The L.A. Weekly Interview: JD Samson and MEN
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.
What were you three doing before you came together?
MICHAEL O'NEILL: I had [the band] Princess and we [he and Brooks Takahashi] were playing in a band called the Ballet together, so we were also coming from a place that's very much a straight-up indie-pop thing, and we were in a place where we wanted to do something more experimental, artistic, political. ...
GINGER BROOKS TAKAHASHI: Something that reflected us and who we were. And Emily and I for years had worked together as creative partners to make a queer feminist art journal called LTTR.
JD SAMSON: [After Le Tigre went on hiatus] I was doing a project with Johanna Fateman that was already called MEN, and we were writing original songs and that was what we were going to do. That was going to be our next big thing, you know? And then I started playing with them [Brooks Takahashi and O'Neill], just for fun.
O'NEILL: We called it "Hirsute." It was pretty informal.
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: We applied for some kind of informal art rehearsal space and it was in the World Trade Center area, it was on Wall Street, in a vault, and so we had that for a few months. We were working in there and we were working in our painter friend's studio, so we were all working in these spaces, and it was kind of unknown what the project was going to be. It might have just been like a summer project or something. We didn't have a big goal for this. We didn't know we would be sitting here right now.
SAMSON: We had every intention of continuing the project with Emily as well, but then she kind of lost interest. She went to Sweden and at that point we kind of stopped playing together, but we went, like, "Wait, we want to keep writing" and stuff, so we kept writing while she was gone and she kind of was, like, "You know, guys, I'm just not cut out for this. I don't really want music to be my No. 1 thing." Johanna got pregnant and she was, "I don't really think I can make MEN my real-big-deal thing," and we had already done a bunch of press things for MEN, so we kind of all sat down and I was, like, "All right, guys, do you wanna make this happen? Do you wanna go for this?" and everyone was, like, "Yeah!" and Emily was, like, "No." [laughs] And so we decided to call it MEN and we started finishing the record.
When was that?
SAMSON: 2008, at some point.
Are Emily Roysdon's texts still part of the songs?
SAMSON: Three of them.
How does it feel to be sitting on this great material for such a long time?
SAMSON: It's been frustrating. The label situation has been kind of frustrating. I'm used to the music industry, but I haven't put out a record since things have been really difficult [for the industry]. It's really like we have to be business people, and thank God I was in a project before that was really DIY, because I feel I know enough about the industry to make decisions, but we really have to micromanage a lot and keep our head above water in making decisions.
With Le Tigre, were you always involved on the business side of things?
SAMSON: We were asked every question. Nothing happened without us making the decisions. We were on a label called Mr. Lady for the first couple of records and then we moved to Universal for the last record. We got a different management team that kind of guided us through the process, meeting with a lot of different labels, and we really thought that Universal was the best label to spread our music further into the mainstream and kind of get our music out to more people that wanted it.
'Cause I think that was one of the things we realized: There were still all these queer kids who had never heard of Le Tigre. We wanted to reach them all, somehow.
Was that the main goal with Le Tigre? Reaching the queer kids?
SAMSON: Oh, totally. That was what most of the decisions were based on.
Do you feel This Island doesn't get enough respect? I feel it's one of the great records of the last 10 years, for many reasons — musical, political ...
SAMSON: I think a couple of things happened. One of them was that the record was a definite advancement of our musical ability and we really learned a lot, we worked a lot, we basically produced it ourselves, we learned a lot about how to make things sound better. And we were really excited about that and we felt very proud of it, but I think a lot of people liked LeTigre for their kind of DIY, lo-fi sound, so I think that was hard for our fans to take and I think it was kind of a shock for a lot of people, maybe. And the other thing is that I think that record — unfortunately, timewise, we stopped promoting it when we still could have got more out of it.
I guess we toured it for, like, a year, but we were getting bigger crowds as we went on.
And then the band went on hiatus at that point.
That's the official term? "Le Tigre is on hiatus"?
SAMSON: Yes. [Silence]
How did you end up front-and-center on the This Island cover?
SAMSON: We spent a lot of money on a concept that was very elaborate for the record cover, and it looked horrible. What ended up on the cover was a press shot. We spent the money, but the concept didn't work, so that was another shot that we took that day, and Kathleen was, "This is the cover of the record!" and I thought it was real nice. I mean, it looks good. I think we all look really good.
