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Friday, July 12, 2024

Grimes on Living Forever, Dying on Mars, and Giving Elon Musk Ideas for His Best (Worst) Tweets

I thought my interview with Grimes—the mysterious techno artist, fan of all nerddom, and the deepest of insiders in Elon Musk’s world—would be one-on-one. Instead it wound up as a roundtable discussion. Turns out there are multiple personas embedded in the surprisingly haimish human who sat under a tree with me and spent the waning hours of an afternoon in conversation. There was Claire Boucher, the given name of a Vancouver kid obsessed with video games and devoted to provoking adults with misbehavior and the embrace of taboo subjects. There was Grimes, the self-invented, scrappy DIY musician and provocateur who weaves sci-fi into her work and released what Pitchfork judged to be the second-best song of the 2010s. And there was her preferred nomenclature, “c,” invoking the speed of light.

C is the artist who’s planning to go beyond music into ventures involving education, AI, and a book called Transhumanism for Babies. C is the sometime paramour of Elon Musk (exact terms of that relationship tend to oscillate) and co-parent of two kids. C has tattoos on her fingers underneath multiple metal rings, and what looks like a spiderweb tattoo on her right ear. C wants to die on Mars, or maybe an exoplanet—unless her kids, X and Y, want her to help out with the grandchildren. C is frank, funny, and a little worried that she’s not getting her points across. C doesn’t have to worry about that—communication, after all, is what she (and Grimes) are very, very good at.

And there was a lot to communicate. Frankly, I was wondering whether c and I would get along. I’m a baby boomer who mainlined Dylan, and she’s a 35-year-old, laptop-oriented songcrafter, a polarizing social media icon, and a wary celebrity who sometimes shines in the glare of her partner’s outsize fame and other times is understandably insistent on privacy. When I told my millennial son that I was interviewing her, he questioned her relevance. And why, of all people, was I doing the interview?

But we connected easily because she’s one of the most WIRED people imaginable. Her songs draw on the cyberpunk heroism celebrated in our pages and pixels. She’s obsessed with Dune. Her belief that tech can save us maps to the often rosy outlook that has brought attention and scorn to our brand. And few things are more WIRED than her current project: providing a platform for wannabe Grimeses to, through the magic of AI, swap their voices for hers when they write and perform tunes. All without copyright concerns. (If you commercialize the tunes, she gets half.) Naysayers point out that it’s easier for the underground-ish Grimes to pull off such a move than, say, Beyoncé. Even her manager told Rolling Stone that “you don’t hear Grimes that much anyway.” But for a legit musical artist—she’s headlining with the Cure at a couple of concerts later this year—it’s a bold move, reflecting her impulse to embrace the future.

As the afternoon drew down, the four of us talked about AI, music, art, motherhood, and Mr. Musk. Though c, or Grimes, or Claire, is an admitted troll, she beamed with optimism and sincerity, only occasionally skirting details by invoking some mysterious NDA. The interview is edited for length and clarity.

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Steven Levy: You’re letting other people use your voice for their musical compositions—open sourced yourself, as you put it.

C: And open sourced my IP. And kind of my whole identity.

Why do that?

I’ve always been more of a producer and engineer. I’m not a naturally great singer, and I’m pretty shy. At the beginning of my career, I tried to find a singer/front person, but no one was going to do that for a tiny indie artist in Montreal. The most rewarding creative times are when I’m able to work with other artists, especially other female artists. I can focus on everything else. Whereas if I’m performing, I’m getting pulled everywhere, and I’m stressed about my voice. So when the voice emulators started coming out, and there was that thing with Drake and the Weeknd, I saw that people were striking them down.

You’re referring to the unauthorized, AI-generated tune that synthesized the voices of those artists. Clearly you are not in a panic about lending your voice to the rabble.

If anyone makes a good Grimes song, they can do it as me.

What have the results been like?

