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Aja Archuleta

Nia: I was saying that a lot of your music doesn’t have a lot of lyrics, but in one of your songs,
“Madam Data,” there’s a phrase that’s repeated over and over again. “Feeling empowered, and feeling
like it’s possible.” And you said that’s from Discwoman?

Aja: I stumbled upon a Discwoman interview.

Nia: Discwoman’s a collective, right?

Aja: Yeah. It’s a femme, mostly POC-centered, DJ collective, I believe, out of New York, but they
have branches all over the world. I feel like, for me, they’ve empowered me, and so many people
around me, to step up and find our DJ strength. When I heard that quote in the interview, I just
recorded it. It kind of fit like a puzzle piece into the song. I had a moment when I was able to play it
for the Discwoman crew, when they were here. She just started crying. It was a very… I don’t
know… A heartwarming moment to receive their—

Nia: Adulation?

Aja: Yeah, totally. [Aja and Nia laugh] Or, to be able to receive empowerment from them, and
transform it into a piece of art, that can ideally empower more femmes around… You know, whoever
listens to it. Yeah. It was just a very heartwarming moment.


Nia: Nice. I wanted to talk to you about Denver. Because you’re from Denver, right?

Aja: Oh yeah. Mmhmm.

Nia: I lived there for a year. What part of Denver are you from?

Aja: My family is from… One side of my family is from the north side in Denver.

Nia: Clayton?

Aja: It’s now called The Highlands.

Nia: What? [laughs]

Aja: By white people.

Nia: Is it Five Points, or near Five Points?

Aja: It’s north of 32nd and Lowell. 32nd and Federal, kind of.

Nia: OK. Oh, that’s on the west side, right?

Aja: Well, my mom’s side was what I consider the west side, which is by Auraria campus, and Loma
Park, and Mariposa Street. And my dad’s side was kind of… They have a lot of North Denver pride.
[laughs] He had his gang of homies, back in the day. They would tag all around town, and stuff.

Nia: Nice. So both of your parents were deeply rooted in Denver?

Aja: Deeply rooted in Denver. I think we traced it back to at least 15 generations in Colorado. On one

Nia: Does that go back to before Colorado was part of the U.S.?

Aja: Pretty much. I’m still, like—

Nia: Doing the math?

Aja: Doing the math. Sweeping off the path, and uncovering as much history as I can. These past
couple years, I feel like I’ve uncovered a lot of gems that have helped me understand where it is I come
from. And how both sides of my family met, being a mestiza person. At first I thought I was… We
were raised Chicano. So I was like, “Oh yeah, we’re Mexican. That makes sense.” But we never… I
feel like my mom’s generation and my grandparents generation were the first to start assimilating. So
we lost a lot of our history in that time, and just became a Chicano-American family. Which you know,
is Mexican food sometimes, but we never talked about our deep, deep roots, and where that came from.
That’s what I’ve been trying to uncover. Learning that I have Indigenous blood, and colonial blood, is
something that I’ve really been trying to fully understand what that means to me now, and what I need
to do with that information.

Nia: What are some of the gems that you’ve discovered? [both laugh]

Aja: It was two years ago that my Grandma Judy told me that we have Navajo and Apache lineage.
That was never part of the conversation.

Nia: How did it come up?

Aja: She sent me a poem, at midnight, on Easter Sunday, [laughs] out of nowhere. It was a time that I
had recently come out as “trans”.

Nia: [laughs] Why did you put it in scare quotes?

Aja: Well, to me, I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without the beautiful trans people in my
life, and the elders, and everyone who’s come before me. But shifting the trans narrative to being a
Two-Spirit narrative started when my grandma told me that we have Indigenous heritage. That
changed my whole story. Instantly it empowered me to be able to feel like I have agency to claim the
Two-Spirit story, which I had always felt connected with before that, but I was like, “I’m not
Indigenous.” I really feel connected to the Two-Spirit history, and the stories, and how they embody
the masculine and the feminine. And they’re spirit walkers, and they’re on the bridge between worlds.
Only after my grandma told me that information, I was like “Oh, everything makes sense. I’m not
trans.” I feel like, to me, the trans narrative is a post-colonial construct.
Nia: I feel like you could maybe also say that about Two-Spirit identity? Because Two-Spirit doesn’t
refer to a specific tribe, right? It refers to a sort of pan—

Aja: Pan-drogenous, maybe? [laughs]

Nia: I was going to say like, pan-First Nations. I don’t think it’s coming out the way that I want it to,
but I think you know what I was saying.

Aja: In each different tribe there’s different terms for Two-Spirit persons. So, saying Two-Spirit now,
is still a blanket statement. But what I’ve learned is that pre-colonialism… In Indigenous tribes,
precolonial, and today, from the very first sign of children diverting from their born gender roles, their
parents nurture them in whatever direction they want. So there’s no… If I wanted to not go to war, and
make baskets instead, at the first sign of that, say, when I was four or five, my parents would have, back
in the day, led me down the path of the weaver. Instead of, post-colonial story, being shoved back into
the masculine gender roles, the modern masculine gender roles, and then having to go back and
transition, is just a major difference I see. And I’m trying to embody as much of what life looked like
for my ancestors, pre-colonialism. To find my identity within that, and kind of see myself without the
restraints of post-colonialism being imposed on my identity.

