Cover Story: Arca Finds Xen
The Venezuelan producer opens up for the first time about his sexuality, working with Kanye and his game-changing debut album.
From the magazine: ISSUE 94, on stands October 21st. Pre-order a copy here.
When he was 19, the Venezuelan-born musician Alejandro Ghersi took a trip to his grandmother’s retirement home on The Canary Islands, an old Spanish colony located off the northwest coast of Africa. While lying awake in the guest bedroom one night, he was startled by the sound of his grandmother’s voice, sparring with someone in the bedroom upstairs. The next day, while driving around the subtropical archipelago, Ghersi inquired as to the source of her distress, to which the 70-year-old widow straightforwardly replied that she’d been arguing with his deceased grandfather. “That was it,” he recalls. “Silence in the car. My grandpa had been dead for 10, 13 years, and no one in the car was smiling or laughing.” Ask the hard-to-categorize electronic producer about his Latin American upbringing, and it’s the mysterious, half-explainable occurrences that are painted in the boldest colors. “It’s kind of an old-school thing, but I loved the idea I could let myself operate in openness to both science and superstition,” he says. “And I think placing myself squarely in the middle of those things is where I feel happiest. Allowing for some form of magic. We don’t completely understand everything in nature.”
We’re sitting in the cobblestoned back garden of Ghersi’s current home in Dalston, London, drinking marjoram tea and picking at a small slice of white chocolate raspberry cheesecake with two forks. A bee buzzes past my head, and I notice that the flowers printed on the porcelain dessert plate look just like the blood-red, bell-shaped blooms cascading down the wall. A tiny Bengal cat named True, owned by Ghersi’s housemate and longtime collaborator Jesse Kanda, jumps on the table, knocks my recorder on the ground and disappears behind a row of terra cotta pots filled with basil, cilantro and mint. Just a few days ago, when I flew in from New York to conduct the first interview Ghersi has given in almost two years, the cat had greeted me at his doorstep, meowing from a bellyache brought on by eating some bad herbs. Today, she’s back to her usual mischief, which the 24-year-old Ghersi—small-framed and boy-faced in a torn T-shirt and glittering rhinestone choker—describes with the improvisatory fictions of a child: ”At night, her eyes turn red, and she just starts jumping around like crazy, like, doing flips.”
It’s the first week of August, and something about the setting—a renovated pig farm hidden behind a black storefront, owned by Ghersi’s manager, Milo Cordell—feels strangely in keeping with the music that he makes as Arca, germinal and teeming. Just a few years ago, when Ghersi was still living in New York, he unveiled his project to the world with two EPs of beguilingly off-kilter hip-hop compositions, populated by dozens of chipmunked and Frankensteined samples of his own voice. He called them Stretch 1 and Stretch 2. The accompanying art from Jesse Kanda seemed to nod just as forcefully to that plastic, post-apocalyptic aesthetic: the cover for the second included a pretzel-twisted leg sprouting an eyeball-like growth, like some uncanny new life-form that science has yet to uncover.
Soon after, in 2013, Kanye West took the music internet by surprise with the news that his sixth album, Yeezus, would enlist the then little-known Arca as a production consultant, alongside other left-field beatmakers, like sinister-sounding English producer Evian Christ and Glaswegian maximalist Hudson Mohawke. The album seemed the culmination of independent music’s co-optation by big-budget pop, previously hinted at with Rihanna’s adaptation of #seapunk aesthetics and Drake’s sampling of a Jamie xx remix on “Take Care.” If the early ’10s in music had been defined by a seeming collapse of the underground and mainstream, avant-garde and pop, then the especially challenging Yeezus appeared to usher the world into an era where such distinctions no longer meant much at all. One month later, Arca released &&&&&. Careening between punishing trap beats and detuned piano chords, rubbery arpeggios and drooping sighs, the 25-minute mixtape seemed to set the template for that strange new chapter in music, at once overflowing with hooks and jonesing to explode the very rhythmic and harmonic foundation that radio fare is built on. But as Ghersi’s inbox became inundated with interview requests, he withdrew from the spotlight, communicating to this magazine via his publicist that he would be refraining from talking with the press for an indeterminate amount of time. (He’d only done one sit-down interview before, which appeared in the pages of The FADER). Arca erupted into the public eye as the crafty upstart poised to rewire contemporary music from the inside out, and yet nobody seemed to know much about him.
