A candid conversation with the artist about their debut album, using their voice, and watching America from afar.
One of many terrible things about technology is that it conflates connection and intimacy but J’Kerian Morgan, the Berlin-based producer known as Lotic, won’t force the feeling. When we Skype one recent morning my bedhead snags the corner of a blank screen. I hear Morgan yelp the first of many laughs as they beg off videochat: “I’m having such a lazy day today!” It’s six p.m. where they’re at, nearing the end of a cozy day spent doing not much at all.
Raised in Houston, Morgan relocated to Berlin six years ago with nothing but a chip on their shoulder about American Life and a decade’s worth of experience making music in mostly scholastic settings: marching band, college studies in music theory and field recording, and campus radio. They integrated into Berlin life as a DJ, but it was production work — particularly 2015’s Heterocetera EP, released on Tri Angle Records, and the Agitations mixtape — that brought Lotic’s cutting, phantasmal take on club music and composition to wider recognition.
Picture Disney’s Maleficent or The Wiz’s Evillene in the club. That’s what the grinding, playful energy of Heterocetera and Lotic DJ sets bring to mind. And their newest project, the debut full-length Power, lassos that glossy darkness to Texas drums and the considered narrative of a movie score. In the video for the lead single “Hunted,” Morgan channels Aaliyah’s Queen Of The Damned while whispering a queer nightmare: “Brown skin, masculine frame/head’s a target/ actin’ real feminine/make them vomit.” Unforced and unseen, Morgan shares the impulse behind the morbid and intimacy perspective behind Power: “Anything I’m afraid of I’m putting it on the record.”
In a recent interview you said something like, “I’ve been a musician for 17 years…” and I thought that was impactful. People often downplay those formative years.
A lot happened in the last year-and-a-half for me and it was hard to focus on the positives. One day I was meditating and I thought about how I’ve been playing since I was 12, like, Damn, I’ve been doing this my entire life! I was in such a place of doubting myself so it was nice to have that self-affirmation.
After Agitations I wanted to be really clear about my messaging and also not come from this place of frustration and anger. I wanted to show a more complete picture of who I am as a person, but also as a musician. I had these plans to write songs for sax because I played alto sax for years, and I started getting more into musical theory, composition, and then electronic music composition. Lotic started out as a DJ and production project, and so it never really occurred to me to pick up sax or sing or do anything other than make beats. But then I was like, why not? Allowing myself to be that musician took time. My fear was that going back to playing sax would take me back to a specific mental space. Often doing something old isn’t challenging yourself, but it is a challenge to do it in the context of the music I’m making now.
Do you think your teen self would have conceived of the music you’re making now?
I thought about that and I don’t know! I don’t think that person would think this music would come from me. This record is talking to that person. I wanted to write the record that I would’ve wanted my teenage self to know was a possibility. [Laughs] We’re getting a little Inception-y but I wanted to consolidate everything and I wanted closure for all the times, musically, that I doubted myself or thought I wasn’t creative enough or good enough.
The record is very American-sounding to my ears; it doesn’t feel like much of what people might associate with Berlin.
It is a bit of a rebellion against the scene. I am a bit lonely here. I never felt pressure to conform to Berlin but I did have pressure from my own catalogue. I’m always written about as the “club deconstructor” and I’ve rolled with it but it was important for me to get away from that, because yes, I like fucking shit up but I’m also trying to be a happy person. I’m not this dark, depressed being who writes scary music! [Laughs]
All of my close friends here are black, which, well, I don’t know how that happened! There aren’t very many people of color here especially queer black people. I get gawked at all the time on the street. I know what I look like and I know I’m dressing to be seen — like if you’re going to stare I’m gonna look good! [Laughs] But I’m not calling attention to myself in that way. This album was a kind of ‘fuck you’ to this overly normative, cold society I’m living in. I love Berlin, but [putting myself in my music]… it’s getting more important.
There are definitely times that I wanted it to sound more Houston. “Nerve,” for instance, was my way of doing a chopped and screwed track. I started the record before “Formation” dropped, and then A Seat at the Table came out so I had to go back and…not come harder really, but, well, yeah, come harder! Like, OK, now girl you gotta! It’s challenging to inject personality into electronic music. My last decision was to use lyrics. To sing and then, to rap? Oh god!
Why did you decide to finally use your voice?
I wanted to be clear with my intention and my messaging and using words is an easy way to do that. And also I was like, “Anything I’m afraid of I’m putting it on the record.”
Ooh, I love that. It’s such a good way of not getting overwhelmed by all the shit surrounding the actual work.
I did a lot of crazy emotional work in the process of writing. My relationship to power changed so much. It started as more of a political attack on power, like “Formation,” so when that came out I was like, Well, ugh, now I can’t do this![Laughs] And then when I lost my apartment last year — and the year before that I was always touring and I’d already spiralled — the shift was really about self-empowerment. Why was I afraid to talk about myself? As outspoken as I am, I’m not really saying anything about my personal experiences. That fucked me up. Over time you kind of forget to check in on yourself. I’ve had a strong sense of who I was forever, but I’ve never really demanded anybody see that.