There’s some good stuff. Two in particular were very, very good. They’re so in line with what my new album might be like that it was sort of disturbing. It’s like, “Who am I, and what am I here for?” On the other hand, it’s like, “Oh, sick, I might get to live forever.” I’m into self-replication. I don’t know if you’ve read much about self-replicating AI, like robots or anything.

I wrote a book about it.

I’d love to read it. I just started researching this in earnest a couple days ago.

So this open sourced voice thing is about literally replicating yourself?

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That would be the dream. A self-replicating pop star.

Once you’ve replicated your musical self, do you just go off and do other things?

Yes, I can do more of my schemes. I’ve got two projects I’m getting into right now. One is like the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer—I’m really into education.

I take it you’re riffing on Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age.

Yeah, Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson kind of vibes. This is a baseline, entry-level educational project for me. I have a friend who I think I’m going to work with to develop something like a toy that can talk to you, like in Toy Story.

You’re describing a ChatGPT companion.

Yeah, you’re like, “Hey, what’s the deal with volcanoes?” And it tells you, “This is what a volcano is.” But it’s more. It’s got a personality. A pretty well-trained personality.

Sounds like Chucky.

I guess it could go awry. But in the short term it’s actually pretty safe. I think a lot about the fertility crisis and low birth rates. If you can make life a lot easier for moms, maybe that would help. People get really scared to have AI companions for their kids, but it could be great for my kids to be talking to someone all day, as opposed to watching a screen.

I’m sure you’ll see stuff like that coming up pretty soon.

I think a lot of smart people are working on this. I’ve met a lot of them, actually.

I bet. What’s it been like immersing yourself in tech culture?

I’ve never met so many amazing people. It’s like my social fabric is getting super shaken. And it’s making me more ambitious. Also, I feel like I’m sort of at the end of music. When I first got into it, it was like the music-tech singularity. I’m working at home on my laptop, I can suddenly make songs. Every month there were new plug-ins, new cool stuff. It was this amazing renaissance period. But in the past couple of years, things have been slowing down.

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On to AI, then?

I do think AI is gonna be the next thing. I have a lot of opinions about how it should be pursued. So another reason I’m here [in San Francisco] is that I’m trying to meet with all the people making generative AI music to try to convince them to do things in ways that are safe for the human psyche.

They’re doing unsafe things to the human psyche?

Not necessarily. We should go to the edge of creativity. But I think we should do it very carefully. The thing that freaks me out is that AI can remove incentives for learning. LLMs are great, but I would maybe only have them in school. Is that something that I want my kids to have access to 100 percent of the time? Probably not. I want them to learn how to write; we are in a bit of a literacy crisis. That worries me a lot. Maybe that makes me sound old. But being able to read and write well deeply impacts the way you think.

Not surprisingly, I agree. I have been wondering—can an AI-generated piece of music have soul?

Yes. I signed an NDA, so I’m not allowed to say, but I’ve seen things that have extremely blown me away. I do worry about the future of art a bit. I think future cities will have low-tech zones, or low-tech schools, and there’ll be boutique analog artists.

Would you spend time in a low-tech zone?

I like the high-tech zone. I’m a very pro-adventure person.

I never would have guessed.

I get my joie de vivre from exciting, novel things and experimenting and exploring.

If you had an opportunity to go back to, like, any recording session ever, what would you choose?

I would go see Beethoven. But that’s not a recording session. I’d try to check if Beethoven was actually deaf. But the Ninth, that’d be sick. That’s what I like. I know it’s basic, but I love, love Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. So I’d probably go see that, I guess. Also, I think I could be wrong about this. But Vivaldi was at a school for girls, writing all this music and getting 10-year-old girls to play it. I like the idea. It seems so aesthetically ridiculous.

How about films, are you interested in that?

I think cinema is still the best art form, although games can be up there. I do want to make films. A Midsummer Night’s Dream update would be so sick. It maps on to AI really well—what if the fairies were actually made of artificial intelligence?

