To Build Myself a Home

id m theft able
Charmaine Lee
Alien IMTA
id m theft able. Photograph courtesy Charmaine Lee.

In August, I went to visit id m theft able in his hometown of Portland, Maine. Driving along Middle Jam Road, he showed me some of his favorite places to practice outdoors. We stopped by a low-humming water dam and walked through the woods to an abandoned gunpowder mill where he once hosted a performance. We took silly pictures of each other and kicked sand off deserted mountainous dunes he fondly referred to as the “alien planet.” My stay concluded with a three-hour conversation conducted in the ground-floor apartment of a 20-year old compound built by his great-grandfather that he currently shares with several family members. It is excerpted here.

id m theft able is a relentless fighter to me, constantly searching, always ready to push the limits of his physical and imaginative capacity, regardless of whether they brush up against external standards of legitimacy or pre-existing frameworks of criticality. His work proves that abstract or esoteric music-making need not be devoid of joy and rich emotional complexity—it can be playful, serious, intense, mysterious, and comical all at the same time. id m theft able is a rare artist who not only puts in the work but shares it generously, showing us what is possible with intention, sincerity, and courage. This way of being has had a profound impact on me and other artists who value the importance of risk-taking and its role in continuous and uncompromising personal growth.

id m theft able, StrangeMaine (2015)

CL I drew a little mind map of all the ways that I see your areas of creative output and was struck by the totality of it. You are someone who I would consider a “total artist”—creativity pervades almost every aspect of your life—so much so that music seems like an incidental output. Only a small amount of your world gets manifested into your visual art, your writing, your music. Just looking at your table of instruments you use for performance alone you can see that there’s a story and a universe behind the practice. I wanted to know more about some of that history leading up to this current moment, when you first felt the urges for creative output or expression. 

imta There were two things I was obsessed with as a kid. One was maps—geography and the world—and the other was music. Of course, there was sports, too. I fantasized about being an athlete as well, but music spoke to me above all else.

My uncle lived on this property that we’re in now when I was a kid. He had a small fire pit down by the river and spent many evenings staring at the flames, listening to a mix of croaking frogs and the local soft rock radio station (Kiss FM !) quietly playing from his Reader’s Digest brand multi-band radio. Apparently you’d get one for free with a subscription to Reader’s Digest

One night I was sitting out there with him, I was maybe seven or eight, and he suddenly said, “Hey Skotty, check this out !” He turned the dial from the FM to the shortwave band and the sound shifted from soft rock to some kind of Middle Eastern music. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him if this was coming from the Middle East and he said. “Yes, turn the dials and you’ll hear music from all over the world.” Being a kid who was not only obsessed with music but also desperately wanted to know more about the rest of the planet, I was astonished. I spent the rest of that night slowly turning the dial, in awe of what I was hearing. Creepy preachers, Morse code, music from seemingly everywhere, numbers stations, all the mysterious modem-like squeals you would hear. The next day I begged my mother for a shortwave radio for Christmas and sure enough she found me one. I’ve still got it ; it’s over there on that shelf.

Around age eight or nine I started making tape recordings of all my favorite weird shortwave sounds. After years of this, I started taking those tape recordings and layering them. Having obtained a couple of tape recorders, I’d play one tape, then add live radio sounds while recording with another tape recorder. I figured the more layers I could add, the stranger it would get. This is where it started to blur. I started to think of those strange sounds as music.

I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was just purely the love of the mysterious driving me. I had this strange theory when I was that age that if radio waves could exist—if they were constantly surrounding us and we couldn’t see them and could only hear them if we had a specific kind of machine—then, following that same logic, ghosts must exist. Maybe we just didn’t have the right machine for seeing or hearing the ghost. This thought added an extra level of spook to any of the mysterious sounds coming out of the radio. It seemed like a strange spooky magic. That there’s literally music all around us right now.

CL Bouncing around us.

imta I really spooked myself thinking, “Well, what if there are ghosts all around us and you just need a machine like a radio to detect and translate the ghosts to us.”

