’m back in the UK, I just really feel for my friends who still live there. It’s a really strange time. In the past five years, really weird. I’m hoping for some miracle, some divine intervention, I think everyone is.

Planningtorock releases Powerhouse album on 9th November via Human Level / DFA and plays album release party at Transmissions VFD London on Saturday 10 Nov - tickets

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Photo: Goodin Green