Planningtorock is the alter-ego of Bolton-born, Berlin-based electronic artist Jam Rostron.
Her last album, All Love’s Legal, was a riotous affair of deep grooves and heady basslines, with tracks carrying provocative titles like Misogyny Drop Dead and Patriarchy Over & Out.
It garnered praise from many electronic quarters, marking her out as one of the most provocatively creative producers of her generation.
Aside from her solo work (which numbers three groundbreaking albums), and high profile remixes for The Knife, Austra and Telepathe, Jam employs a shape-shifting public persona to heighten her visual impact.
She’s also challenging the status quo through her Human Level record label, a project she’s dedicated to addressing the gender imbalance, and is working on a soundtrack to an animation by Marjane Satrapi, who created Persepolis.
We were lucky to catch up with the busy producer for our Women & Machines feature, to find out what drew her to electronica and learn how she’s tackling misogyny in music through her various creative projects.
When did you first get into making electronic music and why did you feel an affinity with that genre?
I’ve been making music since I was really young. The first introduction I had to music was more acoustic, playing violin or flute or clarinet. The natural path was to study those instruments and it felt really conservative and limiting, at least from an educational perspective. At that point, I really couldn’t imagine myself doing that.
My sister was at art school, but still really involved in music, so I went to art school as well, and started to get into video, sound and music composition. That’s where I really got into it. The university at Sheffield was one of the few places at the time to pioneer performance art and they had a great sound studio there. It was filled with great keyboards – old Moogs and stuff – so I really got into it. I had the opportunity and privilege to have the time to get into it.
In terms of being influenced by other artists, that really happened to me when I moved to Berlin. I met an artist called Kristin Erikson, who was a complete genius. I’d never met anyone so clever with composition and electronic music. That’s when it really started coming together.
People have said that dance music is a great leveller because it can be faceless and non-gender specific. Would you agree or do you think that, behind the scenes, it’s not like that at all?
I don’t think it’s like that at all. The studio I work in here in Berlin I share with two producer friends – one is rRoxymore and the other is Olof Dreijer, who’s known for his work in The Knife. Together, we’re always talking about the discrimination you experience in the music business. I think it’s a complete fantasy that in the so-called more leftfield side of music production, the gender politics are better, because they’re not. They’re just different. In actual fact, because people presume it’s better, it is in fact worse.
You mentioned people who have influenced your music but can you think back to the first electronic sounds you heard?
It’s tricky because what really got me into music to start with was the power of it, rather than it being electronic or not. My mum, for example, has an eclectic record collection and she introduced me to a lot of stuff. I suppose Wendy Carlos – that’s kind of cheesy but it’s definitely the first time that I heard electronic music and it sounded really phenomenal and mysterious and exciting.
Your stuff operates on an esoteric level and also on an infectious dancey level. I wonder if the latter is deliberate or more of a by-product?
Definitely with the last record it was deliberate, because I discovered how fantastic dance music is as a carrier. It puts you in a place where it’s easier to take certain things. I was dealing with issues that people might find difficult to take or challenging. To sandwich that in among dance music felt like a really cool recipe that would make my ideas easier to swallow.
Dance music is such a fascinating part of our culture. When you go to clubs you can meet all kinds of people. It can be very diverse. Anyone can go – there are no restrictions. Dance music itself is very much like that – you don’t need a degree, you don’t need to be validated by any institute and it’s supportive of self-initiated stuff. And I think that’s quite rare in life in general. There is a field which everyone feels they’ve got access too and they can explore it themselves. I’m getting into dance music more and more. It’s something I will do more and more.
Did you have a definite agenda for the last album before you started work on it?
This record definitely happened because of the album before. With the album before, W, I really tried to deal with certain issues, but I was fearful of being confrontational or direct. A lot of things I tried to deal with went completely under and unnoticed and I got very frustrated with that. Not with people but with myself – I’d tried something and didn’t achieve what I thought I would.
After that I set myself an exercise to write more directly about issues, but still in a way that people felt invited and not confronted in a negative way. I also wanted them to feel like they could own it for themselves. I needed to create space for my ideas – it was a real challenge. But as soon I’d written the first few tracks like Patriarchy Over and Out – which used deliberately sloganistic titles that are also hilarious – I was helped on my way.
