Cascadia Composers May the Fourth be with you Bold new music for winds and piano Lincoln Recital Hall PSU Portland Oregon

Where utopia is present

Portland future-pop/R&B artist Jan Julius talks with Robert Ham about music, life, a new album, and utopia.

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Let’s begin with the image that graces the front cover of Meat Shot Idyllic, the dynamic new album from Jan Julius. The Portland-based future-pop/R&B artist is at the center of the frame, standing in what looks like a damp marshland, face framed by chin length curly hair and punctuated by a nicely groomed mustache. But the only clothing on their body is a banana yellow string bikini. The picture feels so provocative and naughty, it takes a second to register the person in the grey trench coat, hiding their face behind Julius’ right shoulder and brandishing an enormous knife.

“It’s actually a Rambo III branded collector’s knife,” Julius says, sitting on the front porch of their shared home in Portland’s Piedmont neighborhood. “I borrowed it from my dad. He has a big knife collection. My older brother recognized it immediately.”

Taken as a whole, the photo is alluring and fraught, suggesting both the sexual thrill of knife play and the danger that people who outwardly present as gender fluid fear when they are out in the world. 

It is the perfect visual representation for the music on Meat Shot Idyllic. The bulk of the album is celebratory and blushingly dirty as Julius uses their often-AutoTuned voice to sing about trysts of all kinds and spilled bodily fluids. Beneath all the slippery beats and skin is an apocalyptic undercurrent. Many of the songs seem to be set in a hopeless landscape where the only joy available is via sexual encounters. “I can’t end your suffering but I’ll try to bring you pleasure,” Julius sings on the footwork-inspired “Beast Daddy.”

“Initially, I wanted to envision a utopia with this album,” Julius says. “A post-capitalist future. But it was so hard to envision when everyday I was listening to the news and hearing about so many people dying. I decided to focus on where it felt like that utopia was present and where that promise could be seen or held on to.”

Julius found that utopian ideal through participating in the ongoing protests against police brutality and spending time dancing with other queer folks at parties at the former arts space S1. But they had to admit that there was an instability within all of these communities, where interpersonal drama, egos, and violence undermines their goals. 

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Those tremblings echo throughout Meat Shot. The nameless characters in “Beast Daddy” fight off an antagonist for resources, while on closing track “Holes Basking In the Glow,” Julius speaks of post-party fears (“The streets at 4am feel safe until they don’t. Why does the truck slow down as it passes me?”) before devolving into bloody revenge fantasy. 

What hovers above all of Julius’ work to date is a need for connection, whether that’s through a fleeting sexual experience or through finding a community of like minded souls. It’s a search they’ve been on since their days living in Ashland, Oregon. It was there that Julius’ music obsessions took root as they worked in a record store and produced a radio show on the non-commercial station KSKQ. They eventually found some other misfits to start a band with, a group that morphed from ’70s style rock into a more shoegaze-y sound. 

Julius eventually moved to Portland to attend Reed College. Their focus was on ethnomusicology, writing their undergraduate thesis on the local hip-hop scene and booking shows on campus. At the same time, Julius went through both a crisis of conscience about their creative output and started to wrestle with their gender identity. “Should I be making music?” Julius remembers thinking. “As a white, cis at the time person, I don’t think anyone needs to hear what I have to say. I stopped for a couple of years.” 

Sometime later, Julius started to pick apart the layers of their gender identity, realizing how much of their presentation and “the ways that I acted or held myself I had learned.” 

“My whole life I’ve observed people,” they say. “I’d pick someone and think, ‘That looks like a good kind of man, I’m going to act like that person.’ Emulating the small stuff like sitting or dressing to larger and often less helpful violent masculinity. I had the realization that so many of these parts I’ve borrowed from other people, and I can borrow from whoever I want and sit however it feels comfortable and dress however feels comfortable.” 

As Julius started to fully embrace this gender fluid presentation, they found even greater creative expression for their inner desires and struggles. Taking inspiration from Frank Ocean and SoundCloud rappers like Lil Peep and daring electronic artists like Arca as well as queer artists Bruce LaBruce and Ryan Trecartin, Julius started to build an aesthetic that delighted in twisting their voice to impossible highs and writing multi-layered and sometimes blush-inducing lyrics. On Meat Shot’s opening track “Toni Milkus,” for example, it’s a balance of lines like, “I couldn’t find a love to replace her/so I became her/now I’m the girl after my heart,” with “I want some titties on my chest just to show ‘em off.”

“I wrote those lines several years ago, before I even started identifying as nonbinary,” Julius says, smiling. “As I started feeling less male, I started identifying with those lines more strongly.” 

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At the same time, I had to wonder what Julius’ parents felt about their unabashed music and lyrics. Or even the cognitive dissonance their dad might have experienced seeing one of his knives being brandished next to his child wearing a bikini. 

“My mom is super supportive and appreciative,” Julius says. “I wasn’t sure how much she was listening. When ‘Cute4U’ came out, she said, ‘Oh this is too much for me,’ but my sibling told me she played it often around the house. My dad watched a livestream I did for theresa sweetheart’s Twitch channel, and I think it definitely made him uncomfortable. I don’t tell him don’t watch it or don’t listen to it. It’s there if he wants to seek it out.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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