Four artists - Carsten Jost, Surgeon, Imaginary Softwoods and Timnah Sommerfeldt - have pulled out of playing at the 2023 edition of Japan’s The Labyrinth festival, after attention was drawn to comments on trans issues made by co-founder and booker Russell Moench, who also goes by the nickname Russ Monk.
Moench has shared his opposition to the trans rights movement in public posts on social media, including sharing the writing of anonymous gender-critical accounts that have drawn comparisons to the trans rights movement and pro-paedophile organisations, and labelling the term TERF (an acronym meaning 'trans-exclusionary radical feminist') as "misogynistic hate speech."
With its first edition taking place in 2001, The Labyrinth has built a reputation as a premier global destination for psychedelic techno, combining a breath-taking location and world class soundsystem. Over the years tickets have been at times rare, limited or simply unavailable. Moench, who was born in the US and has now been based in Japan for more than two decades, is one of the more recognisable names associated with the festival internationally. Press coverage involving the festival’s organisers is rare, but from time to time he has given quotes and a long form interview about The Labyrinth to international publications.
After coming across Moench’s posting history on his now-deactivated Twitter account (@russmonk), a supporter of trans rights and former attendee of The Labyrinth festival sent screenshots of the feed to a number of artists playing at the festival.
“I decided to message everyone on the line up who I could find on instagram to see if they were aware of [Moench’s] radicalisation, see if they wanted help in coordinating some kind of protest action,” they told Mixmag. “I said that it’s not my place to tell them how to respond [because] I don’t understand their circumstances. I just laid out his views and what I think the broader implications are and left it with them.”
Of the artists that replied, they said the messages ranged from one already knowing, some being “horrified” and thankful for being informed, and one replying that they don’t “participate in cancel culture”.
After this contact was made, Moench sent an email to nine of the artists on the line-up on August 30 (which has been shared in full with Mixmag), doubling down on his views with the subject line “Our new friend”.
The email opens: “(Please forgive the group email) Hi, everyone, I saw some lunatic reached out to you guys on social media to attack me, which is hardly surprising. The only surprise is it took one of these characters so long.
“I don’t engage with crazy people in cults, especially not online, but just for your sake a few words on this issue.”
Moench then goes to write: “I find the trans right activist movement to be deeply illiberal and totalitarian in nature”, saying it “stands in opposition to free thought and free speech” and is “profoundly misogynistic and homophobic”.
The following paragraphs outline his contested viewpoints, including writing: “They are taking vulnerable kids who would mostly grow up to be happy gay men and lesbian women and turning them into lifelong pharmaceutical patients.” He also pointed the artists towards interviews with gender-critical journalist Helen Joyce and activist Corinna Cohn as recommended listening for “anyone interested”.
Moench supports his views with reference to his sister who is a lesbian, saying: “If she had grown up in today’s ideological environment, she would not have made it out with her body fully intact. I know this because she told me.”
Research data that has been published which contrasts these views indicates only around 1% of people who have transgender surgeries express regret over their decision, and that puberty blockers lower the disproportionately high risk of suicide in trans youth.
In a response to everyone emailed, Dial Records co-founder Carsten Jost, real name David Lieske, called Moench’s views “utter backwards borderline conspiracy internet garbage” and sought clarification on whether these views are personal to Moench or extend to the policies of the festival at large.
Moench replied, saying that while the festival is run by many people, he is the driving force behind it, adding that “Labyrinth is not anti-trans”, before disinviting Carsten Jost from playing at the festival.
Following this exchange, several artists on the bill pulled out, sharing their decision on social media.
Timnah Sommerfeldt wrote on an Instagram story on September 5: “I have to announce that I made the decision to not perform at this year’s The Labyrinth in Japan and cancelled my gig with the promoter.
“I’m very sorry to everyone who was looking forward to it but also I stand behind my values and am strongly against discrimination and anti trans rights in any form.”
John Elliott (who was due to appear for the second time at the festival under the alias Imaginary Softwoods) and festival regular Surgeon also posted on Twitter that they would not be performing at The Labyrinth 2023 on September 3 and 5 respectively, without making explicit reference to Moench’s comments.
