Artists In Conversation: Cathy Hsiao x Jen De Los Reyes

Banner photo credit: Jen De Los Reyes by Cathy Hsiao

Cathy Hsiao interviews Jen De Los Reyes. The two artists discuss their mutual love for music, art, Riot Grrl and the sexy strength of community.

CH: How did you get started in drums?

JDLR: I started playing the drums as a teenage girl. I took lessons in the basement of a renovated residential home from a man who looked like a young Elvis and was undoubtedly the focus of many teens fantasies. He let me know that while I wasn’t great at the guitar, I actually had really good rhythm and he suggested that I play the bass or drums instead. So to further infuriate my mother, I found both instruments in the classified section of my local newspaper and got a cheap set of drums and a bass.  This was in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was the mid-90’s; infused with the energy of Riot grrrl and DIY. Every night in 1995 I listened to the “Diamond Sea” by Sonic Youth on cassette as a lullaby. The first vinyl I bought was during that same year; it was Sleater Kinney’s self-titled album. I was so inspired by women like Janet Weiss and Kim Gordon that I wanted to play in bands and keep the beat.

CH: What were some formative experiences that got you into being a drummer and an artist?

JDLR: How I work today as an artist is rooted in what I learned as a teenager in the music scene of Winnipeg. All the skills I learned as a show organizer, listener, creator of zines, and band member was so formative. That was how I learned to build a scene and eventually help nurture a movement. I learned that the most important part of being an organizer is being a deep listener and I understood that I could contribute to a discourse through writing and self-publishing. Playing in bands is how I learned to be a collaborator. Because of these experiences I can see my work as an organizer and radical arts administrator as a key component of my continued creative work and holistic practice as an artist.

“….we are always stronger together.”

CH: How do you see your own work in self-care, art and activism reflect itself in the way you pursue drumming or music in general as a woman?

JDLR: Art critic and cultural theorist Jan Verwoert has described certain kinds of art as a “resonating body”. That is when a body of work offers something for others to share, and makes the voices of many others resound. He goes on to say that, for echoes and resonances to become audible someone has to make a sound, play a tune, or lay down a rhythm. Someone has to start playing.

Hearing this description made so much sense for me as a way to describe my work as the Director and founder of Open Engagement. Open Engagement (OE) is an annual, three-day, artist-led conference dedicated to expanding the dialogue around and creating a site of care for the field of socially engaged art. It makes a space and supports the work of transdisciplinary artists, activists, students, scholars, community members, and organizations working within the complex social issues and struggles of our time. And it all started simply because I saw a need for artists doing this work to come together.

I have often said that my work on the conference is the most important contribution that I could make as an artist, it has created a rhythm for the field, made a continued site of connection. It has really helped to support and build a movement of artists and institutions who are working towards radical and creative change in the world. And to make that kind of change we need to care for ourselves, and each other.

“I was so inspired by women like Janet Weiss and Kim Gordon that I wanted to play in bands and keep the beat.”

CH: You are talking a lot about making connections and building movements, does any of that carry over to romantic relationships?

JDLR: I think it does without a doubt. Bell Hooks has said that she believes that all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic. Love is about intimacy and vulnerability, whether that is on a one to one scale, or in a group context. Communication is also critical, and understanding when to make space and when to take space. Being a good lover is being a good collaborator.

CH: Any thoughts on whether one should be romantically involved with a band mate or collaborator?

JDLR: While being a good lover is like being a good collaborator, I think it complicates things when sex gets introduced to certain group dynamics, like a band, and not always in an interesting way. But sometimes it creates interesting tensions or can really produce incredible dynamics and work. In 2009 I did a project called ‘Remaking Rumours,’ I really wanted to explore that album because of the fraught band dynamics romantically. I brought together over 50 people to recreate the Fleetwood Mac album. For two weeks a recording studio was filled with individuals and bands, many meeting for the first time, each there to re-record a track from ‘Rumours.’ Before I started the project, I talked to a curator friend of mine about what I was planning to do. He felt that the project would be more compelling if I had just one group of people recreate the album in its entirety. I told him that for me it was not about remaking the struggle of a small group of specific individuals, but using ‘Rumours’ as a way of showing the broader difficulties of relationships and working together, while simultaneously highlighting the results that it can produce.

“…to make that kind of change we need to care for ourselves, and each other.”

CH: I know a large part of your work is as an educator, so as those folks like to ask, what is the big take away from all of this?

JDLR: I share this quote from Joe Strummer at almost all of my artist lectures:

“I think that people love rock groups more than
solo artists maybe… because there’s something
fantastic about four people being able to meld
together in that way and move forward in one
direction. Because that’s hard enough with two
people, never mind four, and mathematically it
must be increasing the chances of arguments
by millions every time you add another person
to the unit. And so people like to see that,
because it makes us think better of ourselves…
as a species.”

For me, the biggest takeaway is that we are always stronger together.

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