I first saw Dom Rabelais perform in the spring of 2017, in a basement in Columbus, OH. I stood amidst the punk-house crowd as they launched into a video lecture connecting their obsessive documentation of license plates that begin in “DAY” with the Iowa Prison Industries. Later on, Dom led the audience in a sing-along version of Mama Mia, then held the mic between their bare ass cheeks and pulsed them to the beat.
In the fall of 2017, I met Dom in a basement in Philadelphia to talk over a couple of beers. They were on tour with their sometime collaborator performance artist Oleariam. What follows is some of the story they spun.
In the seventies there was this college in my hometown, Parsons College, that went out of business. The [Transcendental Meditation] movement bought the campus and everyone moved to Fairfield [Iowa] to be part of it, including my dad, from Louisiana, and my mom, from Ohio. That’s where they met.
The goal of the movement is World Peace. The idea is that if you get enough people all meditating all at once, specifically practicing this advanced technique of meditation called ‘yogic flying,’ it would create world peace.
My parents were on staff, and we were poor as hell. We grew up in a trailer park and could not afford anything because they didn’t get paid anything at all. They made the trade-off that they were part of this movement that would create world peace.
If you let it, the movement can be a total system; it impacts every aspect of your life with confusing specificity. Oh, you want to be enlightened? You should sleep with your face in this particular direction, you should only go through doors facing this particular cardinal direction, you should wake up at a specific time, you should go to bed at a specific time, you should take your pulse a specific way, you should only eat particular foods, you should only wear certain clothes—certain colors of clothes. It’s all under the logic of, I want to become enlightened. And if you don’t do these things, do you really want to be enlightened?
I was just born into this thing.
Where I went to grade school and middle school and high school—and actually, college too because I was able to go for insanely cheap through the movement—I had to meditate and do yoga twice a day. Later, we would meditate five times a day. Aspects of “the knowledge,” as it’s called, were a big part of the curriculum. The logic of enlightenment and karma and nature, and the idea of “the support of nature,” got subsumed into very Western and capitalist values.
It’s this weird spiritual libertarianism. People who are in the movement and had became very very rich through business would visit and be like, I’m super rich because I’m doing a really great job being enlightened and that’s why nature has rewarded me with being really fucking rich!
The thing is, the movement doesn’t actually have a vision of what world peace is. They seem to think that world peace is just people not committing [violent acts]—not “doing war” any more. But would it be some weird Western Liberal world peace that would continue the massive exploitation of the Third World, but just, no one would kill each other any more? There’s no political vision of world peace, they’re just like: We’re doing capitalism and bootstrapping ourselves to enlightenment.
I haven’t meditated in a really long time. I can safely say that meditation has never worked for me. My friends have had pretty significant experiences—peak style experiences—meditating. I’ve just never had that; I’ve had it through music, but not in the same framework that they’re talking about.
When we were kids, we’d have these meetings and people would ask: Did you experience some transcendence and stuff? I never said no, but even if I had said no, they would just tell me I needed to do this ritual again until it worked. So there was no reason to be like: No it’s not working on me, I’m not feeling the transcendence.
So I just sat there and thought a lot.
My mom went to art school in Columbus, Ohio, and she always encouraged us to do art and draw and stuff. My brother started to listen to a lot of electronic music and got FruityLoops, the computer program, and gave it to me. This was before we understood how music actually worked. At the time I didn’t even know that you could combine two notes and make a chord.
We just f’d around in FruityLoops for a long time, making silly-ass music. It’s a real program, but you don’t need a really good computer to run it, and you can pirate it. You can just download it on any shitty personal computer, so you don’t need to be rich to start using it.
I didn’t really make music again until I was seventeen or so, and then me and my brother made some music and put it on Myspace, as you do. Our friend Andre was like: Hey you guys make cool music, come play a show. He’s the reason we play music because he showed a semblance of support and I was like: Oh, I guess I’m allowed to do this.
Someone who ran a festival in Iowa City found our Myspace and asked us to play a show. This was in 2007 or so. We didn’t know what to do so we just brought our laptop and pushed play and danced around. Our band was called Porno Galactica—we’d kind of just be hyped dudes. This was when Justice was really popular, and Girl Talk was just getting really popular.
Our second show ever was opening for Dan Deacon at a music festival. He demonstrated that you were allowed to play shows like that. If you made music you can just be like: Hey can we play a show? And someone would be like: Yeah sure. Up until then it had just been a weird whim; we had no idea.
Maybe this is just my own hyper-political bent these days, but there’s something almost annoyingly anarchist about [my old musical project] Little Ruckus. When I was doing Little Ruckus, I had this concept “sweat power.” I think at the time sweat power was a kind of reaction—a way of thinking about transcendence that wasn’t through: It’s time to meditate. Sweat power had to do with the notion of a temporary autonomous zone, and with the idea that it’s possible to create a space in a moment where you are autonomous from the brutality of everything.