CL Like the radio is some kind of portal. Did it feel voyeuristic to you or more communicative ? Did you feel like there was a relationship, or your gaining access to something ?

imta This is going to sound a bit grandiose, but it really felt like unlocking a mystery or opening a door you’d never noticed to a room you didn’t know was there. Part of my enchantment with it was just the idea of reaching into the air with this machine and pulling something out of what seemed to be nothing. That impulse, the magic of that understanding, as cheesy as it sounds, definitely still informs what I’m doing now. I’m trying to pull something out of what seems to be nothing.

CL What is your relationship to formal music training ? 

imta I barely had any, really. I taught myself to play guitar, and for the first year or so I didn’t really understand the concept of chords. I could play fast one-note riffs before I could play C major. No one was around to show me. Eventually, in high school, wanting to be a composer, I started taking music theory classes. I also joined the choir and concert band (where they handed me a tuba, I assume simply because I am large). I joined much, much later than all of the other kids, and was really far behind, but eager to learn. The more I learned about music theory, traditional notation, and so on, I knew I just didn’t have the head for it. It wasn’t for me. While I did gain some traditional abilities on the guitar, bass, keyboards, and even a little bit on the tuba, I knew as soon as I found more experimental musical avenues that that was definitely the direction I wanted to go. The fact that, with the radio tape collages, I’d had these sort of “sound art” impulses without even knowing that there was this whole world of it out there made it feel like an organic choice. 

It felt right to strive for that feeling of reaching beyond, into the unknown, creating new, alien terrain ; seeking musical geographies that existed here and only here and often only once. That appealed to me greatly.

CL When I think about your music, especially when I’m seeing your live performances, it feels like I’m stepping into your entire universe of being. It’s clear that there’s a ton of preparation and skill involved, but it feels like so much more than just observing you as an expressive technician. Your delivery is fresh and modern in its hybridity, but at the same time touches upon places that feel deeply sentimental to me. There’s utterance of a song here and there, or an expression that draws from an older time. You’re able to unleash the full spectrum of influences in that moment.

imta I’ve tried over the years to give myself more permission to follow my creative impulses, no matter how silly, somber, uncouth, or unorthodox they may seem. In the early days I was sort of strangely afraid to show emotion or vulnerability while playing. I slowly disentangled myself from the need to keep things austere—from the need to be taken seriously—in favor of making music and doing a performance that feels more fully and truly mine. So, if I’m feeling sentimental on stage, I won’t tamp it down. I run fully down the path with the trust that I’ll at least put a good solid effort into making it interesting.

The more I disentangle, the more I cut away the fear and give myself permission to do whatever I want performatively, the closer I get to feeling like I’m telling the truth and creating a sort of home for myself on stage. 

CL It’s interesting that this feeling of home comes to you in a situation where you’re being closely scrutinized by a crowd of predominantly strangers.

imta Yes, which is weird because while I surely fantasized about being a rock star standing in front of adoring crowds as a kid, I was also totally shy and completely terrified of crowds of people and strangers in general. My parents are pretty shocked that I grew up to be someone who performs in front of others. I really have a hard time going to shows that I’m not performing at because that deep shyness and fear of crowds usually kicks in. I feel like I need a task to validate my presence at these things or it won’t be long before I’m trying to get myself to flee.

I don’t fully know why I feel most at home on stage. I feel like I’m being heard in a way that I don’t feel when I’m trying to relate to people or communicate with mere words. When I feel I have the room, when I feel that sense of engagement from the audience, it’s validating in a way that nothing else is. When you feel like you’re spilling your proverbial guts and people are actually paying attention and riding with you in a way that they rarely do in normal life, and you are free to express and share whatever you want and you not only don’t get rejected for it but get encouraged to do it again and again. It starts to feel like home.

The freedom to reach beyond normal communication, reach beyond easily comprehended feelings, that inner ambition to get to another place, a place that’s yours, whatever it is, to sculpt it, refine it or totally destroy it and do something else as my impulses dictate—that’s home. The fact that people actually ask me to do this in front of them is a massive gift. To be able to really be yourself in a room full of people and have it click (or not) with them, even if it’s 30 people in a room with 30 different understandings of what’s happening, it doesn’t matter. I’m just incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to reach beyond and try and make
that home.

