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Arca: Xen master

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The Venezuelan producer, Björk collaborator and Dazed 100 star has no plans to stop, ever

TextThomas GortonPhotographyJai Odell

“I want to make music until I die,” says Arca. “I want to be interested in the music I make until I die. That’s more important to me than the size of my audience.”

Like it or not, his audience is growing. Arca is Alejandro Ghersi, the 25-year-old Venezuelan producer who has set about reshaping pop music from the fringes over the past 18 months. His broken future-ballads dance with conventional ideas of electronica and in a split-second turn the other cheek. His music is uncomfortable, enthralling, delicate and aggressive, classical in its arrangements and approach to melody, yet indebted to the fury of hip hop.

While Arca may have resisted any form of public attention until very recently, his influence on mainstream pop in recent months has been overwhelming. His 25-minute mixtape &&&&&, released online last summer, offered a short glimpse into his twisted take on electronica, propelling him from bedroom producer to someone who may well come to define the fabric of music for years to come. Since then, his list of collaborators got a little unreal. In the past year and a half, Arca has worked as a production consultant on Kanye West’s Yeezus, written songs with FKA twigs and most recently, co-produced Björk’s ninth studio album. In between all of that, he’s somehow found the time to pen his debut album, Xen, released in November.

Arca lives in Dalston, by way of Caracas and New York, in a house with video artist Jesse Kanda, his soulmate who makes the twisted visuals that accompany Arca’s daring electronic soundscapes. The two flatmates are inseparable, emotionally and creatively. Kanda created the ghostly, dancing babies for the gallery-exhibited TRAUMA series the pair collaborated on, and made the video for “Held Apart” – an enchanting, weightless affair featuring neon insects that morph into fingerprints, soundtracked by Arca’s haunting piano interlude. Kanda also created the character Xen, making it nearly impossible to acknowledge Arca’s work without acknowledging his input. But today, Kanda isn’t home, and Arca is the focus.

I meet Arca at his house, where he’s spent the day doing a long photoshoot. Clad in a leather skirt and enormous, clownish leather boots, he looks every bit as alien as his music sounds, but is brimming with energy and warmth. We head for an empty restaurant just metres from his house. Taking a seat underneath the dimmed lights, he immediately confesses that his discomfort with the interview process: until the release of Xen, he’d kept the door closed on the press.

“I feel vulnerable,” he says. “This whole process feels destructive. I’m an all-or-nothing person. I wanted to rip myself open just as an experiment, and if I didn’t like it then I would never do it again. I’m still there, I still don’t know if I’ll ever do it again, it might not interest me. Until I wedge some dynamite in my ribs and let that explode, I can’t really regrow. That’s why I’m doing this, that’s why I’m talking about all this stuff.”

The reason we’re here, of course, is Xen, Arca’s most important artistic statement to date. The record is named after Ghersi’s ‘feminine spirit’ – a naked, genderless, vulnerable creature that appears in Arca’s videos, and which, according to Kanda, sometimes emerges when the two are hanging out.

“Jesse asked me if I had a girl’s name when I was a kid,” says Arca. “This was long before I even named the album. I told him that I have this image in my head when I listen to a song of mine that I really love or that I feel happy with. First of all, I feel like I haven’t made it, and second of all, I don’t bop my head, I move really slowly in a very effeminate way. Lastly, I close my eyes and I see this naked being who exists in front of an audience. Everyone is simultaneously attracted to it and repulsed – it looks like it went through suffering but it’s beautiful.

“Of course, those were all projections of my psyche; of how I viewed my own sexuality and how I engaged with people through the lens of sensuality. They were very important cues, and he took them up. What excited him most was that image of her, of it, and I can’t imagine him representing her in a more accurate way. This being is actually aware of its sex as a weapon and as a threat. Xen is an ‘it’. I lean towards calling Xen ‘her’ in response to the fact that society historically leans towards men having more power. Me calling Xen ‘her’ is an equalisation of that.”

“I'm an all or nothing person. I wanted to rip myself open just as an experiment, and then if I didn’t like it then I would never do it again” – Arca

Looking at Kanda’s video for “Thievery”, there’s a sense that Xen the character is trapped. Wearing a blank expression, she embodies a sense of longing – dancing aggressively in the shadows, but also like she’s disconnected. Xen seems hurt, wounded, unloved. Arca’s song title choices, too (“Slit Thru”, “Family Violence”, “Sad Bitch” etc), don’t so much hint at a broken heart as they do nail shards through every twitching muscle. But Arca doesn’t see much of a link between the titles and the themes at play in his work. “I didn’t actually think too much about them,” he says. “I never judge my song titles, I just spit them out. I was recently watching this video about Carl Jung, he was saying that no one can accurately interpret their own dreams, because your dream speaks to you in a language you’re not familiar with by default.”

