Playing with standard perceptions of life and standard definitions of musical genre, performance, and presentation has been a core part of JD Samson’s artistic career throughout her work with Peaches, Dykes Can Dance, and most notably with the post-punkster trio Le Tigre. Now performing at the forefront of the band/collective MEN, alongside Michael O’Neill and a revolving cast of co-creators, JD recently attempted to debunk the pop cultural link between rock stardom and financial gain in a conversation-starter of an article for The Huffington Post. Michael and JD sat down with Buzzine’s Stefan Goldby at the recent Block Party finale of Filter Magazine’s 2011 Culture Collide Festival in Los Angeles, California to talk MEN, music, mythology and more in the banquet room of a French restaurant…
Stefan Goldby: MEN began as a Le Tigre side project back in 2007. Can you give us an overview of it’s evolution from those beginnings to where you sit right now as a band?
JD Samson: Sure! MEN began as a DJ remix production team of myself and Johanna Fateman, also from Le Tigre, and we started making original music. And at the same time I was also in an art music collective band called Hirsute with Michael [O’Neill], Ginger Brooks Takahashi, and Emily Roysdon, who are both visual artists. So we were enjoying ourselves in many ways, and Johanna actually got pregnant and was like, “I can’t really be in a band,” so I was like, “But I still want to do this,” so basically MEN and Hirsute became one project, and we had already been doing some press and stuff under the name MEN, so we just kept that name.
SG: So for you, Michael, working with JD as Hirsute very quickly became working together as MEN. In your eyes, what’s the biggest difference between what you thought it was going to be and what it’s now become?
Michael O’Neill: Hirsute started more as a collaborative project between artists and musicians, and even though we still have that element to our project, it’s more of a band now. We go on tour, we play rock clubs, we play festival stages, this and that, whereas previously it was probably more of like a gallery-oriented kind of thing.
SG: If the group is really being more of a collective, how does that actually work when it comes to the actual creative process for MEN’s debut album?
JDS: First of all, these songs were written in 2007-2008, so it took a while for it to come out and everything. And I think we wrote the record with no real expectation of what was gonna happen, or if we were gonna have a label or anything like that, or how it was going to be released. I think, in a lot of ways, like you said [Michael], we thought it would be sold at galleries and that was it, so definitely once we were signed to IAMSOUND and started to develop in that way, we knew that things were going to be a little bit different. But we’ve continued to bring in visual arts as much as possible.
SG: Is there a day from the actual recording sessions that stands out most in your mind?
MO: It’s been a while.
JDS: I really loved writing “Who Am I To Feel So Free?” in general. It wasn’t one moment… Well, it started with Michael and I late one night being really drunk [laughs], and I think stoned too… But every single person who was involved in the project lent their hand to that song in different ways, so that’s the one song that really means a lot to me, because I think it really just kind of encompasses the idea of MEN in its entirety.
SG: If that is the song that encompasses what the band means as a whole, and you have a whole bunch of people in the band who are visual artists in one way or another… then let’s talk about that music video, shall we? [Laughs]
JDS: That video was… interesting. We had a really great idea for the video, and it wasn’t able to happen. We actually wanted to shoot Caster Semenya just running for the entirety of the song. And she was unavailable in the timeframe that we needed, so we basically had to figure something out, and I was gonna be in Australia, so I was wracking my brains like, “Who lives in Australia who’s a really amazing visual artist and could do something incredible for us?” So my friend Techa Noble actually is somebody who does all kinds of things in the art world. She’s an incredible visual artist, and an incredible producer, and just an ideas person. So I got in touch with her, she sent us the idea, and I was sold immediately. So that’s how the video came about – it was actually completely their idea. And we shot it on a cliff. Clearly it was one shot, so it was beautiful and amazing and incredible, and I was really happy with how it came out.
SG: One shot – but how many takes?
JDS: Actually, there was a Steadicam guy, and it’s in slow-motion, so the shot was actually only 29 seconds. So it was so cool. I mean, this guy was like… he didn’t have feet. I don’t know what was on the bottoms of his legs, but he was just so smoothly walking, and I think we shot that take maybe four or five times. For 29 seconds!
SG: A lot of your music seems to manage to combine rather depressing lyrics with extraordinarily upbeat and bouncy music. Is it fair to say you fully believe in the phrase “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”?
JDS: I think it comes very naturally for me to make dance music and pop music… for both of us, pop music for sure. And it just so happened that we were in a very interesting time. The recession was beginning, and I think we were all really interested in discussing identity politics, the wartime economy, all the things that we do on the record. And it’s funny – I don’t think any of us realized how depressing it was until we listened to it all when it was sequenced, and then we were all like, “This is a depressing record. This isn’t a happy dance record.” But a lot of people still say, “You made a really great, fun record,” and we’re just like, “Wow. You think that’s fun?”
SG: Doesn’t that just mean that you know they didn’t listen to the lyrics at all? [Laughs]
MO: I think also, despite that those are the things that we feel, and that we talk about that we always are celebrating who we are and have a lot of pride in who we are, so in that way, there’s a positive spin on all of that.
JDS: Yeah, like in every song, even “Simultaneously,” it’s like, “But now everything’s changing,” and there’s this beautiful thing, and “Be Like This” is kind of similar. So yeah, there’s always this turning point of, “… and now we win,” and I think that is cool. But I do think that the music we’re writing now is a little bit different.
SG: Politics are so intertwined with your music. It seems impossible to break them apart. Obviously, just living your lives in today’s world unfortunately becomes political to some degree, whether you like it or not. But for each of you, where is it that you think that those music and politics became so fused together in your mind artistically?
