Metro Weekly

Machine Dazzle Lives Up to His Name in the World of Design

Designer and performer Machine Dazzle shares his singular vision for life, art, and adorning the gods in Opera Lafayette's 'Io.'

Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim -- Photo:  Gregory Kramer
Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim — Photo: Gregory Kramer

It’s early on a Saturday morning and Machine Dazzle is pouring tea. “DeTox Tea by Yogi. It’s really delicious,” says the celebrated costume designer, performance artist, and drag queen, as he settles into a comfy spot inside his Brooklyn apartment.

Even seated, there’s a sense of bustling energy about Machine, born Matthew Flower in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania.

Our free-ranging chat winds and turns, touching on everything from his longtime collaboration with performer Taylor Mac, and joining queer collective the Dazzle Dancers, to making boas out of Wonder Bread, recording a rock album inspired by his mother, and of course, that delicious tea he’s sipping.

“Between the booze and the Red Bull and my affliction for carnivorous activity, I think I could use quite a bit of DeTox, too,” he jokes.

Machine is up earlier than usual, not just to sip tea with me, but to pack his bags for a flight later that day to go give a TED Talk, another feather in the cap of a formerly underground artist-designer who has, of late, found his light in the mainstream. The first solo exhibition of his spectacularly colorful, inventive, one-of-a-kind designs just wrapped a five-month run at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design.

The show, Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle, gathered nearly 100 of Dazzle’s eye-catching creations for the stage and performance, including costumes he’s designed for the Dazzle Dancers troupe, and his award-winning creations for Mac’s 24-Decade History of Popular Music, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.

A fabulous collection of garments, and a profound statement of Machine’s unique artistic vision, the MAD exhibition also underlined his somewhat unexpected status as a darling of the art world.

“And that’s what I’m becoming more and more. I wish that it happened earlier in my life,” Machine says. “But for the longest time, I had full-time day jobs, and I got rid of my last day job in June 2016. And I’ve been sustaining myself ever since. But it’s taken that long because I didn’t come from money or anything. I have no inheritance. I came to New York with literally $2,000. And I’ve been having odd jobs ever since.”

His latest assignment is creating costumes for D.C.-based Opera Lafayette’s world-premiere production of Rameau’s 280-year old, formerly unfinished opéra-ballet Io. Enlisting Machine Dazzle to design for an opera full of color and gender fluidity, “feels like a really felicitous pairing and I think it’ll be a lot of fun,” says Opera Lafayette founder and artistic director Ryan Brown.

“I’d heard of his work with Taylor Mac, but I hadn’t seen his stuff,” Brown recalls. It was philanthropist and MAD board member Barbara Tober, a supporter of Opera Lafayette, who suggested Machine and facilitated an introduction.

“And then I went to see the [MAD] show and I was just bowled over,” says Brown. “I just wasn’t prepared, even seeing pictures, for how wonderful it is in person. And I thought also how he strikes me as the sort of quintessential American artist, like taking found objects, taking ordinary things and putting them together to make an extraordinary effect.”

Machine Dazzle seems aware of the effect his work produces, and doesn’t take it for granted. “I feel like I know that my work is strong and it does things to people when they witness it or experience it,” he says.

Describing himself as “an emotionally driven, instinct-based conceptual artist, trapped in the role of costume designer most of the time,” he also just wrapped a run of cabaret performances at Joe’s Pub in the East Village, performing original songs from his debut album, Treasure. The songs are inspired by Machine’s mother, who struggled to accept his queerness, but ultimately came to embrace him more fully.

He gets emotional talking about their complicated relationship, but regroups and apologizes.

“I’ve been emotional recently,” he says. “I don’t know. I think in moments of extreme stress, I get emotional.” Finishing his tea, he laughs off the stress. “I mean, laughter is healing,” says Machine. “I should be a comedian. I think I would be good at standup. I have really good comedic timing when I’m onstage, I’ve been told.”

