Ready Player One An interview with the Grimes about the evolution of tech

WordsAlex Moshakis

What would Grimes have said if you told her five years ago, when she released her last album Art Angels, that the release of her next record would coincide with becoming pregnant with her first child and the modern world collapsing under the pressure of a deadly pandemic?

The concept of that seems even more sci-fi when you say it out loud. When pregnant, during lockdown, she partnered up with WeTransfer to invite people from all over the world to superimpose themselves in her new DIY music video as a way of communicating with her fans. They responded in their droves, ecstatic to have her back. In a way, her timing could not be more perfect, or more Grimes. Here, writer Alex Moshakis speaks to her about AGI, DIY and her thoughts on the potential of our ever-evolving technological world.

Listen to Grimes - You'll Miss Me When I'm Not Around

Earlier this year, the Canadian musician Claire Boucher, who goes by the name Grimes, created a new version of herself: WarNymph, a digital avatar, through which she could separate her online self from the person she is in real life. “When you see manipulated images on social media, it’s a middle world between the real and the synthetic,” she told The Face recently. “The avatar allows us to play to the strengths of digital existence, rather than be a human trying to navigate a world that isn’t made for us…”

It can seem that for as long as Claire has been in the public eye, she has been attempting to navigate a world that wasn’t quite made for her. Grimes has been described as “pop music’s most out-there proponent,” which is an acknowledgement that her albums – five in all, including Miss Anthropocene, released in February – are commercially successful but sit just outside of the mainstream. Is she a pop star? Or something more… alien? Her interests lie far beyond music: she is fascinated by the possibilities of artificial general intelligence, is attracted by the idea of human longevity, and seems as interested in the kind of stuff that happens in labs as the things that happen in the recording studio. When she was starting out, Grimes used a DIY method of working (she grew up on “bootleg sampling,” she said in a recent statement; she uses a MacBook, on the hoof). As a result of these combined interests, her music can be super lo-fi or super hi-tech or both – guitar chords as well as synths.

Not long ago, Grimes gave birth to her first child. She had been cautious about the pregnancy. “I just didn’t understand what I was getting into,” she said in an Instagram posted, when she shared the news. Later she described it as “an ordeal.” The child’s birth was announced by Boucher’s boyfriend, the Tesla founder Elon Musk, on Twitter. When asked to provide a name, he replied, “X Æ A-12 Musk,” which fans pointed out seemed to reference a song title, 4ÆM, from Grimes’ recent album, but which Grimes herself said referenced a heap of other stuff: their favorite aircraft, artificial intelligence, her favorite song.

Miss Anthropocene has been a long time coming. (Her last album, Art Angels, was released in 2015). As with her previous albums, she has collaborated closely with a group of tight-knit friends, including her brother, Mac Boucher, with whom she works regularly. Recently, in collaboration with WeTransfer, she shared visual assets and audio stems from the music video to one of her songs, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Not Around, with fans, so they can create their own visuals. Grimes sees this as another kind of collaboration – a way to engage with others during a tricky time, and an opportunity for her fans to be creative at home during near-worldwide lockdown.

Assets DIY video

Listen to You'll Miss Me When I'm Not Around - A cappella
Listen to Guitar stems

Alex Moshakis: During the past couple of months we’ve heard of people all around the world carving out small spaces in their homes in which to be creative. For musicians, what would you recommend as a solid basis for a space in which to work?

Grimes: Honestly, I just love a desk, a laptop, interface, monitors, mic! But monitors can be whatever, even headphones. I actually love a bit of a messy, DIY “studio.” I had a proper desk for a while, but I went back to the folding-picnic-desk-and-kitchen-chair recently and it rules.

AM: Do you recommend any specific equipment? Particularly for those who might be on a budget but want to create their own music?

G: I’d say find a soft synth you love. You can check out previews of people demo-ing them, and you can always make drums and things out of samples or even by clapping your hands. An SM58 is a totally decent mic. I haven’t fucked with GarageBand recently, but GB or Audacity I think are both free.