Nia: That makes sense. So your grandma sends you this poem.

Aja: [laughs] Out of nowhere. Out of nowhere.

Nia: And how did the poem let you know you are Indigenous? And also, why midnight on Easter
Sunday? [laughs]

Aja: She’s a magic witch in her own right. I feel like my family, especially the women in my family,
have these magical gifts that don’t… That aren’t the way we look at magic and woo things today, I feel
like was just basic cooking, and caregiving, and understanding the needs of the family, before the
family even knew. They just have this intuition that’s feels like it’s from another planet. That’s the
magic I grew up around, and I feel like I took for granted when I was growing up, but now I see the
power in… My mom always wanted everything to be as comfortable as possible. So even if my
friends and I didn’t need anything, she’d be like “Oh, here’s some tea. Here’s some things.” She was
just always on caretaker-mode. I’ve tried to attend to people’s needs in the same way. I feel like I can
tell when somebody looks hot and looks like they need some water. It’s simple things like that, but that
play into a bigger dynamic of how we treat each other, and take care of the people around us.

Nia: I’m still curious about the poem.

Aja: [laughs] I wish I could bring it up. One text was this poem telling me that she hasn’t written
poetry since she was young. Then she gave me some context, too. [laughs]

Nia: OK, so she texted you the poem. Got it. I didn’t know that it was her poem that she wrote, or
that she texted it to you. So this is new information now. [Aja laughs]

Aja: And then my mom sent me a picture of Easter eggs shortly after. [Nia laughs] I was like “Am I
having a rebirth? What’s going on?” Mom and Grandma were definitely psychically sending me these
things that helped propel me to take agency over my Indigenous heritage, and connect with my
ancestors in this new, next level kind of way. I feel like that day when they sent me those things, just
connected a lot for me, and propelled me forward.

Nia: But you don’t remember how specifically it was revealed to you in the poem, that you are

Aja: I haven’t read it for a minute. But I just remember feeling like, “Oh, it all makes sense now. I
am Two-Spirit, and I don’t feel trans anymore. I feel comfortable… I feel like I don’t have to transition
from any one point A, to point B. I feel fully comfortable embodying, for me, what is the masculine
and the feminine. And just figuring how to gracefully hold space for both. Not both, but beyond that,
all, all of my strengths. Which some are maybe more masculine, and some are maybe more feminine.

Nia: Have you had a chance to talk with your mom and your grandma since then, and learn more
about that side of your history?

Aja: Little bits. They don’t know a ton beyond my great-grandparents, who, on my mom’s side, are
from Northern New Mexico, before they moved. And on my dad’s side, who are also New Mexico,
and Spanish, early settlers. Or early colonizers.

Nia: Potayto-potahto. [laughs] There are a couple of questions that I usually ask everyone, to try get
us into it. We’re already into it.

Aja: We just dove right in.

Nia: Yeah, that’s true. How do you identify?

Aja: I identify as a Two-Spirit mestiza woman. [laughs]

Nia: What does mestiza mean to you?

Aja: To me, mestiza is a term that… I feel like in English there’s not a word that holds space for
people who are mixed with colonial ancestry and Indigenous ancestry. I haven’t found one yet. So,
recently, post-grandma-poem [laughs], while reading more and more, I found that term. I think I saw it
in someone else’s bio. And I was like “Wait, what’s is that?” And then I looked it up, and I was like
“Oh my gosh. That’s the word.” That holds space for both sides of me. I’m very white-passing, so I
feel like it holds space for the privilege that I carry with me, and also holds space for my ancestors as
well. My Indigenous ancestors, and their struggle. I feel like I’ve always been on the bridge. In
between different communities, different generations, different…

Nia: Do you identify as an artist?

Aja: Definitely.

Nia: And what kind of art do you do?

Aja: [laughs] Musician, primarily. Music has been my longest passion. In the past few years… the
more that I see music in a synesthetic way, or think about a song as a painting, that opened the doors
for me to start quilting, which was something… I was a costume designer in high school, and a stage
craft major. So I got to be in the sewing room, and the wood shop, bringing back those, all my sewing

I guess I should backtrack. I have a quilt from my great-grandma, that my dad passed down to me.
I’ve kept it with me. It’s still on my bed. It’s falling to pieces, and I’m going to restore it one day.

Nia: That seems really hard. How do you do that? [laughs]

Aja: You take it all apart [laughs], and put it back together. It’s going to be process. [laughs] I feel
like that process, for me, gives me such a deep connection to my ancestors. She left her sewing
machine behind, which I now have at my house. It got sent from Colorado. For me, sewing became
this way of connecting to my ancestors, and feeling like I’m carrying on some of their legacy. Quilts,
in particular, are meant to give warmth, and give lasting comfort. My mom was always trying to make
us feel warm, and make us feel comfortable in our house. If I can leave something here that’s alive,
beyond my life, or that can sustain warmth after I’m gone, that’s where I want to put my time, focus,
and energy.

