If the avant-garde pop movement of the past few years has a mastermind, it just might be Arca. The 26-year-old Alejandro Ghersi, Venezuela-born and NYC-educated, has helped to widen the sonic parameters of the mainstream via a series of high-profile studio positions: consulting on Kanye West‘s super-album Yeezus, co-producing on the debut of British singer FKA Twigs and collaborating with Björk on her January release, Vulnicura.
Just a year after his debut LP, Xen, made countless best-of lists, Arca’s follow-up, Mutant, out November 20th from Mute Records, supplies more extraordinary selections of industrial noise, dub, glitch hop, IDM/ambient and unadulterated space exotica. For Ghersi, Mutant represents a growing process from the days of Xen. “I had found a particular set of characteristics …[that] make up a kind of sonic identity a lot of my tracks have in common,” he says. “Instead of making a track that was purely melodic or purely rhythmic, now it was a song that had a rhythm and melody. I feel like there was a sharp divide between a few different sides of me and that has been bridged.”
During a rare in-person interview, Ghersi discussed numerous topics with Rolling Stone, from the inspirations behind his new album to the changing perceptions of machismo in hip-hop culture, and those now-legendary collaborations with Björk and Kanye.
Tell me a little about how Mutant is different from Xen.
Xen to me was a necessary excursion inward, into myself. Mutant is a response to it and is more extroverted. I’m already completely prepared for people who didn’t understand Xen to understand or like Mutant and [vice versa]. And I feel like they’re equally important in the giant cauldron of what I’m trying to express. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way for me to grow is in a very self-forgiving way, to take a risk, and in response to how a record pans out, take a risk in the opposite charge. I know it sounds very philosophical, but thinking about such a loaded concept of truth in that way, there’s a humility in thinking about it like that, it feels right to me. So if Xen is a negative charge, then Mutant must be a positive charge.
Your visual collaborator Jesse Kanda’s album art and videos of the creature in Xen were such a big part of that album’s presentation. Is this shift you’re discussing reflected in the visuals of Mutant?
In Xen you kind of see [the figure’s] body, and the head is not really part of the image. In Mutant, it’s like a beam looking right at you in the eye. I think that’s a big part of the record’s theme — this idea of eye contact and directness and vulnerability in a very different way. It isn’t about showing your weak spots but rather harnessing the weak spots into an explosive and fertile energy. It doesn’t just point towards fragility, but actually ricochets out of fragility into bravery. I think [Mutant] has more low end and more bass because of that. There was no gravity to Xen. It was like exploring the inside of myself and there was no gravity in there. But Mutant is more related to the real world, like an interrelation between me and other beings, you know.
“[Mutant] isn’t about showing your weak spots but rather harnessing the weak spots into an explosive and fertile energy.”
Something that always strikes me about your individual songs both on Xen and Mutant is that they’re often very short.
I’m really happy that you noticed that. A lot of people don’t really talk about that very often, but it’s something I’m very aware of for many reasons. Firstly, I think I’d rather someone want to listen to a song and repeat it two or three times rather feel like they’re exhausted after one first listen. Because that may be how my attention span enjoys listening to music, in these spurts of very dense information, which overcharge your conscious mind. I think if you hypercharge some of the attention span, then the attention span is almost overwhelmed and a trap door opens up underneath it and enters something deeper. And secondly, I very painstakingly spend time embroidering such a degree of detail and variations, because that’s my way of attempting to emulate something that’s more organic. I feel like it never loops the exact same way twice or three times. I’m an enemy of something repeating in the exact same way or too long, because you lose access to a particular kind of feeling of unpredictability or discomfort.
So was the recording process different this time around?
The process was identical, which is to say without any agenda or foresight. I had no criteria for what kind of music was going to come out of a particular session. So in that sense, the process was identical and nothing changed between Xen and Mutant. What I was living through psychologically, that was different. I was internalizing a lot of things I had learned in the practice of sharing my music. You know, like touring and playing those tracks live. I was also able to go deeper in personal relationships on a romantic level but also on a friendship level. I just feel like I’ve grown. I think I was less apprehensive to openness to the outside, and I think Mutant is more explicitly aware of how people have changed the way I see the world.
And that’s reflected in some of the names of the tracks on the album, right?
The title track reminds me of my friend, [Hood by Air founder] Shayne Oliver. “Soichiro” is the middle name of my best friend, Jesse [Kanda]. His middle name is Japanese. Then there’s the bonus track of the album called “Ashland,” which is the first name of a friend of mine, DJ Total Freedom. And the track “Snakes” always reminded me of Björk. Actually, we’re both snakes from the Chinese zodiac. That was my way of nodding to her. Different parts of the record remind me of different friends that I admire, people I have loved, people that have shaped me just by being a part of my life.
What kind of influence do you think your collaboration with Björk had on Xen and now on Mutant?
When I met Björk, I felt like it was a friendship first, it was like an oxygen you get from a person you only can exist with symbiotically. It’s one of the most beautiful relationships I’ve had. She is incredible. Björk, how can I begin to talk about her? I think the way that I think about music is shaped very profoundly from years of listening to her music since I was around 10. So it shaped the way I listen to music and the way I perceive sound.