Spend any amount of time with Ghersi, though, and there’s nothing about him that suggests any reclusiveness or contrived mystery. On the day of my arrival, his first call to me is via FaceTime, and when I’m unable to pick it up, he texts me a 22-second video of himself wearing the studded black stunt suit of a motion capture studio. “Hey Emilie, I’m sending a video because I can’t type very well,” he says, holding up a gloved hand by way of an explanation. Whenever we’re arranging to meet, he offers to come to me, but I usually ride the bus over to his house anyway. We sit at the table by the red flowers, him balancing my voice recorder upright on his knee so that keeping it from falling becomes a little game. In conversation, he jumps agilely from subject to subject—some recurring topics are Socrates, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s psychomagic and the dreadlocked California technology pundit Jaron Lanier—and speaks frequently of “short-circuiting his brain,” or willfully thrusting himself into a novel environment that will force him to see the world through different eyes.
Ghersi relocated from New York to London a little over a year ago, a move he says was motivated primarily by his desire to be closer to his boyfriend, the photographer and multimedia artist Daniel Sannwald. It was also a way of working more closely with Kanda, who, despite growing up in Canada, has been Ghersi’s best friend and closest artistic collaborator for a decade (Kanda himself moved to London seven years ago). Since they took up residence together, Ghersi has completed work as the sole co-producer of another very anticipated pop album: a new full-length from Björk, whose phantasmagoric, synth-pop power ballads from the early ’00s now feel eerily prescient of Ghersi’s rubbery approach to sonics. He’s also put the finishing touches on his own debut LP, concepted and named after a fictional alter ego of his called Xen. Portraits of her at various ages and in different quotidian scenarios—dancing, walking the dog, pleasuring herself—will appear in a booklet of images Kanda made to accompany the album, cobbled together from photographs of Ghersi’s own person in varying states of expressive disfigurement (Ghersi refers to Xen as “her,” but says she’s neither male nor female). From the way the two artists describe the process with which they brought Xen to life—Ghersi in his recording studio, Kanda in his second-floor bedroom—it’s clear that the line between work and play has become blurred.
"You jump off a cliff because you know that when you land, and you crash like a bunch of Legos and fall apart, you’ll pick up the pieces that are left of you.”
“We had a bunch of epiphanies that probably could have only happened if we lived together,” says Ghersi. “We’d run upstairs and figure something out, then run downstairs and I’d piece two sounds together, like a vocal and a string.” On the surface, they’re about as opposite as two close friends can be—Kanda strong-browed and tall to Ghersi’s diminutive stature, quiet and sardonic to Ghersi’s chatterbox energy—but ask Kanda to describe the Xen character, and you get the sense that they’ve seen parts of each other that nobody else has. “Alejandro is very multi-sided as a personality,” Kanda says, “and he can sometimes become what we call Xen, jokingly. And it’s this very sassy, confident, very feminine side of him. And it’s like, ‘Ohhhh, she’s out,’ we say—mainly when we’re smoking weed, just fucking around. ‘Xen’s out.’ And he’s, like, going crazy, changing his outfits or whatever. That’s Xen inside of him. It’s this kind of ghost. A spirit. Alejandro’s spirit.”
By now, Ghersi has had many homes, some more and some less hospitable to Xen. When Ghersi was 3, his father, an investment banker, was transferred to a job in New York, and his family relocated from their hometown of Caracas to Darien, Connecticut, a suburban town off the Metro-North Railroad. Ghersi doesn’t remember much from that time—mostly, it was “this big house we had in the woods and this basement that we had a Super Nintendo in”—though when he returned with his family to Caracas at age 9, fluent in English and American cartoons, it was enough time away to make him feel a bit out of place. For one thing, Caracas—the capital city of a country riddled with political instability, fast oil money and poverty—wasn’t the kind of place where a child could safely run and play outside. “During the time I lived there, so much crazy shit happened,” he says. “The name of the country changed from the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The name of the currency changed slightly. I went to private school, and I had friends with bodyguards, drivers and bulletproof cars. People moved into nice apartment buildings because there’s a security guard at the gate. That’s why people choose to live in apartments over houses: a house is very easy to break into.”
