Shayne Oliver + Arca: feeling themselves

‘This is sensuality that is hypercharged, it’s amplified and erratic’ – the genre-twisting artist and Hood by Air designer on reaching collaborative catharsis with new music project Wench

Taken from the spring 2016 issue of Dazed. 

With its potted ferns and arabesque windows, the back room of New York’s Bowery Hotel seems designed to recall an old opium den. It’s here that Alejandro Ghersi – best known as the genre-bending producer and artist Arca – and Shayne Oliver, the founder of Hood By Air, currently sit, sprawled in a red booth, their big black winter jackets tumbling down their backs like fur stoles.

We’re drinking coffee and eating cured meats, grapes and cheeses, discussing their new musical collaboration as Wench. Ghersi and Oliver are not just creative partners but best friends, two important nodes in an entire network of underground artistic life revolving around club culture, creativity and queer friendship, and the conversation veers down too many winding paths to count. Two hours later, my head is spinning, and I feel like we really did, in fact, smoke something wavy.

The pair first met at the radical club night GHE20G0TH1K, which Oliver hosted with DJ Venus X at venues around New York from 2009. GHE20G0TH1K quickly developed into a fertile space for underground artists and outsiders, and is now acknowledged as the wellspring from which so much important art of the last six years has flowed. Oliver and Venus’s DJ sets, in particular, have been tremendously influential on electronic music. GHE20G0TH1K and its rotating band of guest DJs – including Physical Therapy, Total Freedom and, of course, Arca – spliced punk, rap, queer, ugly, beautiful, fast and slow sounds in ways that no one really had before. Though Oliver has since shifted his primary focus to Hood By Air, what was once new and novel at their events is now standard at club nights all over the world, a testament to the party’s long shadow.

Oliver has never really abandoned music, making it an integral part of Hood By Air’s DNA. He and Ghersi have collaborated a number of times on musical projects and runway show soundtracks, with the latter walking HBA’s SS16 runway in a blazer that fit more like a dress, covered in zippers, with an outsized grill stuck in his mouth like a diamond pacifier. Wench, though, is a little different. With the project, Oliver steps into the role of diva/guru/rapper, with Ghersi contributing beats – that they both describe as, simply, “sexy” – behind him. The album, which was actually recorded a few years ago now, is the sound of two young artists coming together somewhere glorious – of a pair of queens, in the cradle of creative partnership, truly feeling themselves.

Tell me about your first experience of GHE20G0TH1K.

Arca: I was really into anime, and I saw one of their flyers with an anime character on. I couldn’t even drink yet legally, I just showed up. It was my first real nightlife experience in New York. The energy of the people coming in was so shocking to me. Instead of hiding the fact that they were outsiders, which is what I was used to doing, they were celebrating it. I didn’t have a reason to approach Shayne. We had to find an internship at college and I had a really cool teacher who would just let you do whatever. I thought, ‘I want an internship at GHE20G0TH1K.’

Shayne Oliver: He was the worst intern ever, because he didn’t want to intern! I would ask him do all the stuff that interns do – just compiling my folders...

Arca: ...and I was the worst intern ever. (laughs)

Oh my God! Did you fire him?

Shayne Oliver: No, because it became something else. By that time (he was like), ‘OK, obviously I’m not an intern. But I can do music for you if you like.’

Arca: I was studying audio engineering and I was making music. I had Stretch 2 out on my own by then.

Shayne Oliver: I was pursuing the idea of music more seriously. And as we began to work together, it became like a friendship.

Arca: The Swaggot mixtape was really the beginning of our working relationship. It was mostly Shayne’s ideas, I was just executing them with him.

Shayne Oliver: It’s still my favourite.

Pin It
All clothes and accessories Hood by Air SS16All clothes and accessories Hood by Air SS16

Everyone talks about Shayne’s fashion influence at HBA, but I think a lot of people gloss over how important he has been to music with GHE20G0TH1K – he basically helped create an entire sound!

Arca: There was a sense of grandiosity in Shayne’s sets, a majestic-ness. It’s because of the width – you know how a film ratio is 16:9? Well, this is 300:9. A lot of it has to do with playing shitty quality files, and then playing a high quality file – when the high quality file comes, it’s really ‘wide’ by contrast. Shayne would play Nine Inch Nails right before an electroclash song and a kuduro track. He was always shifting tempo, you had to renegotiate where you were every step of the way. It was insanity. A lot of musicians struggle with how much they have to dumb down by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Shayne’s music does exactly the opposite. It points to the transcendental. That’s where we need to meet – up there! Not down here where everyone knows that we have these base impulses and fears in common.

