RACHEL MASON: IS THAT A GOOD REVELATION?
photography by sheva kafai
It was the tone of her voice when she sang that was so fascinating to hear. Like mid-period Karen Carpenter mixed with late-period Johanna Went, performance artist / filmmaker / musician Rachel Mason’s voice rang out clean and clear and with as much purpose as fresh snowfall. Also: she has more costumes than there are animals in a zoo. Her first live action in Los Angeles since she moved back from New York City happened at Ye Olde Hushe Clubbe, that decade-long bastion of art and free expression that’s become the locus of all things interesting in the greater metropolitan Los Angeles area. These are good times for clear-voiced and clean-conscienced artists like Rachel Mason. She’s recently released a video for “Sandstorm,” a song from her recent Das Ram LP, co-released by longtime L.A. label Cleopatra Records and artist-run cassette label Practical Records. “Sandstorm” is a saga in itself—set against a massive impassive stone background, its costumed creatures hint at voyages and silences and struggles to have the voice—always the voice—heard. Possibly understood. Possibly. If these weren’t enough, she’s also been protesting the Trump presidency lately through a persona known as FutureClown, silently mocking the man whenever he speaks. Apart from that, she’s recorded 13 albums, and her film The Lives of Hamilton Fish—which involves issues of identity and cannibalistic serial killer Albert Fish—toured globally these past few years. With the same clarity of voice, here she expounds and expands upon issues of creativity, courage, and Circus of Books, the chain of book and video stores owned by her family that was—until its closing last year—a cornerstone of queer and alternative culture in Los Angeles for several decades. She performs Sat., Apr. 22, at the Machine Project. This interview by David Cotner.
What’s one pivotal moment in your past that made you the person you are today?
Rachel Mason: When you ask me that, it makes me wonder, ‘Well, who am I?’
So who are you?
Rachel Mason: I feel like I make perfect sense to me—but I think that I might be confusing to a lot of people. I’ve had people say, ‘Wow, you do these really fantastical things that are so out-there—but then you’re not that out-there. You’re totally normal!’ I’m not a freak—I have to get a lot of shit together to figure out how to do a multimedia performance. I think that there’s an assumption that if you are doing things that are ‘freaky’ onstage, then you must be a total freak offstage. I’m a hermit. I’m actually 90% not around people.
Rachel Mason: I have to be kind of isolated to come up with what I do. If I’m working a job, I’m around people—but when I’m making my artwork, I’m totally isolated. So, yeah—by choice. I struggle with bands in general when I play with other musicians—I think, partially, the dynamics of other humans is so intense for me. Dealing with other people is really hard—so when I think of what makes me like that, that’s kind of a big question, like ‘How can you do these bold public things but not do social communication very well?’ I don’t think I socialize all that well, in a normal mode of being a human. I guess you could say that it’s upbringing; I’m the middle of three children. I have two brothers, and my mom is extremely bossy—a total force. My dad’s a total pushover. My brothers are engineers, and everyone else earns a regular living with regular jobs, and I’ve always been a really in-between person—doing everything possible not to have a normal job-life situation. So you asked for one pivotal moment.
A man falls into a vat of chemicals and turns into something else.
Rachel Mason: That kind of thing. So I didn’t answer your question.
It doesn’t have to be chemically-induced. Just a moment.
Rachel Mason: Those are really good when people have those. I have this super-early memory from four years old: I recently remembered being kicked out of a sandbox. It totally terrified me, and made me not want to play with the other kids. That was the only thing I did in preschool, and I remember thinking about that recently, and I totally remember these girls who were so mean: ‘You can’t play in the sandbox!’ I somehow think that might have had a profound effect on me because I’ve always felt so much comfort and security—like I could control my world—in isolation and art. So it kind of started there.
Why do you think you’re here on the planet? What’s your purpose in life?
Rachel Mason: I was thinking about that question the minute that Donald Trump was becoming our President. I thought, ‘Fucking shit—are you kidding me?’ A truly apocalyptic moment. I was doing a performance at this gallery, and I had this flash of inspiration a few days before the inauguration. I have this internet character FutureClown—an identity that came to life based on weird political things that would make me laugh, one of which happened watching a filibuster a few years ago. I thought, ‘Oh, my God—I have to, at the moment this guy opens his mouth to take control of our fucking country, cancel him out immediately with my clown character.’ It’s the smallest possible thing, and maybe no one will see it, but I felt the sense that it was what I was here on Earth to do that moment … and I just had a moment with that particular action. I did a thing at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions—when I did that, it was immediately picked up. The L.A. Times wrote about it. It was cool to be immediately validated, but it was more a question of what it means to be an artist right now. What I think I’m here to do … when I think of what my own strange gifts are, I have this strange thing to make art and to create music and to write songs. I care a lot about that. So, really, the goal is to try to constantly do that; to do that as well as I can. A lot of the things, like bands … all the headache of the human stuff that you have to deal with? I have to try to almost minimize as much of that headache as possible so that I can make the best work that I can make.
