Producer Arca Picked Up a Total Stranger at Union Station and Went from Bro to Ho Almost Overnight

Interview by Wolfgang Tillmans

25-year-old Alejandro Ghersi’s fingerprints are all over the music he produces. When he’s not teasing sonic electricity out of his own recordings as Arca, he’s writing and producing for others, most recently Björk. Working on Björk’s latest and playing a string of shows with her in New York has been a dream come true for Alejandro, but one he was well-prepared for. BUTT was absolutely entranced by his twink-meets-dominatrix stage persona, the perfect foil for his gargantuan and lumbering live PA, a sound which is as challenging — and downright freaky — as it is groovy. Alejandro and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans got together in London to talk nuts and bolts.

Wolfgang: So you studied fine art at Cooper Union, no?
Alejandro: I actually always wished that I had studied fine art or that I went to art school, but I studied audio engineering. I speak English the way I do because when I was in pre-school, my family lived in Connecticut for maybe four or five years. My dad would commute to New York. We were like the only non-white family in our neighborhood. My mom was trying to speak English, but she was pulling her hair out. We moved back to Venezuela.
And was Venezuela under Chavez then?
Yes, he had just got into power. I did the rest of elementary school, middle school, and high school in Venezuela, and then I graduated, and I went straight to NYU. It had already gotten to the point with Chavez that anyone who could afford to send their kid abroad to study would do it. Things were not looking that good, and there were lots of student protests. So I got to NYU and I studied audio engineering.
How did you get in?
You have to jump through a lot of hurdles. To apply as an international student, you have to have like — my dad hired this lady who was from the American school to help me put the application together. It’s really an insane process. I actually wanted to go to Columbia for philosophy, but I didn’t get in. I felt terribly defeated. So I spent a year at NYU studying music theory. Then I declared my major as audio engineering, and like music production — to run a big board.
Ah, so you really learned the fundamentals?
Yeah, like how to cut tape with a tape machine, and every kind of microphone, every kind of like compressor.
Like how an Electret condenser microphone works.
Yeah, it helped me a lot with my own music because I was never a gear head. I always felt different than some of the other engineering kids — they really loved the gear. I learned everything that I was interested in learning, and that was really useful. My mom was like, ‘Study something that you know might give you a little bit more money,’ but I was like going to NYU just as an excuse to be in New York and get out of Caracas.
So you were learning these techniques even as that big studio recording approach became redundant?
It had already become completely redundant. We were all in the class knowing that we would never use a ticket sheet, or knowing that we would never have access to big analog mixing board. But I don’t think anyone felt cheated by that, I think everyone was just kind of grateful.
Yes, I guess it’s the same with photography in that colleges still run analog dark rooms.
You teach where people are with technology, plus a little bit more. There were two teachers that really changed my life. One of them was Nick Sansano, who had produced Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’, and the other one was Bob Power who did ‘Brown Sugar’ by D’Angelo. I was obsessed with ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Voodoo’, those two records. Running a session and being really quick, it’s a lost art. Like knowing when to do what. Sometimes all you have to do is hit record. Other times you have to hide the fact that you’re creating an illusion, and maybe bring up the singers strengths and hide their weaknesses — all the stuff that goes on in the studio that a singer shouldn’t even know about. I like that part of it, like the psychological… And the history of recording, like how Phil Spector used to do it. All of that is gold, you know?
I had no idea how deep your involvement in the production side of things went. These days, there are so many ways of distributing music, and at the same time, less and less people want to pay for it. How does that work financially?
I got into what I do because I like to kind of do this strange dance with myself, inside my own head in the dark, you know? Privately, in a room, alone. But when you achieve a certain level of attention, you’re expected to play large shows, or you’re expected to share it in a public setting. And that’s great, I happen to enjoy it. But for some musicians, maybe like the introverts, this environment isn’t really good for them.
Yes, but the only way to make money is—
Playing live shows… And Darwanism takes its toll first and fastest on those kinds of people that might make extremely beautiful music that maybe no one buys. So they have to pick up a second job. And the world could probably benefit now from a bit more introvert energy, you know?
These kinds of creators are suffering the most.
Because you have to broadcast yourself to reap the benefit of—
Like these guys doing really nerdy online forums where there’s just so much heart behind it, but they’re like broke. If the environment is like, you know, really healthy and supportive just for people that love to expand, and it’s not really fertile for people who are all about growing inward, of course they’re at a disadvantage.
Any call for solidarity with music completely disappeared now. In the ‘70s and early ’80s, on the back of records, there was a little skull and crossbones with the skull being a cassette tape, saying ‘home taping is killing music’. But nowadays, there seems to be no sense of duty. We need to feed these musicians somehow. Through my record buying years, I would spend fifty euros a month or something, even as a student. Nowadays, I certainly don’t spend fifty. I do buy records now, but more out of, well—
Duty, responsibility…
Yes, responsibility, and also—
Your conscience.
And I also find it easier to actually have it than download.
I totally agree with you, but like, as soon as I start thinking about it, I just switch off… If you’re thinking about the practice of your work, you have to pick and choose your battles, and that one is such a rabbit hole. The only reason I mentioned the suffering introverts is because I want to protect them. I’m very lucky this year to do what I want to do. I’m always an optimist, and so I think the fact that even though making music can be so high-pressure — like the walls are pushing in on musicians — I have enough faith in music to do something that will survive it. It’s like, you know how diamonds are created under pressure?
There are those people who are weaker in one way, but they have an immense strength and create some beauty that we will never see. They’re in their mother’s basement, and they have like two jobs and they just don’t have time, or they’ve lost hope — that’s the scary thing, when musicians lose hope.

