A November Saturday night in Berlin and Wolfgang Tillmans is preparing to call Susanne Oberbeck – No Bra – in New York to discuss her new album, Love & Power, for which he’s photographed the musician. It’s not the first time: the two have known each other since 2001, when they were both based in London. (Somehow, like ambassadors, they still encapsulate the figurative attitude of the city.) But we’re lucky to be here at all: a typo over email misgendered the name of the street Tillmans’ studio is on, sending this writer somewhere else. Though unrelated, it’s perhaps the perfect precursor: described by Dazed as a “gender revolutionary,” No Bra’s new record weaves between themes of sadomasochism, cruising, the inextricable link between sex and money (and their portrayal in pop music), populist politics and fantasies of a utopian future world. It does this while simultaneously being a banger. The first video, Bangin, directed and edited by Oberbeck features cinematography by Slava Mogutin. The second, for Who Is The God? featuring Abdu Ali and premiered here, was shot in Baltimore a few days previously. Deal with Oberbeck and you’re dealing with an artist, in all senses. Her expression is turbocharged, and writ-through.
Dean Mayo Davies: You’ve enjoyed a long friendship with each other – Wolfgang, you’ve photographed Susanne repeatedly over the years. Can we start by talking about the process of photographing?
Susanne Oberbeck: There are things that I know Wolfgang’s very interested in, exposing some kind of a truth in a situation.
Wolfgang Tillmans: I think it’s the power of vulnerability which makes a portrait work for me, you know when on both sides there is a sense of opening up to the situation. We’ve known each other for a long time but we also don’t know each other in depth, you just have a sense of time and different places and scenes lived in, and—
SO: Maybe what you picked up on about the person is more relevant than biographical details.
WT: Only this summer when we took the pictures did we ever talk about our German backgrounds.
“I think it’s the power of vulnerability which makes a portrait work for me, you know when on both sides there is a sense of opening up to the situation” – Wolfgang Tillmans
DMD: Did you discuss the Love & Power imagery beforehand?
SO: We talked on the phone – you asked me whether I wanted something that was quite natural or more like my stage persona. And we both decided that it would be good for this release to have something that was more like my stage persona – ‘Because that’s also you,’ I remember you saying. That’s your philosophy, you say things like, ‘If somebody says that song reminds me of Pet Shop Boys then that’s also real.’ Obviously the stage persona comes from somewhere and in normal situations it’s maybe inappropriate to be that person, but it’s still you.
WT: I wanted to be as open as possible to what you felt this record needed, I didn’t want to bring an idea before I heard you. And then for me it was fun because I dressed some corners in the studio a little bit; I got some materials, some metal foils. I hardly ever photograph in my studio, it’s the thing we do the least here, so for everyone involved it was exciting to prepare for you. We’ve got this underground car park under the building and I got my assistant to find the fuse box to turn off the automatic lights so we could make the scene.
SO: What did you think when you saw that picture, Dean? Without knowing anything about it, where did you think it was?
DMD: I felt that it’s very much its own time and place – as if you’ve just arrived through a portal or a mysterious door that leads to I don’t know where. To the left of you there’s this striking shadow.
WT: How are we doing with the nipple, do you think we’re running into trouble?
SO: I have to censor both of them, [but] I did it in a way that’s not particularly noticeable. I mean, I noticed just now with the video I made for Bangin: I had to keep it unlisted. I put it on Instagram and it was taken down within ten minutes. It’s a real problem. Princess Nokia made a video where she’s fully nude at one point but because it’s later on in the video, they don’t notice it that easily, you know. So, you have to be really strategic about it. It’s stupid because at one point they could just suddenly turn around and go, ‘Oh, it’s fine now.’ One person’s censorship is the next person’s clickbait. It’s totally arbitrary, and it inhibits your ability to promote yourself.
