"Are you OK with heights?" Alexandra Brandon mindfully asks me before we step out of her third-floor Mount Vernon apartment window, up a fire escape, and onto to the roof. We're here to discuss her noise project TRNSGNDR/VHS, whose recent EP, "Condominium," full of slithering tonal glitches and synthesizer sparkles, simmers with malevolent rage. On the roof, we can see the sky merge into the harbor off in the distance, though our view is interrupted by the prominent white peak of the fortress-like roof of the old Maryland Penitentiary. It's rush hour, and the din of traffic spilling onto I-83 North—marking for many the daily exodus back to the county—is a constant in the background. At one point, a helicopter begins making low circles about a block away. When the buzzing helicopter finally becomes too loud to talk over, Brandon, unfazed, offers up a quick "fuck you" with a flip of middle finger to the copter, and finishes her point. Our hourlong conversation circled around issues of identity, the problems with the noise scene and noise history, the perks of sensory deprivation, the recent Ladyfest controversy (disclosure: I lead a self-pleasure workshop that was part of Ladyfest), and more. (Karen Peltier)
CITY PAPER: I'm too curious not to ask. I saw on Instagram that you had an experience in a sensory-deprivation tank. What was that like?
Alexandra Brandon: Oh my god, let me tell you about it! So, to provide background, I consumed most of the notable psychedelic and spiritual drugs that are out there and I love them all. Part of what allowed me to figure out my gender identity was my ketamine consumption like a year ago. Coming into psychedelic drugs circles and reading stuff on the internet, I eventually came across sensory deprivation and as soon as I saw videos I was like, "I need to see what this is." And that was when I was 18, like, "Holy shit what is sensory deprivation? I want to experience this! Why is it so expensive?!" And what happened was they had a raffle at Tribel Haus at the beginning of the year and one of the prizes was a free one-hour float in the tank over at Tarantula Hill. I was premeditating for weeks : "I'm gonna get in the tank." And of course, my abilities as a witch allowed me to get the hour in the tank. I'm not gonna pay 60 dollar to sit in a tank for a hour. Floating is fucking great. Physically and mentally, it purifies you. I recommend it to anyone who just has shit in their lives that they wanna get out of their head.
CP: When did you first become aware of your gender identity as different from the way other people perceived you?
AB: From a young age. I am assigned male, so I was raised as male. Even if you go back to me at like the age of 4, I'd be with my cousins sometimes like, "Hey I wanna wear your lipstick, can you paint my toenails?" And sometimes people in my family would do that but more out of like, "Oh, this is just a kid thing." And I'm saying this as someone who's 20 now, so I don't remember everything that went on when I was 5 but I never really perceived how gender really existed that much among people around me until I was in elementary school. Like pronouns, that's something that existed, but to me it was like, the idea of gender roles was something that no one threw at me, even my parents until I was like probably like 6 or 7. It was especially getting to me being in middle school. I would even tell people, "Hey I don't really feel like male or anything." I even tell that stuff to my mom and she'd be like, "Well, whatever you're still a man" and it made no sense to me. I didn't even know what it actually meant to be trans until I was like 16 or so. I didn't have any exposure. When you grow up, most of the time it's like, your exposure to trans people is through TV like "South Park" or "Family Guy" or some shit. Or shitty tabloids. And because it's cis people who often have zero interaction with trans people talking about trans people, the way that you think of trans people growing up, it's like the same way you think about drag queens. It's like you're ignoring that there's an actual identity or a thought process behind it being like, "This is who I actually am and I'm not living as that person right now." It's a huge, almost like taboo subject. In the way trans people are being portrayed, especially over the last few months with Caitlyn Jenner being on magazine covers, for trans women especially. But the thing is nonbinary people don't exist in the media. I say that I identify as trans feminine and I'd say I'm more nonbinary than anything else. But I will sometimes say I am a trans woman because I still do feel very close to that identity but my gender is also fluid at times but there are times that I feel like more of a woman and other times I feel just more outside of all of that.
CP: What are your preferred pronouns?
AB: I use they and she as pronouns.
CP: You're from Silver Spring. How did you make your way to Baltimore?
AB: I've been living here for two years. I go to University Of Baltimore. I'm a graphic-design major there. I do all sorts of weird shit. I love photography, I don't do it as much now because I kind of used photography as a crutch for socializing, which isn't really a bad thing, but there are times when I'm a very socially awkward person, but if I go around with a camera it looks like I'm doing something. But now that doesn't really matter because I know everyone.
CP: When did you start making music?
AB: I've been seriously making music, publishing music from the time I was like 15 or 16. Like recording music and putting it on the internet, but this is the first thing I'm doing where I'm putting out music physically and going distances to play shows and going on tour. Not being a bedroom musician, more or less.
CP: What are you working on now?
AB: I've been making a lot of like, New Age, like ambient music. I feel like my creative process changes by season. "Condominium" was all recorded during January. It's July now and it's really hard for me to make music that's that dark in the middle of summer because I'm actually happy right now. I may have a split cassette coming out with a friend who lives here, but if that comes out its gonna sound completely different from "Condominium." It's mostly me being like, "Hey, I need somewhere to put all this ambient music."
CP: When you use vocals in songs, do you have lyrics or are you using your voice in a more abstract way?
AB: I do write lyrics. I've sent people my lyrics but because some of them come from very personal spaces and some involve traumatic experiences I've had, I would rather leave it up for someone to try to decipher through listening to what I'm saying than just putting it all on paper. When I've put out cassettes I've gone back and forth a lot with, "do I want to put my lyrics on the insert or not?" I feel like a lot of people who listen to my music and who love my music and book me for shows literally don't get what I'm about. And that's been a part of me being like, "Should I put this out? Does it need to be more explicit?" You should be able to tell by the name of my project that this is me being like, hey, I do this music and I hate the establishment of the people who do this music. I also like to keep things a slight mystery because I love when people try to figure out what artists mean when they talk about things.
CP: Can you discuss the origins of your name?
AB: I chose that name because I'm saying, I think that I am a part of the noise scene, but noise music, like every genre of music, has a [negative] history. For example the band Whitehouse, who are credited with creating the power electronics genre, are a group from the U.K. who are all white males and use themes involving misogyny and racism and sexual violence but talk about a lot of that stuff through a position of power. Because they're white males, they're able to adopt those personas, and it could be out of critique or "this is who I am," but it's still like, they're able to do that from a comfort zone. And there are plenty of musicians who are noise musicians who come out of Baltimore who are racist or misogynistic or who carry other types of bigotry who just throw that shit out there and don't care. And for me, I chose that name in part because I was like, "Hey fuck that shit, I'm just gonna do a noise project that's openly queer." It's just me being tired of being in a position where I can't listen to a musician because I know their lyrics hurt me.
CP: It's tough when you know that speaking out about problematic issues of power can get you pegged as a shit-starter.
AB: If you're willing to be an artist, you should be willing to face off. And I've faced off with a lot of people. I was gonna play Ladyfest this year but dropped off the bill and went on Ladyfest's Facebook and I was like, "Fuck this festival because you're working with Baltimore Community Foundation which has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Baltimore Police Department." It was the best can of worms I've ever opened. Because of that Unregistered Nurse hates me now. I got enemies, I got a lot of enemies—I'm sorry I just had to reference Drake. I got a lot of shit for that from a lot of cis women, some of color, and they're just like, "Why didn't you tell us this in advance?" and I was like, "why didn't you look at the organizations that you're working with and listen to the criticism that other people have?" Like, sorry I dropped the bomb two days in advance but are you really gonna put up with that?