Dystopian Pop in the Plague Era: An Interview with Jasper Lotti

Harley Geffner speaks to the Los Angeles electronic musician about her background in classical Indian dance and trying to survive in quarantine.
By    May 20, 2020

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Jasper Lotti thinks in rhythms and movements. The buzzing of molecular particles in human interaction, the flowing motions of a physical body, the vibrations that form sound waves. She feels heartbeats from across the room. Creating her brand of “dystopian pop,” as she refers to it, is a process of grafting these movements. Her disparate ideas encircle her until she finds their meeting points in Ableton. She feels out how those sounds move her body to craft concurrent melodies. The flourish of a wrist might come with a quick tonal uptick. It’s a particularly unscientific and instinctual process for someone who published a paper on glucose transporters and Epileptic phenotypes in a science journal.

Jasper, whose parents immigrated from India, had these ideas of movement instilled in her from a young age — learning the practice of Bharatanatyam, a traditional form of Indian dance that expresses the spiritual ideas, particularly of Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. It was all about the flow of nature. But things she was taught never sat right with her. She said she feels like an “amorphous creature” on this planet. She’s a walking “entangled in their lives” meme, constantly questioning our place in the universe, how we interact, and what our digitized future looks like and means for us here on the ground.

Her music injects an emotional atavism into this cyber-futuristic perspective. It’s ancient rituals, practiced in a Berlin nightclub with lots of shimmery strobed purple. There’s techno that magnetizes your body to move, dream pop vocals layered so that each is coming from an alternate timeline, and rhythmic chants that could coax a snake out of a jar she threads through it all. She sings in clipped thoughts, distant ideas, and ways to feel out unspoken emotions. All these sounds and feelings twist through her debut album XOskeleton like an olympic ribbon twirling routine.

The last two tracks bring the whole album together, as they bleed into each other with meditative ocean sounds that wash over your skull. It feels like you’re in that Berlin nightclub right as a molly high is peaking, dancing and sweating the night away, as everything begins to move slowly and slosh around you. You’re in your own world, feeling the colors that push and pull your body as your heart rhythm aligns with her evocative chants.

The last I saw her before I interviewed her, she was doing a radio set and dancing like a hula hoop rave girl to Waka Flocka. This time, I caught up with her over FaceTime on a Saturday afternoon, from her parents house in Maine to talk about everything from alternative medicine and moral qualms with big Pharma to public funding for the arts in Europe and Chief Keef. And full disclosure, she’s been a friend of mine since we met one summer in college. — Harley Geffner

I wonder how quarantine is changing people’s mentalities. If people will become more in touch with themselves now that everyone has time to reflect. I saw something about the Calm App and downloads being way up since quarantine started. People are trying meditation and shit for the first time, so I’m wondering how it’ll change our relationships with not just each other, but the self too.

Jasper Lotti: I just feel like humanity has been going down such a weird path, like a really empty and vacuous path, especially in terms of culture and everything. This is a chance to reinvent ourselves and what that means. […] I feel like people have become very closed-minded and I hope this is a chance for people to open themselves up more, and not – I don’t know – care about hype or virality because that’s such a vicious cycle. Things that are meaningful don’t have space to breathe anymore.

Have you been able to clear your head to make music in quarantine?

Jasper Lotti: I go through phases, because we can’t go to physical places together anymore. We can only go to like nature or the grocery store. I’ve been going through phases of working on music and working on movement just to get the physicality that I’m missing of interacting with other people, and going places, and travelling. So I’ve been really getting into movement and the physical part of my art.

I usually don’t like asking artists about their process because most don’t really have one or give a cookie cutter answer, but you actually have an interesting one. I saw you went live on Instagram the other day to explain how you make music based on movement and come up with sounds based on dances.