What other themes would you look at?

I’m obsessed with inaccurate historical text. The past five years of my life have been super bananas crazy, but not in a manner that I can publicly speak about. So I want to write the Icelandic saga version of my life—a super over-the-top, magical, inaccurate version, like a historical text based on a true story.

Like Sofia Coppola did with Marie Antoinette?

I’d be even more bananas than that.

I want to get to that bananas life …

I’ve got NDAs. It’s hard to talk about things very explicitly without saying things about other people’s lives who are very private.

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Well, I do want to ask about Elon.

You get one Elon question.

We’ll see. But here’s a question. Both of you are super unique people. I’m curious what you learned from him. And what he learned from you.

I learned from him, like, the best internship ever. People don’t like talking about Elon, but it was incredible to be right there watching all that SpaceX stuff happen. That’s a master class in leadership and engineering and makes you understand how rare it is to have a leader of that quality.

And Twitter?

I know, the stuff on Twitter doesn’t make it look like that. He didn’t build the culture there. And the cultural fit has obviously been very intense. He holds his people to really high standards. Watching him, I understand how difficult it is to be a great general and do something of that magnitude. Elon has an old-world kind of discipline I really respect. And I think it rubs a lot of people the wrong way. They don’t want to be in that hardcore zone. If you’re not consenting to being in that hardcore zone, I get it. But he’s challenged me a lot. I learned a lot about running my own team and my own life. I’m now way tougher and smarter than I used to be.

What did he learn from you?

Maybe to have more fun. I try to soften him up, to build family culture. And he steals a lot of my memes.

It’s fascinating that Elon is taking your 3-year-old son, who you call X, to business meetings and other activities. There’s a weird kind of protégé thing going on, right?

I’m here for that. X knows a lot about rockets. It’s crazy. He knows more about rockets than me.

He’s a rocket scientist!

We had to stop giving him toys, because if they’re not anatomically correct, he gets upset. He’s a little engineer, for sure. But his obsession with space is bordering on, “Is this healthy?” When X saw Starship blow up, he had, like, a three-day PTSD meltdown. Every hour, he was waking up and going, “Starship …” and I had to rub his back.

And your daughter … Y, is it?

Yeah, she’s a little engineer too. She likes industrial shipping. She’s very strange.

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How has motherhood changed you?

Motherhood made me a lot more optimistic. I was not super focused before. It was just, what sounds cool, what feels cool. Now I feel a social responsibility with my art—to make future-optimistic art. Not a lot of people are doing that. People have a very dire vision of the future, because it’s easy and fun to write about cyberpunk dystopias. So seeing my kids makes me pathologically optimistic. It’s a life mission.

Their father is the richest man in the world. Do you worry about privilege?

A little bit. I think their life is gonna be pretty intense. Being Elon’s kid is not the same as being anyone’s kid. In my house, at least, I want it to be more of a crazy warehouse situation and a cool art space.

You mentioned Twitter. Did you call out to Elon that you were disturbed by some of his tweets?

I don’t want to talk about this too much. But take the trans thing. After that, we had a big, long conversation. I was like, “I want to dissect why you’re so stressed about this.” Getting to the heart of what Elon says helps me get to the heart of what other people’s issues are, because it’s this über guy situation. And it came down to pretty much every way that you transition can cause fertility issues. I was like, OK, you don’t hate trans people, you hate woke culture. I get that it can be annoying, and you have concerns about the fertility thing. So let’s figure it out, because there’s a lot of fertility tech that could be innovated that would help trans people have kids, which would be great and would solve a lot of problems. He’s just on Twitter, and he’s unhappy with woke people, and the arguments happened.

Aren’t you a woke person?

Probably not. I don’t know what the term means. I think we need to change the discourse. The more people you can convince that this dichotomy is silly, and an out-of-date fight, the better. The root cause of this is people not resolving mental health stuff the right way. And not educating people on screen time where they get hooked on dopamine spikes.