MO: I guess the fact that we’re queer, and coming out to ourselves, and when that all became a part of who we are, that’s when everything sits from that perspective. So even if we want to write something as simple as a love song, it becomes political because who are we in love with? And is that okay or is that legal…? We can’t help but be political just by nature of who we are.
JDS: For me personally, it’s definitely the way that I perform gender is not necessarily the norm, so I think that that’s a really big thing for me. Walking down the street is political for me. And it’s very easy for me to push it all aside and forget, but I do realize that the general public understands my existence to be political, and I take responsibility to be able to be as proud and real as I can, holding that position.
SG: JD, you definitely held the position of being as real as you can recently, and without being flippant, I’m wondering if it was almost as difficult to come out in terms of breaking down the perceived link between riches and fame as it was in terms of your sexuality. There is certainly a shared sense of taboo. What prompted you to write your recent piece for The Huffington Post?
JDS: I was asked to write for The Huffington Post for their new queer part of the site, and Noah Michelson had recommended to me to write something that would start a discussion. They loved anything controversial or whatever. And at the time, I was looking for an apartment and having kind of a mental breakdown about my life and where I am and how I feel… what success I’ve had and what success I haven’t had, and stuff like that. It was something that I was talking about to everyone all the time.
So it just made sense for me to write about it, and I said my feelings and sent it in, and thought maybe five people would read it, or my fans or whatever, and yet it just seems like it struck a chord with a lot of people, probably because of the time frame of Occupy Wall Street and all of the other things that are going on with the economy right now. So it’s been interesting.
SG: So it was stuff that you were talking about to Michael and everyone else as you wrote it, but now since you wrote it, you have everything from trolls to actual intelligent responses online as well… Out of all of that, has any of the feedback you received given you a different perspective on anything you wrote?
JDS: No. I have the same perspective on everything that I wrote about. The only thing that’s changed is that I understand that most of my peers – almost all of my peers – and thousands of other people feel the exact same way, whether they’re in the music industry, the publishing industry, the theater industry… I’m getting emails… a lot of emails… from people who are thanking me for writing it, and I think that makes me feel really good about writing it, but it doesn’t change my feelings at all, no.
SG: Your music and your life has put you in a position where you’ve helped a lot of people know that they’re not alone in their feelings and viewpoint. But in this experience, you’re the person that’s learned that you’re not alone. How does that feel?
JDS: It’s interesting – when you were asking me the question about writing this blog and you said, “You’re coming out again,” I realized it was very easy for me to come out because everyone always knew I was queer because of my gender performance, and generally people know that I’m queer because of the way that I look and act and stuff, but people don’t know about my financial situation. So this coming out process was actually more intense for me, and more vulnerable, and I feel very raw right now and in the past couple days, just having to talk about it so much, and the fact that all these people know this.
So that part of it is really interesting, but I also think that part of what’s important to me about being some sort of public figure or whatever, has been about making it clear that everyone is in the same position, whether that’s like we’re all people living on this planet who are dealing with these certain politics, or we’re all freaks in some way, or talking to queer people and saying, “We’re all in this together. There’s a community of people there to support you… blah blah blah.” And I feel like this is just another place for me to do that, and I think it was a moment to be able to say to everyone, “Look, we’re all the same. Let’s come together and make change.” So in that sense, I think it’s similar to other political actions that I’ve been for.
SG: And so, JD, you just did it again… even within bleak and ‘look at how wrong everything is’ moments, everything somehow ends positively, with something that can be done about it. Michael: Is that representative, not just of JD, but also of the ways of MEN as well…?
MO: We’re positive people, like I said before. We have a healthy outlook on life, and we’re generally happy to be alive and doing what we’re doing. So it doesn’t mean we live in denial, but that we’re always looking on the bright side, I guess.
JDS: I remember doing press for our record before and talking about it’s not about preaching to the converted or preaching at all – it’s about a reality check. It’s just suggesting a reality check or something. That’s the general feeling, I think, that that record gives out.
SG: In our attempt to end on an up-note, even though everything today has been rather serious, and about debunking myths and taking the shine off the rock-star halo, let me end by switching gears and asking by comparison: What has been the single best, shiniest rock-star moment for MEN so far?
JDS: Let’s say two, because I don’t know if mine is the same as yours, but I really had a great time playing at the Melt Festival this summer in Germany, and I felt like it was the most perfect festival rock show ever. I was like, “We’re gonna take over the world!” That was a good moment for me. I liked that show. I don’t know; that just came in my head.
MO: I guess what pops in my head is – I guess it’s not a single moment – but a tour that we did with The Gossip, which was, on so many levels – musically and on a friendship level, hanging out with those guys – we all totally bonded and did a Secret Santa, even though it was October… And we were just having such a good time together that tour just felt like family.
SG: Finally, because I just have to ask, back in the world of Le Tigre a new DVD (Who Took The Bomp: Le Tigre On Tour) was released this summer. Where does that fall back into the mix? MEN is obviously the project you are focused on, but are there new things bubbling around on the Le Tigre front as well?
JDS: Kathleen [Hanna] right now is doing a Julie Ruin project, so she’s focusing on that. Johanna owns a salon and has a wonderful, beautiful child, and she also helps out… she does consulting on production for us. That’s her official job, but she has to wear a power suit while she does it… We worked together on the DVD and are psyched about it. There’s a documentary about Kathleen coming out soon… Everybody is just busy doing their particular things. We don’t like to say we’ll never do something, because maybe we will, and we don’t want it to be like, “Reunion!” So we just try to roll with it and see what happens…
MEN’s debut album, 'Talk About Body,’ is out now on IAMSOUND Records.
Le Tigre’s ‘Who Took the Bomp?’ DVD is out now through Adam Yauch’s Oscilloscope Laboratories film company.