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American Drifter

“I guess I’m really good at floating” — with her warped tunes referencing an international web of sounds, Elysia Crampton is ushering in music's nomadic age

You can buy a copy of our latest issue here. Taken from the spring 2017 issue of Dazed:

“There was this lake I’d always go to; no one would ever be there. It was a mile across, and I would swim it back and forth. I never knew I could swim all day like that. I guess I’m really good at floating.”

Bolivian-American music producer Elysia Crampton is talking about the Virginian pond she’d wade through near the George Washington Forest, 100 miles or so from the town The Blair Witch Project was set in. As a young adult, it was the enclave where Crampton laid down the concept for American Drift, the first album she released under her own name (Crampton began recording as E+E in 2008). The four-song cycle looked at the history of a town called Weyer’s Cave in Virginia, drawing parallels between the area’s past as a prehistoric dust-land and Crampton’s own ancestry.

Much of Crampton’s output has a mythical connection to the earth and geographical settings. She’s “floated” — that word comes up more than once during our call — across borders and through many wild personas. Born in outer LA, the Inland Empire, Crampton relocated to Monterey, then Mexico, Sacramento, Bolivia and West Virginia. Before wholly embracing her transsexuality, she’d occasionally turn up to class in drag in the third and fourth grades, and later hustled the blocks of Beverly Hills’ luxury shopping district Rodeo Drive as a sex worker.

“Sometimes it felt like social work, helping this specific portion of the population,” she said in a 2012 interview. After a few failed stints in rehab, she spent time in a Scientology centre exploring transcendental meditation.

Like the “armour that falls from your body” she sang of in last year’s surrealist spoken-word track “Recent Horizon”, Crampton’s story is one of limitless reinvention and self-discovery. In person, she shoots raw insight at you in large, indigestible chunks, and laughs off her profound seriousness with a giggle. Listen closer, though, and it’s clear she’s sitting on big thoughts.

“My mother would tell me about animals that lived in South America, in the Amazon where my grandmother was born,” she says of her early interest in genealogy. “Maybe as an American I romanticised being South American. In grade school when we did show and tell, people would bring in (taxidermy animals such as) alpacas, mountain cats and foxes. I think it started there.” Perhaps her own trajectory more closely resembles that of a migratory animal?

“Not in terms of animals migrating, but I do think about human bodies migrating, especially now that I do it as (part of) my job. Nobody is indigenous until someone else shows up. I’m also a fugitive. If I wasn’t moving I probably couldn’t live in the US; I would probably surrender my passport eventually. It reminds me how my family struggled to create me.”

“I do think about human bodies migrating, especially now that I do it as (part of) my job. Nobody is indigenous until someone else shows up. I’m a fugitive’’ — Elysia Crampton

‘Severo’ — Spanish for ‘severe’ — is the name of the music genre Crampton has established on her travels. Her sound takes elements from each pitstop, from the drum tapestries she picked up in Angola to the baile funk of the South American barrios. Latin cumbia music is a big part of her aesthetic, as is vintage pop-culture detritus like the nauseating demo sounds of a 90s arcade machine, or warping analogue synths straight out of a cyberpunk film. “Dummy Track”, the song she co-produced for American Drift’s 2016 follow-up mixtape, Elysia Crampton Presents: Demon City, is a cross-eyed synthesis of drone metal, industrial concrète and clipped vocals from the UK Jungle canon.

Demon City comprises tunes by Crampton’s global allies, from Texas-based Björk collaborator Rabit to London’s Lexxi, founder of influential nomadic party Endless. It is at Endless and club-nights like it — Janus in Berlin, Endless’ sister event Bala Club, New York’s hyper-pop party Jack — where these young artists are free to test out new artistic and personal frontiers. They are the spaces where Crampton and her consortium not only spin thunderous, experimental club music, but bold looks – clothes pilfered from various cultural snapshots and points in history. “That battleground – dress-sense – has always been a part of communicating cultures as they form,” she says.