Even within the relatively comfortable and supportive childhood that his parents were able to provide him—good schools, gated communities, music lessons—the young Ghersi experienced the sort of hiccups that can affect a kid from any country or economic background. When he turned 16, his parents hit a roadblock in their relationship, embarking on a long period of on-and-off separation that he says “made [him] grow up a lot.” As his home life became increasingly tumultuous, he also became more aware that he was different from many of his male peers. “When I was about 13, and I would write in my journal, I’d be like, ‘I just watched Spice World, the Spice Girls movie, and I loved it.’ Sometimes I would sign them with the name Xen. If I was playing in the living room with a blanket and my mom was in the room, it would be a cape, but as soon as she left the room, I’d make it a dress, and I’d just immediately feel more... That felt more right, you know?”
Classical piano, which he’d begun studying at the age of 7 and continued until he was 16, provided a preliminary outlet, although Ghersi says playing sometimes felt more like an obligation than a release. Aided partly by his older brother’s CD collection, he went through a series of musical obsessions typical of kids growing up in the ’90s—Aaliyah, Autechre, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson—and started spending more and more time on the internet. Eventually, a growing interest in digital graphics led him to DeviantART, an early social networking site that enables users to upload homemade images and comment on them. It was here that Ghersi first connected with Kanda, then living 4,000 miles away. As Ghersi started devoting an increasing amount of time to recording music of his own, constructing rudimentary IDM songs on Fruity Loops, Kanda evolved from just another icon on his growing buddy list to his primary creative sounding board. “He was always just like a second pair of eyes, you know? Or a second pair of ears. It was a big community of us. Most people on DeviantART were doing the same thing. Kind of escaping, you know?”
Although his press biography might not include any mention of it, traces of Ghersi’s high school musical project, Nuuro, can still be found online. Mostly, those early songs consisted of glitchy, Aphex Twin-inspired beat compositions, although sometimes he’d find himself singing over them, so that the result sounded like a slightly more challenging, occasionally Spanish-language version of The Postal Service. “For some reason I would write all these love songs,” he remembers, “even though I didn’t know what love meant. I wasn’t even very sexually charged back then. In fact, I was very, very closeted. I knew from a very, very early age that I was gay, although in the social environment in Venezuela, you don’t ever let that be known.” As Nuuro began gaining some momentum online—songs of his got picked up by a few early MP3 blogs, resulting in some show offers and even a signing with Mexican indie label Soundsister—people at his high school took notice. For the first time in his life, Ghersi began enjoying a degree of popularity among his offline peers. He started going to parties, dated a girl at his school for a time and began incorporating female pronouns in his love songs, hoping to “pass.” In a city where being openly gay often meant getting beat up in the street, there didn’t seem to be any other option. “I was kind of always prepared to never come out,” he remembers. “I just imagined myself marrying and just playing that role, I think. I remember praying for it to stop. I prayed that I would become straight or something.”
At 17, he was admitted to the School of Arts & Sciences at New York University, and though he would ultimately go on to declare a major within Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, the move to New York prompted him to pull the plug on Nuuro and withdraw from sharing music. “I just went into a cocoon literally for, like, two or three years,” he remembers. “Looking back on it, I think it was because I broke this kind of sacred agreement with myself—not being fake, but just making music for other people.” At the same time, living on his own—in a giant metropolis far away from home, full of thousands of people who’d also felt like outsiders where they came from—gave him the push he needed to take a risk he never thought he’d take.