He does admit that “Failed” is a love song about his boyfriend, photographer Daniel Sannwald, written during a brief period of separation. “I’m in love,” he says. “I’d never actually said that to anyone before Daniel. I had a rule that I wouldn’t say the words ‘I love you’ to anyone unless I wanted to say it. I was in a relationship with someone else for eight months and it didn’t even cross my mind – I never felt safe. ‘Failed’ just poured out in a moment when (Daniel and I) had broken up for a very short period of time, for days. I’ve never written a happy love song.”

In many ways, Xen sounds a lot like how being in love feels. Moments of absolute quiet and stillness, coupled with the intensity of sex and heartbreak. There are times in love when you appreciate just being, even if nothing is being said. Then there are times when everything matters; when everything is being said and it’s horrible, it’s dirty and it’s unfair. Xen walks that journey throughout.

“What I’m trying to represent is a way of seeing the world – it’s about love, but not romantic love,” he says. “Someone that is standing in a pool of black water is more meaningful to me than someone in a bubble right next to the light. Being knee-deep in sadness or suffering and refusing to look down, to me that represents something more powerful than someone who’s never gone through difficulty. That is something at the heart of the music I make, and that’s what informs me wanting to fuck with people or wanting to make them uncomfortable. If you’re able to find clarity within that, then the art is a lot more powerful than art that spoon-feeds you that feeling.”

“It’s about love, but not romantic love. Someone standing in a pool of black water is more meaningful to me than someone in a bubble right next to the light” – Arca

While Xen conveys themes of isolation, the fact is that creatively, Arca is rarely alone. Xen represents the first piece of work that he's made since &&&&& that is solely his, and even then it’s umbilically linked with Jesse Kanda’s magical, macabre art direction. The two met online on a DeviantArt forum when Kanda was 15 and Arca was 13, both living on opposite sides of the world. It was years before they met IRL – now they live and work together in their home in Dalston. When prompted over what Xen would sound like without Kanda in his life, Arca is visibly taken aback, as if the idea is incomprehensible.

“I can’t even imagine that,” he says. “It’s like me asking you what you would think of yourself if you were born without an arm. It’s that abstract. I could just make something up, but it would be a meaningless answer. It would mean me trying to rethink everything because I met him when I was 14.”

Between them, Arca and Kanda are foraging deep into an unknown territory. When their videos appear on YouTube, they’re accompanied by a palpable sense of “Shit, what have they done now?” Kanda describes their creative process as “sponging”, a necessary symbiosis: “I leave certain questions unanswered in the music that he answers with visuals and then in turn does the same thing with the visuals. Nothing is ever driven home so to speak, emotionally or conceptually. There’s a give and take.”

Despite the freaky strippers and dancing ghost babies, there remains an innocence and playfulness to Arca and Kanda’s work that feels like a ‘fuck you’ to the constraints of the adult world. Perhaps it’s this essence which captivated Björk, the eternally youthful Icelandic artist.

For much of 2014, Arca has been holed up with the pioneering pop star working on her new album, an experience which has clearly left an indelible mark on the young producer. “I was able to spend time with someone who not only shaped the way I listen to music but is never ever tempted to compromise,” he says. “It’s that simple. I didn’t know that it was possible to get away with it – physically, tangibly – until I spent time with someone who actually existed in that way. The way she exists as a human is a big influence on the way I exist as a human.”

“I very clearly remember when I realised that shame was just useless – I read on a toilet wall that ‘shame is the vanity of the vanities’” – Arca

Indeed, Björk turned up to Arca’s debut live performance at the ICA in London last month. It was interesting to see him feel his way in to the performance, screaming raps in Spanish over his beats midway through, edging into his gyrations as the show progressed. He seemed like the misfit that he is, the kid who “went from being in the only non-white family in Connecticut to the only kid in Venezuela who watched American cartoons”. What the show lacked in polish, it more than made up for in raw energy.

As we pay our bill, leave the restaurant and move back to the bare studio that he keeps at the back of his home, Arca reflects on ways that he’s grown over the year. “I’ve learned to use things like softness and vulnerability as weapons against the things you feel ashamed of in yourself,” he says, a little cryptically. “I very clearly remember the moment I realised that shame was just useless – I read on a toilet wall that ‘shame is the vanity of the vanities’”.

As for the future, Arca would prefer not to think about it all that much. “I really don’t know what I’m doing. I try to strip it to the moment where I’m doing something and you can only hope that you’ve set the parameters and the conditions for you to pour something out. I’d be making it up if I spoke with any more specificity than that – I could die tomorrow.”

Photography Jai Odell, styling Lizy Curtis, make-up and hair Maki Tanaka