The Ecstatic Body: An Interview with Julius Smack

Under the stage persona Julius Smack, Peter Hernandez is part of a new wave of emerging artists that are trying to define their identity in a century that is trying to do just the same. Often wearing white jeans, his signature white face paint, a white shirt, and a tuft of blond curls hanging out of a white baseball hat worn backwards, Julius Smack combines the slow mortal pangs of Butoh with a sense of definitive post-internet Millennial angst. His performances cross boundaries between music and performance art and he will often sing his own songs, which are produced and released by his own record label – called Practical Records. Most of Smack’s recent songs were produced in his former home in San Francisco (he is now based in Los Angeles) and they have distinct political overtones. In the following interview, Julius Smack (Peter Hernandez) talks political performative art, his recent move to Los Angeles and why he uses Starbucks cups and yoga mats in some of his performances.

AUTRE: Who is Julius Smack?

JULIUS SMACK:Julius Smack is an awoken statue from antiquity that pontificates social and political messages through dance and song. In the past I used make-up to conflate an impression of a Grecian statue and Butoh dancer. I’d paint my face white and wear some white hair under a white hat. I explored vogue and butoh dance mostly at a historic drag bar in San Francisco called Aunt Charlie’s Lounge, where every Tuesday I presented a new track and a new choreography.

AUTRE: How would you define your genre of music – is it art or music?

SMACK: Maybe it’s Los Angeles, but I am beginning to see the two modes as one. I’m interested in music as art and vice-versa. I don’t think of the individual recordings of my music as art, but I think of the physical package of music as cassette or CD-R as being artful. That’s when it can be packaged and asserted as art with the accompanying liner notes and design. When I can convey a narrative arc, I think of the music as art. When I perform, I feel like I’m displaying artistic gestures. When I can give a whole Julius Smack performance, I think it’s art.

AUTRE: You recently moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles – what prompted the move?

SMACK: I’ve long wanted to live here since I was a teenager because I listen to a lot of music from here. There's a wealth of possibility and invention here and that’s partly why I'm here. I’m witnessing exciting and new modes of performance all the time, where there’s little delineation between music or dance or theater. I’m also dating a performance artist and writer named Brian Getnick, who I met when I lived in San Francisco. Being here with him has really shaped my performance practice because we discuss ideas and possibilities and he equips me with rehearsal and studio space. He also has a great performance art journal called Native Strategies that I recommend to anyone curious about Los Angeles’ emergent performance art.

AUTRE:What can you expect from a Julius Smack performance – I read something about yoga mats and Starbucks cups?

SMACK: That performance was at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge in San Francisco. There’s a great party on Tuesday nights called High Fantasy. It’s an incubator for new performance coming out of the Bay Area. The night I used a yoga mat and Starbucks cups I performed a version of the song “Choices” from my new album. I arranged three members of the audience in poses that resembled Julius Smack. One person was in the pose of the Statue of Liberty, one was in a Thinking Man pose. Then I placed in their hands a Starbucks cup of varying sizes and directed the lyrics to them --"There's no time to make up your mind, you're not sure of it anyway." I was thinking of ways to delegate the performance to the audience. I’m interested in transforming a place into a performance space through movement and voice. There’s something really exciting about seeing someone step into a performance in their usual garb. What are the possibilities of the spontaneous and unchoreographed present?

AUTRE: What are your performances like lately?

SMACK: Lately my performances involve a deal of surprise and emergence, field recordings and live recordings. I want to affect space as clearly as possible and not to rely on pre-recorded music, which has begun to feel like a crutch for performance. There is so much possibility in witnessing a body in space! Am I going to pose against a wall? Am I going to hold an audience member? In what order will I jump, sing, and dance? To allow that kind of response to space, I have been doing more acapella performances that use field recordings and live instrumentation. At Human Resources last month I used a night vision camera that was operated and projected live as a reflection of the audience. Human Resources used to be a film cinema, but all the chairs have been stripped out and it’s just a big white cube with concrete floors and perfect reverb. So I did an acapella song and then used a keyboard live for my first time. It was so liberating - I don't intend on relying heavily on backing tracks.

AUTRE:Can you describe your new album Everyday Ballet?

SMACK: Most of those songs were crafted in my big bedroom in San Francisco, and then I had a lot of room and space and time for recording. I could focus on audio effects and to adjust synthesizer tracks in a dance music form. I was really inspired by the house dance music that pervades San Francisco's music scene - it was there that I discovered some of my greatest house influences, primarily Terre Thaemlitz. And I was also looking at themes of social justice, progressivism, and gentrification, which are so fundamental to San Francisco's depleting culture. There's a song titled "Living Social," and I illustrate an image of house flippers speculating on the value of the Victorian I was living in. The lyrics empathize with the house and its history and feeling. Or "I Say What I Want," which basically calls out those who claim to oppose climate change with rhetoric instead of action.

Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Photograph and video by Perry Shimon. You can learn more about Julius Smack by visiting his website. You can also purchase music – including his new album Everyday Ballet - here. If you are in Los Angeles, you can see Julius Smack perform on November 29, at the Handbag Factory, 1336 S Grand Ave Los Angeles, California