It happened one soupy summer night, a couple years into college. Ghersi was living in Chinatown, immersed in the counter-culture romance of Tim Lawrence’s biography of the downtown musical innovator and gay icon Arthur Russell. “Up until that point in my life, I’d trained myself very, very strictly to avoid people’s gazes and, you know, to not let myself ever show anything,” he says. “That night, I remember seeing this guy at the Union Square subway stop, and it was really, really sticky and really loud. He was standing by the stairway at the platform, and he was looking at me, and I was looking at him, and at any other point in my life, I would have just looked away really quickly. But I was given so much courage by Arthur Russell’s story and his music that for some reason I was like, ‘Today’s the day.’ And I walked up to this guy, and literally it came out of me, and I was like, ‘Do you want to go for a cup of coffee one time?’” Ghersi met up with the handsome stranger at Think Coffee the next day, and their conversation led to a kiss, and the kiss led to an invitation back to the stranger’s house to spend the night.
The following morning, Ghersi remembers walking all the way back to his apartment with a smile on his face and asking his roommate at the time, Jacob, if they could take a stroll around the block. When Ghersi recalls the experience of coming out to a close friend for the first time, he falls back on a metaphor that he will invoke several times during my week with him in London, whenever we happen upon a moment in his biography where he finds himself at the precipice of a life altering decision. “That was like jumping off a cliff,” he says. “My survival instincts—everything I’d trained myself to do—were telling me not to do it, but something inside of me drove me forward. You jump off a cliff because you know that when you land, and you crash like a bunch of Legos and you fall apart, you’ll pick up the pieces that are left of you. But you don’t reattach the ones that are not useful to you, that don’t feel like they’re you. Every time you jump, you have this opportunity—this really beautiful, fertile, uncomfortable period—where you’re not whole, but your essence is helping you attach things onto you, things that inspire you, things that you think are full of life. That’s kind of like what happened to me.”
As with many of the rooms in the creaky-floored farmhouse, there’s a woodsy smell emanating from Ghersi’s studio, a freestanding rectangular structure in the garden that must have at one time operated as a greenhouse. It was here—sitting at his computer desk, occasionally pausing to water the hanging plants or pull out the microphone he keeps hidden in a drawer—that Ghersi recorded and mixed the majority of his forthcoming debut. One afternoon, in something of a music journalist’s dream, he boots up his computer with the intention of giving me a live demonstration of his composition process. Using another program, called iZotope Iris, he takes the sound of a lawnmower, cuts a random geometric shape out of a graph of its composite frequencies, outputs a new sound that sounds like a choir of cooing lemmings. In Ableton, he isolates a small, bulbous waveform on the timeline and copies and pastes it several times, manually constructing a beat. Quickly, though, the composition starts expanding at a rate that I cannot follow, graphically flowering across the screen in what looks like a minutely complicated urban grid. Suddenly, True starts moaning inconsolably in the garden—“She’s doing pitchbends, too!” Ghersi exclaims—and I realize something: he hasn’t even been listening to the track as he is making it, because he already knows how it is going to sound.
After coming out, Ghersi experienced something of an artistic breakthrough, and Arca was born. In fact, he says the bizarre, combative voices that populated his early work under that moniker were literal sonic echoes of what was going on in his head in the aftermath. “It was about different voices that came from completely different parts of my mind or my heart, shouting at each other in this crowded room,” he remembers. “Kind of settling into your body sexually. It was a lot about flexibility and elasticity, things wrapping around themselves in a very charged way.” As his songs began expanding into something darker and more complicated, his social universe started widening, too, notably with Ghersi’s first visit to the New York party GHE20G0TH1K, known in the underground scene as a fog-filled celebration of multiculturalism, queerness and maniacally flipped pop samples. A casual school internship with one of the founders of that night—Shayne Oliver, also mastermind of the culture-jamming, avant-garde fashion brand Hood by Air—brought him further into the fold. Via the producer Physical Therapy, another co-founder of the party, he met Charles Damga, whose UNO NYC label would go on to release the Stretch EPs. Collaborations with various GHE20G0TH1K-affiliated vocalists ensued; since the project’s genesis in 2011, Arca has made beats for Mykki Blanco, Kelela, and even Oliver himself. Then came a life-changing email from Oliver’s friend Matthew Williams, founder of the fashion brand Been Trill and a longtime collaborator of Kanye West.