On September 10, DJ Nobu posted in support of Carsten Jost on Twitter, with a caption saying “I can’t control my anger”* and a screenshot of a statement which says: “I was comforting Carsten last night before we played, and I couldn't stop crying, because I felt so embarrassed by the discriminatory words and actions. Discrimination is not an ideology. It’s violent. I really can't stand the Japanese way of thinking of it being someone else's problem. Please imagine the feelings of those who have been hurt.”* (*Translated by Mixmag.)
Mixmag has reached out to Mindgames and every artist on the email to request comment, but has either received no response or no agreement to send a statement.
A statement sent to RA by Mindgames responded to the controversy, writing: “First and foremost, the The Labyrinth organisers and staff unequivocally support and work to protect transgender, nonbinary, LGBTQIA+ and any other marginalised persons and condemn any harm or violence against these communities.”
It adds: “In the past, I have used social media platforms to explore social issues by sharing or commenting on content that sometimes was related to the transgender and gender-diverse communities. Some of my commentary there was considered to be insensitive, transphobic and otherwise harmful. Many different communities have come forward to help me understand that my activity was damaging and misguided, and some performing artists who were booked no longer felt comfortable being shrouded in this controversy.
“However, it doesn't represent the other 100-plus amazing captains, organisers, workers and staff who make up The Labyrinth. I'd like to reiterate that I completely reject any kind of violence toward any marginalised community, and that I am 100 percent committed to becoming a better ally for the marginalised.”
Regarding the cancellation of Carsten Jost's performance, the statement says: “Unfortunately, the Carsten Jost performance couldn't be realised due to a misunderstanding surrounding the core values of the event. We tried to work towards an understanding and even offered to pay his full fee, but it was declined and the booking couldn't be secured. It's our hope to reconcile this dispute and move forward with a clear understanding of what we represent.”
Mindgames has since directed people to a post on its website outlining the “community values we hold as a team”, and shared a post on Instagram stating that as some “artists couldn’t make it this year,” the festival has “an opportunity to rethink and restructure the timetable.”
This is not the first time Mindgames has been the subject of controversy. Last year, the smaller festival the company started during COVID, Balance, came under fire for having no women or non-binary acts on the line-up.
Moench defended this at the time, sharing a statement on Mindgames’ website (which has since been removed) saying: "Gender, race, religion, nationality and sexual orientation are meaningless and distracting in music programming. My event is neither a political statement nor a political game. It is a musical game of the mind." Eventually one woman, Sapphire Slows, was added to the line-up in place of Haruka.
A vocal critic of the all-male Balance line-up was Elin McCready, an organiser of Tokyo’s inclusive queer and femme party Waifu.
In a statement sent to Mixmag about The Labyrinth controversy, McCready said: “I’ve never been to Labyrinth and all this is not going to change my mind. Hearing people talk about Labyrinth over the years it seems like many regard it as a kind of quasi-sacred space, and maybe that kind of attitude has contributed to what’s happening now, because it’s led the organizers to believe their party genuinely is a space “beyond politics,” which it’s obviously not.
“In many ways I’m not really surprised by the recent news. The kinds of things Russ Moench says on Twitter are pretty well-known to those parts of the community that are paying attention. I wasn’t until what happened with last year’s initially all-male lineup at Balance, which I found a little shocking: don’t we all realize by now that saying “I am not political, it’s all purely on artistic merit” is also a political stance? The kind of unawareness on display there is precisely the kind that would make one believe that one knows better about trans issues than trans people, and maybe even the kind that makes one susceptible to “internet garbage” (in Carsten Jost’s words) conspiracy theories, which are attractive in part because they leverage your belief that you’re special and know better than everyone else.”
She adds: “I doubt that the statement they issued is going to have a lot of credibility with many people, because it’s really weak and gives no specifics whatsoever, and also given that it completely conflicts with what RM himself has said because he’s so much the center of the organization. I guess we’ll see. I hope he and the team genuinely learn something. Labyrinth is an important space for a lot of people and it would be a shame if this messed everything up for all of them. I know a lot of people are talking to him about these things now and I hope he is listening. This kind of incident can lead to a lot of changes which can be really positive. They have the chance now to make Labyrinth (and other Mindgames parties) spaces where all kinds of people can really feel supported and safe. I hope they will.”
The Labyrinth is scheduled to take place at the Hodaigi Campground in Gunma, Japan, across October 7 to 9.
Kim Kahan is a freelance writer, check out their website
Edit September 15: This article has been updated to remove a reference to Corinna Cohn as an 'anti-trans transman'