“(Wench) started out as a sexually deranged music project that had a lot to do with tension, sexual identity and how to feel like a man having sex with the feelings of a woman and a man” – Shayne Oliver

I noticed earlier that you refer to Shayne as ‘mother’. Why?

Arca: I feel that it’s beautiful and necessary to call Shayne my gay mother. I don’t mean it in an 80s way, I mean it in a ‘now’ way. Because the conditions of what a mother is have been fully renegotiated in response to what our environment looks like now.

How is he mother to you?

Arca: I think Shayne helped me identify my voice, (just in) leading by example. A mother isn’t someone who does it on purpose, mothers are who they are, and just by existing they affect the way other people negotiate with the environment and with themselves. It’s not a contract. It’s just that you exist the way you are and you have this magnetic attraction to people. You take them under your wing and teach them a new vocabulary with which to understand, to read the world.

Pin It
All clothes and accessories Hood by Air SS16All clothes and accessories Hood by Air SS16

In December, you had a party in New York called Pillow Queen. Total Freedom DJed, there were go-go dancers, and a slumber party theme. Why a slumber party?

Shayne Oliver: That’s how relaxed we feel with each other. We get together and we’re like, ‘Coochie-coo!’ We actually wear lingerie, we’re in that vibe. We’re very close, very comfortable. Sometimes it’s great to have people feel like they can get close and cuddle with us. It was the best party I’ve been to in a long time.

Arca: I really, really loved it. I had a straight friend get in with fake ID because he was too young, there were 50-plus year-old queens cruising. There were Asians, Latinos, everything.

Shayne Oliver: Real goth kids that came from places like Pennsylvania. Topless women feeling sexy.

Arca: There were people actually moshing at one point.

What does the term ‘pillow queen’ mean?

Arca: The main meaning it has is a woman that is getting oral pleasure in bed but is unwilling to reciprocate. Which I think is very poetic.

Shayne Oliver: What was cool was that the crowd was the pillow queen. They were just getting pleasure from us all night.

You were getting the crowd off.

Shayne Oliver: Yeah, exactly.

Arca: Without expecting anything in return! There was no condition after which we’d stop giving. To be generous was to be generous to yourself.

“I feel that it’s beautiful and necessary to call Shayne my gay mother. I don’t mean it in an 80s way, I mean it in a ‘now’ way” – Arca

Let’s talk about Wench, your new musical project. When did you record the album?

Shayne Oliver: In 2012 and 2013.

Why put it out now?

Arca: I feel like a lot of times, you make music and you don’t really understand why until with hindsight.

Shayne Oliver: It started out as a sexually deranged music project that had a lot to do with tension, sexual identity and how to feel like a man having sex with the feelings of a woman and a man.

Arca: We have dozens of songs. Forty to fifty tracks. Shayne is doing vocals – it’s a combination of chanting and singing and rap. There wasn’t any conversation. It was completely spontaneous. Every single track comes from Shayne’s first take. We just turned the microphone on and it was done.

Shayne Oliver: A lot of it comes from chanting and mantras. Letting up my soul. I think, more than anything else, the beats that were selected were very sexy. You know what I mean? And I reacted to that. They are sexy chants. But not in the way of, ‘I’m going to take you home and take off your panties’ – it’s more sensual.

Arca: Usually, sensuality is associated with a relaxed languour or scented candles. But this is sensuality that is hypercharged, it’s amplified and erratic. Any minor movement made within that spectrum of sensuality is exacerbated and exaggerated.

Shayne Oliver: It’s actually more sensual than sexual. It has to do with our relationship as well – I feel like we’re very sensual with each other. Like, whenever we’re together, we spend time in bed. Even in public, even in clubs, we’re on top of each other. We are very much attached to each other in a physical way.

Arca: The thing I like about the word ‘band’ for Wench is it has a humility to it. Except instead of (being formed in) a garage, it was my shitty apartment in Chinatown. My neighbours would bang on the radiators when Shayne was cackling too loudly.

Pin It
All clothes and accessories Hood by Air SS16All clothes and accessories Hood by Air SS16

Is it campy?

Arca: No, not campy. It’s exaggerated, but it’s a form of being honest. Theatricality – that’s where you get catharsis. The Greeks went to see drama because they felt like this wasn’t happening to them. It’s that sense of exaggeration, of everything being so over the top – someone gets stabbed, then they fuck and then they both get poisoned. It’s exaggerated, but that’s what allows catharsis. I used to be really ashamed. When I was young, I put on performances for my family and my parents where I would dance like a woman, singing a really exaggerated woman’s vocal in front of my whole family. Until one day my grandfather, who would never be in the room (for these performances), finally walked in and said something. I loved my grandfather very much, but he was a typical Venezuelan-via-Spain patriarch. It was the first time I was looked at with disgust and shame, at an age when no one gets looked at like that.

