Here's a conversation I had several times in the weeks leading up to the interview at the core of this article:
"I'm going to Pioneertown to interview the band MEN."
"It's JD Samson's new band."
"The girl from Le Tigre."
"The girl from Le Tigre?"
You could almost see the person's mind flashing back to the cover of Le Tigre's last album, This Island (2004), where the feminist dance-punk trio is arranged thusly for what appears to be a fake prom picture: Kathleen Hanna and Johanna Fateman in dresses behind the tuxedoed figure of a deliberately front-and-center JD Samson, a beautiful lesbian with a moustache flaunting her visibility with casual pride.
Le Tigre went "on hiatus" shortly after that, and they have only occasionally gathered as a group between now and then (most recently at the request of Christina Aguilera, who wanted to collaborate with them). But the bold statement of This Island's cover, coming at the tail end of the band's influential run, ensured that for many people "the girl from Le Tigre" is not automatically the band's founder and mastermind, Kathleen Hanna, but the striking, gender-bending Samson.
And, as she readily admits, Samson has worked hard for that visibility, especially after her Le Tigre colleagues chose to spend less time in the public eye. For the last two or three years — that is, ever since the slowing down of the Le Tigre operation — Samson has been playing music, deejaying, conspicuously partying (she's hard to miss: "Hey, isn't that the girl from Le Tigre?"), doing press and generally being what she's always been: an outspoken, very smart, kind, hardworking queer person who sees her art and her identity as important political gestures.
But the main artistic activity that has occupied Samson's time since April 2008 is relentless touring with a new trio, the aforementioned MEN, who have mutated from a free-form side project into a worthy, 100 percent legitimate successor to the band that made her famous. MEN have played Europe and the U.S., toured with the Gossip and Peaches (two acts that are much indebted to Le Tigre) and played museums, womyn's festivals and small redneck bars.
Two and a half years after their tentative first gigs, Samson and guitarists Ginger Brooks Takahashi and Michael O'Neill have tightened their repertoire into a solid set. Onstage in 2010, Samson is living out a fully fleshed-out version of the This Island cover fantasy, as a dynamic frontwoman of her own kick-ass dance/punk outfit. Agit-pop, if you will.
MEN also are getting ready to finally release the album they've been promising through all these tours. Titled Talk About Body, it will be released by the impeccably curated Los Angeles–based label IAMSOUND in February 2011. The first single will be a punched-up version of "Off Our Backs," a radio edit from one of the tracks on MEN's self-released EP, which has been deliberately retooled to give them maximum exposure and a shot at mainstream attention. They call it visibility.
Utopias have played a large role in feminist thought through centuries of patriarchal domination, and it's an idea so dear to Samson's heart that she named her 2006 queer-positive calendar/travelogue JD's Lesbian Utopia. A lot of her work and her public persona can be seen as an attempt to create a bridge between reality (sometimes harsh and cruel to those who look or love different from powerful majorities) and a better world, which starts in the imagination.
Thus it's sort of fitting to encounter MEN in the desert California hamlet of Pioneertown, a town famous as the backdrop of countless cowboy fantasies (a very masculine utopia), as they get ready to play Pappy & Harriet's, the local saloon famous as a hub of psychedelic explorers who have geared down from L.A. life to a less hectic space (another utopia).
Before sound check, Samson, Brooks Takahashi and O'Neill are drinking coffee from Mason jars in a covered patio outside the venue. The desert heat and the Western movie landscape add further layers of strangeness to our chat.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you start working on the MEN songs?
JD SAMSON: Since November of 2007. We started the project in a very different way than we're in it now. It was kind of a lot of things came together but basically the three of us started playing with our friend [queer feminist multimedia artist] Emily Roysdon, who wanted to start a band 'cause she wanted to sing, and she's a writer and an artist, so she had a lot of texts that she wanted to work into songs. So we started working with her trying to make that into a reality and make her dreams come true [laughs], 'cause we were her closest friends that played music. She was, like, "Let's have a band!," you know. She dreamed up us all being in a band.