Interview: JD Samson (MEN)

Photo by Allison Michael Orenstein.

I interviewed JD Samson about three weeks ago for the Mai issue of the Berlin’s gay city magazine siegessäule. She and here band MEN had just finished their tour. Here’s the (nearly) uncut version of the Skype conversation we had, JD talking about topics like the importance of touring for the band, the new member Tami Hart, the tour costumes, activism, and the inevitable Lady Gaga.

You had the last show of your tour yesterday as far as I know. What does it feel like, are you happy, exhausted, sad?

I’m really tired because we had 14 shows in a row, so I need a rest and I’m really excited to sleep in tomorrow, but at the same time I’m kind of sad, because we had such a wonderful time on tour and yesterday I just woke up with such a great feeling and I knew that the show would going to be great. And we were really all in such good moods and came together on stage, so the energy in the room was just incredible.

You played a lot of shows in general, didn’t you? I have the feeling it was a really important thing for the whole project. You played three Berlin shows for example…

Yeah, we just play whenever we have the opportunity, and when people invite us to come we figure out if it financially makes sense and if we’re even gonna make a dollar with it usually we’ll do it. I mean we don’t like to loose money, but it’s really good for us to just continue playing, I think I’ve seen this project as really a live thing. We started off playing live before we had any music out, so I think that that’s really how people make money right now in the music industry, but also the way that this band really can succeed.

You recently changed a band member, you’ve been playing a couple of shows with new bass player, Tami Hart.

We started this band kind of as a collective, because some people had other careers in the art industry and they kind of wanted to be in and out whenever they felt like. It’s this really great opportunity for us to collaborate with different people’s brains and hearts and involve them in the process of making music. So that’s really in the end what happened with our former bass player Ginger as well, Ginger wanted to continue making visual art and doing some other projects that she’s interested in. Actually when Ginger left I really didn’t want it to seem like she’s been “replaced” by Tami, so we wanted to have two people come into the band at that point, but we couldn’t afford it financially.

Tami Heart (live at Coachella, Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images North America via Zimbio

So we “just” went with Tami, but it’s been incredible to have her, she’s someone I’ve known for a long time, a great musician and somebody that really appreciates touring and being involved in this project.

It took quite a while until you decided to release a record and would have a label.

When we first started, our concern was actually not to make a record, it was to just have fun and make music and play shows live. But there was a day when I basically came to everyone and said “I want this to be my new project, this is gonna be my priority, who wants to do this”. So it was at that point that Michael and Ginger said “let’s do this” and when the project changed from being something like a collective visual art thing with music to more of a band. Another reason why we didn’t sign for a while was the fact, that we couldn’t stop touring. We got asked to go on tour with Gossip, with Peaches, we got asked to go to Brasil for a tour, to Mexico city and all these other crazy places. We had all these opportunities and we didn’t want to give them up, this is why the record just ended up coming out when it did.

Can you tell me a little bit about the costumes you make for your live shows? When I saw you in Berlin, you were wearing a little house on your head, but as far as I know you changed the costumes several times.

I really enjoy that part of the process of making the costumes for the band and the backdrops and stuff. I think it’s part of my visual art history, MEN allows me to continue to do that kind of stuff on the side and it’s been really awesome for me to be able to do this for each tour. Every tour we had different outfits and concepts. We did a tour for example that was “naked”, where Ginger and Michael were naked and I wore a suit that looked like a naked body. And on our last tour we took different images of queer symbols and abstracted them on tour outfits in different ways, so that’s been what we wore this past tour.

JD’s “naked” costume

The David Wojnarowicz hat

The burning house was definitely a concept that I was interested in kind of reviving, it was supposed to be a homage to artist David Wojnarowicz and his “Burning House”. It’s an image that’s come up several times, it came up with the house hat originally and this time we did a backdrop that involved tit as well, because I was incredibly influenced by Wojnarowicz being banned from the portrait gallery in D.C. this year. I kind of just really felt like I wanted to include that again this tour. So as much as I think it is just kind of appropriation, it’s really important to reference people that have influenced you.

Is MEN really working for you as an activist, as someone who wants to spread political ideas? Or do you still do other projects aside from music?

Right now I feel like my activism is really through my music. The only reason for that is that I have to prioritize it, because it’s my career and I self-manage the project and spend 24-hours a day on it. So it’s very hard for me to wrap my head around anything else. But activism is really part of my music and my live performance, and I think that there are several ways that you can change things up as a musician aside from that, like saying really controversial things to magazines that they wouldn’t necessarily print. The Hufflington Post did an interview with me for example and they called me a “he”, which I thought was really interesting and really kind of cool, because there suddenly was this question of what I am and I think that’s really interesting and cool, it was just like activism right there.

There are several big artists like Lady Gaga at the moment play with queer signs. As a “real” queer artist, is that something you see with mixed feelings or do you see it as an achievement?

I guess on my darkest days I might feel like “what the fuck, that person’s not even gay”. But I think that’s kind of like this jealous place of wishing to be big enough to be able to be the gay icon yourself, instead of Lady Gaga. I actually think that any visibility is good visibility and it’s awesome to hear Lady Gaga saying “transgender” in a pop song, I’m really happy that that songs exists. My friend Jeppe Breum from Junior Senior co-wrote that song and he’s queer and it was really his idea, so to me to when I hear that song I’m so happy for him and I feel like it’s really coming from his heart. It also shows that it is a misconception, that Lady Gaga writes all her stuff herself. So I don’t really have any feelings about anyone in the music industry, especially any women. And I think any push to help equality and help people think that queer people are the same as everyone else is really great and if it takes Katy Perry or Lady Gaga to do it, I’m fine with that.

Do you at this point that MEN are where you wanted the project to be? Or did it turn out to be harder then you thought to get attention?

It’s really interesting, somedays I think “Oh my god, I’m so proud of us, this is so great, we’re exactly were I thought we’d be. And sometimes I think “We’ll never gonna be what I think we could, based on the fact that we’re queer”. I mean honestly, I forget a lot, I forget that I might look weird or that am not the same as everyone else and I just live my life and I think I’m in the same pool as all these other musicians.

MEN live at Coachella (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images North America via Zimbio)

But then, when it comes down to questions like, “Why aren’t were playing here, why are we getting payed this amount of money or why don’t people give a shit about us” I’m tend to think “maybe it’s because we’re queer”. Maybe it’s not, but I’ve had a couple of thoughts about how it’s really been that hard.

So even with this whole new importance of blogs and stuff like that you still have the feeling that it worked a little different for MEN than for any other band?

I think that there has been a good amount of attention, but we are still introduced as a queer band everywhere, which is true, but I also think it makes it hard for us to really be a band for music lovers. But the music has been my genre of art that I’ve been focussing on for a really long time and I feel like there is so much conceptual information inside the song structure for me, that sometimes I wish more people were really going there with me. It would be great if Pitchfork would not just mention us but would actually like our record, you know. Or that when we’re playing a festival we’re not playing very early, if it’s not a queer festival.

MENs album “Body Language” is out via I Am Sound.

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