Sometimes my creative impulses feel like a machete that I’m using to hack at the rapidly encroaching vines that are trying to overwhelm and suffocate me. That sounds a bit more dramatic than I intended, but I can’t count the number of times it’s been the thing that buoyed me through otherwise dark and depressed stretches of life.

CL What are the vines ? Are they external ? Are they internal ? Are they you versus yourself ?

imta Definitely me versus myself. I’ve always had a very strong self-loathing, a lot of negative self-talk. Even when things are going well, it’s an undercurrent. But, having the luxury of making things I want to make and having a good time doing it has tangibly demonstrated that I can actually do and make things I like. So, now, when the self-doubt creeps up there’s always another voice that rises to remind myself, “Hey, just last week you were playing down in Worcester. That was a good time wasn’t it ? Be patient, it’ll happen again !” None of this is nearly as bad as it was when I was younger and I attribute it, almost entirely, on following my musical and artistic impulses.

CL I’ve always admired the emotional complexity that you’re able to unpack and unravel. What is your relationship to seriousness and play ? 

imta It has always been a push and pull because I’m both very playful and very serious. But, when I’m performing, I’m not concerned with things seeming playful or serious. I’m just trying to stay deeply focused and trust myself to make good decisions. In my mind I’ve mostly obliterated that alleged schism, or, rather, I realized it was never really there in the first place. It is what it is. If people are laughing, people are laughing. If people are taking it seriously, they’re taking it seriously. I don’t care. I’ve largely stopped worrying about how it’s coming off and just do whatever I want and let others decide how they feel about it. 

CL That makes a lot of sense. I frequently meditate on letting go of control of interpretation the moment the sound leaves my system. It can be particularly difficult with an instrument as direct as the voice. Do you feel like you’re at your most honest expression of yourself at this moment ?

imta I think so, but there’s always more and more ways to do this. I keep having this thought, I have no idea if it makes sense or not, that my music increasingly feels like a representation of my nervous system . . . sort of like who I actually am just keeps bubbling out in more accurate forms. I hope I’ve vaulted over all of those unconsciously self-imposed walls, but I’m certain I haven’t fully. There are always new ones cropping up.

Part of the reason I gave myself a name like “id m theft able” was because I wanted something that didn’t imply a particular direction. I didn’t want the name to conjure any particular genre of music. I didn’t want it to be spooky, serious, angry, austere. I just wanted something that fit very loosely so that I could change shape within it as I saw fit.

CL The all-encompassing spectrum of you.

imta Yes, something that gives me permission to go wherever I want to go. Ten years from now, I might be recording folk songs under that name and it’ll make sense, at least to me. I suppose others will probably be surprised and, perhaps, disappointed.

CL I think it’s amazing that you’ve found a way to be who you are and do what you do and not feel too shackled by external forces. You’ve created a space to push the boundaries of what you think you’re capable of. Have you ever come across experiences where that’s been suppressed by others ?

imta Hmm, well family-wise, no. They don’t understand what I do and they’ve never listened to my music. I made my mother a mix tape of some of the more conventional material, and she never listened to it ! That said, they were always supportive of my creative impulses, if indirectly, just by allowing me to follow them sans criticism.

Otherwise, I think what I’ve done has always been idiosyncratic and never fully part of any scene, so I really didn’t have any peers pressuring me to sand particular edges off of my music or to make it more this or that. Or, hmm, thinking about it, those people did exist but they yielded absolutely no power or influence over me. I just thought they were funny. The friends and groups I did fall in with were largely comprised of folks making their own idiosyncratic work, so, by and large, no serious suppression or repression there.

I guess I can say there’ve been times where I felt judgement from certain other friends or romantic partners who seemed to be a bit alarmed that I was willing to keep myself poor or willing to stay where I am because of my devotion to doing this. I think some people see me as stuck or sort of circling the drain. You could say those were mild attempts at what they thought was redirection but I took as suppression. All attempts at implying that I should “be an adult” have thus far failed. Happily so.