Machine Dazzle -- Photo: Little Fang
Machine Dazzle — Photo: Little Fang

METRO WEEKLY: So, you talk about keeping everything. You must be some kind of archivist, not just from looking at your place–

MACHINE DAZZLE: What do you mean? What, this? [Waving around his apartment filled with art, posters, and tchotchkes everywhere.]

MW: Yes, yes, all that. But where do you keep your creations, and how do you store them? And, for example, for your show at MAD, where did everything come from? It wasn’t all in your possession, right?

MACHINE: A lot of it was. Whenever I have a studio space, it ends up becoming like half-storage. My body of work is growing and I’m starting to archive more. A lot of my older stuff, it doesn’t exist because I had to get rid of it for one reason or another. I’ve moved around a lot in New York City. I’ve never had the money to have this big amazing, luxury loft, art living.

It’s not the reality for artists. We struggle to just maintain our rent, first of all. So storage has just become secondary. All of the Taylor Mac costumes are in storage. The producers store those, even though they’re owned jointly between me, Taylor, and them, but production, Pomegranate Arts, stores those. I store everything else in my studio, which is a lot.

MW: Do you have anything that’s perishable?

MACHINE: No. No. I mean, I will do performances with perishable things, but that, obviously, can’t be part of the costume. Although in one of Taylor’s costumes, World War I, and Taylor looked like this suffragette… I love that very strict silhouette of the day with the really big hat and the small waist with the big bustle and back. I love that silhouette. But Chuck Taylors were invented then. So I took a pair of Chuck Taylors and I turned it into this necklace, and that was the era of dazzle camouflage, which is just the coolest invention of all time. And you know what that is?

MW: No, I was going to ask.

MACHINE: No, Google it, Google it. They used to paint warships in a very geometric way. This is when Cubism, Picasso was happening. You see a lot of examples of it today, but it came from then. It’s really unbelievable looking. Dazzle camouflage.

Oh, well, my point, Lifesavers candies were invented then and the women’s brassiere. Don’t ask me what women did before. So I hot glued on Lifesavers candies as the nipples on the brassieres, hoping that audience members… Because this is when he brings up, “Okay, everyone from ages 18 to 21,” or, I forget what the age range was of the drafted boys back in World War I, but he had all of them come up to the stage. And my hope is that they would lick the nipples on the outfit. But when it came to… The thing is it’s sugar. Things that are sugar, they weirdly melt over time. Did you see the sphinx, Kara Walker, at the Domino Sugar Factory?

Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim -- Photo:  Gregory Kramer
Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim — Photo: Gregory Kramer

MW: I did. Yeah.

MACHINE: Remember those sculptures were melting. They were made out of sugar. Those little cherub sculptures, that’s what happens to sugar. And so that was starting to happen and it was getting messy. And the museum wouldn’t have… I had actually just put some fresh ones on, but it was starting to happen. It’s like a moisture, a humid thing. Anyway, I had to replace them. They were worried about pests. And I was like, “Have you seen a pest?” This is up on the fifth floor. And they’re like, “No, but it’s precautionary.” I’m like, “Okay.” So I bought these… Some artist on Etsy was selling these glass versions. They were a little too small, but I just glued them on anyway. So the story is there. So it’s referencing the Lifesaver.

One time when we were workshopping, this is early, this is probably like 2013, we were workshopping the ’20s decade, and that’s when sliced bread was invented. Like, Wonder Bread was invented then. They didn’t have that before. So it was like, “Oh my God, sliced bread in packages,” Wonder Bread with the dots and everything. It’s all very art deco design, and the toaster, which looks like literally an art deco building when you think about it. And so I made Taylor a boa out of about 12 loaves of white Wonder Bread.

And the thing is, it was so fragile. I was just literally stringing on a rope as he was walking to the stage from backstage. That’s the real performance. The bread was just falling off, breaking off, because it’s fragile. If I had toasted it and hardened it, but then that would be totally different. Although something I wanted to do was be onstage for that moment, and have a toaster on and just toast bread because the smell of toast is so alluring.

MW: I feel like Taylor Mac is such a perfect vessel for the things you create. Were you two muses at first sight? Did the magic happen right away?