It was me and Jo and Kathleen — at the end of Le Tigre we all sang the same amount of songs in the show. Definitely Kathleen started singing less live and also Jo and me wrote a lot more on This Island than we had previously, so it ended up working out that way.
I feel like [since the hiatus started] I'm kind of in the public a little bit more and go out around the world and party and stuff, just socially, and I think that I really worked really hard to make myself visible for lesbians, and that was really, really important to me and I've worked really hard to do that, I made a calendar and I was ... I was obviously putting myself out there to be both admired and hated.
SAMSON: Yeah, but it's OK. It's what happens when you do that.
I think the Internet has been weird. It's been really rough. Seriously, even last week or two weeks ago I did an interview with the New York magazine blog and the comments — I haven't read comments in a really long time, which I feel lucky about. But I started reading and seriously, there were, like, 50 comments about how ugly I was, if I was a boy or a girl, that my answers were boring ...
Seriously, everyone was talking about, "What gender is this person," "This person's so ugly," and I couldn't believe it, I posted it on Twitter like, "This is ridiculous, look how people can be on the Internet," and of course next thing that happened was this huge conversation between all of my fans and the people that were writing in to New York magazine.
But I was shocked. It's still there.
Do you still think about a utopia where your identity can be protected?
SAMSON: I feel like we have a great community, we have great fans, people who come to our show are people that are supportive of us and know what we look like and who we are, but I do think the Internet is full of people who can say whatever they want and that's the only thing that's still really hard.
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: Do we still need to have places that are separate? A really good example would be we played in Canada in Waterloo recently ...
SAMSON: Oh my God, yeah ...
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: It was the second time we played in this town and we were doing costumes that were "naked" — JD was wearing a suit that was painted naked, but Michael and I were basically naked, and people were freaking out, and luckily we couldn't hear them because the music was so loud but people were yelling and they were upset and they were scared but they were also obsessed with what was happening. I could tell they were looking at us in this way.
These were fans who had paid to come and see you?
O'NEILL: No, the thing was that there was a paid entry and then halfway into our set it just became a bar night. People were coming in who weren't necessarily there to see us.
SAMSON: At the end of the night we had to call security.
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: They called the cops and these guys were chasing us down the road ...
O'NEILL: But in a weird way, because they were obsessed with JD. It was these big, beefy jock dudes who were, "I just wanna shake hands with the li'l man. I just wanna shake hands."
O'NEILL: They were obviously curious, but they didn't know how to relate to that feeling.
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: And then at the other end of the spectrum, this summer we played at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, which is a lesbian utopia, only for women, so I do think these kinds of spaces are still valid.
SAMSON: This year Tender Forever played, and there are some hip-hop acts. Tender Forever is the closest to us. A lot of folk stuff, the Indigo Girls played ...
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: It was pure love, it was insane. Intergenerational, everybody was dancing.
By the mid 2000s, the influence of Le Tigre, especially in terms of pioneering a kind of new, overtly feminist dance music that was both unabashedly hedonistic and politically engaged, had spawned tremendously successful acts. It wouldn't be perverse to draw a line from the Slits, to Bikini Kill, to Le Tigre, to Peaches, all the way to the present mainstreaming of some of those gestures through the controversial Lady Gaga. About the latter, Samson is studiously guarded:
SAMSON: In almost every interview I do, people talk about Lady Gaga, which is so weird. Every journalist. It's pretty interesting because people really want you to talk bad about other women artists.
I was doing this interview in Europe and they were talking about which female musicians were people that I respected, and I named [the Gossip's] Beth Ditto, Peaches, Amanda Blank, Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé. And they were, like, "Amanda Blank, you know, she doesn't work with women" and stuff like that, and I was, like, "Why are you trying to tell me that my answers are not good enough?" or whatever.
Also, the States are in a really conservative place, in general, and I think people as fans are interested in one thing and it's, like, "Majority rules." People are afraid of going against the grain. If everybody likes Lady Gaga, then everybody likes Lady Gaga, you know what I mean? Everybody has to feel OK about liking someone else. People aren't ready for smart people other than Lady Gaga right now, 'cause there's only room for her.
When you think about Talking Heads, B-52s, people who made it in the pop world but were also saying interesting things about being alive or what's happening in the world, I think it's happened before. I think it still happens on a certain level — but not on pop radio.