CL You think it’s zero-sum ? That there’s a cost in what you do versus the normal social expectations of being “an adult ?”

imta In my case, yes. Of course, we all know creative people living in a wide variety of circumstances, many of whom are living very conventionally successful lives and are still fully devoted to making good work. For me, I didn’t go to college, I don’t really have much hope at finding myself in a conventionally successful career, I don’t have much cash, and there’s no financial safety and no big inheritance coming. I can understand why someone who was conventionally minded might be worried about me, but I’ll be fine. I think I’m also just too maladjusted for that kind of straight-ahead life. I’ve been living this way for too long to suddenly hit the brakes and work in an office now. I’m too much of an alien.

id m theft able, Lowell, Massachusetts (2016)

CL You’ve referred to yourself as a bit of a space alien to me before.

imta This is of course not particularly unique but I always had this sense of being deeply . . . other. Different. Yeah, alien. In most ways I’m not particularly like anyone in my family. We’ve gotten along fine, but I never really felt fully connected with them, and they surely never seemed to understand me. In school it was very much the same ; I was sniffed out as a weirdo pretty early on and, until high school, had very few friends. I always felt deeply awkward in my body, as though my body were strange clothing that didn’t fit right. My actual image never seemed to match who I imagined myself to be in my mind—a bit of body dysmorphia perhaps, so that certainly added to that alien feeling. 

Even when I got older and started hanging out with other creative types, I still felt like I didn’t quite fit in with them. In fact, in some ways it felt a bit worse than trying to relate to my family. It was as though the fact that we were similar but still quite different made the differences more pronounced somehow. Like it was close, but not close enough. Like a minor second interval.

CL A minor second relationship. 

imta For sure, yeah. No matter what I do, there’s always a bit of disconnect from others. All of this sounds sadder than it actually is, though. I’ve learned to live with it and to take better emotional care of myself and not disappoint myself by getting my hopes up about making deeper connections with whomever in whatever way, such that when it DOES happen it’s a pleasant surprise and not something I was angling for. This far into adulthood I’m more comfortable with my feelings of disconnect, partially because I’ve learned that everyone has some version of this, which in and of itself makes me feel more connected with everyone. Growing up though, I just felt really, really fucking weird and I never fully trusted or connected with anyone.

CL Did that dissonance motivate or inspire your cre­ative output ?

imta I would say so. I had to build myself a home, so to speak. I had to construct a world for myself where I felt like I could exist and be myself. The fact that I’ve done that and people dig it is pretty cool. That’s amazing because I didn’t necessarily think that would be the case.

CL Maine has always felt like a special place to me. In the handful of times I’ve been here, I’ve always felt a unique energy to the environment, the people, even the air. I’m curious what your relationship to living and growing up in Portland has been.

imta I’ve often thought of Maine, perhaps somewhat delusionally, as a sort of “live and let live” place. Which is not to say you’ll never be scrutinized for being weird, as I certainly was when I was young, but by and large it feels like you can just sort of exist. Talking to your neighbors beyond a hello is generally optional. Especially out here, people mostly seem to leave one another alone, and there can be a lot of freedom to do whatever you want in that vacuum. There’s also the other side of it : Living in the sticks can be pretty lonely and isolating and it certainly was for me, especially as a kid. I doubt, however, without those long hours of being left alone to do whatever I want, I would have wound up doing what I’ve done . . .;

In some ways I feel stuck here, by connection to family, by circumstance. Sometimes it feels like I couldn’t possibly be myself any place else. Sometimes it feels like I’ve shortchanged myself not living closer to a bigger city where I could, perhaps, play more often. But would I have the time to play more often if I were working nonstop to live in some cultural hot bed ? I’ve been living in this apartment I’ve been cheaply renting from family for 20 years now. That statistic is both depressing and awesome to me. I feel so free, yet so isolated, yet so glad to be isolated, yet lonely, yet happy to be alone. I suspect this is a pretty classic Mainer experience, really.