Nia: That makes sense. So music, quilting—

Aja: Quilting. Quilting has recently led me on a ceramic mosaic and stained glass—

Nia: OK.

Aja: --Journey, which I’m at the very beginning of it. Growing up in Catholic school I always felt
very awe-stricken, being in cathedrals. Just being in these giant spaces that have so much light, and
beauty, and reverence. You definitely feel very small in them. They’re made to make you feel… Like
some giant caverns, like Grace Cathedral. Stained glass has just always given me life. It does
something to me. Just something about light in general. I feel like light is a tool for healing that we’re
barely beginning to understand. Light and color, specifically. Each color has a mood that it resonates

Nia: Did you say “mood” or “moon?”

Aja: Mood. Mood.

Nia: OK. [both laugh]

Aja: My whole journey has lead me from music, to quilts, to mosaics, to stained glass in this way
that’s helped me to understand the connection between all of them. I feel like they’re not that different,
because I’ve started seeing music as color, and I then I started applying color to fabric. Jumping into
ceramics and glass is just another variation on telling the same story.

Nia: Do you hear colors? Are you actually synesthetic?

Aja: When I’m focusing, when I’m really focused, and I’m in my meditative mindset, I feel like the
lines have blurred for sure, between my senses. I don’t know if it has to do with taking hormones, that
I feel like have sensitized me in a lot of ways.

Nia: So you feel like the synesthesia’s gotten stronger since you started hormones?
Aja: I think that, and psychedelics have sensitized me in these ways that I did not expect. Like, lasting

Nia: Did you start them both around the same time? [both laugh]

Aja: Maybe, right?

Nia: I don’t know. [laughs]

Aja: I think, yeah. I entered this period where my body went through a lot of changes. For me the
effects of hormones, at least, the effect that I am most connected with, is I feel the emotional and the
psychological. It sensitized me… It took me from maybe from being able to feel my feelings at 70%
to feeling full 100% of the spectrum of emotion, and not feeling like there’s anything holding it down.

Nia: Is that a good thing? It sounds terrifying. [laughs]

Aja: I’ve become empowered by things like crying, and experiencing emotions, even though they are,
at times, difficult. I feel like crying is one healing tool that our culture has… What’s the word?
[laughs] That our culture has kind of desensitized people to. We judge people, especially men, for
showing emotions, and there’s just so much stigma around crying, as this simple built-in—

Nia: Pressure valve?

Aja: Yeah, totally. I don’t know who said it, I feel like my grandma. She was like, “Better out than
in!” Crying is one of these simple things that we take for granted. For me, when I cry, I feel so great
afterwards. I have no shame about it anymore. I feel like people are shamed for feeling the extreme
emotions. But for me they aren’t extreme, they’re what you really are feeling. Letting them fully come
out, and live outside of you, instead of inside of you, has been a part of my healing journey. That’s all
related to estrogen/psychedelic…

Nia: OK. [Aja laughs] Oh, wait, was there more to that sentence?

Aja: I was going to say music also, but that’s kind of a different… I can relate anything back to music.

Nia: I do want to go back to music, but are you a weaver also?

Aja: That’s the next step on my journey. I’ve been feeling the call to… I’m a sound weaver, is a term
I’ve been using, in bios and stuff. It’s just more specific with how I see sounds weaving together, and
how I piece together a quilt. [laughs]

Nia: How did you first get into music? Was that back in Denver?

Aja: Back in Denver, piano lessons in Catholic school, third grade, was my first jump into my musical
path. My first musical memories are with very dramatic, emotional, classical pieces. Like Beethoven’s
9th Symphony. I’ll always remember. “Ode to Joy” is the name of it.

Nia: [singing] Doo-doo doo-doo doo doo doo—

Aja: [singing] Doo-doo doo doo. Yeah, we’ve all heard it. [Nia laughs] But I don’t think people have
heard the full hour-long version. Listening to it as an adult… I recently listened to it, and just cried my
eyes out. It literally is an ode to being joyful. It does that so well. I felt like I watch watching a movie
the whole time. The feelings you get from watching a film all flooded over me, while deeply listening
to this piece of music that I hadn’t really revisited since I was young. But it’s the earliest music
memory that I have, that just, oof, will stick with me. My heart knows it.

Nia: So you enjoyed the piano lessons?

Aja: Oh yeah. I loved it. I was the only kid taking piano lessons in my small Catholic school. Which,
I was already a… Who’s that weirdo outcast, you know? And it made me even more of an outcast.
But I was so into it I didn’t care. I would play “Ave Maria” during communion. Those easy, simple,
Catholic piano songs.

Nia: Is Catholicism still an important part of your life?

Aja: Not anymore. In fifth grade, I went to an art high school. A public art high school—

Nia: Wait, in fifth grade?

Aja: Sixth grade.

Nia: OK. That’s still early for high school.

Aja: It was a middle school and high school—

Nia: Oh, combined?