Do you guys ever feel pressure to compromise?
SAMSON: I mean, our first single is gonna be a song that we made a radio edit for that it's very different from the album edit. But the content is what's really important to us.
And it's also something that's really cool about us as a band. I don't think that anyone ever expects us to change our content, because that's who we are. That's why our label wants us. That's why our fans want us. Because of our content — not always completely because of our content, but that's our strength, and I think it would be completely ridiculous to try to water that down. The radio edit was a very complicated decision to make, but in the end, you know, I think it doesn't change who we are as people, and I think we're willing to at least make a 7-inch with that edit, to make that compromise, and also give us a chance in the radio world, because, you know, I want people to be ready for music like ours.
Do you feel now as a band that you are part of a bigger, maybe nameless scene that includes the Gossip and Peaches?
SAMSON: Yeah, it's funny because they're our friends. That's what it feels like to me: It's just our "friend group" of musicians, our peers. But Peaches is in a scene that we're not in. And Gossip is in a scene that we're not in. I think we all fit together in this way, but we also fit into other scenes.
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: And we all have some things in common. Some history that we come from, we all grew up listening to certain records.
SAMSON: I think we all grew up punk. That's what it really is. Peaches, Gossip, us ...
What did "punk" mean to you? Punk is very broad these days — it goes from Buzzcocks to Blink-182.
[They all make faces.]
SAMSON: Not the latter. [laughs]
O'NEILL: "Punk" not as much as bands or influences, but figuring out how to play shows on our own, being part of a local scene.
SAMSON: And being artists is also a big thing. I mean, I know Kathleen [Hanna] was like a really big influence for Beth [Ditto] and Peaches, and Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear — all those people listened to those bands. Sleater-Kinney ...
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: The Raincoats ...
SAMSON: Totally. Slits ...
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: I think it's also a lot of people who went to art school. I think that's one segment of it.
But MEN is different from bands that are explicitly art school. The art is there and the theory, but it's not shoved down your throat. You don't feel lectured to.
SAMSON: It's about love. And enjoying each other. I was just thinking about all those bands you mentioned and it's like Peaches plays that show so hard because she wants that energy between her audience and her to be so strong and full and that bond to really be there. Same with the Gossip. Beth plays that show like it's her last breath. Even if she's hoarse.
It's like the joy of being able to speak your mind and be visible to other people like you and to spread your politics and spread your feelings and all of that together. I feel that's something that is really important to me and us as a band. And no matter if there's three people there or 3,000 people there, we're gonna play the same show. We're gonna fucking give people the energy that they deserve for paying money to come.
According to prevailing stereotypes, gay culture has generally been more receptive to dance music (think: disco) than lesbian culture (think: Lilith Fair). Le Tigre was one of the first really popular acts to challenge that perception, and MEN takes the beat-intensive party vibe and runs with it.
SAMSON: I think there was a different kind of dance [in lesbian culture], it wasn't called "dance music." Like when I used to go see Tribe 8, I was dancing! I was moshing! I had blood all over my shirt when I came home from that show! [laughs]
I love dancing. We all love dancing, but I didn't know I was into "dance music" until I was in Le Tigre, and then when I started seeing that the kids at those shows were freaking out and they had a space to be themselves — they didn't even know their bodies were moving. It was so beautiful. It made me feel happiness. People moving together. MEN is dance music, but it's also punk and weird and ... cool! [laughs]
But I think that it's true that when Le Tigre started, there was a new attitude of not being angry but being happy, becoming optimistic as a group of people, and I don't think that was Le Tigre's doing. I think everyone started changing their attitudes about things and it just worked. It was, timewise, everybody wanted to dance and have fun, be happy.
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: It's like a shift from oppositional politics to a pleasure politics and sharing an experience — instead of, "We're fighting against this, yeah!," instead of all the energy going outwards to fighting against something, it's more like, "We can use all this energy to make something that we want, instead of trying to fight against something."
Do you see in your shows a next generation of younger queer kids who take that attitude for granted?
SAMSON: Yeah — and they'll probably start making oppositional music ... [laughs]
Back to the Indigo Girls!
SAMSON: Actually, yeah. Back to the Indigo Girls! [laughs a lot]
BROOKS TAKAHASHI: Back to Tribe 8!
MEN will perform at the Echo this Friday, September 17, at 9 pm.
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