Coffee loving Alejandro showed up at Wolfgang’s in his girl shool skirt. 

What age were you when you left Caracas?
And did you come out in New York?
I did. When I got to New York, I was so Venezuelan in my head, that I was just like prepared to never come out. And then it just became clear to me that if I wanted to make honest music, I had to be honest with myself. I entered a cocoon for two years, and didn’t play my music for anyone. Then I had this summer where I listened to Arthur Russell and watched his documentary and just absorbed him. I found so much strength in him, and I just decided to do it. I did it in a funny way — every kind of big decision I’ve made, I’ve always done on a whim. It was just like someone on a train platform in the subway. He looked at me and I looked at him, and any other day, I would have completely looked away, but that day I was just like, fuck it. You know what I mean? I walked up to him, and he asked me if wanted to get a cup of coffee. We got coffee the next day, and you know, I had sex for the first time with a man.
Really? That you just met on the platform?
Yes, like I actually cruised… I didn’t even have Grindr on my phone. I was closeted. I had trained myself to not even look at someone for the extra second that it could be received. But that one day, I just did it. And actually, I remember him saying something like, ‘Wow, you’re forward’. If he only knew… It was just like ripping cables out of a weird loop of wasting energy.
And that is the first time you had sex with a guy?
No teenage fooling around?
No, never… I had my first kiss and my first fuck with a man within the same six hours. When I left his apartment, that was like right by the coffee shop, I was like, I have to tell someone now because I might lose the strength. I don’t want to be a downlow or whatever.
And how often do you go back to Caracas?
It’s been five and a half years now that I haven’t gone back, but I’m ready now. Everyone that leaves Venezuela has a love/hate relationship with it, because of the politics, because you go there and you kind of can’t go out. There’s no toilet paper in the supermarkets, and everyone’s really scared. It’s not like a fun place to go back to.
Scared because of violence?
Yeah. Scared because of violence, and political uncertainty.
Chavez was, of course, a bit heroified in Western Liberal circles. Was it ever justified, or was he always a total asshole?
You know, I love that he would walk up to the podium at the U.N. after Bush spoke and say, ‘It smells like sulfur’. But I always thought that like his campaign against the States was a decoy. He built a lot of schools, and he focused on the people, you know, but any handouts he gave were just like temporary. It wasn’t like a well thought out way to help the poor in the long-term. Even people that used to love Chavez have slowly started to lose faith in him.
And the gay situation in Venezuela?
I’d never met any openly gay person in Caracas.
Because some South American countries really move forward now.
Yeah, I mean we’re right next to Brazil, and it has a very vibrant gay scene.
But even like legalized marriage in Argentina…
Well, Argentina’s really the most European Latin American country in a way, because of the amount of immigrants.
And are you performing in South America?
No, I haven’t played there yet. I think I still underestimate Venezuela. My dad’s said it’s changed, but when I left it, it was so just like this stagnant thing…
Is your dad back in Caracas?
Yeah, my mom and my dad are still there.
And they now live in a gated community?
My mom lives in a gated community. My dad doesn’t, but it’s a really nice neighborhood. They just don’t go out of the house after nine pm. If you go to someone’s wedding, they’ll have breakfast there the morning after. One, because people love to party there, but also because people want to wait for the sun to come up to drive home. I went to a private school, and I was definitely not the wealthiest, you know? Friends of mine would have like a bodyguard with a gun or bullet proof cars — there were so many bullet proof cars. You can’t roll the window down more than like two or three inches. I only realized how bizarre it was until I left. Despite all that, I feel more Venezuelan than anything else, and I love what Venezuela means to me — the folklore and the tradition — but with the living situation, I wouldn’t want to go back unless I really had to.