Aja: Yeah. So I left… When that happened I left Catholic school behind. I took the piano lessons
part, I took some of the lessons with me. But a lot of it I was like “Oof. Never going back there. I hate
sitting in church every week.” [laughs]

Nia: I hated piano lessons. [both laugh] But that’s another story.

Aja: I feel like having the opportunity to… Going from Catholic elementary school to public art high
school was such a contrast, that it shed a lot of layers for me. During high school, I was all about
figuring out who I was. Trying on every single hat I could. A lot of identity crises, which carried on to
after high school, because I didn’t really come out as trans until a couple of years ago. Even then, that
identity didn’t feel like me, at the end of the day. I’ve been trying to figure out where my spiritual
beliefs lie. Back to the grandma poem, not only did that connect me with my Two-Spirit ancestors, it
connected me with their spirituality, also. Which is back to the earth, air, fire, water, spirit. Connecting
with those basic elements that make up the whole of our reality has been where my focus has laid right

Nia: OK, so you transferred from Catholic school, to an art high school, where, I’m guessing, there
was less pressure to be “normal”.

Aja: Definitely. [Nia laughs] Yeah, was less pressure. It was like Denver School of the Freaks. It was
the best place for me to be able to spread my wings, find myself, and also learn these skills, like
sewing, carpentry. I learned a little bit of sound, but not too much. That was more after high school for
me. That helped me every single day. I can sew up just about anything. If I wanted to build a stage or
do some simple construction at home, I know how to do those things.

Nia: You’re a stagehand as your day job?

Aja: Mmhmm. I’ve been out of the union for a little bit, but going back in for this next season.

Nia: How does that work? [both laugh]

Aja: Being able to come and go?

Nia: Yeah. There’s a lot I don’t know about union politics.

Aja: It’s a great place for me right now, because all of my jobs up until then were like, “We need you
here 40 hours a week.” I managed a salon for ten years.

Nia: Oh, wow. Was that here?

Aja: In Denver and here. I was in the salon world for ten years, and everyone always needed me.
When I wasn’t there, I felt—

Nia: On-call?

Aja: Kind of.

Nia: That sounds the worst.

Aja: It was a very co-dependent relationship, and I couldn’t do it anymore. One of the big benefits of
the [stagehands’] union is that, if you’re available, you put yourself as available, and they’ll maybe call
you. And if you’re not available, you’re not available. And if you go on vacation, no one’s going to
lose sleep over it. There’s so many people in the union. There’s always work… Not always work, but
continual seasons of work for people. It just feels like so much less pressure, and a way different
environment than what I was used to. That’s one of the things that I love about it, that if I’m not free,
or have something to do, that’s fine.

Nia: It sounds like a temp agency, except with rights? [laughs]

Aja: Kind of, yeah, totally. I mean, they take care of their people as best they can. It’s over a hundred
years old, I think. And the theater work also is one of the oldest art forms. I feel very much at home
there. Being a baby… We called ourselves “techies” in high school, which—

Nia: Means something different now.

Aja: Means something totally different now. But yeah, being a grown-up techie. [laughs]

Nia: How did you end up in the Bay? What brought you here?

Aja: I left Denver when I was 20.

Nia: How many years ago would that have been?

Aja: About ten years ago. I had met someone in Los Angeles, when I was on a trip there, the year
before I left. We saw each other twice during that week, when I was in town. I was like, “Hmm. I’m
going to talk to this person.” So, then we started talking, and hung out for 24 hours straight, and would
talk on the phone every day, and be super cute. Meeting them inspired me to get up and move to LA,
which is where I was for three months. While I was sad to leave LA so soon, I felt this call to be in San
Francisco, which I had only visited once. I got let go from my Beverly Hills salon job, and was like,
“OK, I’m not going to try to do this again. I’m just going to go to San Francisco.” I ended up never
making it to San Francisco. I found a room in Oakland, and Oakland stole my heart instantly. I found
my community there. I feel like I just met the right people at the right times, who exposed me to all the
beautiful, mostly musical… Yeah, the music underground there. That is where I felt very much at

Nia: Cool. We left Denver around the same time. [laughs]

Aja: Oh my gosh. [laughs]

Nia: I left in 2008.

Aja: OK, yeah. Oh my gosh.

Nia: There’s a good chance that we know some of the same people. [laughs]

Aja: Oh, yeah. I bet. Definitely.

Nia: How did you go from piano in Catholic school, to the weird experimental shit you do now?

Aja: That’s a good question. It was early high school, when all of my friends and I were still nerds
who, our parents would drop us off at Borders, in the mall, because that’s the only place to hang out
when you live in… We lived on the edge of the suburbs. So, South Denver, Bear Valley area. I
remember my first punk show was at this anarchist book collective. I didn’t know anything about

Nia: What was it called?

Aja: It was called Breakdown Books. It was a block away from the Ogden Theater.

Nia: Is that on Colfax?

Aja: Uh huh. Washington and Colfax.

Nia: I hope there are some Denver listeners who are really enjoying this right now.

Aja: Yeah, because it paints a picture. If you’ve been there, it paints a little bit.

Nia: Do you know if it’s still there?

