If you’ve gone to enough performance art nights and weirdo music shows over the last ten years, odds are good you’ve seen Tucson resident Jaime J. Soto do his thing. A fearless performance artist and musician, Soto has raised the roof and the temperature at venues like the old Trunk Space, where he did performances that combined electronic music with stripping and burlesque.
Soto is one of the many artists who will be performing in “The Dirty T” this week as part of the Tucson Noise Symposium. I got a chance to talk with him over the weekend about his background as a performer, his love for Depeche Mode karaoke, and the kind of reactions his emotionally & physically bare performances draw out of people.
What do you plan on doing for the Tucson Noise Symposium?
FGGTFAILUR is the project I’ll be doing. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now.
What’s your background as a performer and musician? How did you get started in the Tucson and Phoenix scenes?
I started in 2003. I did my first band with some friends of mine. And we did that for about a year until everybody went their separate ways. I had a friend who said, “hey, I know you don’t have a band anymore and that’s really important to you. My grandma is getting rid of her old keyboard — do you want it?” I said sure, I’ll take it. I still have it – it’s called a KN1200. It’s put out by Technics. It comes with a floppy disc drive and all this stuff that I had never seen on a keyboard before. I learned how to use the little sequencer on it to program stuff in it, so I started producing songs inside of it –doing drum tracks, the bass tracks, every part of the song.
I started taking that keyboard up to Phoenix because I knew Emily Spetrino and Ryan Avery. I used to go up to Phoenix all the time to hear The Dietrichs play; I was a big ska kid. So I went up to see The Dietrichs, made friends with Emily and Ryan, and they started booking shows all around downtown Phoenix. They knew I was doing something, so they said, “hey, come down and play a show.” They gave me opportunities to play at Four White Walls, The Trunk Space, even The Phix. So I started doing shows a long time ago in Phoenix. And then in Tucson I started to play out at Skrappy’s, which – I owe my life to that place! And that turned into playing gigs at a lot of different places in Tucson, like the GameWorks arcade because my friend worked there.
It was fun, but I remember the funniest part of that whole project. We’d plug the keyboard into the PA and then I’d just sing over what I produced. I would perform and dance around. Since it was running off of a floppy disc, the load time between songs was usually a minute to two minutes (depending on how big the file was). I just remember always feeling really awkward waiting for the next song to start. So I’d end either standing there or telling a dumb joke to pass the time. And then eventually the keyboard died and I started to save up money to get a MacBook in 2011. I had been doing that keyboard project for a pretty long time.
I’ve seen some of the performances you used to do at the old Trunk Space location. They always had a real theatrical flair to them. You didn’t just stand behind a keyboard — you put on a real performance each time. Has that kind of extroverted performing always been an important of your project?
It’s the only way I’ve known to really express myself- that maybe sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I’m painfully shy and a little bit awkward — I blush very easily. Like, on a daily basis. From a very early age I learned about the stage. I was in Kindergarten and we had to do a Mother’s Day performance. I had a group — we were supposed to hold hands and sing “Here We Go Around The Mulberry Bush”, but nobody else showed up. So I sang this song onstage by myself in front of all these people. That was the first time I was ever onstage.
I grew up idolizing country superstar singers, Selena, and Gwen Stefani — all these different performers. I learned from them by emulating them. So from a very early age, performing was a way for me to express all these things that I had inside myself. Doing all those Trunk Space shows was just an extension of that, really.
I guess I’ve always been a performer. I like to make people happy, I like to make them feel something. It’s a really huge challenge, to get onstage and try to get people to feel what you’re feeling. Or to just feel something at all, to have some sort of reaction. I love that challenge, and I also love the freedom it brings once you get over the stage fright and the terror that comes from baring yourself in front of everybody lyrically or physically. I love performing — it’s terrifying! It’s so terrifying, but ultimately rewarding in the end.
Speaking of getting reactions: I follow you on Facebook. And one of the things you’ve said on there recently that I found really interesting was that you noticed that people are sometimes put off or triggered by your performances. Since a lot of your work is rooted in talking about and expressing sexuality, I was curious to hear about how that feels doing that kind of work in public and dealing with the audience reactions you get from it. Why do you think your work has that kind of effect on people?
I feel internal conflict about it everyday, all the time, always. On a personal level, in my head it feels like I’m constantly battling with what I’ve learned about sexuality in my early life — living a very closeted gay lifestyle as a kid. My family was very macho; machismo was a big thing in my Latino family. I couldn’t really express myself; I never talked about sex. And everybody in my family would make comments about gay people and it wouldn’t feel great to hear somebody that you’re supposed to love and trust say that “if you’re gay or this way, you’re a bad person. None of my kids will be this way.” And here’s me, as a kid, saying to myself that I know I’m something different, but I can’t be that- I’m not allowed to be that way.
