Baba Stiltz in conversation with Natasha Stagg
October 8, 2019, New York-based fashion journalist, writer and copywriter, Natasha Stagg published Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019 Semiotext(e), a follow up to Surveys, her 2016 coming-of-age novel about internet fame and the rise of the influencer. Sleeveless, which gathers Stagg’s essays, stories, and profiles on art and fashion written over the past eight years, speaks to the new spaces and meanings created by the Internet – through advertising, the falseness of branding, and the rapid mutation of consumerism. At a time when confessional Instagram captions often doubled as ad copy, Stagg worked as an editor for V Magazine and as a consultant, creating copy for fashion brands. Through these jobs, she met and interviewed countless industry luminaries, celebrities, and artists – all naturally embedded in her work, making it difficult to distinguish the fictional from the non-fictional. “We talk in circles, we don’t get anywhere,” she wrote, reflecting the internet’s ability to stretch time, surfing through decades in a single click.
Music producer, DJ and founder of record/publishing label Cycle, Baba Stiltz read Sleeveless during a flight home from one of his tours in Ibiza. He became consumed in how Natasha observes the opulent emptiness of ’10s New York. Somehow it reflects on his own experience living and working in Stockholm – ”where everyone smells the same, looks the same, reads the same shit and listens to the same music”. Due to the boredom of the Internet, he began using his Tumblr, a photoblog if you will, beyond the algorithm-made content. Natasha on the other hand, who sort of predicted the age of the influencer, has deleted her Instagram. Wasn’t it natural that the two should talk? So they did. One day in July, the two Zoomed for almost two hours, did the dishes, smoked, drank and talked about the aesthetics of things and what it means to interact with culture.
[Baba Stiltz calling…Natasha Stagg. Going from hi, hello to applauds on recent works straight to the very guy who gave Natasha’s phone number to Baba. Paul Cupo, the former fashion director of Hood By Air.]
B Shout out to Paul and Not Really for being the best podcast in the world.
N Oh my God I love Paul!
B We became friends on the internet at the beginning of Corona.
B I think I commented on a [Instagram] story he put up, he was wearing those Ray-Bans that Christopher Moltisanti wore. I was like ‘Fuck, those are so sick, I been looking for those all over the place’. You know Paul, he’s a very friendly guy. How did you get to know him?
N I guess, probably through Patrik [Sandberg] who together with Paul started the Not Really podcast. I worked with Patrik in 2012 at V Magazine, and I basically still work with him. He is now the creative director of CR Fashion Book and CR Men.
B Patrik lives in LA, right?
N Yes, we had a going away thing for him, it was before everything was opened again. It was on a pier, on the grass. I hadn’t seen him in forever and now, maybe I’m never going to see him again.
B It’s strange. My dad and my family are on the West Coast, San Francisco. I don’t know when I’ll be able to so my grandma, she is 80 something, it’s weird you know. Even if I’ll go now, fly out tomorrow, even then I don’t want to risk it. She’s fucking old.
N Where are you from?
B I’m super mixed. I’m all over the place. My dad is Filipino American and my mom is American, English, and Swedish. I grew up in a small town called Vacaville, it’s in between Sacramento and San Francisco, Northern California. Then I moved to Stockholm when I was about six. I spent most of my life in Sweden, which is cool. I like Stockholm a lot but it’s kind of the worst place as well.
B People are you know… like the 12-year-olds wear Acne hoodies and stuff…
B It’s kind of cool, people have good taste but Swedish people love to conform. I don’t know if that’s like the legacy of our socialist history, the collective kind of hive mind, that has mutated into this weird consumerist situation. Where people look like each other and have money to spend on stupid shit like clothes or perfume. Everyone smells the same, looks the same, reads the same shit and listens to the same music – which messes with me because I’m the complete opposite.
N Is that how you think when you’re making music too, like reacting to your surroundings?
B I think music for me was always there. I kind of fell into it, because my parents are both culturally curious and interested in different shit. My mom would introduce me to British music like Nick Drake and my dad was into American music. The music thing always comes from a place where I can do whatever I want to do. Which is getting more and more difficult.
B The music industry is in a weird place. It used to be so open during the early ‘10s. You could just post something on Soundcloud and it would kind of reach out to people in a very natural way. Whereas now, every single platform is so commodified to the point where you don’t have a chance to reach out to people really. It’s basically cable TV, all owned by big companies.