WT: It’s so maddening, and it’s really only because of US American rules. In Europe it wouldn’t be a problem. So, the first picture, a portrait I took of you, was in 2005 for GLU Magazine – and you moved to New York in 2010?
DMD: What catalysed your move to New York, what interested you?
SO: I’d been playing so many shows in London, for several years. Everybody knew me already. I felt like in Britain it was always, ‘We love this’, but there’s a kind of a comedy element; a bit Page 3, a bit saucy. In America it was more in the history of avant-garde. Peoples’ understanding was a little bit different because they don’t have that Page 3 reference. And I was getting a lot of shows. Obviously, New York itself is appealing. One or two years later this whole queer rap scene popped off and I started doing my club night Gay Vinyl in 2011. So that was what kept me here. There was suddenly a new surge of energy with lots of things happening, like Venus X’s GHE20G0TH1K which single-handedly changed the whole club scene in NYC and worldwide, Shayne [Oliver]’s Hood By Air doing the same for fashion, Telfar, Luar, the Vogue scene around Qween Beat, Mykki Blanco and Arca and others really shifting music culture; Ian Isiah, Princess Nokia, Dev Hynes just never stops.
“I felt like in Britain it was always, ‘We love this’, but there’s a kind of a comedy element; a bit Page 3, a bit saucy. In America it was more in the history of avant-garde” – Susanne Oberbeck
DMD: There’s a lyric on the album: ‘Boring people think they’re really powerful.’ I think that’s such an important lyric.
SO: [Laughs] Well, I think because now we live in a time where it’s kind of almost understood that big companies are quite blatantly going around stealing ideas from unknown artists and making them big, and the fact they have money means they can do that. So it’s almost like this understanding that to be somebody who has ideas or is willing to push them forward makes you a weak person, because you’re genuine, you’re not corrupt, you have a genuine motivation. I always felt when I was younger, trying to apply for jobs, the fact that you were a person who they thought had ideas bordered on making you unsuitable for the job. That it was important to be a bit boring, a bit subdued. That to be a creative person is seen as a bit crazy and weak, as a way of justifying exploiting people; people try to put it in with Bohemianism and this kind of thing. It has nothing to do with that.
WT: That really resonates with me in the way I developed my portraiture in the very early 90s. I felt that my contemporaries and myself weren’t really represented as serious beings in the media, and that young people, creative people, always had to almost apologise by giving funny poses or crazy smiles or weird colours in the photographic style. Apologising for being different and as if all of this is just a fun and passing phase. I wanted to photograph people in their early twenties as serious people, because I felt I’m a serious person with all my contradictions and the lot.
SO: Exactly. I get up at five in the morning and I work hard. And I know people who don’t even have the kind of visibility that I have, and they make amazing things constantly, but they’re not being given any kind of exposure let alone financial support.
WT: That financial disparity I find is becoming ever more crazy.
WT: That if you don’t have an object to sell then you’re basically fucked.
SO: Yes, Nicki Minaj just said, ‘People think rappers have money, we don’t have money, because Spotify is giving it away for free and the guy who runs it it is getting rich.’ Neoliberalism has been exposed now but it’s an ideology, so it’s hard to change that perception, that if you’re not making money, it must be your fault somehow, it’s seen as a personality flaw, you know, it’s structural. People don’t want to say that actually nobody’s really making money, apart from these few people at the top, and everybody is looking to the next person that seems to have it slightly better than you. So it’s that ideology at work and that really needs to be turned around. Artists’ ideas are really important in shaping society and their work is made out to have very little value.
WT: Is that also what you referred to in Bangin, in the song, in the lyrics, ‘Cos nothing costs a thing in this economy?’
SO: Well, no that was more a personal thing where I was having an affair with somebody where I felt like this person couldn’t work out what my interest in them was, and it was almost like being some type of a prostitute that doesn’t charge or something. For some people that’s just a safer way of interacting with people, it’s transactional but at this point we’re not paying anybody.
