Mustard had the pleasure of speaking with Balkanist Discourse! Together we discussed international relations, Lake Michigan, their latest album “The Last Dance”, and so much more!
1. Mustard is grateful to have you join them at Music Shelf. How are you doing today?
Happy to be here! Appreciate the time and questions. It has been sunny and beautiful out in Chicago so my serotonin has returned.
2. You’re a huge international relations nerd. How did the region of the Balkans inspire your name?
I had always been interested in formerly Communist Europe as a child with portrayals of the Soviet Union in movies always capturing my attention, despite being often outlandish and inaccurate at times. Years later, as an undergraduate student, I took a course on representations of post-Communist Europe in all manner of Western media which ultimately poised me towards the former Yugoslavia as well the general intersection of history, culture, politics and more throughout the Balkans. Though Balkanist Discourse is primarily an academic term referring to a generally negative phenomenon, applying Edward Said’s Orientalism to the Balkans, I like that “discourse” itself is inherently neutral and can be changed over time. Plus it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek since I have no familial ties with the area though I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled through much of what was formerly Yugoslavia and even earned myself a nearly fully covered Master’s Program to study the area further (which I completed between 2017 and 2019).
3. What discourse is currently happening in the region of the Balkans? Is there an issue currently being overlooked?
In terms of actual discourse surrounding the Balkans, it still tends to fall into pretty negative generalizations that I won’t waste space reiterating. What’s actually happening tends to vary between the potentially 12 countries one might inclusively consider to be the Balkans. The Žižek in me must note that the question of where the Balkans begin and end is often a political othering tool opposed to a geographic distinction (the literal peninsula). To give people my own version, I’m considering the Balkans geographically: the countries of the former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Kosovo); Albania; Bulgaria; Romania; Greece; and Turkey (a bit of its own thing but has a good chunk of people north of the Bosphorus on the peninsula).
Each country has trajectories and socio-economic realities tied with recent and historical events. Pair that with different governance, different relationships between the proletariat and those in power, and different external influences, and you have considerable variety. That said, the best way to find out what’s actually happening and what life is like is to check with young people in the area. I haven’t been since 2019. Many whom I met in my travels and studies were musicians. Some were trying to migrate to Germany or other countries with a stronger, more established economy. Some were very queer people trying to live life the best they could. Geopolitically, the Balkans today are caught between competing efforts to spread influence – generally from Western powers (EU, US), Russia, and China – much like the rest of the world. I could fixate on micro-level geopolitical realities such as the way military expansion by Russia into Ukraine might affect say Serbia’s relationship with Bosnia (with its large Serb minority) but am not here to bore anyone – especially when even very specific political situations only really give a macro level explanation of daily life and trend towards reiterating the very discourses I find problematic.
4. Some humans do not pay attention to international relations. Why is it important that humans expand their viewpoint?
Namely for perspective and understanding – the world is a massive place. But it’s also enriching to experience the diversity that exists in our world. “Culture” is a pretty loaded term but the things we tend to associate with it are genuinely meaningful no matter how trite it may feel to note.
5. What was your relationship with music growing up?
My parents played it around the house often with my dad being very into a lot of classic rock (took me to my first concert – the Who in 2006) and my mom liking a lot of motown and a range of pop music from her era. I found my mom’s old nylon string acoustic in our storage room around 4th or 5th grade and have been hooked ever since.
6. Who (or what) influences you?
I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly this for years. I love a lot of soul, funk, bossa nova (and samba more generally), classical music, prog rock, sevdalinka, flamenco, afrobeat, disco, and more. It sounds absurd when I say it aloud or put it on paper but a little of everything shows up in what I write. If I had to synthesize it, I like things that are grounded enough to feel relatable, while being, more importantly, ambitious, colorful, and exploratory enough to stimulate my imagination. Basically, it needs to fuck in some way shape or form? Escapism comes to mind.
7.What is your creative process?
It’s pretty all over the place. As I find arrangement to be that which is most emotive, I tend to write all the instrumentation first and tweak everything else from there. Often, it involves throwing ideas together, deciding it works and then trying to say something honest with the lyrics. If it doesn’t feel like it flows – it’s back to the drawing board (I’ll use the ideas elsewhere then). However vague and esoteric it may sound, what music “says” goes far beyond lyrics for me – or at least it should (in so far as art “should” or “shouldn’t be” anything). I don’t like to be too intentional about it all as it needs to be organic to some extent. Or maybe it doesn’t? Fuck if I know.
8. 2017 saw the release of your album “Melancholy Love” that explores coping mechanisms, bigotry, and more. Could you share more about what it was like to put this album together?
It feels like forever ago. Given how long it has taken me to complete albums, a lot of that was written in 2015 and 2016. I fell in love for the first time in 2016. I had begun to be more honest with myself about my queerness (gender questions took a little longer). I also delved into the soulless meandering of the 9 to 5 work life of 21st century capitalist existence in the US (it was actually 8 to 530 for my first of such jobs). There was a lot of vulnerability that I hadn’t really shown to the world yet, let alone the handful of people who have heard that album. The actual making of it was very piecemeal and inconsistent. My mixes are also absolute trash as was most of the production. And yet, the “music within the music” is still there for me: something about the jankiness of it all actually feels magical to me still (at least for a few seconds before I turn it off). That said, I did re-record the title track for Last Dance, so clearly it still felt relevant to me. I recall belting out certain vocal lines half drunkenly in my parents’ basement for some of those tracks and I think it was the first time they heard me do that really. While I had been playing guitar, bass, drums, and singing for a while by then, that album does still feel like my first step into a broader universe. I’m proud of how far I have come as a human and my music has always managed to reflect that somehow.