On the professional level, there’s no other word for me but genius. There’s just a degree of proficiency in every single aspect of how she wants to express herself. She can do her own string arrangements, but at the same time, she is the most generous and easiest collaborator. It was a mindblowing, consciousness-expanding process to grow and work alongside her on Vulnicura. Especially since it was such a vulnerable record. The way she maintained such an incredibly elegant spiritual posture on a record that basically was about having to face the death of a relationship. Watching someone face that so elegantly is one of the most inspiring experiences I’ve had.
I really have nothing to say about Björk that isn’t going to sound overblown because in many ways it’s such a beautiful relationship. She is kind of like a big sister in a way. She’s made music for a lot longer than I have and performed it a lot longer, so she’s emboldened me and given me a lot of strength and encouragement. I don’t think Xen or Mutant would have sounded the way it did had I not met her, and then again, my discography wouldn’t have sounded the same had she not put out any music. That’s the degree I feel influenced by her. And I’d like to think it’s symbiotic. Because we laughed so hard. Through the depths to which the music on Vulnicura goes in terms of sorrow, we could still laugh through it. If that’s not a shared experience, what is? It’s almost as if life and playing music were the exact same thing. It was really therapeutic making that record.
What do you think your work with Kanye and Björk taught you most about being a musician?
It’s not so pleasant for me to answer that. Not because I’m opposed to talking about my work with them, but I’m not talking about myself in that situation. I feel like it betrays a private relationship. It puts the relationship in a different context, if what happens between the two of you as two individuals will be later exposed. It’s such a long answer, because I’ve worked with both of them for such extended periods of time. There’s no elevator pitch I could come up [with].
On many of your early solo mixtapes like Stretch 1 and Stretch 2 and obviously in your work with Kanye, you portrayed a real fascination with American hip-hop. And hip-hop, at least since the Nineties, has been very aggressive and masculine, and with lots of bravado.
I had an attraction to that on a very perverse level. I felt like I was infiltrating it. But I loved it, and I loved the mischief of it and being able to morph it.
Were there any particular artists who challenged that paradigm of masculinity and misogyny?
Absolutely. I feel like sometimes, and I have been guilty of this in the past, that people judge a rapper’s lyrics to be closed-minded or misogynistic or celebrating violence because they are not really understanding the psychological nuances that might be occurring or the messaging that might be happening. Like in the way that a singer modulates pitch or the kind of delicateness that a rapper uses to punctuate rhythmic emphasis. The lyric might be saying to do something horrible, but the actual musical message might be more dissociated from morality.
Give me an example.
Even someone like Busta Rhymes, who is one of my favorite rappers. He was opening an escape hatch — not for a conscious, politically correct type of speech — but there was a subversion happening in the lyrics. There is a two-dimensional way to interpret the lyrics and there’s a three dimensional way. So we can listen to a track like “Everybody Rise” and meditate on how profoundly celebratory it is, especially when you take into account the narrative of struggle, whether it be real or theatrically enhanced by a rapper. But someone like Tommy Wright III or Lady B from Memphis. Memphis rap — there’s a playfulness and rawness in the production; there’s an agility and a technique in the vocal performance of some Memphis rap that hints at something worth expressing. It’s all about attitude and perspective and the lyrics are just filler.
And there’s the flip side to that. There is a political gesture to, for example, including lyrics for something like bottoming, which I did in the song “Broke Up.” Every time I play a live show, I scream to a room full of thousands of people that “it’s too much for me to take” and what I’m talking about is “receiving” in anal sex. I don’t do that to be confrontational; I do it because that’s my experience. If I’m going to write a vocal track about eroticism, I’m going to be as explicit as the music demands.
“If I’m going to write a vocal track about eroticism, I’m going to be as explicit as the music demands.”
Hip-hop, for better or for worse, is the field in American popular music where most flexibility and fluidity has happened. It has periods where it freezes, but when there’s a good run, like when Missy [Elliot] was out, the churning of ideas, like sexual ideas, ideas about power, ideas about relating to other humans, ideas about conflict — everything was just being jumbled around in the American subconscious. Hip-hop at its best is disruptive. Hip-hop exists from giving a voice to a particular group of people who had no voice. It was forged through a strong will and a refusal to abide by certain taboos. That’s why I think people are missing the point when they judge hip-hop lyrics on a surface level.
I’m curious if on a personal level you ever experienced any sense of intimidation or violence in a recording studio because of your sexuality?
I think that’s always there in a very masculine environment. And you have a choice of how much to relate to that. Because you can’t ignore it; it’s there. No one has ever been openly hateful at all during any recording that I’ve ever done. When I got invited to work on that record with Kanye, I decided I was going to keep my head down and work really hard. I was just in the studio working on the music so I didn’t tease out any kind of reaction from anyone. As a gay person who has an awareness of how things are performative, you have a degree of control of how you much you celebrate or confront and how much to make it a thing in the room. So I don’t see myself as any kind of victim, especially in a safe space where I’m working. The hip-hop community is much more open-minded than my local neighborhood.