Chicago-based DJ Eris Drew (42) recently rocked the stage at Was. Is Burning. But Eris is more than a DJ. Since her gender transition, Eris calls herself the High Priestess of the Motherbeat. To her, techno is a ritual to dissolve boundaries. Time to get ecstatic.
By Haroon Ali
As a teenager, you discovered something you call the ‘Motherbeat’, a fundamental, all-encompassing pulse. You recorded a beautiful spoken word piece about it. Explain to the oblivious readers what it is?
”It was a revelatory moment that I experienced when I was in a psychedelic state. My friend and I were coming from a rave and perceived that the mechanical sounds from the air-conditioning in the van were the same as the rave. I realized that music is more than aesthetics and that sounds contain hidden, universal information. Bill Drummond from The KLF experienced something similar, describing the sound of his Land Rover’s engine as a kind of non-tonal music, which inspired his choral project The17. My experience sounds very mystical and abstract, but it gave me something I could attach to all those years. I’ve had a tough life, in some ways, so music was my gateway to experience a healing goddess. When I was 18, the Motherbeat was my word for a universal female energy I needed to connect with, because I was labeled male at birth, but felt female.”
Has this revelation shaped how you perceive music as a DJ?
“It made me see techno as a ritual, much like the shamanistic music from archaic periods. In the 21st century, raves hold a lot of power and have spiritual meaning in people’s lives. For example, if you look up ‘rave quotes’ on Pinterest, many people describe raves in terms of elevated feelings of oneness. That’s really what it is, having an ecstatic trance experience with other people.”
So are you the shaman guiding the ritual?
“The term shaman is problematic, because it’s appropriated – it only applies to a specific group of spiritual healers. But there is also no other word for it. When I call myself a trance ecstatic, people roll their eyes and ask me what the fuck I’m talking about. I fit the definition that anthropologists have of shamans, in certain ways. I control the ritual via my music and play with energy when I perform. When I throw my Motherbeat parties in the US, I feel a responsibility towards the crowd. I’m concerned about the volume and people’s hydration. We don’t serve alcohol, because it negates the psychedelic experience, but we do have mate, grapes and nuts. And because we don’t sell alcohol, we can stay underground and host parties that last for twelve hours, which is rare in the States. We tend to get pretty transdimensional, so I try to take good care of the dancers and myself.”
The Motherbeat also made you come to terms with being transgender. Tell me about that road to self-discovery, was it hard?
“As I studied archaic traditions, I understood that a lot of shamans were chosen because of their gender variance. In some cultures, they are visited by a feminine spirit in their dreams. Unfortunately, I was not given a cultural map or model for how I felt. I was born in 1975, so growing up I had only vaguely heard the pejoratives transsexual or ‘tranny’. On TV, I saw people like Tim Curry in the The Rocky Horror Picture Show and that perverse, arguably trans character in The Silence of the Lambs, named Buffalo Bill. But I had no information on how I should view myself. I had sexual impulses that were queer, but they were never from a gay man’s perspective. I had visions of myself in girl’s clothes, but I could only understand them through the lens of a fetish. So I kept it a secret and only dressed up when I was alone – I was messed up. When my partner at the time eventually found my stack of clothes, I moved home and told my family that I needed help. I already had some friends that were gay and queer, nice people. But it wasn’t until I started talking to other trans women that I realized: we are the same. That’s when I started to understand gender dysphoria and why I was doing things like covering up my genitals with a washcloth since I was 5 years old. I finally came out as trans at age 39, three years ago, when I was already DJing in Chicago. I’m not saying that I was brave, and I hurt people in the process. But my life has changed dramatically since then. Two years ago, I started hormone replacement therapy. I asked someone on a message board if sex changes when you use hormones? She replied: everything changes. Not only the relationship to your body, but also your relationship to other people. I didn’t understand this before, I do now.”
Was the electronic music scene supportive of your journey?
“It’s one of the best places to come out – and not at all perfect. When I first came out, people said: ‘But you’re a good-looking guy.’ This is said to many of us, regardless of our appearance, to shame us – the implication being that we will be ugly women. Some people also said: ‘Why do you want to transition at this age?’ And these are just two examples of hundreds of misguided comments I received. The support that I get now – from feminists, non-binary and intersectional groups – is great, but it wasn’t there in the beginning. I’m not wiggling my finger at anyone, but it is the cold, hard truth. People stopped showing up at my gigs or were upset by the way I looked. When you come out, you’re a girl with a beard and few people see you for who you are. When I looked at other trans women, I thought: how can I ever look like them and have a body like that? And the truth is: it’s hard, but doable – for those with the privilege to try. And after a year or so, the queer community started reaching out to me, like Jacob Meehan, one of the founders of Whole Fest, the Hot Mass people in Pittsburgh and Honey Soundsystem in San Francisco. The queer community really lifted me up. But even though trans visibility is higher in this scene than in other places, many parties and festivals are still not truly inclusive for people like me.”
What do trans performers bring to the (turn)table?
“People often say that they see themselves in my story, so it’s not bad to have a symbolic function. I think that the art of trans performers heals people and that we help to break down the barriers of gender. Our culture is slowly moving towards a multifaceted view of what gender is. Many of my trans and non-binary friends speak about channeling, disassociation and disembodiment – just like psychedelics, or sex. One of my jokes is that trans people are like LSD for society, because being around a trans person causes boundary dissolution. It screws people’s brains up, because they have to reconsider everything. If you stop taking gender for granted, there is so much more to explore, including non-binary identity and expression.”
How do you connect to the world outside of clubs and raves?
“I live in Glen Ellyn, a small suburb outside of Chicago. I also grew up there. It’s really chill, I’m surrounded by nature, plus it’s very close the airport. I try not to follow too much media in my free time, I only keep up with the big things. I rather spend my time focusing on actual lived experience and take time for contemplation. So when I’m at home, I isolate myself a lot. I do have a close group of friends, but I spend the majority of my time alone. I like to work on music for long periods of time, take walks and hike in nature. Or I’ll use mushrooms and dance, which helps when I’m creating new music – it’s really wonderful. Through music, I also found my babe Maya. [The producer and DJ is known by her stage name Octo Octa. She is also a trans woman]. She’s a darling, talented, energetic witch and I love her to death. And let me just say: transitioning is not the end of a trans person’s sex life. The medical community often sells that story, but for us, our new embodiment is sexy as fuck. And having the right hormones in your body makes you horny as hell.”
I recently read some shocking news, that you were involved in a car crash in Albania, driving from a festival to the airport. How did that affect you?
“It was very serious. I saw a car ripped in half and there was blood everywhere. Multiple people got hurt, although I can’t be sure of the extent of injuries. The accident happened at the end of my tour through Europe, which was a wonderful set of experiences, but it was also a time of little to no sleep. And I didn’t have access to my hormones for a week, because they got held back by customs in England. Plus I’m in love, which makes you fucking crazy. So I was already stressed out and didn’t have the proper emotional responses to what was happening around me. I felt disassociated from everything, which is something I have experienced before. But the positive thing about the accident was that it made me take stock of my life. I DJ for people all over the world and am able to support myself with my music. I have healed relationships with my family and have fallen in love. And I’ve started living as a woman, no longer hiding. So if I had died in that crash, at least I have done the things that I said I was going to do and lived the life that I deeply wanted for myself. That makes me feel very fortunate.”