“I was just asked to send some music [to Kanye], and I did,” Ghersi remembers. “I made sure to send maybe the strangest stuff I had, and it just so happened that Kanye was excited by that.” Although the adventure of working on Yeezus is in some ways hard for Ghersi to generalize about—“There was really no constant other than the fact that at the end of the day, [all the music we made] went through him,” he says—flying between intercontinental recording sessions and working on a team that included dozens of others was certainly a far cry from making tracks at home. “It’s not something I ever planned or was ever trying to make happen, but it was just, like, a complete change in my life—putting myself in a high-pressured situation just to see what would happen,” he says. Looking back on the experience, Ghersi says it was Kanye’s authorial vision that sticks out to him the most. “It was a lot of coming up with design, like solving riddles,” he says. “If the song called for something aggressive, it was up to three or four people to design what in their head was the best solution for that aggression in that moment. Everyone would approach it in completely different ways, and ultimately, it would all be edited by Kanye himself. In a weird way, he kind of produced it. Not only did he select it, but he stylized it.”
In the time since those widely mythologized Yeezus sessions, Arca has already worked as a behind-the-scenes creative accomplice for a handful of strong personalities. In addition to the Björk collaboration, there’s the work he’s done with London R&B singer FKA Twigs, whose soulfully warped second EP— with its halting rhythms and voluptuous bass swells—has Arca’s fingerprints all over it. While his love for breaking the rules makes him a shoe-in for such staunchly experimental artists, he says that it’s his ability to lose himself in other people that’s served him the most. “I think for the longest time I used to be kind of embarrassed that if I hung out with someone that had a really, really strong personality, I would end up accidentally catching myself talking like them,” he says. “If I gravitate toward someone, I bridge the gap between us somehow, and I accidentally maybe start seeing the world through their eyes. For a long time that was kind of scary, because I thought maybe that meant I didn’t have an identity of my own or that my own identity wasn’t fully formed. But the older I get, the more I realize that it’s a strength. It becomes about using all my capacity for empathy to look into someone and see all their pathos, to suspend myself for a moment and just completely channel them. It’s really intense, sometimes, because I end up taking on more than is good or healthy.”
During my time with Ghersi in London, I can’t help noticing certain signs of that tendency to meet other people more than halfway. When we go out to a pub in Dalston one night to celebrate the birthday of Paddy O’Neill, Arca’s project manager at Mute, where Xen will soon be released, I notice him sneaking off to the bar at the end of the night, bill in hand, trying to settle the tab himself while no one’s watching. Outside on the street, as we round up the troops for a late-night stop at Benji B’s long-running club night Deviation, a zombie-like man accosts me with an offer of “free molly,” and Ghersi jumps in to protect me, reflexively forming a barrier between us with his body. When the man walks away, Ghersi diffuses the tension of the moment with a quip—“I think he was wearing an Aaliyah shirt, though”—and I notice that whenever he is feeling a little sassy, he lets his faint Spanish accent creep out a little more.
That’s the other thing about Ghersi: in a crowd of people, he’s always the one who makes it feel like a party. Around 2:45 in the morning, at Deviation, he climbs up on a platform, dancing above a sea of shirt-sleeved partygoers in a mesh bodice and a harness. I make a comment about how the yuppyish crowd here probably isn’t going to “get” Nguzunguzu, the Los Angeles electronic duo whose set we’ve come here to see, and Ghersi replies that he thinks “every good DJ should know how to clear the floor,” pausing to twirl a tipsy-looking woman who has suddenly approached from out of nowhere.
