Ela Minus: ‘I’ve been defying things all my life.’Tweet
When speaking with Ela Minus you really feel every word she says. She means every word too. Upon my first question to her “Who is Ela Minus?”… She tells “I’m not sure I can do that because by this point, I feel like it’s just me”. From Columbia, born to journalistic parents and essentially growing up in a band with her best friends, her upbringing has instilled in her a far broader awareness than most; both of herself and the world that surrounds her.
Her debut album ‘Acts Of Rebellion’, signed to Domino Records, feels like a culmination of her life to date. A personal invitation from Ela to sit front row with her soul. Born from an unceasing connection with DIY and punk ‘Acts Of Rebellion’ feels immediate. Generous. All-encompassing. It radiates the charms and sensitivities of having a female in the control room.
Just beyond album release, in the swings of promo and glowing reviews, we spoke with Ela. Unpacking her staunchly independent spirit and what it means to be a woman in music today.
Going back to what we might call the beginning of your career. You were in the band ‘Ratón Pérez’ from when you were very young. You spent quite a long time touring too. I’m curious to know how this affected your life being so young? What have you learned from that period in your life?
I definitely learned a lot and I’ve always felt very lucky that this was my upbringing. I was in the band from eleven to eighteen years [old], these are the most formative years of your life. I got to grow up with friends so close and feel like I was a part of something. Being a teenager, I always felt like such an outsider, so different from everybody else. I didn’t really fit anywhere, except in my band.
I always think if I hadn’t had the band, or the hardcore scene, or the punk scene surrounding me, I would be a completely different human being. I was able to develop my love for music and my personality. I really found what I wanted to do because of those years and also how I wanted to do it. This was huge because now I’m rooted in DIY and punk culture. Questioning things and not following trends. That is an extremely big part of what I do now.
Yes, there’s a lot of DIY aspects in your work, especially with the hardware-based, self-built element of the way you make music. How do you feel the things you learned in your early life translate into the music that you make now?
I think it does in two aspects. One you mentioned already in that I play only with hardware. I think this comes from a need to play an instrument. For me, I feel live shows are the soul of music because that’s really where it’s the most alive. I love live shows and I needed to find a way to play the music and liberalise it. I really put my feelings into every show and I felt this was impossible to do with just a laptop.
For me, it’s a tactile thing. I need to physically play things and touch them. This definitely comes from playing drums for so many years. The other aspect is the way I approached my career. I have a label now but I have been doing music all my life and I never really felt like I needed anyone else but myself to do it. I just do it!
In relation to this punk, DIY background that you have. You’ve spoken about how you ask a lot of questions and you don’t follow trends. I’m wondering how this attitude has informed your approach to electronic music. Are there things that you’ve questioned and done differently to how other people might do them?
Yeah, using my voice so much and so upfront. Definitely also on the lyrics side of things. With the lyrical content of this album, the topics are not very common for contemporary electronic music. I think it would have fitted more into the 80’s or early 90’s electronic music. The topics back then were more focused on protest, club culture and other things around them, not only on themselves.
The fact I’m also not using laptops, I think makes a big difference but I know for other people it might not. We should just use whatever instrument works better for us. It’s not like I made a conscious decision to go against anything or anybody, I’m simply going with what I want to go with. It just happens that I have a personality that tends to gravitate towards different things. For me, the most important thing is to be honest and genuine. Whatever you want in your heart, that’s the only thing you should do.
You grew up in Colombia. How was your experience growing up there? How do you feel it might have influenced your independent attitude and overall outlook on life?
I wouldn’t know where to start. I think living in Latin America is such an interesting place in every single way, especially speaking from my experience in Colombia. It’s really like no other place. We are innately more wise, I think. I’ve seen so much death, so much cruelty, so much injustice and poverty. Really dark things. When you’re from Columbia or Latin America, the fact that these things are a part of your everyday, they make your skin thicker and you appreciate other things so much more. I remember when I was about to move to the States, my dad told me that I was going to very fastly notice a difference when I got there because I was going to be living in a country where life meant something.
When you’re from a place like Columbia, this is not the case. Both of my parents are journalists, so they’re very much involved on everything to do with the country, they’re very much aware of things on a much deeper level than many other people’s parents. Having this background has made me think about this concept of,there being as much darkness as there is brightness, even in my music. I have this acceptance of both sides of life. It makes me appreciate everything else even more. I guess it’s way easier for someone who grew up with this all in their face than someone who didn’t.