MACHINE: I first remember meeting Taylor in downtown New York post-9/11 as downtown was coming back together. And all of a sudden, we were always doing it to be ourselves and having our own revolution as queer people in queer spaces. But then everything exploded. And we were doing everything for different reasons because all of that stuff was taken away from us. And you didn’t want to just go out and perform and be frivolous and stupid. You were going out and you’re really meaning it. And it was under these conditions that I met Taylor and we were both very like-minded like this. And he was always doing work with some element of social justice, working towards something, whatever it was at the time. Even if it’s just a revolution of the human spirit. We get compartmentalized, we get abused on the daily. There’s so many different kinds of oppression. It starts before you even leave your house, on so many levels.

Anyway. So there was Taylor, and I was with the Dazzle Dancers and I was stripping and covered in glitter. I don’t know if you remember the Dazzle Dancers, if you were here. So that’s why I met Taylor when I was completely naked, standing in the Cock covered in glitter, probably drinking a margarita. And he was wearing garbage, stuff, literally plastic, I don’t know, whatever, and had a bunch of stuff glued to his face. Actually, it was painted all white, but he had some other things glued to his face. And that’s when I met Taylor. And we just, like, “Oh!”, kinship, queer, weirdness, cool. So many people want to be beautiful, and beauty is easy to achieve and even easier to understand. I embrace the grotesque and ugly things. And to me, I just see the beauty in that instead. And Taylor is the same. And somehow, we started collaborating. We would often be on the same bill.

I was doing performance art things and I was doing Dazzle Dancer. I was doing this very genderfuck drag at the time, which no one else was really doing. You had your old-school drag queens who were still living it out. And then I was in drag, but I wasn’t … I mean, this is before Kardashian culture. No one was doing those hip pads. People weren’t doing hip pads and all that stuff back then. People were doing breasts, there was corsetry to get shape, but it’s crazy now. People going to get fillers? People weren’t doing that.

Machine Dazzle -- Photo: Gregory Kramer
Machine Dazzle — Photo: Gregory Kramer

MW: How did you make your way to drag, and when and how did you become a Dazzle Dancer?

MACHINE: Well, it was my instinct to dress up. I love the power of transformation and dressing up and costume, and what I call “becoming other.” In fact, that’s what my TED Talk is about. It was my instinct to do so. And I would just hand-make my own costumes, and I would go out and I was lucky searching out these places to find where I could get a pair of high heels in my size. I would go to Pat Fields and I couldn’t really afford anything.

MW: Yeah, that was Pat Fields.

MACHINE: That was Pat Fields back in the day. Wow. At least I could fit into everything then. Now, I can’t fit into anything. And so people loved what I was doing on myself. So people started asking me to do it for them, too. And so I did. And at first, it was individuals, and then it was groups, and then it was shows. And then the shows got bigger. And that’s the whole story.

My friends were the Dazzle Dancers. They started the Dazzle Dancers. I mean, I was just a friend of theirs. And even some friends of mine from university, that we kind of moved here together, they became Dazzle Dancers first. I wasn’t part of the original group. I was really busy. They were doing stuff. Mike Albo was the one who started the Dazzle Dancers, in 1996, I think, as almost like a joke, but then they started doing it on the regular. And then I remember in the year 2000, I went and I lived in India for a year. And by the time I came back from India, it’s like the Dazzle Dancers were doing regular gigs at these fun places. I’m like, “Oh, wow.” And then it was right after 9/11 and downtown was coming back and, “Machine, we would love for you to do the costumes.”

And so I started making their costumes. They were managing — their original costumes were creative and fun. But then I came in and I did something new. And then I became one of the dancers, because I would be there. Without fail, there was no money in the Dazzle Dancers. It was like we would perform, it’s mostly for fun. We might get money for a car service, and we get drink tickets at all the bars, but there’s no money.

