When electronic glam-goth Chris Corner relocated from Berlin to Los Angeles, he was following in a tradition of European misfits dating back to the period immediately before the second World War, when Frankfurt School intellectuals like Theodor Adorno made Southern California their home. It wasn’t always a good match, particularly for orthodox Marxist intellectuals horrified by what they saw as the rise of a deadening culture industry.
But for Corner, who has performed under the IAMX moniker since the mid-aughts, it brought proximity to the desert and an escape hatch from the everyday. Having released eight supremely unified records that feel like crystals that thrive in near-total darkness, IAMX’s aesthetic is simultaneously unapproachable and intimate, a highly stylized performance that never feels kitschy or arch. After a recent collaboration with fashion guru Kat von D (“Stardust”), the duo comes to S.F. for one night only at Great American Music Hall, Monday, May 7.
This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about your work is that there’s never been a descent into camp. You never wink at the audience, and the mystery always remains intact. Has that gotten more difficult over time or is it because you have a dark view of the human psyche?
I definitely struggle with two things. One thing is that I do have a little bit of a cynical view of humanity, and when that overwhelms me I can be quite dragged down. But also, I think I have such a deep inner self-critic that’s so self-aware and so kind of intense, that I’m constantly just analyzing myself and my place in the world, my place in music, my place as a creative person. I doesn’t mean that I compromise what I do in the studio; in fact, it’s the other way around. It pushes me to be more and more real and honest with myself. I just can’t stomach to see myself in an un-honest or un-real way.
I think it definitely propels me, this inner critic, to be more honest with myself — even though I do love to play with the sort of theatricality and mystery of the stage and performance and video-making and visuals, it’s still very real to me.
Would you describe yourself as an introvert? It’s always fascinating to regard performers who get up on stage and present this highly developed character or narrative yet who are anything but that musical theater-type personality who simply basks in adulation and acclaim.
I do think I’m painfully introverted a lot of the time. I’m socially awkward — when I’m put in a social situation, I can perform the way I would on stage and adapt, and I can be a certain way, but I really despise small-talk. I despise dishonesty and bullshit and the everyday grind of conversation. I do find that very difficult to stomach, so I hide a lot of the time. Yes, when I get on stage and when I make a record and when I think emotionally about what I want to say, it is a bit overwhelming and I ask myself, “Why the fuck am I doing this?” And yes, I’m still driven to do it. It is a constant sort of dance: I do love it, I don’t love it, and over time, it just balances out a little bit when you become immune to the stress of it. You get better at dealing with the stress. I’ve learned to avoid things. I’ve learned to accept myself and surrender to it a bit more and have a bit more compassion for myself these days.
What role, if any, does chance plays in the creative process? I ask because I imagine it’s a very specific one, since you have such a firm idea of your sound and aesthetic. But there seems to be an openness to serendipity — if only because that’s the way the universe operates.
I like to think of myself as not too rigid in the creative process. I’m definitely insecure, in a sense that I like to work alone. I feel safe not exposing myself until the idea is pretty well-formulated, but I do love to have time to experiment. When I don’t have time I feel very stressed because I know I take time to develop my ideas. I’m not naturally brilliant at anything. It just takes me time to get through to the point, so I like to spend a lot of time alone working through things and formulating. Randomness is nice. In the end, I do make electronic music — even though it is organically tinged, I do it electronically. I work with a computer in a box by myself.
I take you at face value when you say you like to work alone, but you’ve had a fruitful collaboration with Kat von D. How did that come about?
She’s amazing, and we’re both control freaks in our own world. And when we both bow down to each other on the other’s terms — she had no qualms about surrendering to my control, and in the studio and that put me at ease. I don’t like to collaborate like that, but she basically posted a video of herself in slow-motion, falling backwards to an IAMX song and I really liked it. I liked the playfulness of it and it showed a different side of her that I hadn’t really seen. She’s a fashion icon, but then I realized that she was a very talented musically, and it seemed natural. It was a natural thing to do.
You recently relocated from Germany to Southern California, which at first blush might not seem like the most logical fit, but L.A. has a dark underbelly, and lots of people have moved from Berlin to L.A. and prospered.
I’m a bit of a nomad, always searching for a place to settle down and put my creative roots. L.A., I came for a few years, and I loved it and I hated it and I hated it and I loved it, and I ended up loving it and the geography of it, and I found good people there that I didn’t really expect, some real down-to-earth people. There’s a sense of community that I’ve never really had, which is strange. It also has been a transition for me into the desert. That’s really what I’ve discovered recently and developed a real passion for: the Mojave Desert. I have a cabin out there and I love it. I made the album out there in the desert, and I think I’m going to move out there, and just sort of wallow in nature for a few years. I’m still in my honeymoon with it. I love Southern California. I love America. I didn’t ever think that I would, really, but I’m fascinated by it.
It’s just too grotesque and too compelling, right? You fell in love with the overwhelming weirdness.
Exactly. That’s a good way to put it. I know it’s a sort of celebration of the individual. You can be a freak in America. There’s so many freaks. I feel like I can really breathe, but it’s also yes, it’s massively dark and massively complex, massively naive, massively powerful, it’s just everything, all of life that you could imagine in one place and I find that invigorating. Maybe I’ll get bored with it, but there’s so much space physically, mentally. I really am in love with it. Let’s see how long that lasts.
An Evening with IAMX and Special Guest Kat Von D, Monday, May 7, 8 p.m., at Great American Music Hall, $21-$41.95; slimspresents.com