Jasper Lotti: That’s definitely a big part of it. For me, movement is so attached to sounds and beats and melodies and stuff. I kind of feel out different movements and then translate that into melodies and rhythms. If I make a beat, I’ll put it on and then kind of like move to it and from that, draw out the melodies, and keep singing and moving, and go back and fill it in with lyrics. I kind of write everywhere because I have a short attention span. So I can’t really sit down and write a song. Like I have a bunch of phrases on my notes app and I do a bunch of voice memos. I’ll talk into my voice memos or record melodies there or on my laptop or my journal. There’s just so many different places where it takes place, so I’ll just collage that together, using movement to help. I always have a bunch of different Ableton files that I start beats on and I’ll also put those together and take different parts. It’s a very collage-like process. It’s primarily movement-based how I come up with the sonics and those kinds of ideas. I always think about how people would move to the music, because music that really affects me really makes me move in some kind of way. It doesn’t have to be a dance song, but it’ll move me somehow.

Did you have a background in dance?

Jasper Lotti: Yeah, I did classical Indian dance growing up, called Bharatanatyam. I did a little bit of ballet and I still do a lot of yoga. So I do have a background in dance, but it’s been very intuitive what I’ve been doing, like I haven’t been doing any kind of formal dance training.

Movement feels spiritual too. Like when a song gets me going, it’s instinct, you’ll start bouncing or whatever.

Jasper Lotti: I try to tap into that instinct. I didn’t go to music school or anything, not that you have to to make good music. But music that’s meaningful to me might not fit certain rules. I don’t see music like that, it is instinctual and has to move you from a spiritual place.

Was the classical Indian dance that you practiced growing up interlaced with spirituality?

Jasper Lotti: A good way to explain it is that before you start your practice, like when you dance bharatanatyam, you do this ritual where you thank the Earth for allowing you to step on it and move on it, so it’s a very grounding dance practice. You feel your connection and roots to the Earth. Especially now, we’re even more forced to reconcile our individual relationships with nature. We need to take care of Mother Earth, so I think that may be why I’ve been getting so much more into the movement aspect. It’s like doing Bharatanatyam and that practice growing up, it’s us as humans thanking the Earth for letting us live and move around on it.

You also did traditional Indian music growing up in addition to dance too, right?

Jasper Lotti: That was a really big part of my childhood. That’s also very spiritual too. All music is, but me doing that and then I also sang Christian Gospel, so between those two musical practices, both being so spiritual, really informed me musically. Like that was my training I guess.

Were you religious growing up?

Jasper Lotti: I feel like not really. My family is from India and we go to the temples sometimes, but I don’t see myself primarily as a Hindu or anything. I would say I’m spiritual, not religious. I’m versed in what a lot of different religions stand for, so I kind of make my own philosophies based on what I’ve learned as a human. I don’t subscribe to any specific religion though.

I took a class on Buddhist and Hindu religions in college. I don’t remember the technical stuff, but I do remember how it made me feel. It was like a very profound sense of stillness, which feels like what the world is going through right now.

Jasper Lotti: I feel like this pause forces us to look inwards to a degree and also outwards to nature and how we’ve been taking and taking. It’s been really horrible.

Has spending all this time in nature [at your parent’s house in Maine] impacted the way you have been thinking about your music?

Jasper Lotti: I can’t say exactly how it’s been influencing my music, but I think it’s been making me feel more gratitude. I feel compelled to write more mellow kinds of things. I’m not sure, it’s been influencing me in a way that is hard to explain, that I’m still processing. I feel more grounded, so there’s less noise. There’s less noise of everything else around. I can be more in my own mind without the noise of the rest of the world and other people.

It can be a detachment from how many stimuli are usually around us that people can barely read a book anymore.

Jasper Lotti: Yeah, I feel like I’m operating in my own kind of dimension or something. I’m just unbothered and can kind of tap into that world when I want to or just when I have to engage. We’re in such a weird dichotomy of being completely disengaged and completely engaged at the same time, in terms of digitally. We’re either alone at home or we’re like completely tapped in to the social media digital internet world. We are operating with different versions of ourselves. If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, it’s like that. If we’re alone now and something happens to your tree, no one cares. But when you’re in that digital space… There are these multiple dimensions of the self. Especially as an artist, in order to survive in the plague era, we have to kind of be more digitally full and exist more so in that space. Before, you meet people in person, when you travel, friends of friends or whatever, but now that’s completely gone. So we’re really leaning in to our separate dimensions of self outside of the physical or tangible realm.