And so Dazzle Dancers would flake at the last minute. On a regular night, we were lucky to have six or seven when, in fact, there were almost 20 total. Of course, when we had the video, everyone came out, everyone wanted to be in the video, but not everybody wants to go and put glitter on themself at one in the morning on a Wednesday at the Cock. [Laughs.] So it’s like, “Well, Machine, oh, wait, oh, no. Pretty Boy Dazzle can’t make it. Machine, you need to fill in.” And so I just became one of the dancers, too. And before that, just so you know, the evolution of my name…

Machine Dazzle -- Photo: Little Fang
Machine Dazzle — Photo: Little Fang

MW: Yes, because hearing it for years, I always thought, “Oh, well, Machine Dazzle makes the clothes. It’s a sewing machine reference.” But that apparently is not the case?

MACHINE: No, it’s not the case. When I first moved to New York in 1994, I was doing a lot of clubbing. And then I was obsessed with club kid culture. And that was like 1994, the height of club kid culture. That’s before ’96 when Michael Alig did the thing, and then all the clubs went away. And there’s nothing like that now. There’s nothing like it.

MW: What was your club?

MACHINE: I would go to Sound Factory, I’d go to Tunnel, I would go to Limelight, I would go to those. But I was really into the rock and roll clubs. I was into CBGBs. I would go to Mother. Every Tuesday, I was at Jackie 60. That was my favorite place. I loved Don Hill’s. I would go to SqueezeBox, with Formika. Yeah. I loved the queer rock and roll parties, like Dean Johnson, Homocore. Oh, I miss that. I don’t know. That’s where I was. I wasn’t really into the drugs. And I wasn’t into losing myself in these vast spaces. I found it didn’t have any substance to me. I did like dancing, though.

So to get back to the point, I loved dancing and people loved to watch me dance. And one night at SqueezeBox, this is before the Dazzle Dancers happened, they were like, “Oh, you’re like a dancing machine. You dance like a machine.” So all of my friends started calling me the Dancing Machine. And so that’s where Machine came from. And so, of course, they would call me the Dancing Machine for a while. And this is before acronyms. So it’s too much to say, so they just called me Machine. “Oh, Machine, Machine.” All the Dazzles had Dazzle names, like the leads. The lead blonde is Cherry Dazzle. Her boyfriend is Cornflake Dazzle — that was the only straight person in all of the Dazzle Dancers. And then there’s Pretty Boy Dazzle, Robbie Dazzle, Vinnie Dazzle, Sochny Dazzle, Edible Dazzle, Negro Noir Dazzle, Smokey D Dazzle, Propecia Destiny Pussy On The Shoulder Dazzle. I was already Machine. So I became Machine Dazzle.

MW: You mentioned the distinction between beauty and the grotesque, and your attraction to one or the other. Have your sensibilities always leaned towards more is more, maximalism? How did that manifest as a younger person?

MACHINE: I loved details. I loved layers. I always thought that modernism was very cold and not intimate and not romantic. It’s the opposite, to me. I mean, go into a modern space and it doesn’t really feel human. Go into a warm space with stuff on the walls and great warm lighting and fun places to sit, and it’s sexy and it’s warm and it’s human. It’s like, “Oh, I want to be here.”

I mean, it’s not like I hate modernism. It’s nice to leave myself and then go to a modern place where there is actually peace of mind. And there is a clarity there and I do believe in feng shui, even in my existence. I feng shui my apartment, my mirrors are in place. Things don’t touch the ground. Curtains don’t touch the ground. There are no mirrors in the bedroom. It’s more minimal. I’m really good at energy flow.

So I think that’s how it started. And then when I got to New York and I started really experimenting. To me, naturally, more is more. I love all the details. And plus, I’m a big person. I’m six foot five in bare feet. And one simple dress just looks like I’m wearing a tube. It’s like, “Well, where’s the texture? And where’s the stuff?” And I want the jewelry and then I want something in my hair.