I feel like I’m going to cry. I really relate to that.
It’s a lot of work and it sucks, but it’s so beautiful when you get out on the other side! Lotic happened by accident: I moved here, didn’t have any experience, barely spoke German. So what was I going to do except what I’d been doing? Luckily it worked out but I still had this insecurity. I felt that it was too wasteful, or I could be doing something else, or more. I never really allowed myself to say, “This is my dream job and I’m enjoying doing it.” Instead it turned into this other thing of me feeling like I didn’t deserve. I thought my ego would operate in one way but it ended up being something that I was totally not checking in on at all.
“Yes, I like fucking shit up but I’m also trying to be a happy person. I’m not this dark, depressed being who writes scary music!” —Lotic
What is the song “Distribution of Care” about?
There is almost no conversation about growing with people. Every time something is hard you don’t just give up, and that’s the conversation I’m interested in. I didn’t have time to write words to it, and I’m still not sure I could do it now but I thought it was a good title to start a conversation. We talk about distribution of resources, distribution of all of these capitalist entities, but not emotions.
When I had no money or a place to live I found that when I asked, I got it. [Laughs] I was so used to distributing the care. That’s being raised as a black man, that’s being raised in America — like, talk about toxic. We’re not allowed to feel emotion, not supposed to need help. All of this really unhealthy stuff that you internalize from a young age I had to unlearn during the course of making this music. And I still am. It became important to me to talk about that stuff to the point that I was getting on my friends nerves [Laughs] like, “Girl we’re not gonna talk about that today!”
Every time I listen to “Heart” I can’t help but think of “Juju On That Beat.”
That wasn’t my reference but that’s funny you say that. My references for this album were basically Missy and M.I.A. All I was listening to was chamber music and Missy. [Laughs] “Heart” was unfinished for months and I ended up playing it for Fatima Al Qadiri. The first thing she said was, “You need some vocals on here.” It ended up being almost a ballad. I don’t have quite enough distance to talk too much about it yet, but it’s definitely one of my favorites. And I love Moro. He’s so cute — and his sexy ass voice? Ugh! [Laughs]
Yeah, you don’t have many collaborations behind your name.
It was important for me that this was my record; about me and my personality. But as soon as Fatima said “vocals” I immediately thought of Moro because I’d heard his EP and he’d just moved here and I had a little crush on him! [Laughs] So I was like, “Okay, I want him to sing to me.” Robin [Carolan, Tri Angle Records founder] was like, “I think the record should be you, you, you” and I was like, “I agree but listen to this!” It’s beautiful what Moro did and it’s one of my first-ever collaborations, so that’s a big deal. Allowing myself to share my music with another musician is not something I’ve done in that way before. It was super scary, which is why I did it.
You’ve been in Berlin for six years. I’m fascinated by nonwhite Americans who leave for Europe because you don’t really hear about it much. It’s more obvious to everyone today that things in the U.S. aren’t as advertised but you left during the Obama years.
My mother told me from a young age, “I think you’re going to end up in Europe.” She could see there were fundamentally American things I didn’t like. I hate the suburbs. I hated driving, fast food, strip malls — all the really American things that people think is normal. There are no public places to hang out besides the mall, where you’re supposed to be buying stuff. I always thought something would change so it never occured to me to leave. I don’t remember what clicked but suddenly I could not stay and I moved to Berlin — one way — without knowing what it’s like. I will never do that again! Stupidest thing! [Laughs]
Has being abroad changed your feelings about America?
I’m much more mature. Now that I’ve seen that Europe has its own shit I have a much better sense of where I come from. Now that I don’t feel that I’m trapped I can see a bit more of the whole picture. I have more hope now than I ever did when I was living in America. I actually am optimistic. I don’t need to be there for it… [Laughs] but I’m not as overwhelmed by the feeling of “Americans don’t give a shit about America.” I’m excited about young people coming up because they’re actually doing shit to change the situation. It’s the future I wanted.
What comedians are you into?
Tiffany Haddish. Yamaneika Saunders will have you screaming. I will basically watch anything I scroll past from Comedy Central. I’m still trying to figure out my style. I love yelling of course, but I love the dry stuff too. Julio Torres — he’s so cute! He’s like a queer, vegan comedian. I’m trying to find more queer comics. That might be my side hustle soon. I guess because I was so depressed I was like, “Anything to make me laugh” and I realized I have a love of comedy. There’s an English-speaking comedy club here. I’m so nervous to go because I’m so interested.
Do you have a bit [of your own]?
NO! [Laughs] I haven’t written anything. It started as a shield so I could steer people away from talking about Lotic, but it turns out I actually like making people laugh too.