How many times can you say something is strange or abnormal before you have to change your definition of “normal”?
I asked myself this as I sat in an uncomfortably warm room during yet another “abnormally” hot October afternoon in Dallas. Sunlight passed easily through the floor to ceiling windows; as did the thin stream of cold air that blew in from the vents. That poor machine wasn’t conditioning anything.
I sat across from Ivan Dillard, discussing analog recording, being a transgender musician and everything in between. He is the lead singer and guitarist of The Mystiks. Together with Gerard Bendiks on drums and Nash Griggs on bass, the trio’s sound sits somewhere between punk and jazz. Ivan describes Gerard as one of the rare drummers who has ideas. “He has never played anything that sounded pedestrian, repetitive or canned”. Nash, at the age of 19, brings the vital energy of youth, when bands are “loud for the sheer joy of it”.
Attempting to capture that collective energy, The Mystiks recorded their latest EP, I Don’t Care When, at Ferralog Studios in Deep Ellum, a well-known analog recording studio.
When asked why he prefers analog, Ivan described in no uncertain terms the sensual experience of listening to California Girls by The Beach Boys. “Analog sounds like the first sip of hot cocoa; creamy and smooth. It feels more human.” Ivan isn’t chasing the technical perfection digital recording affords.
By this point in the conversation, I had noticed how often he used the word “energy”. When I asked him what he has been learning lately, his answer reflected his relentless, eternal struggle of pursuing and surrendering to that energy.
I wanna make music that is visceral, that manifests itself physically. When you’re right there in the middle of the mosh pit, you become an electron. You become pure energy bouncing off of one another.
As a young African-American in a small town, Ivan didn’t quite fit the mold. While everyone else was listening to R. Kelly, he found himself drawn to Sound Garden and Nirvana. Unfortunately, this was a time when the terms “white music” and “black music” were more than just laughable stereotypes. They were the law of the land.
Ivan always found it peculiar that he was picked on for his choice in music. He sees the simple freedom that kids born in this millennium have to say “I listen to everything” as something all too easily taken for granted. Not long ago, society told people like Ivan to stay in their lane. But isn’t defying the norms the heart of rock and roll?
If you wanted to listen to rock and roll, you had to BE rock and roll. You had to have that attitude. I like what I like and I don’t give a fuck what you think.
However deeply a love of rock and roll shaped Ivan, the effects of being transgender go even deeper. Being disconnected from his identity, feeling elementally different than how people perceived him, left a chasm that made human connections problematic. Music was a necessary escape. While other people were wondering what they wanted to do with their lives, he was two steps behind, wondering “Who am I?” and “WHAT am I?”
That comfort of discovering WHAT you are is a moment most of us can’t remember because either it happened too long ago or was never a question to begin with. Since coming out as transgender, though, Ivan says his music has become more lighthearted, even humorous. Music has become an expression, instead of an escape.
Unfortunately, transgender identity is still shrouded in fear, moral difficulties and simple ignorance. I asked if Ivan could provide a simple truth about it, a single idea that given enough time could propel the conversation forward. I’ll let his words speak for themselves…
“People need to understand, factually, the difference between sex and gender. Biological sex is what’s between your legs, gender is what’s between your ears. The brain is the most complex thing in the human body. Because of that, it starts to form earlier. Therefore who you are in your mind, that presence, whether it is masculine or feminine, existed a long time before your secondary sexual characteristics.
Long before you had a dick or vagina, you had a brain.
And gender, which develops in the brain, comes first and is more important. That’s how they can be out of sync.”
So how many times can you say something is strange or abnormal before you have to change your definition of “normal”?
For Ivan, changing that definition has taken a lifetime of learning who he is and what he is. Now, because of that journey, he is able, with the help of the Mystiks, to share himself and his music, wrinkles and all.
You can find Ivan and the Mystiks on Facebook, and download the
I Don’t Care When EP on Bandcamp.