But then I want the hat, I want the handbag and then I want the shoes. But then where’s the ankle bracelet? And then the nails. It’s like I have this huge palate, and I have a canvas and I want to fill it. And I never had that neoclassic gym body either. When I was younger, I was just thin. Never had muscles or all the things that gay men truly love and worship. They want money or they want body, or both. That’s what gay men want. And I never had any of that. So I had to become something else. And you find your tribe. So I just wanted to cover myself in art, because that’s what I had to offer, was my sensibility, as in my capabilities of wearable sculpture.

Machine Dazzle -- Photo: Gregory Kramer
Machine Dazzle — Photo: Gregory Kramer

MW: What was your epiphany that you wanted to be the one who was making it? Because a lot of us want to cover ourselves in a feeling or an attitude but aren’t inspired to create it ourselves.

MACHINE: Well, I’ve always been an artist. That’s what I am. I love making things. I love making things. It’s not like I had to do it. I mean, I have to do it because it’s my life and this is what I love to do. But it’s not like I felt like I had to… I wasn’t challenged. It’s not challenging. I mean, it’s a challenge now that it’s my work.

What was my passion and my instinct as an individual has become my career, and that’s an interesting transition. I don’t think that happens in all careers. Because I was discouraged from being an artist. Why? Money, security, stability. And I have more than ever, but it’s still a struggle. I’m 50 years old, a person that’s pretty lucky in life. I’m alive, but it’s still a struggle. I’m 50, I don’t have health insurance. I am worried about what I’m doing in a year when I lose my free studio space. I pay for a studio space, but it’s not big enough. It became storage. And I have rents, of course. Food comes first, rent comes second, studio rent comes third. I have priorities.

MW: I was going to ask about your operation. So there are currently two different studio spaces. Where are you doing the work for Opera Lafayette? And with what kind of crew?

MACHINE: So it’s mostly me. I have one part-time assistant, because there just isn’t enough money to hire someone full-time. My main studio is at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. And I invite you to come out. It’s a pretty great building. It’s a trek and I hate it. There are good things about New Jersey, but it’s just so far. Right now, I’m in Crown Heights. My subway stop is the Utica Avenue stop on the 3 or the 4. And then it’s like a 15-minute walk. I’m out here. So I have to allow an hour and a half to get to Jersey City, to Mana Contemporary, because I get to the train, get to World Trade Center, hop on the path, get to Journal Square, and then it’s a 15-minute walk. It’s like I spend an hour walking just to the trains every day. It’s such a waste of life. That’s why I hate it.

But once you get out there, I have this space through the Monira Foundation. So that’s where I am. I’m also in residence at Materials for the Arts currently through June, which is just a cute little thing. And once this Opera Lafayette is over, I’ll be working there more, just through until my residency is over because it’s so cute there. And they’re big fans and I love it there. But, yeah, building Opera Lafayette costumes out in Jersey City. Thank God, it’s a big space. And some of these costumes are big. Just wait until you see the tornado… Don’t write about the tornado… Well, I guess you can write about the tornado costumes. I just didn’t want anyone to photograph them before. There’s certain things I don’t like to give away.

MW: At this point in your body of work, you’ve evolved what is a recognizable style. I think people can look at your stuff and say, “That looks like Machine Dazzle,” whether you did it or not. And then it’s like, “Oh, that looks like they wanted it to look like Machine Dazzle.”

MACHINE: [Laughs.] It’s true.

Machine Dazzle -- Photo: Gregory Kramer
Machine Dazzle — Photo: Gregory Kramer

MW: Just last night, I saw an interview where Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Kander, it was on Colbert, were talking about how, as composers, they don’t recognize their own styles, which sounds crazy because those two have very recognizable styles. Do you recognize your style?

MACHINE: Yes, in a way. Although I just recently helped Julie Atlas Muz with a look. She’s working on a new character for a new club that’s opening up. She came in with some stuff that I had made for her. And I remember the wig. It’s very me. But then I had made her this cape, this robe, and I’m like, “Wait, did I make that?” She’s like, “Yes.” And I’m like, “Oh, right.” But it’s so simple and so minimal, because I made it for a specific moment.

