Published Feb 28, 2019Last we heard from electronic musician James Brooks, he had just rebranded as Default Genders after the fallout from the poorly named, clunkily executed debut EP from his previous project Dead Girlfriends. He dropped Default Genders' debut, Magical Pessimism 2014, and then… nothing.
Brooks finally re-emerged in February with Main Pop Girl 2019, a record that gleefully filters modern pop through the gauzy haze of shoegaze and the hyperkinetic breakbeats of nightcore. Yet underlying those very au courant sounds, from its vaporwave-inspired cover art to its low-key digital-only delivery, is the ineffable whiff of nostalgia for a not so distant past.
"I didn't really think too much about how it fits in because it kind of doesn't," admits Brooks in an interview with Exclaim!. "The response that I've gotten from people is 'That's why I like it.' Maybe it reminds people of that time five years ago, 10 years ago, when music was more of an escape hatch from the direction the world was going."
This is territory that Brooks knows well. In the early 2010s, he was one-half of "multi-media art project" Elite Gymnastics, whose dreamy, nostalgic take on '90s rave music often overshadowed lyrics that championed people and ideas on society's margins.
Elite Gymnastics were lauded in parts of the music press, but Brooks' public profile was elevated when he began dating Claire Boucher — aka Grimes — right around the time mainstream audiences began taking note of her own warped take on electronic pop music. That brought more public scrutiny to his own work, culminating in the release of his debut EP as Dead Girlfriends in 2013. Critics slammed the name ("terrible name" he admits) and accused Brooks of mansplaining sexual assault on the song "On Fraternity."
"I wrote about some serious stuff in a clunky way," he says today. "The mistakes that I had made came dangerously close to affecting the careers of the people around me. I had this great fear of fucking it up and causing problems for the people that were close to me and my life at that time."
Finding himself at a crossroads with his music, he opted to take a step back after 2014's Magical Pessimism.
"I was in a relationship with somebody who was much more successful at music than I was and had, in my opinion, at the time much greater potential to do good and accomplish some of the political goals that I had hoped to accomplish with my music."
Brooks funnelled his energies into Boucher's career, "making sure that all the emails got answered, that there were a sufficient number of video game Easter eggs in the music videos — and, you know, doing the dishes."
After the two split up last year — "that situation changed in a way that the whole Internet became aware of and had different kinds of opinions about; that was weird" — Brooks refocused on his own career. He'd previously floated some demos and mixes that he's since deleted from Soundcloud. But freed from the spotlight that came with dating a famous artist, he began kicking around ideas. Main Pop Girl 2019, he says, "was the first thing that kind of felt good and seemed to be coming together."
Brooks says the Stop Pretending EP was an attempt to make music that "fit in" with what was happening in indie music at the time. He purposely didn't use vocal effects to make recreating those songs live easier.
For this new record, he purposely pitched his voice high to sound more feminine, a chance to break free of gender binaries similar to what he'd done while performing as Elite Gymnastics, a period in which he'd grown his hair long and worn women's clothes on stage. The album's title is a similar nod to this period.
"I felt very free to try a bunch of stuff that maybe I wouldn't have when I felt like it was more of a spotlight on me," he says. "Making this album was also kind of the process of me redefining how I think about myself."
The album is built on the bones of pop's past. Brooks references everyone from Bob Dylan to the Beastie Boys, and even includes a sped-up cover of the Bruce Springsteen ballad "Secret Garden" (cleverly re-titled "Secret Garden .NUXX," a reference to '90s big beat rave heroes Underworld). But its nostalgia is rooted more in the early 2010s online culture that first inspired Brooks.
"I feel like you see stuff from outside the major label system flourish much less often," he says, blaming the corporate takeover of the platforms listeners use to consumer music. He points to a band like Animal Collective, whose breakthrough Merriweather Post Pavilion touched on a lot of the kinds of off-the-beaten path genres championed in file-sharing communities, as a product of that digital stew.
"When all these torrent trackers got wiped out by law enforcement and all these full album blogs and message boards that shared Rapidshare, Mediafire and Megaupload links, it really chopped the legs out from under the whole phenomenon. You're never going to be able to do truly anti-establishment art on Spotify."
Main Pop Girl 2019 is out now on Default Genders' Bandcamp.