“But it’s a struggle, too — people want to capitalise off it, using our assets. I notice with a lot of venues, especially in terms of queer club culture or outsider culture, they’re really trying to, y’know, pin it as a ‘ballroom night’. For us, ballroom is an ancient tradition. It’s a really old thing, and I wish people would put more money into these newly forming groups, these new genres and new ways of being.”

“I wish people would put more money into these newly forming groups, these new genres and new ways of being” — Elysia Crampton

Crampton describes her style as “a little bit thrift-store, a little bit Walmart”, and strives to look stylish despite her scant budget. In one press shot, she’s wearing an ancient military bodysuit straight out of a Kurosawa epic. She even walked — and contributed music to — Grace Wales Bonner’s show in London for AW17. “Identity is a push-and-pull kind of term — queer people tend to roll their eyes at it, but it’s a thing of survival,” she explains. “Also, the best fashion ideas come when you’re not looking too hard for clothes, and you can’t afford them anyway.”

Early last year, Crampton stayed with her grandfather in Bolivia as he lived out his last days. Around the same time, a law was passed in the country allowing trans people to change their gender and name. Crampton was granted access to the LGBT visual archives there, where she immersed herself in the history of Bolivia’s transgender movement. “It was amazing seeing these paintings of trans bodies from the 18th and 19th centuries, these watercolours and newer photographs from the 50s and 60s,” she says. She unearthed a picture of an activist who fought for trans people’s right to celebrate their sexuality in public: “The festivities allowed these transvested (Crampton’s word for trans female clothing) women to survive.”

Crampton found faith and survivalist spirit in the trans attires of Bolivian folklore, and as with her music — a globe-spanning confluence of cultural themes — fashion is a kind of armour for the artist. “(Studying in the archives) reminded me how important fashion is. In a capitalist market, we tend to look at it only on that Paris/Milan juncture; it comes out of a very classist notion. But actually, for many it is a way of preserving their history and preserving themselves.”

“In America, those Terminator-looking scanners (have a) pink button and a blue button - one of them has to be pressed in order for you to go through it. There’s no yellow or in-between button - yet” — Elysia Crampton

Despite her various struggles, Crampton exists in a perpetual state of flux, hopping from location to location, from being to being. Even when arbitrary blockades like airport body scanners get in her way, she’s philosophical. “People aren’t even aware in America that those Terminator-looking scanners (have a) pink button and a blue button, and one of them has to be pressed in order for you to go through it,” she laughs, dusting the thought off. “The human body is still very gendered and policed. There’s no yellow or in-between button — yet.”

Crampton’s next full-length project comprises two 20-minute, “super-compositional” arias that explore her Aymaran-Irish genealogy. It mixes archaic, baroque-classical swells with samples of her talking in various made-up dialects. Listen to “Hard Staccato”, the track NON Records’ Embaci and Chino Amobi wrote in dedication to Crampton and her NYC affiliate Boychild last autumn, she says, for a taste. She would like to work with Lexxi again, too: “For me, his music is the future of pop. It’s just about avant enough and totally where everything is going.”

“For many, fashion is a way of preserving their history and preserving themselves” — Elysia Crampton

The night before our conversation, I watched Crampton and a slick-haired Lexxi smoke out the venue hall of a south London gallery. She was there to perform a play called Dissolution of the Sovereign: A Time Slide Into the Future, which tells the story of a mystical 18th-century war hero called Bartolina Sisa – an Aymaran, just like Crampton’s mother. Sisa led a 40,000-strong peasant’s revolt against colonial forces in La Paz, Bolivia, laying siege to the city for six months before she was captured, tortured and chopped into pieces in front of a crowd. Crampton’s fictional adaptation is told from the perspective of Sisa’s butchered body, her limbs eventually turning to stone in a future that has been taken over by human-spider hybrids.

At the gig, the artist’s voice quavered between a barely-there whisper and a ferocious baritone. A projector flickered towards the stage, casting onto a wall the craned silhouette of Crampton – a warrior on an unending quest into forgotten histories and unknown futures. Where she’ll float to next is anyone’s guess.