Basil Twist had a show at Abrons Arts Center and it featured Julie and Joey Arias. And it was around Halloween, and they were playing the sisters who built and opened that space way back at the turn of the last century. Sometimes I’m like, “Wait, did I…?” And then I looked at it, I’m like, “Okay, yeah, no, I guess this is how I would make something simple and elegant like that.”

Sometimes the stage can be a very sensitive place. And when you are in a collaboration, it’s not all about me and my style. Even if I’m hired to do the costumes, not everything can be weird and grotesque and sculpture. I mean, you do have to have some simple moments, because it helps the crazy good costumes stand out even more. If everything was crazy and blah, blah, blah, then you would stop seeing it and it wouldn’t be special. I can act with reserve from time to time.

I can make things beautifully if I want to, but I tend not to. I don’t care about matching thread. I love rough edges. To me, it’s more important about having a good idea onstage. I would rather see a good idea not done very well, than a bad idea done really well. Do you know what I mean?

MW: Yeah, yeah.

MACHINE: So a bad idea is still a bad idea. Just because you’re doing it really well doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It’s a bad idea. Do you know what I mean? So I like ideas, I love concepts, surprises. I mean, to me, that’s exciting. And sometimes my level of finish, it varies. On a given outfit, some things are done really well, and other things, it’s riddled with neglect, although I guarantee you it’s very intentional.

MW: Well, let’s talk about the costumes for Io, which has never been performed. It was even unfinished until Opera Lafayette decided to finish it. So there was no template. There’s not like some Zeffirelli production that the whole audience is aware of. So what’s the visual inspiration for something that the world hasn’t seen?

MACHINE: Even if there was visual stuff, I’d probably be ignoring it anyway. I’m the kind of person that I don’t read reviews before I go and see a show. I want to go in with a clean palate. I like to experience things just like, I love a blank slate. What am I going to take away from this? I mean, that’s the point anyway.

Now, that said, I have experienced some shows where I wish I had read about it first because I was lost the whole time. But I don’t like shows like that. I’d like to be able to go in and take something out of it in real-time. “Oh, I have to do homework before I go see this? Okay. I never liked homework and I still don’t.” I’m really just looking at the script, to be honest with you.

And I got together with the main people at Opera Lafayette, and we did a read-through, and it’s in French. Luckily, I parle. It’s really funny. I noticed that it was humorous. I was like, “Oh, good, it’s humorous.” And that’s something else I like to use in my costumes is humor. I think laughter is healing and I think we need more laughter in general.

So we read through the entire libretto. And I was like, “Oh, I like these characters. Oh, it’s funny.” Okay, it’s opera, but I don’t have to take this so seriously, but I want the costumes to be big in some places, like laughable. So I started with the dancers. I’m dealing with five leads, six dancers and 16 chorus members. Okay, so let’s start with the dancers. They make an appearance in the first half of the evening, which I am not designing. They represent the water in the first half of the evening, but then they come back and they’re a storm. So I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to make storm costumes.” And then I’m like, “Well, let’s fill the space.”

I should tell you the story about me filling the space. So I’m like, “Well, I want storm costumes. What about a tornado?” And I remember back in the day, I had this itch that I wasn’t allowed to scratch. It was a Taylor Mac show at La MaMa. It was called Walk Across America for Mother Earth. And there’s this one dancer, I forget her name, but she was, “Oh, look, she’s caught in a tornado.” And so I had to make this tornado costume for this dancer, but she’s this short, punk dancer, very street, and she could be lying on the floor and kick her legs up and come back on her feet, crazy shit like that. So I couldn’t make her this amazing big tornado costume. I had to make this little tornado thing. And so I was like, “I wanted to make a big tornado costume.” Now I’m like, “Oh my God, I can make a big tornado costume for Io.” And so I have these huge things. They haven’t even seen them yet, only pictures.

MW: So is it a tornado full of debris and everything?