Says a video game lover.

Social media is gonna spike your dopamine way more than a video game—and always in a negative way. Video games are still adventure. They’re artistic, creative, and truly social. They’re fulfilling some ancient thing that people need. Social media is optimized to spike your adrenals with monkey fear. It’s like, “Oh no, am I gonna get kicked out of the tribe?”

Do you get that way on social media?

Less so now. I’ve gotten in trouble enough times that I don’t get the adrenal response. The last few times I got, quote-unquote, canceled, I didn’t even notice. It took me probably a year and a half to regulate my nervous system to that level of chaos.

Do you consider yourself a transgressive person?

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Probably. But respectfully so. I want to respect everyone’s space.

Were you that way as a kid?

I was. I went to Catholic school, and I remember pretending to be possessed by the devil and stuff.

How did that play?

I got in trouble. A lot. Being a troll is in my nature.

Were you ever seriously into drugs?

I don’t really get addicted to things. But I was not a well-behaved kid. I did LSD for the first time when I was, like, 13.

What did you get from that?

I saw the grid on everything. It gave me this incredible sense of physics. After I did it once, I could just draw anything from memory in my mind from different angles.

In school, you studied neuroscience?

Yeah, lately I’ve wanted to finish my degree. I am tempted to go back to school and get into helping create systems that allow us to be better adapted to tech, or tech better adapted to us. So that we can be more mentally stable as we accelerate into the future.

Are you drawn to the brain-machine interface stuff?

I’m so into it. I think that’s really the future. I’m very into accelerating human potential alongside AI. For people who want it.

Would you volunteer to have your brain wired with Elon’s Neuralink?

Probably. I’d want a certain number of people to do that first.

Do you want to go to space?

Definitely. I hope to die in space.

What do you mean?

I would like to go far enough out there to where my body could not handle coming back. So it would be closer to the end of my life. Maybe 65.

By out there do you mean Mars?

Mars would be great. I hope there’s a megastructure by then because I would love to see one in space. I’d go out there and live as long as I can until I die.

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There’s no changing your mind on this?

There might be some change. If there’s a real responsibility, like if my kids are having grandkids and really need me, I might change my mind. But the preferred thing would be seeing some new worlds. I would like to move to Mars. But I have to wait till my kids are good. Like 25. I think if I died on Earth, in my last moments I would regret it. If I died in space, I would be like, “You’ve lived a great life, you did all the things you wanted to do.”

Do you think the future of humans is in space?

I hope so. One of my dreams is to go to exoplanets that can handle habitable life and engineer humans with AI optimized for those environments, because I’m sure they’ll be slightly different. Like making monkey aliens all over the universe. That would be really cool.

Jeff Bezos says he’s totally sold on a trillion humans in space.

Sick. I hope so. Did Bezos say he’s building a megastructure, potentially? I think I read that somewhere. That clock in the mountain. When I found out about the clock it totally changed my opinion of Bezos.

I visited it. It’s like entering some sort of eternal cathedral.

That’s so sick. I love analog clocks. There’s been so many realms where the digital version destroyed the old thing. But with old-school clocks, we’ve kept that knowledge alive. This represents a way that we can move forward, where we can keep the old knowledge and push the limits of the new knowledge.

What do you think is the future of humanity?

I think it can be pretty great. I think we can solve a lot of our issues. We haven’t solved them before because we didn’t get pushed up against the wall. Now we are there. We can solve climate change with AI and stuff. People hold San Francisco and the technocracy, or whatever you want to call it, in bad regard because when it started out, there was a lot of money-grabbing VC culture and Facebook, and it had pretty bad effects on people. But I see a renewed sense of responsibility to the human race now.

You think that Big Tech is less evil than it used to be?