Aja: No, not anymore. It’s a hair salon or something. I found a flyer on a lamp post, old-school style,
pre-Facebook events, pre-Myspace events. You found about shows by going to very specific—

Nia: Telephone poles. [laughs]

Aja: Telephone poles. And there was one outside of Wax Trax records, that’s where the Monkey
Mania fliers would get put up.

Nia: What is Monkey Mania?

Aja: That became my home away from home. So, going to the Breakdown show was a weird, punk
show in a basement. Music that I’d never experienced before. I was listening to, like, the Goo Goo
Dolls at the time. And total like Lilith Fair mom stuff. [laughs] My friend Lauren went with me, and
my grandma picked us up. I was blown away. There were people… I was the youngest person there,
by far.

Nia: How old were you at the time?

Aja: I was probably 15 at the time. So, everyone was like—

Nia: That’s the perfect age to get into punk.

Aja: It was exactly what… It blew my brain to smithereens. I was like, “What is this place?” It felt so
magical. I was scared, also. I was frightened. I was partially excited, half-frightened and half-totally
enthralled. Because the music was just so [growls]. You know?

Nia: Was it pretty much straight punk, or was it experimental noise?

Aja: It was always weirder than punk. And that’s what I learned about Denver. I was always
surrounded by… I feel like it was more of a noise scene than a punk scene. The culture was different.
I feel like there was a punk scene happening somewhere else in town. But this weirder, more fun, noise
scene that seemed to have less boundaries around sound, I guess?

Nia: Maybe less pretentiousness?

Aja: Yeah, way less pretentiousness, I think.

Nia: I feel like noise can be pretentious, too.

Aja: Totally. This was all fun noise, though. There’s this band, Friends Forever, which, I have a
tattoo. They were my punk parents. They started Monkey Mania, which was first on Santa Fe, and
then it was on Arapahoe.

Nia: Sorry, so was that a show, or a venue?

Aja: Monkey Mania was a venue. It was the first thriving DIY venue that I experienced, that taught
me so much about what… Monkey Mania created a space for anyone to hang out and have fun in. You
couldn’t smoke inside because there was a parrot. [laughs]
Nia: A parrot?

Aja: They had a pet parrot.

Nia: During the noise shows?

Aja: Oh no, just all the time, that lived there. Josh and Amy, who are Friends Forever, and Amy was
part of this femme hip-hop/rock band, called Rainbow Sugar. Just deep Denver weirdness. Like the
generation before me. But yeah, they started Monkey Mania, and I stumbled upon it by the fliers on
the lamp post outside of Wax Trax. I just started going to every single thing I could there. I would
sneak out the house. I would pretend I was staying at my grandma’s house.

Nia: Did you ever get caught?

Aja: No. [both laugh] My mom’s going to listen and be like [gasps]. So, I was like, “Yeah, I’m
staying at grandma’s,” because she lived pretty close to downtown. I would stay there, but just show
up way late, after everyone was in bed. That’s where [I got] my first glimpse what a music community
can look like, and can function like. The music was just so fun. Friends Forever played in a van
outside. As they would start, you’d just see swimming pool noodles raining down, being thrown over
from one side of the van to other. Or stuffed animals, hundreds of them, just raining down while this
really weird energetic noise punk music is making me jump out of my shoes. It was just fun. Every
Monkey Mania flier, all it would say was the band names, and the address, and it would have a drawing
of these cute monsters that were their style. And it would always just say “Fun! Fun! Fun!” [Nia
laughs] Nothing more, nothing less. To put it simply, it was the most fun place to be a kid. A kid
figuring things out. I don’t know.

I’m just so blessed to have literally stumbled into that community, that turned me on to so much music.
And I got a job at a record store when I was 17 at Twist and Shout. Which was the biggest record store
in town. They had a lot of real weird music there, too. So, I just had all these beautiful people around
me. I had beautiful access to as much music as I could handle, in a record store setting, but also in a
live setting. Denver was at that time, I think, a really thriving place in the American noise

Nia: That’s cool. That kind of makes me sad though, for kids today, who are like, “What’s a record

Aja: Totally. Or like, “What’s a DIY space, even?”

Nia: Yeah, I don’t know about Denver, but I know in Boston, where I grew up, they were always under
attack. They were often short-lived. In part, because they tend to be not super-safe, which led to things
like… Last time I went to Boston I saw a punk flier up that said the show was at The Library. Which,
I don’t know, maybe The Library is a punk house? [Aja laughs] But there’s also this thing where
people just write “ask a punk” on the flier, instead of giving the location.

Aja: Yeah, I’ve seen that here.

Nia: And it’s like, that’s fine if you know punks [both laugh] but I think it creates a barrier to entry for
people that might be interested in the music, but aren’t part of the scene already.
Aja: Totally. I think about that first show I went to at Breakdown. If it said “ask a punk” I wouldn’t
know where to go. Things, at that time in Denver, just felt really accessible to me. I’d be like, “Hey,
friends, do you want to go to this weird thing? I know we’re not really old enough to party.” [Nia
laughs] Yeah, there’s beer, and you can really do and be whatever you want. In the early years, it was
very focused on music, for me, at least.