N I don’t know if it is because I’m getting older or that things are actually changing but I haven’t been introduced to new music that makes sense to me in a long time.
[*Loud sound of an iPhone ringing* it’s Natasha’s.]
N I went into a deep dive to EDM before writing Sleeveless. I’m so fascinated by the lyrics but I don’t know enough about that music culture.
B Up until the mid-2000, dance music was all // either ‘ecstasy, ecstasy’, the lyrics were tongue-in-cheek about drugs and then all of a sudden it was ‘Sitting with my friends drinkin’ Corona/tomorrow will never come’. This sappy depressed state of mind. I think it’s got to do with the times, dance music is like a quick fix to turn everything off. You go clubbing and do drugs to become anyone or no one.
[*A scratching sound and a click* “Hello”, says Natasha. “I can’t hear you. Okay, so I’ll wait”. Baba switches headphones and continues.]
B One thing I’ve been thinking about is how much I suddenly hate the Internet. I’m so over it. On every single level, I don’t interact with it the same way I did six months ago. It’s become this huge Walmart that like, shoves new things in my face all the time.
I’m lucky that I live in Stockholm so that I can go out of my apartment. I don’t know how I would have coped if I was in lockdown. Sorry I need to get something to drink… It’s 18.30 so I can have a drink now.
[*Messy sound* and Baba opens drawers looking for something that he can open his beer with.] Have you been working with anything of your own recently?
N It’s been really hard to focus. I keep talking to other writers and they also have the same problem. I live in a studio apartment, and my therapist told me that I need to create different spaces and place myself in different parts when I’m doing work or my own projects and so on, I don’t think she realises that I don’t have that many places to go. [Laughing] it’s just like one room, I can either be in bed or on this couch.
B I feel so lucky being in Stockholm hearing you talk about this stuff. I like the idea of going to work, even if you’re freelance or work in weird art industries. Working on stuff at home sucks. You supposed to just cook food and do stupid stuff at home, like masturbate and get drunk and then go to work [Laughs].
N Like giving yourself options to do those things while working from home is quite dangerous [Laughs].
B Do you like the music I sent you?
N I do, it’s very different from everything else you’ve done.
B It’s been quite the change for me which is fun but scary… Even if I do the same shit I did five years ago, it’s difficult to have people enjoy something. I don’t get the accessibility of culture now. The way people interact with culture has become so annoying that it feels like we don’t enjoy stuff anymore.
I find watching movies turns me off, just trying to find something to watch is a drag, so I end up watching Shrek… I watched every Shrek movie the other day because I couldn’t deal with making a decision. I think it’s the same with music. As a musician, imagine having one song on a huge playlist, it’s not about the music, It’s a “vibe”, it’s just noise. Nowadays it’s so much about the aesthetic of things to the point where the actual content of culture seems irrelevant.
N I’m curious about the music part, I feel like my own interaction with music has become more and more like what you are saying with your movie experiences.
B How would you say that this way of interacting with culture and art has affected authors and the literary world in general?
N Streaming services kill movie watching, you feel fatigued when you think about that industry and the music industry, and the art industry which is totally fucked. The literary world does feel a little bit unchanged to me.
B I envy my friends who are authors, that world seems so cool.
N It has its problem too. At least here there’s a type of person that I don’t want to be associated with or come in contact with at all, a real career writer that only wants to talk about writing, other writers or parties with writers. You guys suck. The thing with writing is you need other experiences to make it good. If I didn’t dip into other worlds my writing would be terrible. I mean that’s the same with everything.
B I think a lot of people are encouraged to become one entity, one brand and then they live and die within that world which makes me wanna quit music at times.
N Yeah, also, if you had stopped doing music people would think of you as a failure. I always get that fear that if I’d ever stop writing, the assumption would be that I couldn’t do it. That something stopped me from doing it, failure or I lost my motivation. What if I just didn’t want to do it anymore.
N Can I ask you more about the sad dance lyric thing? How did you see that changing over time and where’s it at now?
B I think, making dance for a general audience in the early 10s, you mixed this bittersweet thing, with a pop sensibility over repetitive beats. People liked that type of mood, a carefree but sad mood. For people born in the 90s, I just think we’re all super confused, don’t know anything about anything, who we are or what we want to do.