MACHINE: It’s just a beautiful representation. It’s this big swirly funnel that they’re wearing, and they’re like 10 to 12 feet high. They’re big. They’re strap-ons, built on a belt. And these dowels going up, and this fabric swirling around. They haven’t even practiced with them yet. I think the director’s a little nervous. But I’m like, “Don’t worry, don’t worry.” And then there’s two storm cloud costumes, and then there’s just one really great, fun, energetic, almost punk storm dancer with fringe and stuff. So you get all the layers of the storm, three big tornadoes, two big storm clouds, and then one punk dancer.

In the opera, there’s the mortal world and the celestial world, and it starts in the mortal world, where Apollo, who is the sun, and Jupiter, are disguised because they’re both in love with Io and Io is immortal. This goes back to Greek mythology. And so they’re human down on earth. And, of course, Io is completely infatuated with Jupiter. And Apollo tries really hard. Then, of course, there’s a costume change. So what do they look like as mortals? What does the mortal world look like versus the celestial world? And so Apollo has a mortal costume and a celestial costume. Jupiter has a mortal costume and a celestial costume. Mercury makes an appearance. And then there’s Folie, who is basically just life and future and amazingness incarnate.

So I just saw a lot of opportunity for big. There’s opportunity for funny, there’s opportunity for sculpture, there’s opportunity for wonder.

Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim -- Photo:  Gregory Kramer
Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim — Photo: Gregory Kramer

MW: I can’t wait to see that. I wanted to talk real quickly about your music and performance. Actually, I started this morning listening to Rameau, and then I switched to listening to your album Treasure.

MACHINE: I’ll send you something. I’m releasing a dance track.

MW: Oh, awesome.

MACHINE: I’ll send it to you. I’ll send you a sneak peek. I wanted to release it on the day of my TED Talk as a gift to myself. My friend, Gerard, who… I just love that Gerard. If he didn’t have a boyfriend, he would be my husband. He owns the Branded Saloon. It’s a cute bar in Prospect Heights on the corner of Bergen and Vanderbilt. And he’s very, very talented.

In addition to being a business owner, he can play any instrument, he can sing anything. He has the most incredible voice. And he loves to just sit in front of the computer and remix songs all day. And so one time I was over at his place with Patrick, and they have a dog and he just says, “Here, I want to play something.” He turns the song “Understand” into this total dance song.

I’m like, “Oh my God, it sounds so good.” And so now we’re going to go through all of the songs. I mean, some of them are really good already, but he turned this song into this total, I’m like, “Oh my God, I want to dance to this.” And it’s my own song. So that’s coming. Well, what did you think about Treasure?

Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim -- Photo: Gregory Kramer
Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim — Photo: Gregory Kramer

MW: I enjoyed Treasure. You just did a run of shows performing the songs from Treasure at the Public. I was reading about how they were inspired by your mother, and, as it says, the relationship that you two had and the legacy that she left you. So I’m curious, what is that legacy?

MACHINE: It’s complicated, but I can simply say that growing up, my father would say that, “Yeah, I’m afraid you have a lot of your mother in you,” like it was a bad thing. And then my mother would be like, “You remind me of me. You remind me of me. Are you going to get it together?” The thing is, my mother, she really struggled, she really struggled with a degree of mental illness. But I think that’s because I think she had it hard growing up. And I think there’s abuse on many levels. Some that she did disclose, some that was obvious. And also she was just never happy. She was depressed all of her life. She was never well, she was overweight, she was never able to work. And she had a lot of dreams that she was never able to realize. And I saw myself going in that direction and that’s when I took agency. I just took control of my life. That’s when I changed.

I bought a one-way ticket to New York. And I’m like, “You know what, I am not going to end up like my mother.” And so many people like her, who are just trapped in America, where people are practically created to put money into the pockets of others. Sometimes I feel like people are like cattle, and they are of service to people and people are very controlled.

And I’m very happy that I had this realization early. And the more I think about it, the more I know it. And I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about. And I was, I was unconscious growing up. I was unconscious. I was. And then I became conscious.

And this is why we have all of these struggles. There are unconscious people. I used to be one of them. I used to be one of them. I became conscious. I’m like, “Oh, thank God.” And that’s because of my queerness, because I’m gay and I was marginalized, kicked and bullied and spit on and all of the stuff. And that separated me already. So it already isolates you. So you’re forced to think a different way. And then I took agency and I took control of my life, and that is what the legacy is all about.