Social media has always been performance art and about the dopamine buttons. The way I’ve been thinking of it is as a personal growth process to try to find more full ways to access that dopamine rush without external validation. It’s like a fun challenge. Everyone has the gap between the normal self and the projected self, even before social media, it’s just more amplified now. But for artists, that divide is even larger. You really have to live a separate presence and be more aware of who you are, your worth, outside of your artist character.

Jasper Lotti: I actually like the release of having a different persona, like Ash vs. Jasper. But I also think it’s been interesting to see people who before weren’t as active online or on social. There was no reason to be if they were a more private person or if they’re not an artist trying to promote something. I have friends like that who just aren’t internet people at all, but now it’s just everyone is forced to become that just to exist and show like they’re alive. I feel kind of bad for people who have been forced to become more digital because of this.

I think I’m seeing more friends than normal, trying to stay more in touch. I don’t know if that’s an isolation thing or because we’re all going through something hard right now. It’s a good time to check on people in meaningful ways. Everyone’s trying to process it.

Jasper Lotti: It’s surreal every day. Like my music, I call it “dystopian pop,” which maybe was foreshadowing something like this happening through my music, or like I felt this dark energy. Now that we’re in an even more dystopian atmosphere, it’s weird seeing the ideas I’ve had play out in the real world. We always talk about the future, but we’re at that point now.

I remember when we first met that summer in college, you were pre-med, right? How did you transition out of pre-med and into music?

Jasper Lotti: Music was always the most consistent thing in my life that I truly cared about. I still think medicine is really cool and I have so much respect and gratitude for doctors and the whole practice, but I had a lot of moral qualms with the pharmaceutical industry. Like why should I prescribe things to people I don’t feel comfortable taking myself, and just seeing my grandparents taking so many pills everyday, all this stuff. Modern medicine is so fucked up and I couldn’t believe in it enough to throw myself into it fully. I also just couldn’t be studying all the time. It really hurt me emotionally and mentally and psychologically, like being in the library all day studying, it had me going crazy. It was eating away at me because I didn’t have as much space to be creative. Now I have a greater appreciation for science and medicine and all the things I did in that field, but I had to make the transition for my sanity. It wasn’t my purpose. Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s your calling.

I know you’re someone who is very in touch with nature and the natural way of doing things, and Western medicine pulls people further and further from letting things take their course. Like my mom is an acupuncturist, so I was always taught to be more in touch with the natural way of letting my body deal with things. Like she wouldn’t even let me take Aspirin or anything because she said I had to let my body fight it out and I would be stronger for it.

Jasper Lotti: There’s this war between modern Western medicine and Eastern or more alternative philosophies like Aravada, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and this hasn’t really come to reconciliation yet. The ideal system I think would reconcile both, because there are parts of modern medicine that are amazing like the surgical aspects, but I feel like a lot of preventative things can be solved with alternative solutions or remedies. I didn’t want to get into that though, it wasn’t really my battle to fight. I see the problem, but I’m called to help people in other ways.

I saw in one earlier interview you did, you mentioned that organic chemistry and medical practices kind of influence the way you approach your music. How has that worked?

Jasper Lotti: I really fucked with organic chemistry. A lot of the reactions involved problem solving in really weird ways. I mentally blocked out a lot of the pre-med stuff, but the way my brain works when I collage these parts of a song together, it feels like figuring out a puzzle in the same way that in orgo, you’re figuring out different reactions and that process of putting together these disparate pieces. I was bad at physics, really bad at the common sense kinds of things. My brain either works at a really high level or not at all, either organic chem or like I don’t know..