I spent the most time on the lyrics. I was trying to imagine what I would feel like if I heard these words and this attitude. For me it was very important that it felt open. And that’s the hardest thing to do when you’re trying to challenge something at the same time.
Did you feel like you were breaking taboos? Was it exciting?
It was! I was quite scared sometimes but it was a good fear. This, for me, is what writing music is all about. It was liberating. What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you’re going to stir up some debate around these issues or your position. But that’s what I wanted, so I just went for it. Especially with Misogyny Drop Dead. I thought, ‘Oh god, what are people going to say?’ But the reaction was overwhelming and people really got it. Thankfully, I feel like I did achieve what I wanted to. It didn’t make people feel uninvited; they could get the fun in it too, which is a strange thing to say when you’re dealing with such a violently scary subject such as misogyny.
I wonder why there still is that male dominance in the electronic sphere, when in so many other ways the genre is really inclusive and forward-thinking….
I only know the electronic music world so I’m not as au fait with the other areas of music… But to be honest, I think it’s much more about where we are as societies, in terms of gender discrimination. We live in societies which heavily gender everything that is produced. I think we’re still living in an age where the male community is so privileged and so used to being in this position of entitlement; women still have to cut out that space for themselves because society just doesn’t give it to you.
It’s partly why I started the label Human Level – I want to create a platform for female producers and I want to use the same separatist tactics that are happening already. You have thousands and thousands of male-only record labels run by men only. This is very separatist behaviour in my eyes and I just want to do the same until we get a balance.
So you feel you have a responsibility as a recording artist and a label boss to redress this unbalance?
Absolutely. I suffered because of it so it’s in my own interests to deal with it.
Was this before you moved to Berlin or in Berlin? Or has misogyny been an ongoing problem for you?
I think I became acutely aware of the gender discrimination when I started to make music and be more public with it – especially when performing live. I think you could ask any woman about the experiences they’ve had as a female performer and you’d find it’s completely shocking. It completely throws you back and it’s a challenge. You have to deal with it all the time, and it’s really boring. I think that’s the number one thing – it’s so boring and so repetitive.
I think it’s important to have dialogue around these issues, where women can stand up and say they don’t want these experiences. Sometimes there are women who are strangely misogynistic. Society is always eager to pit women against each other because it’s another way to keep the space for men. This is a terrible thing that I try to battle against. Sometimes women don’t even know they’re doing it because it’s such a strong conditioning from when you’re very young. I think it’s really important that women support each other.
I have to make a point here at the same time – if there wasn’t gender discrimination, if everything was ultra-balanced, I wouldn’t talk in terms of gender at all. I don’t think any of us should be gendered. I think the fact that we are all gendered into one or the other is, in a way, the problem. An individual’s ability to do anything is nothing to do with their gender. But we’re not in that utopia yet, so while we’re living in a society where you and I and everyone we know is heavily gendered by society, then we are discriminated against or not. That’s why I deal with it.
Looking to the future, both your own music and the wider electronic community, where do you see it going?
Right now I really want to make this Human Level platform bigger and stronger. I’m meeting so many interesting and talented female producers, and I’m really excited about that becoming the norm. I’m excited that we can all have access to these female producers; that they are invited, supported and present on festival bills and in the clubs. I’m really excited about being involved in that vision.
On a creative level, I think electronic music is very exciting. I love it because you can be completely digital. It also has an economic factor. Back in the day when everything was analogue, access to equipment rested on how much money you had. Today, through software, that doesn’t matter. It means that people who don’t have much money can still make music. I find that really exciting.
All Love’s Legal is out now, and you’ve had all the feedback – how do you perceive that album now?
I’m really bloody proud – isn’t that terrible? It’s a big ‘phew’. I’m mopping my brow. But I learned so much. All the press around it was so enjoyable, and it’s usually not a nice experience at all to do promo for your record. But every conversation I had, I got something out of it. It was really productive. I’m really proud of it because it’s made me realise what I want to do with music. I’m not always going to be knocking out those kinds of records but it has made me understand what I can do with music and where I want to go with it. I’m really grateful for all the support.
We also talked to Cosey Fanni Tutti (among others) for our Women & Machines feature – check out the interview