So there were many, many years of my life where I was dealing with this sexual frustration that I couldn’t express. And in my early 20’s, I started coming to terms with it all. When I stopped doing that keyboard project, I felt like the only way I could truly explore this or express myself again was to bring it out on stage and let it go.
It’s interesting — I can’t see myself, so I don’t know what my show is like outside of my body. I can only know what I’m feeling and what I’m expressing when I’m up there. I think when it comes to sex and sexuality, a lot of people have been conditioned to view it in one way. So if somebody gets on a stage and they choose to remove an article of clothing or be “sexual”, people are kind of taken aback by it. Maybe sometimes that person onstage can get dismissed as just being “something sexual” and not get taken seriously. Which is how I feel right now.
Honestly, I didn’t want to sound petty when I made those statements on Facebook. But the artistic expression in me is saying “hey, something feels off here, something feels different”. I could feel people going to shows and being dismissive about it. It’s a very confusing thing.
Maybe there’s been moments in the past where I’ve done shows and made somebody feel too uncomfortable or crossed a line or boundary. But on the other side of things, in my heart I feel it’s ok to express sexuality. I think it’s ok to display it and sing about it and write a song about it. Maybe there’s somebody out there who is closeted and doesn’t know how to express that. Maybe it will help them in some way. And maybe it will educate people.
As a subject, sex occupies a weird place in the performance world. Aside from burlesque shows or drag, there isn’t really a venue where that kind of work doesn’t stick out. Is that one of the issues you’ve struggled with as a performer — trying to find shows and venues where your kind of work makes sense with everything else that’s going on?
Yeah, it’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. Like back in 2009, my keyboard died. I didn’t have money or access to gear to make new tracks. A lot of personal things happened — a relationship ended, a best friendship crumbled, and I had a huge issue with my family. I felt like the only thing I knew how to do was get onstage, so I downloaded a bunch of Depeche Mode karaoke tracks –I’m going to sing these songs! Whatever this feeling is inside of me, I need to let it go. And the only way I know how to do that is by performing.
So when I did this old show, it involved a lot of stripping, a lot of gyrating and being overtly sexual. It was all of this repressed sexuality that was just exploding from my life. I was so emotionally closeted that I needed to physically become vulnerable in front of a group of strangers in order to heal. But when you walk in and see a show like that, seeing a guy stripping to “Just Can’t Get Enough”, I don’t think anyone is thinking, “oh, that guy is going through some emotional turmoil!”
Doing the project that I’m doing now – I don’t feel that way anymore, but there are moments in the current show where I talk about sex, where I talk about having sex with men. I feel like it’s an important part of life — it’s ok to want to be sexual, and it’s ok to not. You can live an asexual lifestyle and not participate in it.
It would make my heart and soul feel better if people talked about it a little bit, or were just more open to it. I mean, where do you do a show like that? I don’t know. I’m not quite a burlesque performer, I’m not quite a singer-songwriter. It’s been an interesting journey to go into venues and feel terrified. I don’t know how people are going to take this- I’m going to go out there and sing a song about my relationship with an older man. I don’t know if this is going to be offensive to them. I’m going to wear a crop-top and underwear and sing this song and I don’t know if it’s going to go over.
So to end things on a wish-fulfillment note: if you could do a show with ANYBODY, who would you want to perform with?
Number one would be FKA Twigs. I absolutely love and adore every single thing FKA Twigs has done. I think she’s one of the most important, most honest, most sensational yet really expressive artists that I’ve ever seen in my life. She’s everything right now. I’d also want to be on a bill with Diamanda Galas. Diamanada’s one of those artists whose work made me stop in my tracks. I remember being scared watching her videos, but in a way that felt like I needed to be scared. I needed to be exposed to art that made me feel that way, something that existed outside of the vein of commercial music that I grew up on. And then I probably would get a bunch of my friends on the bill – like Lav Andula, Lana Del Rabies. So it would be Twigs, Diamanada, and a bunch of us weirdo kids doing 20 minute sets.
Jaime J. Soto will be performing tonight at Pomoro as part of the Tucson Noise Symposium w/ Lav Andula, Go as Death, Depressive, Fugly Chuds, Scott Mitting, Jonathan Rex, Watchable Wildlife, & SKU:uLf03k. Show starts at 7pm.
Ashley Naftule is a writer, performer, and lifelong resident of Phoenix, AZ. He regularly performs at Space 55, The Firehouse Gallery, Lawn Gnome Books, and The Trunk Space He also does chalk art, collages, and massacres Billy Idol songs at karaoke. He won 3rd place at FilmBar’s Air Sex Championship in 2013. You can see more of his work at ashleynaftule.com
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