And how are you able to live in London?
My grandparents were from Spain, and they left during Franco’s regime. Third generation Spaniards can claim citizenship, if they could prove that they left during Franco. My grandparents did that, so I have a Spanish passport.
Oh, amazing.
Yeah, it’s cool. I didn’t think I would ever use it when I was in New York.
Yes, so you’re totally easily here?
Yes, I have a national insurance number, all that.
How do you make music? Like do you rely on a certain piece of gear for your signature sound? Where do these sharp sounds come from?
One thing I’ve been doing since the beginning of the project has been detuning the LFO, the low frequency oscillator. So you hear a note, but you hear the note slightly warping, you know, and like stretching and contracting — all of these micro movements in the pitch. And I do that individually to so many elements that everything starts moving. If you just focus on one thing, you notice that it’s moving, but since everything is moving, it becomes a bit more impressionistic. It makes it feel a bit more narcotic or warped — perverting every sound, but in a very loving way.
The four-to-the-floor techno beat doesn’t really register in your work…
The rhythms that I try to use are more influenced by Venezuelan music, or syncopation. You can’t find the rhythm so easily. It’s another de-stabilizer. It’s just enough for people to bob their head to. I’m extremely deliberate about the millisecond which things hit because then you start discovering really beautiful relationships between things. The more nuanced you get, the more heat is generated. I’ll take a sound — it could be a drum hit or like ‘tunk’ or whatever, it doesn’t have to be a note or a melodic sound — and duplicate it, then move that copy a up a fifth or so on the keyboard. And then do it again maybe another fifth up, or at different intervals, so the sound becomes all the harmonics that were previously invisible. What happens is just magic! You’re drawing harmonics out — it could just be like a plastic bag crumpling — just bringing out the details, just like magnifying that like thirteen, fourteen, fifteen times.
It sounds kind of photographic, in a way.
I think so. And then I compress it so it’s flat and loud, drawing all the nuance out. You could literally do that to the grossest, least musical sound. I do that to my voice too to smaller degrees, but it’s more exciting for me to draw out the inherent musicality of a sound that doesn’t seem like it could be melodic.
But it’s interesting that people associate your music with abstraction, when in reality, you actually source it all back to samples which are based in reality.
It is interesting. I do prefer working with samples more than synthesizing a sound from scratch.
Since you’ve worked with Kanye West and Bjork, do people recognize you on the street or in a bar?
It happened once to me near Piccadilly Circus, but it does’t really happen that much. I’m going to go to the bathroom really quick.
Then we should look in your suitcase. Who made the boots?
They’re just like stripper boots I found online from
Yeah, you can find them. They’re amazing. I’ll just change here…
Sure. I thought they were designed for you. And these?
These are just chaps I found in Portland for like twenty dollars. No one wanted them.
In Oregon…
Yeah, I did like a deejay tour there and the second hand shops were amazing. I really love Portland — people are so happy there. Have you been?
No, never. It’s a big regret, I’d love to go.
The air was so clean, and it was really laid back. The whole West Coast is just beautiful… So this pretty much sums up the armor, these boots. And I would usually unzip this. Should I take it off?
I don’t have a mirror, so you tell me.
It looks good to me.