In Conversation with Alexander Geist

If you haven’t heard of queer performer Alexander Geist, it’s about time we changed that.

Based in Berlin, Geist has become an icon of the city’s queer performance scene through his ability to merge nostalgic musical references and contemporary sounds. Described as “a little bit Bowie, a little bit Dietrich”, Geist and his band have played across Europe, from Zagreb to Paris, Vienna to Lisbon and beyond.

This October Geist returns to London for a one off show at Rich Mix, a dynamic venue in the heart of London’s east end. Any Instant Whatsoever is inspired by the relationship between London and Berlin’s increasingly threatened underground queer scenes. As more queer spaces are squeezed out by the unstoppable tide of gentrification, what can we do to save the party? With live music, dancing, bright lights and fab costumes, the event will also launch Geist’s new single Far Worse, the video to which he shot on Berlin’s leather scene this summer. On the eve of his UK return, we caught up with the man himself.

What drew you towards Berlin as a city?

I went to Berlin on a whim. I just hopped in my friend Tom’s rental car and I was off. I felt like I was following in the footsteps of fellow queer Brits like Isherwood and Bowie.

I started performing in Berlin in a very organic way. I met a lot of new people at parties and somewhere along the way we began making pop music. It started with a few gigs at nightclubs, like the notorious Ficken 3000 and Chantal’s House of Shame. At first it was a way to pass the time in between sex dates and museum openings, but it snowballed quite quickly. Now we’re touring all the time.

This show explores similarities between London and Berlin, what do you see as the main similarities and challenges facing both cities?

For this piece I’ve been working with the dancers to try and explore the creeping feeling of queer erasure that comes with mainstream acceptance of gay rights. As a queer artist you hear a lot of people telling you that if you’re “too gay you won’t find a broad audience, or find yourself framed only in a ‘gay performance’ niche. But at the same time so many straight artists are making work with a hyper-gay aesthetic which reads as cool because it’s divorced from the actual queer experience.

Artists often say: “I’m not queer but I’m very interested in (making) queer work.” They’ll straight-wash artists like Felix Gonzales Torres so he’s more palatable to buyers to have the pay-day of an on-trend queer vibe, without any queer people getting in the way.

In such a fraught political time, how important is it for queer people to stay radical?

Being queer is implicitly radical; it defies all the codes of authority we’re subject to. It’s inescapable. You can’t not be political when everything you do is under scrutiny. When I can make out at the bus stop or walk along the sea front with a friend without someone trying it, then maybe I’ll consider queerness depoliticised.

Tell us about some of your musical influences?

The musical influences I’m drawing on span from the late 70s to the mid-90s, there’s disco, synth pop, no-wave, grunge, house and shoe-gaze in there. I guess what I’m trying to do is make a compilation of AIDS crisis music, to measure how it changed culture. The music of the 1980s specifically actually always creeped me out, I love the 1970s so much more. Everyone was so soft-butch in the 80s, in the 70s it seemed much more homemade looking, that appeals to me. I feel as though I could knit the seventies by hand myself over the course of a few wet Sunday afternoons.

How is this show different to projects you’ve worked on before?

This is the first time I’ve had such a clear concept for a concert, and also the first time that I’ve worked with dancers like this. It’s as much of a dance piece as a pop concert. We’ve also gone back to the basics of theatre; movement, sound, light and have taken anything too tech-heavy out. There’s no video for example, I’m so bored of seeing pop stars in front of these huge screens that are doing half of the work for them. I’m not here to see the retouched, well-lit, onscreen you. I wanna see you sweat!

Do you see your performances as a form of activism?

No, it’s largely preaching to the perverted, isn’t it? But I feel that doing it for ourselves is more than valid. I’m not trying to be Sam Smith, some everygay to roll out at tea time. I’m not here for the great and gorgeous general public. I belong to the queer community, I’m trying to share a queer experience queer people and contribute to that economy.

What are some of the most exciting and challenging projects you’ve been involved in as a performer?

I’ve been so lucky as a performer because my music has introduced me to so many great artists and has led to a lot of really wild opportunities. I’ve made films in France, Germany and the UK, I’ve toured from Tokyo to Rio and I’ve met so many of my heroes while working. So it’s hard to pick one project. Last year I sang the lead in ‘GIANNI’ at the Deutsches Oper in Berlin, and because I can’t actually read music I had to learn the whole score by ear! I’d say that was about the biggest challenge thrown at me.

Why are queer spaces so important?

Queer spaces are crucial because they’re magic, and they’re the source of all art and culture. I think if we spun it like, “No more gay bars = no more tongue-popping Drag Race Queens”, we’d have a lot more support and allies in saving queer spaces, right?

In a sentence, explain why you do what you do?

I do it to get paid, and I do it to get laid.

Alexander Geist’s new single Far Worse is released on October 2nd. He will perform Any Instant Whatsoever at Rich Mix on October 13th. Tickets are available at RICHMIX.ORG.UK

Photography: Florian Hetz

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