9. Speaking of bigotry and simple-minded ignorance, why do you believe some humans actively select this? How have facts become something to fear in human society?
It’s an easier choice than proactively being self-critical. It’s also hard to see beyond the environment you grow up within. I grew up in conservative, mostly white suburbia (metro Detroit) and was to some extent a pretty conservative young dingus at a point – though I don’t think I ever fully believed in it all. To arrogantly quote my own music: “an effort’s required to grow” (They/Them off Last Dance). Empathy and compassion require effort because they require you to see past your own biases and it takes time and often outside help to hone the tools required. Of course we can be too critical of ourselves or others and often for the wrong reasons, but if we aren’t intentionally trying to change, we won’t. As far as the second part of the question, I tend to turn this into facts being the tool of progressive, empathetic humans. Facts are a threat only to those whose reality has been skewed by bigotry – intentionally or otherwise. That said, a lot of what some people consider facts are very much so the ingrained biases of a greedy, close-minded society. It makes me think of an Asimov quote that’s noting how Americans think their opinions are equal to fact even when patently incorrect. He references a “cult of ignorance” and that self-important laziness is still pervasive today.
10. Mustard wonders how did Garfield get donked?
Hmm, probably with an eclectic drug cocktail involving psychedelics and some less mind-expanding options. Garfield then became Garfelt, transcending the mortal plane in the process.
11. Could you share more about what Lake Michigan means to you?
Well I fucking love lakes and Lake Michigan is a pretty big, exciting one. I’m a Midwesterner to the core and think Michigan has the most to offer as a whole. Living in Chicago now, it’s amongst the only ostensible natural beauty the area has.
12. Last month you released your most colorful and DIY release yet: “Last Dance.” What was it like to put this album together?
It took me a pretty long time to complete it all. Like Melancholy Love, I had written or started writing lots of the tracks in the years leading up to release. Logistically, it was a bit of a nightmare: I lost a lot of files at one point and had to redo 6 of the 9 tracks from scratch after a point where they had been nearly completed. Working full time staring at a screen all day only to need more screen time to mix can be exhausting as well. It feels like information overload between the minutiae of doubled parts (doubles of doubles even), painstaking automation, and constant self-doubt. I’m relieved to be done with it all in truth.
That said, it was cathartic as well. It’s very much a snapshot of my first year in Chicago (2020), mostly framed through the lens of a specific relationship and all the emotions and analysis that accompanied it. I once again had fallen deeply in love around the time of writing much of the album (once more no longer the case either, haha!). I began to slowly but surely unravel the questions of who I am – trans, queer, solitary but desiring community, empathetic but critical, flawed but growing. Looking back, I don’t really remember how exactly I was able to come up with a lot of the instrumentation beyond luck, consistency and some “divine inspiration.” I don’t like to be superfluous about what I do but I genuinely don’t think I’ve heard anyone or anything that combines as many styles, colors, and emotions as I was able to on this project. Each track is in some way, shape or form a different genre. The result is something almost enigmatic that somehow manages to capture my idiosyncratic interests in the Balkans (to my relationship with my actual heritage in Argentina), to my budding transness, to my coming to terms with aging, and ultimately to the fact that I strive to keep myself moving forward daily. As such, I’m deeply proud of Last Dance even though I’m happy to move beyond it.
13. On “Last Dance” you tell fear to fuck off. Could you elaborate more on this?
The context of the lyric in question (from the title track’s 3rd chorus) was referring to a fear that is stated right from the start: “I fear the day that you become another just like everybody else.” It’s hard to move on once you’ve fallen out of love as there’s something devastating about recognizing that someone who once meant the world to you no longer holds that special place. It’s sort of a loss of innocence and hope all over again each time – accepting that you need to let go of feelings and ideas of who someone is and of who you are. Ultimately it’s an empowering line about being able to essentially control this, or rather to make the choice/decision to change things for yourself. It’s not always easy and I don’t buy into the “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” conservative culture by any means. Our neurochemical realities are not all the same, nor are our socioeconomic backgrounds nor the way these realities intersect. The variances between us are almost as great as what we have in common. However, as much as we need each other to move the world forward, it makes everything more fulfilling if we can commit to growing as individuals too. Being able to motivate ourselves as much as we can to keep moving is crucial though it’s pretty fucking hard sometimes!
14. A human gets the chance to see Balkanist Discourse perform. How would you describe your live performance?
Gay. Trans. Occasionally drunk. Foolish jokes about Jar-Jar Binks, the gender neutral bathrooms that are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s respective gravestones, non-existent concession stand deals, and more.
15. What is next for Balkanist Discourse?
I’m working on a 4th album and have a lot of ideas that I’m trying to sharpen. Initially, it was going to be some absurd “concept album” about splitting from reality and a subsequent journey to hell but then I kept writing fairly catchy words about the reality I know, so I’m not sure. That said, I’ve been lucky enough to have contributed some playing to friends’ projects including a very fun guitar solo (fun for me – no one else) on Risk Watch’s upcoming EP as well as some busy bass for a track of Nathan Roseboom’s (he may remove my foolish contributions – can’t blame him). Those should be out before I finish anything else. Nathan and both members of Risk Watch, Matt Blocher and Michael Homan, also helped me out with some tracks for another Balkanist EP capturing some of my personal favorites to this point. That’ll probably be out before my next album come to think of it and I’m pretty amped for that as well.
16. Where can readers listen to your music?
I always send people the Bandcamp link (will attach below). Though it’s odd, the versions on all streaming services are actually different – what’s on Bandcamp is not mastered. I’ll leave it up to the listener to decide which is better but my good friend and audio wizard Ben Woolgar mastered the album for me and that’s what you’ll hear on Tidal/Apple Music/Spotify.