Meet Fritz Helder, the dance sensation playing with gender stereotypes

We chat to the flamboyant dance musician about race, gender and partying

Four years ago, Canadian four-piece Azari & III were among the most in vogue dance acts in the world. Clubs and livehouses globally reverberated to their pumped-up blend of house music, soulful vocals and a general vibe that conjured up the feeling of the most hedonistic Ibiza pool party imaginable.

Their high-octane self-titled debut album was melting critics after being picked up by the major record label Island, and the four members’ futures as party band princes seemed assured. Then in November 2013, Fritz Helder, one of Azari’s two singers, read a message online explaining that the band was kaput. It was something of a shock to him.

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‘Google Alerts told me I wasn’t in Azari anymore,’ says Helder, talking on Skype from his base in Berlin. ‘It was from a midnight rant on Facebook. The blogosphere copied and pasted it, and that was the end. It was madness. The shock. It didn’t seem real.’

Once the shock subsided, Helder realised that he shouldn’t have been so surprised. He was already becoming disillusioned by working with a major label, and the band members all had wildly varied artistic styles. To work through the breakup he recorded ‘Force of Nature’: his brilliant solo calling card song that sounds like TV On The Radio going clubbing.

Other solo songs and collaborations – including a track called ‘Pussy’ that isn’t about cats – have followed, and now Helder returns to China with a new backing band, having performed here during Azari’s heyday. With the singer arguably known for his on-stage flamboyance as much as his beats, it should be spectacular.

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How did you feel after the split?
I didn’t want us to split and I can speak for Cédric, the other vocalist: we were blindsided by that decision. I was livid. Well, actually I couldn’t even get to livid because it was like being hit by a bus, when you’re in the hospital trying to get better before getting angry.

Why did the band break up?
Classic music industry cliché. We worked on that album for about two-and-a-half years without any real intention of it being a ‘thing’. We hoped it would go somewhere but we didn’t expect what happened to happen, and it all happened really fast. Not everyone was prepared. No one was reading the same book at the same time. We’re different people artistically and the fact that we lasted that long was a miracle.

You wrote ‘Force of Nature’ to get through the split, right?
It was my way of getting through those years of self-doubt. Who are you, with all those guys [in the band], are you good enough [solo], can you do it, will anyone care? A way for me to have my own mantra and get out of my funk. When something like that happens it’s a big process to put yourself back together on your own. You don’t have the safety of other people, so it came out of necessity.

You’ve said that your solo stuff harks back to around 2001, when you first started making music.
Yeah, I was in dance school at that time, training to be a contemporary dancer. One of our projects was choreographing our own piece, so I made music for it. Fischerspooner came out around that time, acts like Le Tigre, it was a really edgy time for electronic music. Were you always into dressing outrageously on stage? I’ve always been a peacock kind of person. You look at what’s happening now even in hip-hop, with people like Mykki Blanco, that kind of thing is seen as okay now, post-Lady Gaga. We were doing this s**t pre-Lady Gaga, and there was nobody else doing it on the electronic stage apart from Fischerspooner. I’m excited to revisit it.

Speaking of Lady Gaga, didn’t you open for her once?
My first group, Fritz Helder and The Phantoms, opened for a Lady Gaga EP release in New York years ago, back when she was wearing the big bow on her head. She wasn’t that famous, so she was quite normal and shy and nervous about getting on stage. She wasn’t that spectacular a performer. None of us knew what was going to happen.

You’ve talked about how, as a black guy making electronic dance music, you get annoyed with racial stereotypes. Is that still an issue?
I’m not upset about it, but it’s frustrating at times. I grew up in northern Canada, as far away from hiphop as possible. I’m Jamaican and in touch with my Jamaican roots, but I don’t understand why hiphop is so tied to being black. When I started, before there were many openly gay black artists, you didn’t have much of an option if you wanted to be taken seriously. I liked Grace Jones and Prince, who defied genres. But you could count on one hand black artists who didn’t stick to a box or genre.

Have you noticed things changing?
It’s interesting how you have people like A$AP Rocky, who is considered a rap artist, but who has rock and folk elements. It’s exciting. But there still has to be some urban element in it, or you’re somehow not being ‘black’ enough. That bothers me, because that’s not what music is.


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Are sexuality-based stereotypes an annoyance for you too?
That’s not the music industry’s fault, it’s the same thing on Grindr: you’re either feminine or masculine – there are roles you have to play. On stage people see me in a wig and assume, ‘Oh, it’s feminine.’ People project their own ideas.

But we have seen more openly gay hip-hop artists recently, such as Frank Ocean and Mykki Blanco.
I wonder what’s going to happen to the likes of myself and the Mykki Blancos. Whether the music industry will make a space for us, or if it’s just a fad like electroclash and it’ll come and go. I wonder what the future is for black gay artists in the music industry.

Why are there so many photos of you in your underpants on Instagram?
No one was liking the pictures of me not in my underpants, so I thought I’d give it a shot. And lo and behold, more people liked those photos. People have a thing about y-fronts.

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Fritz, it is now time for you to explain the lyrics to ‘Pussy’, your song with Sinden. Lyrics such as ‘I want to show you what I can do with my pussy’, ‘Let my pussy do all the work’ and, ‘I want you to lay back, relax, while I get nice and juicy’.
Oh, wow. We were talking about the wigs I wear, stuff like that, and how funny it would be if you were in a club and saw a gorgeous girl and eyed her up from behind, then she turns around and it’s actually a dude. How hilarious would that be? It starts with this feminine voice and gets deeper and deeper… the whole concept of, ‘Where are your limits?’

If the character is a man, why are you singing about him having female genitalia?
We just used the word ‘pussy’ because it’s better than ‘asshole’. It’s more poetic than saying ‘asshole’ a million times, over and over. A friend of mine told me that his buddy made him a mixtape, and he was hooking up with his girlfriend while playing it, then that song came on and he realised it was me singing. He was like, ‘I’ve got to stop'. I'll play 'Pussy' in China.
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