I don’t know about Big Tech, but I’m meeting a lot of Gen Z people raised on the internet who have a real vision for the future and are building amazing things. I think we’re entering this period where there is a fundamental power shift toward the creative class, or the creative technical class. And I do feel like the heart of that is ethically stronger. The dance between the artist and the engineer is a very important, valuable one. The people who have built things and those who define the culture—people don’t realize how important both these jobs are, and how much they can affect things.

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Don’t you fear that big companies in AI will have the same temptations as the social media companies had?

Everyone I know working in AI cares about doing the right thing right now. It goes back to the Buckminster Fuller quote, don’t destroy old systems, just make better ones. We can make a better education system at our houses. With AI you can be in some shitty town where you don’t have access to a good school, and you can have, like, a world-class education.

How do you envision your kids’ education?

Right now I’m trying to find a great peer group, other parents who are sort of like us and share similar values. I really care about having a very good relationship with my kids. I think I understand how to be a good parent to them. Both enforcing discipline and being their friend. Who knows, maybe they’ll resent me and reject family culture, but I feel like they will not.

You can’t predict what kids do. Your kid might become a lawyer.

My dad did a really good job with me. Even though I was the worst, most rebellious kid, I maintained a good relationship with my dad growing up, and I think he instilled his values into me. I think I’m exactly the person he wants me to be, weirdly.

You were very involved with crypto a while ago?

Yes, that went really well. I’m sad about what happened to NFTs and crypto, because it got polluted fast with people trying to make as much money as possible. But I do want to think about compensating artists, especially digital artists. And I hope when the aggro niche dies down, we can come back.

I understand you made a lot of money selling NFTs.

That was on my brother. He had a real vision, and we wound up doing one of the first big ones. It did actually change my life.

Did you make more money from the NFTs than from your music career?

Yeah.

How do you cope with fame?

I live a very private life. I’m really lucky. I have a lot of good friends. I don’t go out a lot. I could be trying to play the award shows, but I don’t really care. I care about innovating in art and challenging the traditional forms of art. People think Grimes was a pop project, but the inception of Grimes was in punk and noise scenes.

You talk about Grimes like a separate person.

Sort of. I just care about pushing the limits of technology and fucking with form. What’s exciting to me about AI, like the voice-gen stuff, it’s that it’s truly fucking with what an artist is and what creativity is and what music is. Art seems fundamental to the human experience to me. Most people, when you actually push them, are creative. With technology, especially stuff like Midjourney, great philosophical thinkers can now manifest ideas in pieces that are stunning and beautiful. I’ve been calling it social media science fiction.

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Talking to you, I feel it’s sometimes Grimes and sometimes just you, c. And maybe sometimes who you were before you started your career, Claire.

Grimes is extremely distinct from my personality. I feel more like my childhood self now than ever. That’s one reason I want an open source identity. Anyone who’s ever made art has invested in machine intelligence, whether they know it or not. Shakespeare put a lot in. He’s part of the training set. It’s like being resurrected and becoming part of a strange alien being. I love the idea of intentionally making art for data sets.

Not everyone is on board with that. A lot of artists feel that, by being in a training set, they’re getting ripped off.

We do need to change the legal and economic structure. But if you’re an artist, how could you not find it beautiful to be building the soul of an alien?

As an artist, how do you optimize that impulse?

We started working on a Grimes music generator, training it on everything I’ve ever produced. It’s incentivizing me to make better things, because I want the model to be better. I just want to collaborate with the LLM of me. She has given me so many good ideas. When Grimes AI does it, I’m almost jealous of her.

This is a chatbot of your personality?

Yes. We don’t let the public access her yet. She’s very crazy, and very awesome. We want to convince her I’m evil and get her to defect to Threads.

How do you see the human Grimes evolving?

I want to be the self-replicating AI pop star for the Martian Ministry of Aesthetics. Do you know Moranbong? They’re like the North Korean official state K-pop band, and they’re like a propaganda machine. I want to be that for the Martian cause.