And so I wrote those songs for my mom, our relationship, which was complicated. Because something that a lot of people take for granted, or are not aware, is that some people are friends with their parents. And I’ve never been friends with my parents. We don’t hang out and have a good time and do things. My friend, Shannon, goes and smokes pot with her mother. I’m like, “That would never happen.” There was a struggle to have a relationship with my parents.

My parents both came from a really small town in Maine. So there’s a small-town mentality. There was a degree of homophobia, particularly on my mother’s side, but she really struggled with it, she really fought it. And by the time she died, she was going to PFLAG. And she really was trying. What’s really sad is… Oh, I’m sorry.

Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim -- Photo:  Gregory Kramer
Machine Dazzle: Guggenheim — Photo: Gregory Kramer

MW: It’s okay. I appreciate honesty.

MACHINE: We were just starting to be friends when she died. This is back in 1996. I’ve just been emotional lately because I’m very stressed out and I’m very busy.

MW: And that’s beautiful that you had that almost resolution. I guess nothing is ever totally resolved, is it?

MACHINE: It’s sad that she wasn’t able to be herself. I mean, that’s just one example. It happens everywhere, but that’s my mother. And even if you don’t have a good relationship with your mother, it’s deep anyway because you came out of your mother, you were inside of her. The most sacred place on the human body is your belly button. You were connected to your mother. And it’s always weird when I’m in costuming, in terms of nudity and fashion and costume, I’m like, when a belly button is exposed… I mean, unless you’re completely naked, sometimes it just feels weird to me because I’m like, “That is a sacred spot.” I don’t know that I want to see it. Something that you share with someone very special. You don’t have to give it to the world. I mean, everyone has a different relationship with it. So I think about it. I don’t know. It’s a deep connection.

Then, the relationship with my father, of course, is complicated. I’m not the son that he wanted me to be. He has two other sons, my two brothers, one older and one younger, and I don’t think either of them are what he wanted them to be either.

And so when mom died, he was single for a while, and then he remarried a woman and then married into a family that I think is more the family that I think he wanted growing up. I like to say that my father and my mother gave birth to three black sheep children. We are all very different and very off in our own fields. I’m like the creative art fag. My older brother is the weird steampunk, like Dungeons & Dragons computer nerd. He’s highly intelligent.

And my younger brother is very athletic. He’s a personal trainer and he’s like a daredevil. And he was always getting into accidents and sending himself to the hospital growing up. And he’s like a drifter, like an adventurer. He’s the person that would go backpacking and you wouldn’t hear from him forever, and wonder if he’s still alive. Those are the three children. And so me and my older brother, just like 14 months apart, so he was a grade older than me.

And in the same school, even though we were always the two tallest people in the school, we were so different that people didn’t even know we were brothers. I don’t know. I forgot why I said that. See, I get on tangents and I explain something to help answer a question. Then I never get back to the answering.

Opera Lafayette’s Io runs May 2 and 3 at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Tickets are $30 to $135. It also plays on May 9 at El Museo del Barrio, 1230 5th Ave. at 104th St. in New York City. Tickets are $30 to $150. Visit

Follow Machine Dazzle on Instagram at @MachineDazzle.

Support Metro Weekly’s Journalism

These are challenging times for news organizations. And yet it’s crucial we stay active and provide vital resources and information to both our local readers and the world. So won’t you please take a moment and consider supporting Metro Weekly with a membership? For as little as $5 a month, you can help ensure Metro Weekly magazine and remain free, viable resources as we provide the best, most diverse, culturally-resonant LGBTQ coverage in both the D.C. region and around the world. Memberships come with exclusive perks and discounts, your own personal digital delivery of each week’s magazine (and an archive), access to our Member's Lounge when it launches this fall, and exclusive members-only items like Metro Weekly Membership Mugs and Tote Bags! Check out all our membership levels here and please join us today!