Nia: As opposed to fashion or politics?

Aja: Yeah, as opposed to fashion, or politics, or booze/party culture, which will get the best of any
scene, after a while, if that’s a focus. Monkey Mania never sold booze, for the record. It was this place
after called Garage Band, that had one dollar beers. I totally drank, you know. I learned a lot. I got a
lot of my party bugs out [Nia laughs] thankfully, in that time. I stopped drinking for four years
recently. I was just so happy to be done with that phase, you know.

Nia: Yeah, I just imagine you’re like at home sewing, instead. [both laugh]

Aja: Most of the days. I haven’t been sewing as much since I just moved into a new place, but now I
have full quilt space to spread out. And full music space to spread out. I don’t feel so cooped up with
my art.

Nia: Nice. I feel like there’s a story you hear a lot with punk, where it’s like, people hear it and are
like, “I can do that,” because the whole idea is you don’t have to know how to play an instrument to get
started. Is that how you were with noise? Was that the genre that you… Not when you started making
music, because you’d already been making music, but when… What am I trying to say? Going back a
little bit, did you play any other instruments after piano, but before what you do now?

Aja: I took piano lessons for third through fifth grade, and then I stopped.

Nia: Why?

Aja: Because Catholic school was over, and I didn’t get accepted into Denver School of the Arts for
piano. I auditioned for piano originally, I forgot to say that. I didn’t get in. They were like, “You
didn’t make it.” And I was like, “OK, I’m sad.” But my mom called, beautiful mom she is, she was
like, “My kid will do anything. Are there any…?” [laughs] Which is kind of weird, in retrospect. That
she was like, “I know you wanted to go for piano, but maybe you’ll be an actor. Maybe you want to be
a dancer.” She just wanted me to go there so bad.

Nia: Why?

Aja: Because my cousin went there.

Nia: Oh, OK.

Aja: They were having late-stage craft and design auditions, which I knew nothing about.

Nia: That changed the whole course of your life!

Aja: Changed everything. Not getting in for piano, and my mom making that call to be like, “Can my
kid come to anything? Please, please, please.” Yeah, it changed the whole course. [laughs]
Nia: I was asking if you played other instruments.

Aja: Oh, yeah. I kind of gave up piano. I was like, “OK, that’s not my thing. Not going to take
lessons.” I let my keyboard collect dust for a couple of years, in high school. In the beginning of
middle school. So, sixth, seventh grade, I didn’t touch piano. Maybe all of middle school. I had
listened to a ton of music, and was still obsessed with music. In high school… In early middle school.
I keep mixing up middle school and high school.

Nia: It’s cool.

Aja: Because it was just one long thing for me. I remember listening to really cheesy rave stuff. Lots
of rave dance compilations. Which then, I think punk and noise took the foreground once I discovered
that, and I didn’t listen to any of that anymore. Until I moved to the Bay, and was like, “Oh, there’s a
whole electronic scene here,” and a whole dance/rave community, has echoes of what I see in the
Denver noise-punk community.

Nia: Were there people of color in the Denver noise-punk community, besides yourself?

Aja: No, not totally. And it was never very politicized, either. So, moving to California is where I feel
like I got politicized the most.

Nia: I would love to talk about that.

Aja: Yeah, totally.

Nia: So you weren’t political when you came to Oakland?

Aja: No. I knew what a pretty white music community could look like, and I had my family, which is
gigantic. So there was never… Gentrification wasn’t a thing.

Nia: I feel like it’s a big problem in Denver, now.

Aja: Oh, it’s huge. Totally. I feel like it’s on par with California. The speed at which things are
changing. It’s very much in the express lane. Yeah, my dad was a history buff, and that was about it.
But we had no political… I didn’t have any political heroes or anything.

Nia: Are you Mexican on both sides?

Aja: Uh huh.

Nia: Was any of your family involved in… I feel like the Chicano movement was big in Denver.

Aja: Yeah, I would hear a little, some stories here and there.

Nia: And AIM, also, was big in Denver.

Aja: What was that?

Nia: The American Indian Movement.

Aja: Oh, yeah. Definitely, which I was fully disconnected from, because I didn’t know that we were
Indigenous at all, at the time. Sorry, I got side-tracked.

Nia: That’s OK.

Aja: Oh yeah, getting politicized. I was just thinking about this the other day, how living in a big,
beautiful, family, in Colorado, there was no fear from the outside. We could just be. Family was the
focus, and nothing else seemed to matter, you know? On the political side. There wasn’t any pressure.
We could just be in a family. I had the privilege of just having this giant, loving, family, that I was
never worried or preoccupied about anything political, until moving here. The climate is so different,
and the histories. Even though there’s reflections, in Oakland and in Denver. There’s so much, there’s
a deeper history of political resistance here. It just taught me so much firsthand, just meeting all the
people from so many different backgrounds. Where in Denver it was either family, or these white,
noise/party punks. [laughs]

Nia: I feel like when I tell people that I used to live in Denver, they always assume that Denver is
super white. I don’t think that it is.

