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Body Language: Notes on a shifting fantasy

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

Porn stars have generally left music feeling a bit dirty and used but most often they are reduced to pouting ciphers on dance tracks.

At their live debut in Poland, porn star Sasha Grey and her band aTelecine delivered a surprisingly ­powerful performance. (Supplied)

Porn stars have generally left music feeling a bit dirty and used. Most often, as in the case of Andrea True or Traci Lords, they are reduced to pouting ciphers on dance tracks. And the less said about Pop You in the Pooper by Jeff Stryker, the better. But Sasha Grey, who appeared in 270 porn films between 2006 and 2011, crafts richly textured, psychologically probing music full of ­mysterious landscapes and half-memories with her band aTelecine.

The band played their first ever live show at the recent Unsound festival in Poland, where Grey and Ian Cinnamon set up an eerie sound world accompanied by visuals of a forest turning darkly psychedelic. Like a lot of their music, it oscillated between powerfully affecting and maddeningly undercooked, perhaps a result of their improvisatory approach, using anything from "analogue synths or digital plug-ins to a tin can and a microphone", according to Cinnamon.

"We've never had a process," said Grey. "We never looked at ourselves as a traditional band; we record when we can. One night it might be standing in front of a mic with no lights on, in a hallway, and someone just says 'Falcon. Quick, sing!'"

These techniques led first to them making tape loops, then traversing through musique concrete, noise and found sounds towards something approaching traditional songs. "We're figuring out how to make melody work and be comfortable with it, rather than intimidated by it," said Grey.

"The challenge is interesting, because at the nucleus of this group are all kinds of different influences," said Cinnamon. "You like ambient music, I like death metal, you like R&B – put that together in a pot. If you're not down with James Brown and Lustmord, then you're not a fan of music."

Provocative idea
aTelecine's live set-up featured an almost motionless Grey and Cinnamon behind laptops, but they had previously considered a far more provocative idea: "There were moments of flirtation with how to combine [porn and music] – do a live aspect, performance art pieces, because that's how I approached every scene I did," said Grey.

"Obviously, that's not always translated to people watching it in five-second clips, so it would have been a way to really grab the focus of the audience. But, ultimately, we felt it would have been cheaper if we'd approached it that way, because it would have been expected."

Grey has traded in the unexpected during most of her career. Many of her porn movie scenes feature eye-watering self-penned dialogue, which was a way of asserting herself when directors tried to mould her into generic porn archetypes such as slutty schoolgirls or babysitters.

"People can dress you the way they want, they can do your make-up the way they want, but they can never take away your voice," she said. "There were times I had to fight against it – people wanted me to shut up and just put a pretty smile on and I'm not going to do that. I would literally come planned with ideas of things to say."

Grey has now left porn behind, saying she wanted to quit in her prime, although she admits that her timing was good in an industry under siege to piracy and falling budgets: "It's just like the music industry – it's fucked now, no pun intended."

Sex positivity
Her career somewhat mirrors that of one of her heroes, Cosey Fanni Tutti of the band Throbbing Gristle, who also did porn. The pair have recently collaborated, Grey providing vocals for the forthcoming, final Throbbing Gristle album.

"Their ideology as individuals has always been very inspiring and I wish as a 13-year-old I had known who they were," Grey said. "To feel proud as an individual; not feeling guilty about yourself or your tastes because of societal norms – that's not something we're encouraged to do."

Like Cosey Fanni Tutti, Grey is making no feminist statement, saying: "It's such a diluted term. I'm more interested in the idea of self-empowerment and sex positivity."

But does the very nature of porn, with its cartoonish angles and male bias, not undermine sex positivity?

"When we sit down to watch pornography we know it's a fantasy and we know it's something that we're using as escapism," she said. Then she admitted: "We do have a distorted view of our fantasies in society, but that's because we don't talk about them enough. Whereas men maybe try to have sex with their girlfriends or wives like they saw a guy having sex with a girl in a porno movie, women also expect to get a fat diamond ring and a guy who doesn't cheat on them. We're taught to expect things that are just not possible. It's not an exclusive problem to pornography, it's a problem for human relations."

Her exploration of human relations goes on with her music, her straight acting roles and her debut novel, The Juliette Society, which she promises will be about "the Fight Club of fucking – a young woman's sexual awakening. I'm sharing what I learned and doing lots of research. Lots and lots of research." – © Guardian News & Media

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