I have been wondering where this politically charged attitude within your music might have come from. I guess with all the immediate activity within your home country being such a big part of your life, this is naturally going to make you more socio-politically inclined?
Yes, definitely. I’ve also been thinking lately about how I actually wasn’t trying to make a political album. It just came out like that and it makes so much sense. During all the promo people have been asking me what is the difference between the personal and the political? When does it become political? I thought so much about that.
I am a marginalised person in 2020, I’m a Latin American woman and there’s so many other minorities and marginalised communities. For me and for every single person that has been oppressed, there’s really no difference between personal and political. I think right now, even more than ever I would dare say, almost every single person alive in 2020 had their lives directly affected by governments during this pandemic. It’s more clear than ever how it affects our everyday.
In the past you have spoken about your time in the band, mentioning how you had a lot of people who were surprised you were a Latin American female drummer, who wasn’t playing Latino music. In face of this treatment, how have you found ways to drive forward?
I think this is completely out of my upbringing with the band. I was the only woman in that band and all my bandmates were friends from preschool. We were friends since we were four years old, we were essentially brothers and sisters. They were extremely upfront with me always. To be honest, I was always the worst player in the band. We still laugh about one of the guitar players, who is extremely talented but he was extremely mean to the rest of us. Especially as we grew older, he became one of those musicians who doesn’t have patience for musicians that aren’t as good as them, basically. I think back and I remember feeling like ‘wow, this is really cruel, what he’s saying to me’, but I also didn’t care.
I never took it personal, I always just kept going. I think that, apart from everything else, has made me feel like, I don’t really care about much that anybody says to me or about me regarding music. I’ve literally done it all my life in so many different ways and shapes. I’ve come to understand that I’m not doing it for anything else to get back to me. I’m doing it because this is what I do and I’m gonna keep doing it. Of course, I might take some comments and they might hurt more than others, but it’s not gonna change what I do or how I do it, unless it’s from someone I really respect. I’m not really in it for the feedback, I’m in it…well…for IT!
What about your experience in music school. I know you found that experience a little difficult at the start. You’ve talked in the past about the atmosphere stifling creativity. I’m wondering how male dominated that environment was? What did it teach you?
Yeah, it was absolutely male dominated. In my drumming year I was one of two women and on my synthesis year, I think we might have been three or four tops. I can’t remember exactly, but definitely a minority as this was out of thousands! That’s insane! It’s very, very much not equal.
I think if I had arrived at Berklee without having had the band before, it would have been even harder than it was. I wouldn’t have known what to do. I remember feeling like I wasn’t going to school for music, I was going for character building and patience. I still believe that’s what I went to school for. I remember graduating and being like ‘Great. Now, all I have to do is remember everything they taught me and I’ll be fine musically’.
So how exactly did music school education help you develop musically then?
I think there’s really nothing like being confronted everyday with all the options of what you could creatively do. You’re constantly trying things out and feeling like ‘I hate this or this is just not me’. I got to face it and try it. For example, playing drums, I had the opportunity to really try and become one of those drummers that just wants to be the best drummer they can and drum for other people. I tried it and I practised my ass off for so many hours, for so many years. Then I was like, ‘Okay, this is not fulfilling to me’. I think there’s nothing as valuable as experience. I got a lot there, but definitely what I took most out of school was character building and patience.
You just touched on how drumming for other people wasn’t so fulfilling for you in the end. When you found electronic music, you started going out to parties alone. What was it about electronic music that connected with you more than drumming?
To be honest, I did some drumming for other people later when I wasn’t at school and I really enjoyed it. I still love playing drums. When I was living in New York [after school] I got hired by bands I actually liked. Compared to school when you are playing to people whose music you don’t really like, that was really fun. I actually want to keep doing that because it makes me really happy.
With electronic music, it’s a very inexplicable thing for me. I just remember feeling so free, I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I remember my first times at a club by myself, hours would go by and I wouldn’t have noticed. I wasn’t drinking or taking drugs. My first years going to clubs, I was by myself, absolutely sober and realising that I was losing myself in the most beautiful way. I was just there dancing and listening to the music, before I knew five hours had gone by.
I meditate and I think those experiences had been the closest I’d been to meditating back then. Just being absolutely present. There’s something about electronic sound, the darkness and the ritual of going to a club. All the elements I just resonate with so much and it’s the same for me when making it and playing it. The first time I played live with this project, I didn’t know what to expect but I literally got off stage and was like what happened? It was a beautiful thing to experience.