“I think people don’t know how much of a firecracker Alejandro is,” Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver will tell me over the phone, later. “I feel like I’m in a playpen with my childhood friends whenever I’m with him.” Fittingly, when Ghersi speaks of the six-month-long process of improvisatory recording that went into the creation of Xen, it’s like he’s elevated that playfulness to a creative ethos in itself. “I made this music in states that I didn’t really have full control over,” he says. “It was like first thought, best thought. I didn’t even know what I was going to make before I sat down.” Take a peek at Ghersi’s iTunes collection, and you’ll find dozens of tracks that he recorded in this free-associative fashion. “Whenever I made something that I was really happy with, the first or second time I listened back to it, it would almost be as if someone else made it. And in that state I would always feel connected to my childhood self again, and I would feel a lot softer and more feminine. Xen is not really a boy and it’s not really a girl, and her mere existence is kind of repulsive and attractive at once, and so I imagine her under a spotlight, in this room full of people just staring, wide-eyed, openmouthed.”
“I made this music in states I didn’t have full control over.”
The record, he says, is something of a journey through his subconscious mind, and for the most part, it’s a pretty bracing listen, bouncing between grating sonic strobes and flesh-melting synth squiggles, semi-tonal string sections and teetering flamenco rhythms. At its most abrasive, such as on “Sisters,” the album can catch you off-guard with a deafening wall of static noise, flickering on and off at random in your right headphone channel. But Xen also has its fair share of very tender moments, especially when his voice drops in to offer the odd robotized moan, or when he flexes his piano skills in real time, dipping in and out of tentative melodies on songs like “Sad Bitch” and “Held Apart.” Although it shares much of its instrumental palette with dance music, Xen doesn’t adhere to a reliable grid; and while there are poignant swells of melody, demonstrating his ability to write a good pop hook doesn’t seem to be a concern. Instead, he’s wielding his chops in the service of a narcotic, whiplash emotionalism, as though bringing his childhood alter ego to life were somehow of a piece with revisiting his teenage study of Schumann and Mendelssohn. Xen unfolds with the freewheeling expressivity of Romantic-period composition, but with beats.
While the slightly more accessible &&&&& seemed to show the world what he was capable of as a pop innovator, Xen pushes his artistry forward by virtue of a retreat inward, to a place somehow beyond intellect and reason. In this way, Xen may be understood as yet another instance of Ghersi jumping off the cliff, demanding that his listeners and acquaintances come meet him where he is, instead of the other way around. The same goes for his decision to be interviewed for the first time since Yeezus: long a fan of letting the music speak for itself, he says he wants to push himself to try something new this time around, especially because he feels “the work calls for it.” From the perspective of someone who’s on the outside looking in, there’s something both exciting and frightening about watching him on the cusp of that great self-unveiling. When you muster the courage to be completely, unapologetically yourself, there’s always the risk that external reality will somehow reaffirm your deepest fears: the fear that you’ll put yourself out there and people won’t react in the way you hope, that you’ll ask them to come to you and they won’t. On a creative level, that’s the whole peril and thrill of making music that’s experimental in the truest sense of the term: before listeners can appreciate something that doesn’t sound like anything that’s come before, they’re going to have to learn how to listen all over again.
For his part, Ghersi says listening to Xen always makes him want to get up and dance, and the night before my flight back to New York, when I catch him DJing a party in the low-ceilinged basement of a pub in East London, he’s doing just that, clad in a refashioned straightjacket that seems to be slowly unzipping itself as the night draws on. The dance floor is at capacity, and Ghersi is hamming it up behind the booth, singing along word-for-word to some Venezuelan party music, pitching it up on the CDJ with a devil-may-care turn of the wrist, then singing along some more. As the crowd reaches peak turn-up, he gives his boyfriend a big hug and a kiss, and I’m reminded of something he said to me earlier that week, when for some reason we found ourselves talking about the contortionist in the film Holy Motors. Excited to hear that I was a fan of her’s, too, he’d gone to his computer and pulled up some pictures of her striking a succession of anatomically incomprehensible poses on the red carpet at Cannes: “Oh yeah, she knows exactly what she’s doing,” he’d said. It was a line I’d hear him repeat whenever pointing to somebody else’s fearless femininity, but he could just as easily have been talking about Xen.
Note: Following a clarification from the artist on Twitter, we have amended the language of this piece to reflect Ghersi's role as the "sole co-producer" of the upcoming Björk album, as opposed to "sole producer."