CL Do you feel inherently “Maine” ?

imta I do, but I’m not entirely certain how or why. Even though I felt so alien from everyone else growing up, the older I get the more I seem to deeply identify with Maine and Mainers. I definitely have the famous New England neurosis that people love to diss us for. I don’t know, I love the landscape, I generally love the people. Most parts of the state strike me as compelling and relatable. I’m a recluse. I like the forest. I’ve become more chatty than the average Mainer. I’ve been gaining confidence and so on, but my nature is if you leave me to my own devices, I’m pretty quiet. 

CL That’s interesting you feel like a recluse because you’re one of the most active touring artists that I know. For me that’s one of the most intensely social situations you could put yourself in.

imta In touring so much, sometimes I feel like a drowning man who’s flailing to keep himself afloat by giving myself something to do—that little rush of audience engagement every night. I think there’s something about having people clap for you every night that fucks with you. Seriously, I’ve been working on this theory for awhile. I think you really miss that nightly energy exchange once a tour ends.

CL Performing is addictive. I absolutely get that. The experience of connectivity with others in a highly creative and present activity is unique.

imta Absolutely, and I think that’s what accounts for the deep lack I often feel when I end a tour. The longer I’m out, the more acutely I feel it. I think it’s a bit fucked up to be reliant on that. Most people don’t have people cheering for them or telling them “fucking siiiick set, brah” while they’re making dinner or doing the laundry. 

CL You’re creatively pushing yourself into the realms that allow you to grow as a person and an artist in a very public way. You’re showing an audience what’s possible.

imta For sure, you’re showing people what’s possible. Anyone who does this in anyway, an athlete, a poet, whatever, remind others of what’s possible in life. It’s contagious. My favorite kind of art is anything that does that for me, anything that kicks me in the ass and makes me want to follow my own creative impulses, to get back into the lab and get to work, anything that opens a new portal for me to run through and explore.

Charmaine Lee performing at The Kitchen, New York City (2018)

CL One of the problems I face is that every opportunity I get to perform is usually a new one—a new audience, a new experience. I often feel a subconscious pressure or urge to put my best foot forward. Maybe I feel this more intensely as my practice right now is central to one instrument (the voice). As a result, I don’t feel as much space to just explore who I am as just a musical being. My child brain and my adult brain might be leading me to the same urges, but the window feels more narrow. I’ve seen you do sets where you just use a stop sign—that’s it. Or play with a bunch of cups and somehow make it feel deeply musical. You are a wizard to me in that way. Whoever sees you in that moment, whether they know the work that has come before or after it, only gets to see you in that realm. It’s just so rare to see an artist who has the confidence to embody and understand that everything that you do is coming from the same place, no matter the instrument or output.

imta I totally understand what you’re saying, and I struggle with that, too. You want to really show what you’re best at, and it can be scary to just change directions and decide you want to do something entirely different. I’ve had nights where I really wanted to just play with ceramic shards over in the corner for half an hour but wound up playing my amplified rig out of some sense of duty to audience and/or promoter’s expectations. I try to compromise between the two points if I can. I want every improvisation of mine to feel as though at least some parts of it took some risks and went into some unfamiliar territory. The most satisfying sets for me feel both well executed and sort of stretched and, yes, I often get to that stretched point by doing things like playing a stop sign I found at the dump, or finding some object at the venue itself that I’ve only been aware of since 20 minutes before the set starts and trying to make something compelling with that. Sometimes it falls flat, sometimes it’s just ridiculous, but I’ve had enough success doing it that I now approach foreign objects with a strange confidence. 

That stop sign—I practiced with that motherfucker a lot. I laughed when you brought that up because of how ridiculous I felt when I first started rehearsing with it. At first it was on a long pole, because it was one of those “STOP/SLOW” signs they use to control traffic around road construction. I was doing almost theatrical things with it, like pretending it was a dance partner. Like so much in life, it started out absurd but I wound up finding a pretty wide range of things I could do with it. 

There are sets where I set up all of my electronics and just opt to not use them at all because I found something more interesting to play when my turn came. People are occasionally disappointed or confused because they may have come to expect certain things, but if I’ve got that particular itch, I’ve got to
scratch it.