Can you remember any of the artists or DJs that you went to see during those first years of going to clubs alone?
Not really, to be honest. I wasn’t involved in the scene at all. I wasn’t following anything as I wasn’t really part of social media back then either. I remember knowing techno was what I liked the most and I really didn’t like house or other, I guess, happier genres. I do remember after a year or so of going to clubs, I somehow got my hands into Four Tet’s ‘There Is Love In You’ album. I think maybe someone played ‘Sing’ at a party. I remember precisely that moment, listening to the song, it was like everything really hit me. It was the most beautiful thing I’d heard. I’d never heard such melodic electronic music with so much feeling and that really changed everything for me.
You also trained with quite a famous female drummer whilst at music school didn’t you, Terri Lyne Carrington? What did you learn during your time spent with her?
So much! She was the definition of a mentor for me. She was the first one at school who told me, all you have to do is find your own voice. Don’t care about comparing yourself or competing. Don’t even think about what everybody else is doing in the class, just think about what YOU want to do and what YOU want to say. She was so sensitive. She also taught me the difference between a woman and a man making music.
People think it’s a bad thing to accept differences because it’s such an unequal world, but instead of accepting the differences, we are always trying to keep ourselves equal. She was the first one that said you should also tap into your femininity, because we are naturally different animals. Therefore, we make music differently, we approach it in a much more sensitive way.
I saw that in her playing. She played drums as if she was playing melodies, it was beautiful. I remember seeing her play and I was like ‘this is what I want to do, I want to play drums as if it was a piano’. I wanted to find my own voice. I wanted to be able to play drums and have people recognise it was me without seeing me. I owe all of that 100% to her.
You clearly had some strong female role models in your life. Your mum and also Terri. How important was this for you? Do you feel this has informed you in a lot of ways as a woman yourself?
Yes, definitely, especially with my mom. The older I get the more thankful I am. The more I see the ways in which her example has influenced me. She’s an incredibly strong woman, she has always done everything she wanted and has changed often. She always taught me that you don’t have to be one thing your entire life, you can change. It’s okay, especially when you’re a woman, to keep evolving and changing.
With Terri, it was important to have that sense of sistership. I think it’s incredibly important for us as females to have female role models because of the male dominated world we live in. We are so used to seeing each other, woman to woman, like competition in every way! I think that’s bullshit, it’s one of the most harmful things ever. Having friends and other females who admire and support each other, could honestly change the world.
With that in mind, what about your immediate friendship group? Do you have a lot of girlfriends who also do music?
Yeah, the person I work most closely with at Domino is my friend Katie. She’s the only one I showed my demos to and she’s a very big part of my process. She’s an incredible person and music person all-round. We were just thinking the other day how everybody that touched my album is a female. I mixed it with Marta Salogni, who’s an incredible female engineer. Then Heba Kadry mastered it. Almost everybody on my team at Domino is a woman, except for one very nice man. That all just happened. We weren’t planning on it but we realised this is a completely female-made album.
In my personal life I have female friends, but I haven’t really had many female musician friends to be honest. I’ve actually been trying to approach females whose music I love, not just to make friends but also for remix albums. I’ve been reaching out to them before I even reach out to my male peers. I’ve asked a couple of my favourite female producers and we just end up becoming friends because we have so much in common, so that’s been great.
Your debut album ‘Acts of Rebellion’ feels like the perfect fit for the world right now. However, the album was written without foreseeing this time would ever happen, so what actually inspired the album in the first place?
I really wanted to make an album when I sat down to make this. In a way, it’s a milestone of my entire life up to now. My upbringing, my parents, my experience at school, my experience as a Latin American, my experiences travelling too.
I think I was also coming to terms with taking ‘Ela Minus’ seriously for the first time. It was very introspective, the process of making [the album]. In the introspection I realised I’ve been defying things all my life, either privately or not, so it’s also an extremely personal name ‘Acts Of Rebellion’.
Every single thing I made and put out before this album, I didn’t have any awareness of what I wanted to do or what I wanted to say. It was really simply like vomiting. I also had no interest in questioning myself in it. Each song I released before now was like a layer I was shedding. I was just scratching the surface every time, deeper, until I arrived at this album.
So I guess this album is a lot more intentional?
Yes! Definitely way more intentional.
Ela Minus’ ‘Acts Of Rebellion’ LP is out now via Domino Records.
‘Megapunk (Remixes)’ are released today featuring Ellka, Machine Woman and Verraco.
Grab it all here.