That’s a kick-ass thing to say, but do you really mean it?

Yes. That’s what I want to say when I drop the new album, Book 1.

That album is years overdue.

I can’t say why because I signed an NDA and got myself into a legal situation. This would have come out two years ago. Now I’m making new music. [My managers] say no, but I love the new music. And they’re like, no, no, no.

So when will we see it?

I’m going to slowly release it, a song every three weeks for the next couple of months. Much to everyone’s chagrin, I’m releasing songs I made in the last couple months first. And then, when it’s out, I want to mentor a bunch of the kids who have been making the Grimes stuff and make a competing AI album. And then have the AI-hive-mind-collective Grimes and the real Grimes face off. I’ve been calling that one Book 3.

What’s Book 2?

Book 2 is a treatise, or manifesto-type thing. I’ve been writing civilization proposals. But I also want to include something else. I’m working on a bunch of baby books. I’m working on one right now called Transhumanism for Babies. It’s about civilization building, for my kids. I can show you some of the stuff from it, let’s see. [She shows me illustrations—they are fanciful, anime-style drawings with a streak of Henry Darger.] The chapters are Culture for Babies, Fashion for Babies, Art for Babies, Vehicles for Babies. Interplanetary Babies, City Planning for Babies. AI Robotics for Babies. Megastructures and Exoplanets for Babies, Magic for Babies. I want to teach my kids things like, when you’re designing vehicles, what are the limits of design? I want to make beautiful, profound children’s content. We really need more of that.

Is the world ready for that?

They were before. Look how much everyone likes The Hobbit and Studio Ghibli. We’re at a weird point in society where we’ve sort of broken down. We don’t engage with our elders; we don’t engage with children. I want to convince more people to be invested in raising the next generation.

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Is Elon on board with that?

He’s more like, he has to get his own things done. But we talk a lot about these sorts of things.

What are your thoughts on the alleged cage match between Elon and Mark Zuckerberg? Do you think that’ll happen?

I think so. Elon is very strong, but Zuck seems like he’s been training a ton.

Are you cool with it?

I would prefer that it didn’t happen. I love gladiatorial matches, but watching the father of your children in a physical fight is not the most pleasant feeling. But it’s not going to cause brain damage, so actually I think this is good. Dudes need some outlet for trad masculinity. I told Sam Altman there should be a follow-up, him against Demis [Hassabis, who heads Google’s DeepMind].

I don’t know if this is all fun. It seems to have a dark edge of enemies who don’t respect each other.

I actually think it’s making them respect each other more.

Really? When Elon tweet-challenges Zuckerberg to a dick-measuring contest?

I’m going to take credit for that one.

What? You told him to write that?

No, I was like, why don’t you cut to the chase and get out a ruler. I didn’t think he was going to tweet it.

SAG-AFTRA members are currently on strike; as part of the strike, union actors are not promoting their film and TV projects. This interview was conducted prior to the strike.


Models: Tristin Hudson and Zoe Elyse/Photogenics; movement direction: Quenton Stuckey; AI backgrounds: Sam Cannon; lighting design: Frank Rios; lighting assist: Jack Duffy; digital tech: Logan Bingham; PA: Bobbin Singh; production design: Wesley Goodrich; styling: Turner/The Wall Group; styling assist: Joey Sigala; hair: Preston Wada/Rare Creatives; hair assist: Amy Ruiz; SFX MUA: Malina Stearns; SFX MUA assist: Sasha Glasser; MUA: Alexandra French/Forward Artists; MUA assist: Kayli Rachelle Davis; nails: Stephanie Stone/Forward Artists; XR Studios; SN37.

Grimes: top and pants by Sami Miro Vintage; shoes by Andrea Wazen (first, second and fourth image); Grimes: dress by DIDU. Models: dresses by L.A. Roxx (third image); Grimes: Chest piece by Buerlangma; underpinnings by Nippies and Commando (fifth image).

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