AM: You collaborate frequently, often with your brother, Mac, but also with other artists and musicians and creatives in various fields. How important to you is collaboration?

G: Even when I was working alone, more often I was still very scene-oriented. Even when I don’t collaborate, having friends who are also dedicated to creating things makes me happier and more creative and expands my palette. Lately I’ve been wanting to collaborate more. I think Miss Anthropocene was the end of “spending years alone in a basement” for me. I’m glad I did it, but I want to move faster and be pushed further into sounds I normally wouldn’t try.

AM: You’ve said that you feel Grimes, as a musical project, was youthful, and that now you’re “trying to figure out how to grow up.” Can you elaborate on that? How do you plan to evolve in the future?

G: Only in the sense that I feel very bound by creative decisions I made at 23 or whatever. Reaching 30, I just want to revamp everything. I feel like I’ve had a massive identity shift in the past year and it’s about to shift even more. I might get a brain implant and see if I can truly alter my personality and start dressing like a demon in heels.

AM: You’ve described becoming pregnant as “a pretty crazy sacrifice.” What are you expecting from motherhood?

G: Nothing too bad, but just that… the fuck-offery is probably over. Like, babies, you gotta hang out with them every day!

AM: You seem drawn to artificial general intelligence. You’ve referred to AI in lyrics, used algorithms to create artwork. Can you describe the creative potential you see in AI?

G: The reality is that AGI can be millions of times more creative and powerful than us, and humans are wilfully ignorant about the potential. The creative potential is limitless. It’s possible humans were just a blip, a Neanderthal, on the path to true intelligence.

AM: During the pandemic we’ve been looking at our screens more and more. What role do you think technology should be playing through this period? Can we prevent it from becoming harmful?

G: Hmmmm. Everything powerful is harmful. It’s just about: can the good outweigh the harm? I believe in technology. It appears to be the path to enlightenment. But when it’s misused, it creates a path to great ignorance. And there’s been lots of misuse. I hate that so much effort and intelligence has gone into useless addictive technology. But there’s lots of good stuff, too. Kids seem older, smarter and quicker to the ways of the world.

AM: You recently created a digital avatar named WarNymph. How come? What are the benefits of having an online self?

G: If you look at video game sales or users on social media, it’s obvious we’re addicted to the new world. People make moral judgements based on physical appearances, but the reality is we can’t control how we were born. Plastic surgery is expensive and elitist and only offers a small set of outcomes that aren’t particularly creative. The “Ready Player One” future seems like the obvious path to me. Live in any body in any world. It already exists in the ways we game. Now imagine that all games allow you to bring your avatar into their world, and all platforms have the ability to speak to each other. This isn’t out of the question!

AM: You don’t shy away from being provocative. In what ways is it positive to be provocative?

G: It’s always worth asking questions and proposing ideas and concepts. People often see this as dangerous or unethical, which is interesting to me – and concerning. But nonetheless if there’s a trend towards conservatism, even among people who are ostensibly interested in free thought, it’s important to push back against it! It’s dangerous to let ideas calcify. It’s always valuable to ask questions and imagine possibilities. Especially dangerous ones.

AM: How do we best make sense of the world right now?

G: We use our brains to compile all the information from our senses and logically infer the state of the situation.

AM: When you imagine the future, what do you see? Is it a happy picture?

G: It can be. I always point people to the culture series by Iain Banks, specifically the book Surface Detail. It’s a utopian view of technology that details how we could co-exist with AI, live in space, co-exist with an extreme technological future in a way that is healthy. It’s easy to imagine a dystopian future. But if we never imagine possible utopian outcomes in fiction or elsewhere, we will not be able to manifest them. I believe AGI could potentially create abundance. I believe there’s a possibility for a future where no one wants for anything and humanity can be tasked with pure creativity, love, family, joy seeking. Whatever it is that makes people happy.