“The safe spaces for radical ideas of free expression in urban settings like New York or London have been so radically diminished over the last 20 years that when we talk, ‘Oh nightlife is exciting right now’ we’re actually talking about two or three or four venues in a city of ten million” – Wolfgang Tillmans
DMD: The new record feels very strong, after-dark in the beats and the production.
SO: What, like club, kind of?
WT: [Dean] You know your question, ‘Is night-time a safe space?’ I guess Susanne and I don’t need reminding that, you know, the safe spaces for radical ideas of free expression in urban settings like New York or London have been so radically diminished over the last 20 years that when we talk, ‘Oh nightlife is exciting right now’ we’re actually talking about two or three or four venues in a city of ten million, no.
SO: Yes, in New York in particular because of the housing prices the venues are pushed more and more into the outskirts and then everybody arrives in an Uber, and there’s no other way of getting there, and from an economic and environmental point of view it doesn’t really make sense. I feel like nightlife should be somewhere where people can walk, not be this suburban thing. So when you say it has a night-time feel, it’s also an imaginary space, it’s an imaginary futuristic world.
WT: What is the time span the songs on Love & Power come from?
SO: The music I made between 2016 and 18 and the lyrics I wrote a year ago, mostly.
WT: So, you write the tracks without a lyrical idea first?
SO: Yes, not always. Actually there’s a variety of processes on this record.
WT: Do you ever collaborate in the production side of things?
“I feel like nightlife should be somewhere where people can walk, not be this suburban thing. So when you say it has a night-time feel, it’s also an imaginary space, it’s an imaginary futuristic world” – Susanne Oberbeck
SO: Not really, no. I did a thing with Arca where I recorded some vocals and sent it to her and she wrote a really beautiful piano piece over it and produced it. But not with my own project.
WT: Because you have such a strong live persona and the words are so strong that—
SO: Could do with a producer? [Laughs].
WT: No, no, no: I’m very curious about what your set-up is. How do you work, is it all software or do you have instruments?
SO: It’s all actual hardware instruments and then I record audio files into Logic and edit them. On this record there’s a few things that came from computer-based drum machines, like MPC for computer and different types of drum machines and synths because I figured that I wasn’t going to buy all these instruments.
SO: But not like software plug-ins, I’ve never worked with that.
DMD: How do you know when there’s an end – an album – in sight?
SO: Sometimes it’s just like, ‘This has to go out now, this has to be finished.’ I don’t plan a release around a certain theme, but I made the songs so there will be a coherence and I have to understand what it is.
DMD: It’s always a product of your mind and your preoccupations at the time even if you’re not consciously aware of it.
SO: That’s exactly how it is, yes, and sometimes you just have to force yourself to admit what it is, even if it’s going to make some people uncomfortable.
DMD: Is that something you fight against?
SO: You have to get it past people somehow.
DMD: The lead track, Bangin, has a great video, what was the idea behind it?
SO: My idea was to basically recreate the lyrics, initially I was thinking to actually have some hint of activity, an interaction between people, rubbing our tits together and so on, I thought it could be done in a way that is a little bit funny, a little bit awkward, but not pornographic. But then I changed my mind about that, so in the end it’s implied, everybody is staring at the camera, there’s a threat of something, a group of people that look very powerful.
WT: And it’s more what isn’t happening.
SO: Yes, exactly.
WT: Dysphoricize is the last song on the album. What’s it about?
SO: Dysphoria is when you perceive a disparity between your allocated gender and your perceived gender I guess: you’re being dysphoric. I was just trying to add an angle to this discussion which is that, yes, it’s about your perception of yourself, but this is also always relating to society. So I turned it into a verb, somebody can ‘dysphoricize’ you, they’re actively doing something to make you feel this way, but it’s systemic so it’s not so obvious. It’s such a basic thing that’s everywhere, how people respond to you based on your body shape and your perceived gender, it’s a subconscious bias that’s very hard to get rid of.