What are you like if you haven’t been creative for a few days?
Rachel Mason: Do you assume that I’m always creative? Is that something that seems likely about me—that I’m always creative? Does it seem that way for most artists? I wonder that as well.
I don’t care about ‘most artists.’ I care about you.
Rachel Mason: I wish I could see what other artists are like. I’m always trying to get into a creative place. I feel like I have so many other things I’m doing. I was sick for three days, and it was the perfect thing! Three days in bed. It was the coolest thing that happened. On the third day, I had this performance scheduled and I had this huge pile of stuff to do and because I was forced not to do my actual ‘creative’ work, I realized … have you ever seen the Dennis Potter series The Singing Detective? He composed all of his mysteries while he was in bed! He would close his eyes and figure out the story. That’s what happened to me! On the third day of being so sick—the first day, I was frustrated, but on the third day, I realized that I was just going to have to get into the zone of knowing that I can’t be creative and something else is going to happen. And that’s when all the solutions came! There was total clarity—and I realized that there’s this myth of the artist constantly creating and toiling. It’s really important to stop or be sick for three days or not be creative—even though I think that creativity happens all the time. In those three days being sick, I was in a contemplative state. I think that’s a really interesting headspace. I think it’s really amazing to take time off—in a way, I think it’s just another type of solitude. Solitude breeds creativity.
So the rest of your family is normal. What is your normal?
Rachel Mason: [laughs] I notice that the only time that I feel OK is when I’m creating something or performing. The rest of time, I’m pretty uncomfortable. I don’t feel very secure in any situation outside of making art. If I’m writing songs, sometimes it’s really absolute clarity—and that’s normal for me. I’m currently working on creating the soundtrack and full score for a multimedia opera. That feels right to me because I’m always working—to me, I understand that, and that feels right.
The video for your song ‘Sandstorm’ has a lot of masks in it. What do masks represent for you?
Rachel Mason: I started making those masks when I was thinking a lot about the stars. Cosmic bodies. It’s been an obsession of mine—I’ve been working on this rock opera that’s all about stars. I wanted to imagine what it would be like if the stars had human qualities—or if a human could be a star, like a white dwarf or a red giant. So I just kind of started making these masks, and—as weird as it is—to direct dancers, which I love doing. I was kind of doing the direction that was based off astronomical properties. A white dwarf is a very ancient star, and it also is entirely encrusted in carbon—pure diamond. So how would you behave if you were like that? I feel like masks offer you a way to enter into a whole other type of character—a type of person, even—and that’s also where all songs came from as well, lyrically. I’m very attracted to lots of different myths that involved shapeshifting and people becoming other beings. Why not be something else much more interesting than a human? I have a strange relationship with beauty. I think it’s so weird, the kind of images that people think are beautiful. Magazines tell you what you should be like, and it’s really strange to me. It’s so arbitrary. If you suddenly saw humans from another planet, that would be so interesting. I’m much more interested in the totally stylized wildness from all over the world. Shamanistic symbolism and masks from all over the world are so fascinating to me. I’m more interested in the things that people create to cover their faces than actual faces.
Is your political commentary distracting you from other work or is it all the same continuum?
Rachel Mason: [laughs] That was exactly my question to myself when I was doing all the FutureClown videos. I want to keep doing them because I feel driven to make some kind of statement, but at the moment we’re in, I feel like I did what I needed to do—for myself. If somebody wanted to pay me to do it some more and I got a job from it, that’d be cool. But then there’s the question of what I really need to do—which is my total unique thing, making art and music in the way that I do it. I’ve learned from every FutureClown performance, all these really weird videos—and each one teaches me something. For a long time, I was obsessed with political figures because I had this question of how I could possibly understand those people. They have so much power, and I can’t understand them. If you met Donald Trump, what would that be like? I’m never around people like that, but maybe somehow in enacting them … I did write two albums of songs about political leaders—Songs of the Ambassadors—and I imagined myself in the mind of Fidel Castro and others. I did that album as a collaborative piece as well; I asked artists to join in. Jennifer Herrema wrote one of those songs, amazingly!
Tell me the Circus of Books story.
