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Poly Rhythms

[whitespace] DJ Polywog Creature Comforts: DJ Polywog donned her alien girl gear to spin at a Porno for Pyros showcase two years ago.

Diane Yost

San Francisco DJ Polywog talks about her long, strange trip from Juilliard to Lollapalooza

By Amanda Nowinski

When DJ Polywog is behind the turntables, postmodern assemblages manifest in unlikely aural forms: Frank Sinatra waltzes through a swampy jungle bass line, Nina Simone chills out in a fuzzy ambient groove and Jimmy Hendrix touches the sky between break beats. A master of strange, head-trip fusion, Polywog ingeniously manages to keep the funk coherent and the booty inspired; a grounding Miami bass is at the foundation of her deep house, jungle and hip-hop selections. A co-founder of Sister, the fierce, girl-DJed house club held every Monday night at Deco, Polywog began playing her enigmatic sounds in 1991, when she, Charlotte the Baroness and Dani started Your Sister's House, the first unisex house party in San Francisco run exclusively by female DJs and promoters.

Recently back from a six-week gig as the only DJ on the Jane's Addiction Relapse Tour, Polywog was also the sole DJ at last year's Lollapalooza. Described as an "incredible" musician by fellow sound-eccentric Perry Farrell, Polywog is readying for future projects with Farrell and his Porno for Pyros. Currently in production with local producer Tyler Stone on her first original house track, Polywog has not let success reduce her faithfulness to the underground scene; if you spot her name on a flier, get out your platforms and prepare for a night of delicious, rhythmic deconstruction.

Metropolitan: How did your involvement with Perry Farrell transpire?

Polywog: It started a couple years ago with a showcase I did for Porno for Pyros in San Francisco. I was DJing in my alien-girl gear--all alien ears and body paint--before the band went on. The next night, Perry asked me to dance onstage with the band at the Trocadero. I must have stuck in his mind somehow, because months later he invited me to work the 1997 Lollapalooza tour--I was the only tour DJ. During the tour, he pulled me aside and said, "Hey, Poly, you wanna play with Jane's Addiction?" Naturally, I was blown away.

Perry is brilliant--not only is he the ultimate rock star, but he's also an elf, a channeler, a magic man--he's completely open-minded and free. To me, he is the Erotic Jesus; he's willing to open himself up and sacrifice himself to bring information to the people. Sometimes in the middle of the show, he would start talking about social and personal issues in this profound, esoteric way. People are hungry for that. They need it, and they're tired of the normal formula. He inspires so many different people--from the super-preppy frat types all the way to super-punk weirdoes. His audience range is huge, and he's so giving to them all. It's very magical to be around him and the band; I definitely felt blessed. We have some work planned for the future. I feel very connected and committed to Perry.

Metropolitan: While most DJs play within very specific genre parameters, the most consistent style in your sound is absolute eclecticism.

Polywog: I've never been a purist. I was a purist in terms of ballet and classical music for a long time, but I was always home in the afternoons after ballet classes listening to the Gap Band and AC/DC. I've always been exposed to different styles of music and I never wanted to be an imitator. If I hear someone playing all house, I'll say, "Now, why would I want to do that?" But I do appreciate that dedication to one sound; some people do it really well. There is a certain amount of individuality a person infuses into playing the same record that another DJ owns.

I like to celebrate diversity and history in sound. Electronic music has its roots in so many different forms of music--it's based on ancient rhythmic patterns, and the repetitive qualities are similar to the music some cultures played when they entered religious trances. I become fascinated and inspired when I blend musical styles. If I'm playing an electro track, I might put a Papuan New Guinea chant over that, bridging past, present and future. It's essential to remember and honor our roots. People who really listen to what I'm playing--the attentive, cerebral listeners--get what I'm trying to do. But I do appreciate people who are purists, because they're elevating their own particular zone. But I'm like the magic monkey; I come in and I say, "Ooh! Let's play around and put this with this, and that with that!" I like to cover territory with my turntables, go on a trip.

I also hear rhythms differently than most. When I studied dance, I took rhythmic analysis classes, and my teachers would say, "You can dance well, but the way you hear and understand rhythm is incredibly strange." I'm wired a little bit differently. I'm just an underground freak, basically.

Metropolitan: In the larger, more mainstream house clubs, the DJ booth becomes a rave altar and the audience devotes all attention to the DJ, as if he were a rock star or a demigod. House was originally the antidote to the rock-star mentality.

Polywog: The super-popular DJs get treated like a shaman or a messiah. They're just playing records, though; that's what cracks me up. When I hear someone who's playing and producing records--that's a whole different level. Basically, a DJ is admired for the style and the choices he makes, and he therefore is the musical source, the unifying element. But at the same time, people are glamorizing DJs to this ridiculous extent to where there's a separation between the DJs and the people, and it shouldn't be that way. During the rave peak in 1991, it started to become that way. I like to keep the energy moving, circulating around to everyone in the club. This fixation on the DJ is a little eerie--people are giving the DJs more power than they deserve.

Metropolitan: Do you consider the DJ a musician?

Polywog: Yes, being a turntablist is being a musician of sorts. It's taking pre-existing material and combining it to create a new sound, an original aural environment. But it's not like being a trained musician. It's not like studying and practicing the guitar or piano for years on end. Some people will differ with my opinion, but there is a slight difference. When you get to the level of Q-Bert and the Scratch Picklz, however, where they're really cutting and carving music and beats, the level of musical and technical skills is astounding. But just matching beats on your turntables is a fairly simple formula--anyone can learn it with practice. DJs are "turntable artists"--they don't play the violin, they sample a violin in a mix. But the DJ education is a self-training process, for the most part, so it does involve intense dedication and practice. It's not a conventional education at all.

Metropolitan: For a self-proclaimed freak, you've had quite the conservative training.

Polywog: Yeah, I went to the School of American Ballet for the New York City Ballet, danced with the Ohio Ballet, and Repertory West out here. But at 17, I veered off the ballet track and went into modern dance and eventually finished my degree at Juilliard. All the attention I focused on ballet frazzled out and expanded into different areas--to art, religious studies and music. I really opened up, and I've been that way ever since. I can't stay on one singular vein--I don't feel the dedication or the interest. And although I look like a freak, I'm really grandma deep down--I still have some strong, traditional beliefs. But the house scene enabled me to release my connection to the technical training and discipline of ballet. I was finally able to just open up and dance completely free, directly from my spirit.

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From the June 29-July 12, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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