Playing Little Ruckus shows, I was trying to make people feel like they could participate and dance and all this stuff, and now playing Real Dom shows, it doesn’t matter. If people don’t feel like it they don’t have to [participate]. It’s not like it’s not about that, but physically engaging with the music isn’t as important.
I think part of [the shift] had to with being depressed and not wanting to do anything. Being at shows and being like: I don’t wanna get in the pit. Or, I just want to engage with this on my own terms.
Bros—punk bros, metal bros, noise bros—bros of all stripes, are really disquieted by shows that I play. Sometimes, mostly with Little Ruckus stuff, they would get really into it, but in a way that was meant to mock me. One time a guy was dancing really hard and ran up and grabbed me. He was rocking with me or whatever, but was really shaking my body a lot, and ripped my shirt. It was like: You’re obviously not into this. You obviously hate me and are pretending to like me so you can be a fuckin’ asshole to me, but then be like: “I was just getting really into it.”
Another time I was playing a song and this guy ran up to me and grabbed the mic and started to yank it away from me. I had to use my knee to push away his body and pull the microphone out of his hands.
The final song at that show had a sing-a-long part where we just hugged and yelled “I love you!” a whole bunch. It was this really intense moment; everyone felt this palpable transformation from this guy wanting to fight me to everything being okay.
Afterward he was like: I love you so much dude, and all this stuff, and then: I mean you’re gay right? in this weird no homo kind of way. It’s just like: What the fuck! What does that have to do with anything!
It makes me think about how irony can be really dangerous and confusing, and about how transgression for transgression’s sake doesn’t really work. I think it connects to this idea of ‘un-objectivity’—the idea that objectivity is constantly shifting. We need to believe in something, and weird-gross-alt-right-irony-people are exploiting this contested nature of: Oh I’m just kidding. No one can take a joke anymore! But also, white ethno-state… It’s like that line from that song Kanye West did with 2 Chainz: Wifey gets you a new sweater/ Tell her next time, do better/ I’m joking, I’m just serious.
I’ve always worn really tight bike shorts and a mesh tank top for Real Dom shows. Then, when I was on tour with one of my really close friends we started shopping at sex stores all the time. I bought a thong at one of them and was like: Oh, everything’s changed. I love wearing thongs. This is the greatest moment of my life.
I spend a huge amount of time criticizing my appearance. Taking off my clothes is a weird way of overcoming that; even though I’m always looking at myself in the mirror and feeling like a bastard, it’s nice to just be desired and feel like I’m sexy, like anybody could ever feel any appreciation for me whatsoever. A few day ago I hooked up with somebody and was having trouble getting in the mood. Then I put on my stripper heels and a lace jock strap and I was like: Oh never mind, let’s do this. Bring it on.
I don’t like it when people promote shows I play as if I’m a queer artist. I do have the habit, the sexual appetite, of a queer person, and I understand that people need to get people to shows, but being promoted that way feels very much like [pandering to] what’s in vogue. The instability of categorization is something that’s really fascinating to me; you could argue that this is queerness incarnate. So the idea of being “Real Dom,” of being “really anything” is kind of silly. That’s part of the multitudes of meanings of it all. As if we’re not constantly becoming a thousand things in a thousand directions. The idea that there’s any stability whatsoever to ourselves seems kind of implausible.
I like playing shows for people who are not rich kids from major metropolitan areas, because I grew up in a fucking trailer park in Iowa. All of the most meaningful and important experiences I’ve had as a performer have been when I felt like I have shown someone that they’re allowed to be a way, demonstrated that it is possible to express yourself.
The wild thing about my friend Andre just being like: Hey you can play a show, is that unless you know that something is a possibility, you just won’t do it. There’s this interview with Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! where she’s like: Yeah, I grew up in anarchist circles. I was at shows, I was fucking radical as hell, but she didn’t realize that she could be a trans person until she was like thirty-five, even though she was deeply embedded in radical thought. She just didn’t realize that was possible, so she lived with enormous pain all the time and had no idea why.
With the internet, you can have Instagram and find out that there are novel approaches to life. But if you don’t know that something exists at all, then you don’t know how to look for it. Or, even if you have a vague idea that there might be something out there, but you don’t know the right way to find it, then you won’t ever be exposed to that notion and know that it’s okay to feel some type of way.
I want to play shows for people who are really struggling, and building their communities because they have nothing else, and if they don’t struggle and build it, then it will not exist for them. Those are the people I wanna play shows to. And, if I could play shows where there was a cool stage and a really loud PA, then that would be cool too.