Planningtorock celebrates wedded bliss in the face of bigotry

Their new EP, “Gay Dreams Do Come True,” finds joy and resilience in queer synth-pop

Jam Rahuoja Rostron is in a good place. After spending the past two decades in Berlin, the British-born electronic artist and producer known as Planningtorock has decamped to Tallinn, Estonia. This quiet city on the Baltic coast is where their wife, oral and maxillofacial surgeon Riinu Rahuoja, makes a home along with their dog, cat and two horses. LGBTQ+ marriage is not legal in Estonia, so their ceremony in September 2020 took place at the city’s British embassy. But rather than allowing the country’s bigotry to spoil the celebration of wedded bliss, Rostron channelled it into their joyful new EP, Gay Dreams Do Come True.

“Meeting Riinu, who is my wife now, is the best thing in my life,” they say as we connect over Zoom. “To be quite honest, I never thought it was possible for me to find this kind of happiness. She’s a wonderful woman, and that’s something worth celebrating. I wanted to make a dedication to her and to take that space. It’s a way of giving back to myself and to my queer fans. We exist, we’re entitled to it, let’s go get it.”

The path to contentment hasn’t always been this clear. Growing up in the town of Bolton, England, the non-binary, genderqueer musician sought a way to escape and found it in the synth-pop groups Erasure, Yazoo and Bronski Beat. Like countless teenagers questioning their sexuality in the early 1980s, they saw themselves reflected in the classic video for “Smalltown Boy” and continued to interrogate these emotions as they began writing songs. “I was born in 1972, so it was a different time,” Rostron says. “Listening to music got me in contact with my queer self, but it was the act of writing lyrics that got me thinking about what being gay meant for me.”

At age 27 in 1999, Rostron relocated to Berlin. Up until this point, they say they’d considered their music to be “a secret hobby that nobody really knew about.” Though only intending to visit for six months, Rostron found a kinship with the improvisatory spirit of the city’s artistic community and ended up staying for 20 years. “I’m really grateful to that city because it gave me so much,” they say. “I started off doing lots of amazing performances in punk spaces where people made their own costumes and just tried things out. It was very casual and playful. That gave me a chance to find myself and meet a lot of amazing artists.”

 

Two of the people Rostron connected with at that time were Karin and Olof Dreijer, Swedish siblings who perform as The Knife. When they released their sophomore album, Deep Cuts, Rostron wrote a fan letter to the enigmatic electronic duo and asked to remix their song “Heartbeats.” This led to many fruitful collaborations, including the experimental opera Tomorrow, In A Year, based on Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species, and a series of remixes documenting Rostron’s own evolution. 

Planningtorock earned even wider attention by touring with LCD Soundsystem in 2007, signing to James Murphy’s DFA Records at the height of “bloghouse” (a time that’s probably best left in the past). Rostron survived the era’s hipster fashion disasters of shutter shades and deep V-necks by exploring different sides of their identity. Whether that included wearing masks and prosthetics or deeply distorting their vocals, they say “it never felt like hiding, but more like an extension of myself.” 

Since their 50th birthday this past January, Rostron has been able to step back from feelings of gender dysphoria and accept that constant changes to their body are inevitable. “At one point when I was transitioning, I was on testosterone and my body didn’t react very well to it,” they share. “I had some side effects and it was very difficult for me. It’s quite a nonlinear journey.” Rostron is also grateful that culture has finally started to catch up with their experiences. “It’s taken me some time to get to where I am now, whereas someone younger might not have to go through the same boring crap that I did. It’s wonderful to see trans people in TV shows and movies these days, because of course they’re just normal.”

Planningtorock’s 2014 album All Love’s Legal marked another turning point with both a poppier sound and expressly political statements. Its sloganeering song titles include “Patriarchy Over and Out,” “Misogyny Drop Dead” and “Beyond Binary Binds.” Rostron still describes it as “a really important record” in their artistic trajectory. “It was almost like an exercise in saying something very clearly in a way that’s not confrontational,” they explain. “Dance music has such a clever, sophisticated language. You’re in your body, moving, and enjoying it. That’s a perfect place to start thinking about things or receiving ideas.”

In today’s polarized cultural landscape, they believe there is no room left for misinterpretation: “I don’t think we have time to be subtle right now,” Rostron says. “I hope one day that’s not the case, but gay rights and human rights in general are constantly under threat. Even though there’s a lot of progress happening, there’s another side of society that wants to take that away. With my song titles, I just want to get to the point as fast as possible, in the most fun way possible.”

By turning subtext into text, the Gay Dreams Do Come True EP provides a necessary corrective to the tragic queer narratives that can sometimes dominate mainstream media. In the video for its title track, Rostron beams at the camera while dancing inside neon-hued kaleidoscopic effects, like a modern update to Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart.” Just when you think the song can’t rocket any higher, a final key change lifts its conclusion into an ecstatic stratosphere. 

The EP’s second single, “Girl You Got My Heart,” keeps the party going with a strutting groove and pitch-shifted choruses. “Her Heart Is My Home Now” slows the pace with moody strings, clattering beats and a healthy dose of Autotune. These songs come complete with a series of remixes from rRoxymore, ATRIP and Kiddy Smile, all of which will sound excellent on a wedding dance floor. 

For Rostron, the process of making music with fun at its core is both spiritually freeing and a full-circle return to their formative inspirations. “Something I’ve had to accept about myself is that I love really gay synth-pop,” they say, laughing. “That’s my thing. For a while when I was younger, I felt like I had to make something that was darker and more complicated, but pop music is difficult! It’s super hard and definitely a skill with its own logic. Now, I just make the music that I like.”

Jesse Locke

Jesse Locke (he/him) is a writer and musician based in the traditional, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, also known as Vancouver. He has contributed to outlets such as Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily, SPIN, The Wire, CBC Music, Xtra, Musicworks and Aquarium Drunkard. Jesse is the co-founder of the We Are Time record label, and has played drums with the bands Tough Age, Big Rig and CHANDRA. Follow him on social media!

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