N I’m really into it. In America, [Baba starts whistling] I think it’s really a misunderstood genre. Because you only see the types of people that go to music festivals. They don’t look educated…that that kind of music should be for dumb people. [Baba is pouring water] But the lyrics are actually so bizarre and more intelligent than most pop songs because they have this darkness to them.
[*Water pouring*] Natasha’s boyfriend is doing the dishes in their very small studio apartment…]
N I’m fascinated by the influencer culture and the way people present themselves online, I’m obsessed, it reflects back at me. Everything I’m doing has some promotional quality to it. I don’t want to do anything that contributes to that machine.
B You deleted your Instagram right?
N Yes, It does feel liberating, It was harder than deleting Facebook or any other thing I’ve ever been on. This one is rough because it doesn’t feel like it’s going away. All of my friends are still communicating that way. I still don’t want to be part of it, I really hated it.
B It’s such a luxury to function without social media nowadays [laughs]. There are a few people that are into my stuff and it’s so scary to think I could even delete my Instagram. Maybe I should focus on communicating through the context of bigger channels or maybe it’s really a good idea to keep promoting my music by posting a picture of my face on Instagram stories?
N That’s an interesting perspective on not having an iPhone, that it’s a luxury, if people already know who you are you don’t need that. That’s a weird way to live – not everyone has to be known.
N This is another way how the literary worlds are freer than the other worlds. At least how I look at it. I don’t need a lot of people to buy my product. No matter how many books I sell, I’m not going to make myself rich. There are of course authors who get rich from selling their books, Stephen King is rich. But they are few and far between. Books should just be passed around. Nobody should fucking own a book that they’re going to read once.
N I was talking to my cousin, she’s in her early 20’s, she’s really good at money and works for a financial institution. She tells me that I’m not promoting myself enough. She was against me leaving Instagram because she thought that if I’d stay I would sell more books. But the thing is- I get four fucking cents when I sell a book.
B I think your cousin is kind of right. If you’re on Instagram and create this persona online, maybe you will sell some more books.
N But wouldn’t you think that is cheesy and sad?
B I would respect the hustle but yeah, all social media use is cheesy. I have such a weird relationship to Instagram, I haven’t been posting anything since Corona and during the protests. I was so bummed out by the situation, the reality of things and how it has impacted my family. It all became so dumb.
N I left because I was overwhelmed but also I was nervous because I didn’t want to be perceived like one who is running away from the conversation. But those important conversations shouldn’t be there.
B I don’t think anything should be there really.
N All I ever did was to promote my own shit. That made me feel disgusting. I’m a person who’s writing about influencer marketing and working with branding studios and I go home and promote myself? That’s letting all of my work and studies bleed into each other in a very unhealthy way. I need some separation between church and state.
B I’m so envious of you!
N Why don’t you leave Instagram then?
B I’m scared. I don’t know if I could live without that space, promotion wise. It helps in a way. Just knowing that I control that narrative 100% is somewhat comforting. These times connected to social media, it’s so strange. I’ve not been posting anything lately. I’ve been disconnected but still feeling the same anxiety around social media just by having the App on my phone. It has this psychological grip on me, it’s stressful and embarrassing. I do love Paul’s Instagram, his private one; screen grabs of stuff. It’s always funny and on point.
N Honestly, he inspired me to leave Instagram. I will never be that good. He’s not portraying some polished version of himself it’s the opposite, it’s his brain…
B That’s the scary thing. In a year, all of a sudden people will think his way of posting is a cool way of doing things, and then it’s a brand. It gets commodified so quickly nothing is holy, everything is capital. Do you know what I’ve been using a lot? Tumblr, I’m back on Tumblr. I just recently started posting there again. It’s so nice to post something and get zero likes, it’s so nice.
N I felt like I wasn’t really trying but it still kind of got the right reactions so I felt like leaving Instagram when I was ‘on top’. I’m just really afraid of being canceled.
B Everyone is. This is the worst moment in culture for everyone. Everyone is fucking scared of doing anything.
[1:24 min Natasha lights a cigarette and Baba gets some Nicotine too.]
B What are your favorite cigarettes?
B MINE too! I quit smoking. It sucks, I hate it.
N What are you having instead?
B It’s Swedish Snus.
N I’ve never tried that.
B It’s not smoking, smoking is so cool Natasha!
N No it sucks [laughs].
B Okay, I think our time is up. Natasha, I’m going to stress you, please write a new book. See you in New York when all of this is over! Bye!
N Thank you Baba, looking forward! Bye…
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