Shayne Oliver: I had an uncle like that.

Arca: That was my first taste of contempt. My uncle had a recording of it. Throughout my whole early puberty until I was 17 he would torture me, telling me that he would show those recordings. He’d be like, ‘I have those films. I’m going to put on those films!’ And my body would tighten up. With that perverse pleasure that Latin American men feel at the fact that they have annihilated something inside of you, which they probably annihilated in themselves.

Shayne Oliver: The language of flamboyancy, the language of exaggeration.

Arca: But that’s how I felt like being! So now I’m at the age when I want that tape, and when I ask him for it he gags. Because I want to screen it at my shows. I’m licking my elbows to Madonna’s ‘Erotica’ (in the video). It’s not tame. I’m rubbing my crotch, I’m on the floor with a blanket for a skirt, I’m licking my armpit. But when I asked for the tape (my uncle) just said, ‘I lost it.’ What used to make me ashamed and paralysed now makes me mobile.

“(It’s) like a breeze under you, like some fucking air to pause with and look at the world. When you close your eyes and you feel beautiful. Isn’t that what drives us?” – Arca on Wench

How does the word ‘wench’ fit into all of this?

Arca: It’s an old British way of referring to a harlot, a prostitute. There’s an exaggeration in what you envision as being a wench – the done-up hair, the big gown... Picking up the gown just to be able to run in it. It’s very fussy, but very piercing.

Shayne Oliver: Go under my large skirt, and eat me out. Try to fuck me in this dress. Try to fuck me with all these clothes on.

It reminds me of Madonna doing ‘Vogue’ at the VMAs in the Marie Antoinette clothes.

Shayne Oliver: It’s very that. That moment seems about self-pleasure: ‘I’m dressing up.’ She’s basically being a pillow queen.

With your vocals for Wench, are you embodying certain divas?

Shayne Oliver: I think I was inspired by straight men on the record, actually. Drake came up a lot. The appeal of sensitivity and being vulnerable.

Arca: OK, no. (laughs) One of the songs is called ‘Lick My Pussy’.

Shayne Oliver: But it’s almost like a straight guy’s thing. It’s the privilege of that. ‘Lick it.’

I see you out and about in New York with members of your crew like Akeem Smith and Ian Isiah, and it looks like you’re not only creatively in sync, but like you’re having so much fun.

Shayne Oliver: We know exactly what we’re missing in the rest of our lives and we bring it to each other on the table. We’re together and we’re queens and we’re going to be extra out-of-hand. That is what’s exciting, that moment. When I go home, I am not so much of a queen. When we are together, we can be that.

Pin It
All clothes and accessories Hood by Air SS16All clothes and accessories Hood by Air SS16

It’s pretty amazing to see gay friendship presented in such a powerful way.

Shayne Oliver: We just hang out and love being around each other. It’s almost like being at a political rally, being with a bunch of people who are like-minded. You’re there for a positive reason, but it’s also serious and for a good cause.

Arca: It’s the same with collaboration. It’s about understanding how a person feels about something without having to see it, feel it or say it. And then, by knowing someone on that delicate emotional or even spiritual level, you can go somewhere else. You don’t have to waste time building a groundwork through language or speech, it’s more rarefied. It’s more in the air than it is about passion and ideas. It’s definitely not happening in the frontal cortex.

Shayne Oliver: And we’re all mama’s boys. We’re very much like, ‘Let’s all get drinks and look at each other’s heels.’ This brotherly love is unparalleled.

Arca: I remember laughing so hard because one time we were making an edit and Shayne said, ‘Oh, I really like this thing because it feels like a cool breeze.’ And that word never left my mind because it’s such a concise way to sum up how we all want our work to feel for people – like a breeze under you, like some fucking air to pause with and look at the world around you. When you close your eyes and you feel beautiful. Isn’t that what drives us? A moment of respite. Your chin is up and your eyes are closed and you feel a breeze and you’re sweating and your wings are spread. You’re a bird.

Shayne Oliver: We are able to live and breathe it.

Arca: It’s a demonstration of that freedom, not a suggestion of it. There’s no label. Freedom.

Hair Tamara McNaughton at Management Artists using R+Co, make-up Inge Grognard at Jed Root using M.A.C, photographic assistant Kim Reenberg, Enrico Brunetti, Tyler Nevitt, hair assistant Rebekah Calo, make-up assistant Andrew Colvin, digital operator Nick Barr, Production Art + Commerce

Subscribe to Dazed magazine here or pick up your copy from newsstands now