Aja: Not in my history, no. It hasn’t been very white. Only recently, in the past, I don’t know, 15, 20

Nia: Oh, you’re saying it’s become whiter?

Aja: Yeah, it’s become whiter over time, for sure, I think.

Nia: I mean, there’s definitely white people there. [both laugh] When I lived there, the neighborhood I
lived in was predominately Black and brown. So, I never thought of it as a white city. [laughs]

Aja: Yeah, the west side, where my great-grandparents were, was always a Black and brown
neighborhood. And the north side, before it was “The Highlands,” was like Black, brown, and Asian
families. And Federal was Mexican and Asian immigrants.

Nia: One thing I noticed in Denver… This is something that’s going to have to be fact-checked,
because I’m not going to remember it accurately, but there’s weird and interesting history of anti-Asian
racism in Denver, where I think at some point there was a Chinatown, and it was burned down in a race

Aja: Oh, wow, I didn’t know that history at all.

Nia: I think. I need to look that up. It’s not known for having a large Asian population, but there’s
definitely folks there.

Aja: Totally. I’m curious now to know where—

Nia: I think this was back in the 1800s.

Aja: --The original Chinatown was.

Nia: OK, so how did you become politicized, when you moved to Oakland. You said you met lots of
different kinds of people from different backgrounds, but was there… I think I moved here right before
the Oscar Grant murder…

Aja: Oh, ok. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nia: --And then the following riots happened. And you moved here around the same time, I think. So,
I guess I’m wondering if there was a moment for you, or a particular fire that was lit under your ass that
politicized you—

Aja: Totally.

Nia: --Or if it was more of a gradual process of being around other political people?

Aja: I feel, for me, music was how I connected to every person I met, for the first few years. Seeing
the different pockets of the music community, and experiencing a such a diverse array of musicians,
with different struggles, and hearing and seeing that transformed through their music, has been
something that… I started seeing music through a more political lens.

Nia: Was there a particular band or artist?

Aja: I’m trying to think back to who, the 1000 shows I’ve seen in the years I’ve been here. Seeing a
lot of femme-fronted projects, was huge for me. I guess Death Sentence Panda was one of them—

Nia: Are they a noise band?

Aja: And later members of that formed Tits. T-I-T-S. They had similar sounds to the Denver noise
punk that I was used to. They sounded a lot like home to me. I feel like that, and a lot of queer
projects, also. There wasn’t a queer music scene, really, in Denver, when I left. I feel like it got very
hetero, for sure. I think that was my initial, “Oh, whoa, music can do so much more.” And it can bring
together just a more diverse community. I felt like Denver was really comfortable in their thing. If
anything was happening politically, it was kind of outside of the music scene, for me.

Nia: So, you still go to a lot of shows?

Aja: Yeah, definitely. I’m trying to take a breather, to focus on recording. But back to what you were
saying, I feel like after the Oscar Grant shooting, and the actions… Seeing so many actions, I had never
witnessed that, really, in Denver. Except for once, during the Democratic National Convention.

Nia: In 2008?

Aja: I think it was right before I left.

Nia: Good time to leave town!

Aja: Right? I was in the front line of the most giant Critical Mass bike ride I had ever been a part of. I
just remember facing all these riot cops, front row. We started holding up our bikes, and then pretty
soon I look behind me, and there’s—another fact-check—but, like, 5000 beautiful Denver resisters,
holding their bikes up. That was my first political… My first emotional, political Denver moment, and
realizing that there’s something bigger that we’re up against, that I had the privilege of existing outside
of, for so long. Being a part of this beautiful family that was a cushion against oppression, and being a
part of this super underground noise scene, that we didn’t have to worry too much. So, the Critical
Mass in Denver kick-started something in me. And then seeing the actions and responses to the things
that were happening in Oakland, after Oscar Grant, specifically. The Occupy movement, and seeing
people take over highways. I’ve always shied away from actions, because I feel like I get really
anxious around cops, and a lot of people, so I’ve tried to understand why that is, and how I can still put
energy into the movement, without being on the ground at actions.

Nia: I feel like the stakes are much higher here. Protests turn violent really quickly here, in a way that
I had never seen in Boston, and don’t really remember seeing back in Denver. I remember in Denver,
the anti-Columbus Day parade [protests] was a big thing.

Aja: Oh, yeah, totally.

Nia: But I don’t remember… There were arrests, but I don’t remember people getting beat, or tear

Aja: I feel like a tiny bit during the DNC, but before that, not—

Nia: Pretty chill.

Aja: Pretty chill place to grow up, for me at least.

Nia: Yeah, or to protest, even.

Aja: Uh-huh, totally.

Nia: Do you consider the music that you’re making now political? Do you consider yourself a
political artist?

Aja: More so now than ever before. Definitely.

Nia: Can you say a little bit more about that?

Aja: For me, now, where I am on my journey, my music is so personal, and the personal is inherently
political. But on top of that, one of my goals and focuses has been to politicize… To use my platform
to be more political. To be more overtly political, instead of just vaguely touching on certain subjects.
I guess back to the “feeling empowered, and feeling like it’s possible” Discwoman sample, these
person’s words directly empowered me, and if I can do anything to directly empower anyone else,
that’s the work I want to be… That’s the direction I want to be pushing what I’m doing in, and that’s
what I want to use it for.