Rachel Mason: It was my parents’ store. My entire life, they’d run that store. I’d never known a world without the Circus of Books. Part of why I came back to L.A. about a year ago is that they were in the process of closing it. I had so many different people say that I had to do a documentary about it. It’s not really something I was really planning on doing, but a few different people put together a team, and I met a woman named Cynthia Childs who’s a great filmmaker. She agreed to co-direct it. For the last year, it’s been my side project—directing a film about the Circus of Books. My parents got into the business really randomly: they were distributing Hustler Magazine around 1980, and the store was on their delivery route, and the previous owners went completely bankrupt. They became drug addicts and weren’t paying even the most basic bills and my parents were owed money on magazines and all the employees were quitting. My parents were very smart and very opportunistic, but they have this ridiculous kind of luck as well. So this great store happened to land in their laps! They would have had to have been really dumb not to take the store over. They were owed money, the store was failing, and my parents though they could probably step in and figure out how to run the thing. That’s probably what also makes them mavericks—not everyone would think to do that. They saved the store. They ran it ever since, and it brought them into the unique world of gay porn! They became central players in the L.A. hardcore gay porn scene. [laughs] They also distributed videos and produced them, too. People would come to them—very important porn stars—and they’d say, ‘We really like dealing with your bookstore—would you be willing to distribute this [porn]?’ Previous to being in that line of work, my dad Barry was inventing dialysis machines, and before that, he worked in special effects. He worked on Star Trek’s first season, and he was on the 2001: A Space Odyssey crew. He worked directly for Linwood Dunn—the man that the theatre [on Vine Street] is named after. He didn’t even realize he was involved in all this epic stuff until I pointed it out to him later. I said, ‘Dad, you were in a Star Trek book!’ He was on the cover, holding a slate. I said, ‘Dad, did you not realize what you were involved in?’ He said, ‘Oh, that’s so funny.’ He wasn’t credited, so I wrote to the author and told him my dad was on the cover, and he said, ‘Oh, I was always trying to figure out who that guy was!’ Another weird thing about my dad is that he was good friends with Jim Morrison and didn’t know he was a big deal until he saw the cover of one of my Doors albums. He said, ‘Why is Jim on that album?’ ‘Jim Morrison?’ ‘Yeah, he used to ask me to shoot all of his films for him.’ My dad was in a class in UCLA where Jim Morrison met Ray Manzarek. My dad knew both of them! He was just this techie. At the Star Trek convention, they called him ‘The Forrest Gump of Hollywood.’
What was the last great epiphany you had?
Rachel Mason: I went to a party—and I didn’t want to go, but I forced myself to go because I realized this thing: I’m constantly trying to avoid pain and suffering. It’s a fundamental tenet of Buddhism [Nb. the first Noble Truth of Buddhism: all life is misery, pain and suffering] but I just felt it for the first time really intensely. I thought, ‘Wow, if I eliminated all the different things that I do in my life that I can tie to that one fundamental thing where you’re avoiding talking to this person—or you are talking to this person—only because you want to avoid suffering, there’d be so many different things that I would be compelled to do.’ But I think that the ‘avoiding suffering’ mechanism that kicks in is so powerful, and I think it really dominates so much of my life—now I’m just so aware of that revelation. If I could overcome that, I should be totally aware of when I’m doing something, or reacting because I’m trying to avoid suffering. Whether that suffering is even going to happen—who knows? But I don’t want to have a potential confrontation. That was a revelation. Is that a good revelation?
So it’s fear.
Rachel Mason: Yeah. I guess it is. Fear of suffering.
Rachel Mason: I guess I just kind of psychoanalyze my own understanding of fear for myself. It’s weird because people tell me all the time, ‘Oh, you’re so fearless! I can’t believe you did that!’ It’s way harder for me to talk to you right now than it is to fucking scale a building. Or do the Donald Trump thing, where millions of crazed neo-Nazis send me hate mail or the NSA might come after me or whatever. I’m not as scared about those things as I am about mundane things. I sort of have difficulty in that realm.
The realm of the normal.
Rachel Mason: The realm of figuring out the right course of action with communication with people. I try. I really do try—but I’m not sure that I … just talking to people is very scary for me. I have to overcome a lot to go into normal conversations.
RACHEL MASON PERFORMS THE MOVING MOUNTAIN: LUCK OF LUCKS ON SAT., APR. 22, AT THE MACHINE PROJECT, 1200 N. ALVARADO, LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / $10 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! RACHEL MASON’S DAS RAM IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM CLEOPATRA/PRACTICAL. VISIT RACHEL MASON AT RACHELANNMASON.COM.