Like dancing and not thinking at all and letting the body feel what it feels.

Jasper Lotti: Yeah, exactly.

I’m glad you’re making music and following your more instinctual passion now.

Jasper Lotti: Yeah, and I think that being in nature has made me feel like even though we are in dystopia, the silver lining is all in nature and our connection to it. We’re at this fork in the road. We’ve been operating at such a low vibration as a race, and it feels kind of gross.

What do you mean by low vibration?

Jasper Lotti: Like you were saying, like everyone’s priorities are fucked up. The cycles of instant gratification have messed up what gets attention and what is prioritized in life and culture. Now feels like the chance to reclaim that and carve something new as a race. I recently re-watched the Matrix trilogy, like I love Sci-Fi and Star Trek and stuff, and I feel like we could be heading down an even more dark path if we don’t change. We need to reclaim humanity and rekindle our connection with nature, and care about more meaningful things.

There are no built in rewards to becoming a well-rounded person or a caring individual, or like finding inner peace. Our reward system isn’t based on that, and I’ve been trying to figure out how we can shift things. I’ve always blamed capitalism, but I wonder if that’s just me being naive to say it’s because of a singular thing. I have no idea what it would take to shift everyone’s mentalities and the way we think about shit.

Jasper Lotti: Money is the motive for everyone, and especially in our capitalist economy. To survive as an artist, you have to shift your priorities to what is economically viable to a degree if you do want to be financially dependent on the craft. It sucks, but I do think the economic system has a large part to do with it. It comes down to money at the end of the day. It shapes people’s approach.

I wonder if places that are less based on the worst type capitalism, I mean we’re all market-based and profit incentive exists everywhere, but in the social democratic countries in Scandinavia, I wonder how their priorities shift. In a place where the governments take a heavier hand watching out for you economically, I wonder how their day-to-day mentalities are different.

Jasper Lotti: Even being in like London, Paris, or Berlin, the governments provide a lot more funding for the arts. They’re a lot more advanced in that sense, with so much more funding accessible and that is practically useful. Art is just taken more as a priority, so it’s cool. I was surprised to see artists I met over there doing cool shit with resources from the government, because here, it’s so hard to get your hands on that type of investment or money, especially from the government. There are grants and stuff, but they’re super competitive. But there’s so much more opportunity there, it’s like wow. The artists there, because it’s less of a survival mentality, because the governments care about the arts, the artists can focus more on the type of stuff they want to make, not just making stuff that’s more economically viable or more on trend, just for survival. People are trendy out of survival. In Europe, I feel like people are more original with the freedom to do that, or do more weird stuff.

The government grants here go to Juilliard students, who only found out about them because of the institutions they’ve been a part of. Most young artists who are self-taught, it requires serious investment. Not only do you not get paid at first or invested in, but you have to put up all the money for video shoots or like, for rappers, soundcloud reposts.

Jasper Lotti: The only types of things that do get invested in here are things that are already market-proven or have a defined audience. I’m also a huge rap-head, like I started making my own music when I downloaded Ableton to try to make rap beats. I still do have rap beats sitting around.

I remember in like 2016, we were smoking and talking about Goth Money Records, Black Kray, and how it was mind-melting and shit.

Jasper Lotti: I was so deep into that. Their music really touches my soul. I’ve been listening to a lot of old Chief Keef right now too. I’ve been obsessed with Back From The Dead 2 for the last month.

Chief Keef is like top 3 rappers of all time to me. It always pissed me off how people thought of him as a joke, and would still have fun with his music, then talk about how it’s not serious art.

Jasper Lotti: Chief Keef makes very serious art. Back From The Dead 2 is so beautiful really, and my brother has been mad at me for playing it too much. He’s more into Travis Scott or Uzi or whatever. I do love Uzi though, like Futsal shuffle is such a great song. It sounds so future to me. He is really on some other shit. Or like 645AR too, I love right now. Like that’s what art is to me, pushing boundaries.

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