CL It seems the more established one gets or the deeper the practice, the harder it is to keep perspective of your growth and continue to push further.

imta That’s some very real shit, and I think everyone worth their salt worries about that. I certainly worry about it, though sometimes I think that it shouldn’t. I always think of AC/DC and how they’ve been playing basically a variation on the same thing forever. That’s kind of beautiful. For myself, I hope for constant evolution and progress. Sometimes I feel like that’s happening. Sometimes I worry that I’m stuck. I hope there are still many, many days of surprising myself to come. I hope that there are aspects to my work 20 years from now that I couldn’t possibly fathom now.

CL What about things that haven’t changed for you ? Are there priorities that have remained constant or have come to light over time ?

imta The number one, most important goal to me, besides providing space to be myself and give voice to my feelings, is to make sure that my work remains contagious and accessible. I don’t want to rarify it, I don’t want to make it hard to get, and I don’t want to be somebody who tries to rarify themselves, or somebody who tries to be seen overly austere or not open to young artists reaching out to me. Thinking of all the people who were kind to me when I was younger, I do feel a responsibility to not be a fucking asshole. I conduct myself in a certain way and hopefully that will be contagious, too. 

CL What would you say are the obstacles you face now ?

imta The first thing would be time. I worry about finding the time to do all of the things I want to do. I’ve been struggling with this increasingly. I hate that the cliché that time seems to go by faster as you get older turns out to be true. Steve Miller was right, and it pisses me off.

Besides that, the major one would be just trying to make sure that I have a way to continue doing what I’m doing. As of right now, I have a cheap apartment, so I can afford to only work part time which gives me the flexibility to do as much as I do creatively. My job is relatively flexible schedule-wise so I can afford to fuck off and go on tour for a week or two. I have a car but if anything happens to it I’m not sure I could afford another one. If any of these particular dominos fall, well, you may not be hearing from me as much !

CL Is that balance of money and time a constant undercurrent of stress for you ?

imta I don’t dwell on it too much, but that dread is always there in the background. I often wonder about other possible living arrangements in order to continue to have space in my life to do what I want to do. I routinely wonder if I’m doing the right thing, and my answer to that question seems to change by the minute.

CL I was thinking about the synergy you’re experiencing, that positive feedback loop between your emotional and intellectual impulses. You’ve given yourself full permission to express a core part of you in all the creative outlets you have. For me, in my fledgling experiences of it now, I really feel like there’s a very deep synergy that’s going on inside. It’s changed my life outside the music. It’s had a profound effect on my ability to be a kind and generous person.

imta Isn’t that amazing ? I didn’t understand that that would or could happen to me as a result of all this. Maybe I’m delusional, but it at least feels like I’ve become nicer and I do, at least in part, blame finding some satisfaction with my creative output for this. Something about the combination of actually having something consistent in my life that I feel good about doing and the fact that improvisation in particular is very much about being deeply locked into and reverent of the now has helped prevent me from being completely mired in my own self-doubt and misery.

I always knew music felt good and I always knew music mattered, but I don’t think I fully understood that in making it I was unconsciously trying to protect myself from myself.

CL Right, it reverberates so much further, so much deeper and wider than the stage. It reverberates into you as a person and your whole way of being in the world.

imta Yes. I can’t believe the extent to which, especially in the last four or five years, doing this seems to have quieted my inner wars to the point where a sense of gratitude has started emerging from the fog. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to do this, and I hope I can maintain it. I’m scared that I won’t be able to do as much as I get older, but then I also think I’m irrepressible. As long as I’m alive, something creative will be happening. I truly hope that when I’m 80, I’ll be giving a couple of kids my door money from a gig to carry me and my wheelchair down to the cellar for a basement gig at some house show somewhere. I could definitely see that happening.

CL I see that as a reality for you, absolutely.

imta I think so. I know I’m too far down the path to turn back or give up now. I don’t think I could Beethoven it if I lost my hearing, but there will always be some creative activity happening whether it’s music or . . . who knows.

id m theft able, Gloom Garden, Winooski, VT (2019)

To Build Myself a Home