I think, before that I had just focused on making really dreamy things to trip out to, or take a nap to
[laughs], or dance to, without any deeper explanation, or any deeper political core to it. I feel like I
wasn’t touching that, for a long time. I think, again, because I was so used to my bubble, and then
moving here, and meeting so many beautiful activists, that changed my whole perspective on the
importance and necessity of resistance today. I feel like every day it just becomes more and more clear
that, to me, the amount of resistance that needs to take place in order to restore some sort of balance to
the people. To giving power back to the people.

Recently I’ve been steering my music in a healing, spiritual… My spiritual path has led me on a
healing music direction. I see that as being political, in the sense that if I can heal people on the dance
floor, or during a yoga class, or during an acupuncture sound session—

Nia: Is that your target… I don’t think ‘target demo’ is the right word. I remember listening to some
of your music, and being like “This sounds like massage music.” [laughs]

Aja: Right. That’s kind of where—

Nia: That’s what you’re going for?

Aja: I’ve gone from noise music to massage music.

Nia: I can’t think of anything more the opposite of noise, than what you’re doing now.

Aja: And that’s where my journey has led me. Noise brought this excited energy out in me, that
helped me grow as a teenager, and helped me connect with people, and learn what fun can feel like, in a
very basic sense. Now I see healing as being the most political thing I can do, to share with my
community of people, who are giving every minute of their life to resisting colonialism, prison
expansion, capitalism, deportation. Since I don’t do good in action situations, and my friends are very
much involved, more than I am, if I can heal them, so they can—

Nia: Keep going?

Aja: Keep going, that’s where my focus has been. And that’s the best way I know how to be political,
right now, to heal the movement. Because I see so many people around me becoming exhausted, with
the amount of struggle that they face in this fight, in this resistance. Modern day. And if I can feed and
nurture people, so they can fight more. Or fight more sustainably, in the way that their gifts have
enabled them to be able to face the big bads out there.

Nia: Yeah. I feel like there’s sort of a theme. I feel like this relates back to what you were saying
about your mom, and her care-taking magic, her intuition. What am I trying to say? I don’t know, I
guess I’m thinking about ways in which care-taking is a very feminized form of labor, and often a form
of labor that’s made invisible.

Aja: Mmhmm. Totally. [Aja starts crying.]

Nia: Are you OK?

Aja: Oh, yeah. [laughs] No, you bringing it back full circle to my mom is something I had never… I
hadn’t connected really, until you said that. So, I appreciate you… It’s hard to make connections in my
own novel, that is my life. [laughs] Because I’m living it, so it’s really beneficial to be able to talk
about these things in historical context. Talking about my life in a historical context, because I’m so

Nia: Living it?

Aja: Living it. Living, living, living. Yeah, it’s hard to see the connections, and the way things spiral
back. How my mom taught me these things that, at the time, were so nurturing and healing, but I
maybe took for granted, because that’s what mom’s do. It’s making me very appreciative, and
emotional, because I’m just so thankful that I’ve had my family, my parents, my community, that have
all helped me get to this place of being able to heal myself through my own trauma and using music as
a healing tool.

I envision a future where much is centralized in education because it’s helped me understand the world
in such a colorful way. And it’s helped me heal myself and other people. I hope that children of the
future can have access to music and creativity because it’s helped me creatively think about how we’re
gonna survive.

The conditions that we’re currently existing in, can feel very isolating. And with the collective and
ancestral trauma that we’re all carrying, I just want to help heal that as much, as possible. [laughs] And
music is, as Fela Kuti said, the weapon.

Nia: So if people want to collab with you, what’s the best way to get in touch?

Aja: is where most of my music is, and feel free to hit me up on there. Or
just email me, is probably the most direct way, until I get my official
website and things up.

Nia: Sorry, I forgot to mention something really important, which is that you perform under the name
Piano Rain.

Aja: Yes, that’s my main focus and project right now.

Nia: Where did the name come from?

Aja: It was an accidental… It was a preset on my keyboard, this old synth I had, that I don’t have
anymore. There was a piano sound, and a rain sound, and a way to do split sounds, where you could
split the keyboard, half piano, and half rain, or double them up on each other, so you press a sound and
it’s a piano and a rain [imitates rain pouring] layered on top of each other. And I just remember seeing
it on the little screen. It was like, “Piano, rain.” I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but the more
I’ve studied Pauline Oliveros, and deep listening exercises, I hear the melodies in the rain storms. The
rain doesn’t just sound like noise to me anymore. This was after a few years of Piano Rain being a
thing. I finally understood what it meant, and it’s that there are these hidden melodies in nature, from
birds, to the ocean, to the rain, to the wind. That the deeper we listen, the more we hear. The slower
we can turn down our brains, the longer the experience can last. For me, it’s just about that joining of
forces, like the natural and the constructed.

Transcribed by Joyce Hatton

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