After a year or so of touring with only three MP3s online, MEN’s debut album, Talk About Body finally came out last month. From the heady opener “Life’s Half Price” to the mesmerizing “Simultaneously,” its tight electronic beats, smart feminist lyrics, and a non-stop urge to sing along and shake your body makes for a record that’s as fun as it is thoughtful. Now you can catch the trio of JD Samson (formerly of Le Tigre), Michael O’Neil, and new bassist Tami Hart (of Making Friendz) on tour! Expect homemade, abstract outfits and set designs, a restless dance floor, and every beat, bass line, and guitar riff of Talk About Body amplified by some great stage presence. I spoke with Samson before MEN’s set last week in Portland, Oregon about queer visibility, the politics of dance, and Lady Gaga.
KJ: So I saw today that this is going to be MEN’s 200th show. That’s really exciting!
JD: Yeah. It feels like we haven’t even been playing live that long, so it shows how much work we’ve been doing.
KJ: Do you have a cool outfit ready for tonight? Can I hear about it?
JD: Yeah….yeah I have an outfit ready. I was looking on the internet and saw all these different symbols of queer groups. Like, there’s a trans flag and a bi flag and an intersex flag and a love-outside-the-box flag, and all these different flags and symbols. And so each one of us picked our favorite six groups or symbols and we put them together. Or, I guess…I made the outfits. They’re kind of abstracted and large.
Photo by Ashley McAllister
KJ: Well you already referenced it up [on stage during soundcheck], but I was going to ask you about Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way.”
JD: One of my friends helped write that song. It’s kind of a weird thing where like, I thought it was maybe problematic and then I realized that it was written by a friend of mine, and I was like, “Actually, this is really rad.” Sometimes that happens.
KJ: Can you talk about that? Why that changed your mind?
JD: Because queer hands were used in the process.
KJ: That’s an interesting point because I think a lot of people want to get behind this cool queer anthem, but then it’s Lady Gaga, who’s sort of wishy-washy on queer and feminist politics….
JD: I don’t find her wishy-washy. And I fully support her. I think that everything that she’s doing, in whatever way she’s doing it, is her way. And actually I think she’s only done good. That’s my general feeling about her. I don’t know, I try not to judge other female artists…ever. And just try to kind of understand that they take up space in this world…that isn’t my space? It’s theirs, and that’s great. I think she’s doing a lot in terms of creating a progressive dialog both about art and fashion, and also about people on the outside, including queers. I think that song in particular is really great. It’s really awesome that she names certain groups. Like, she says “transgendered,” “lesbian,” “bi.” I thought it was kind of, like, surprising, and also really exciting when I first heard it. I also kind of can’t help but get into the song.
KJ: Do you think it took a superstar like Lady Gaga to put a queer anthem on the radio or do you think it would have happened soon in this climate?
JD: I mean honestly I don’t really see that song as a queer anthem. Like, the only thing that’s queer about it is when she says those words. I think there’s been plenty of other queer anthems that didn’t just say those words, you know? But they were [still] queer anthems. I think Beth Ditto and the Gossip’s song…like, hearing them at gas stations in Europe (they’re like, so huge there) is to me, more of a queer anthem. Even the Scissor Sisters…
“Who Am I To Feel So Free?” performed live in Portland, Ore.
KJ: I think it’s really cool how you explain how dance music is political (people using their bodies, and taking up spaces, and being with their community…) and I was wondering if you had any stories or examples from your tour that sort of showed that, either in the crowd or in the band.
JD: I mean for me, dance is like this really like, beautiful and inherently organic thing. It’s something I’ve always done, that I’ve enjoyed, and really felt the music through my body in this particular way that is so ungendered, you know? I mean, I just don’t think about my gender very much…at all. I just feel like…I exist. And for some reason, in my dance, I feel that’s really apparent, that people are really…interested in that? I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently.
But I guess looking out into the audience and watching people dance who you saw earlier in the night like, really shy or something…that, to me, is this ultimate gift. Because they’ve lost all inhibition and they’re just feeling the music and making themselves vulnerable. To us as a band, and also to everyone around them. And I think that that’s kind of what we strive to do. The other night in Minneapolis I was watching this woman and she just had her eyes closed and she was just…super feeling it, and I was like, “This is amazing.” And then she opened her eyes and looked at me, and I was like, watching her, and she was totally freaked out but then she just kind of went back to it and it was a really cool connection to have.
KJ: And I actually just also saw the Who Took the Bomp: Le Tigre on Tour documentary? Which I really enjoyed. I felt like I was at a [Le Tigre] show.
JD: Yeah, right? For me it was like, “I never went to a Le Tigre show before.” And now I know what it was like.
KJ: Yeah. A couple times in the film there was talk about visibility, and I’m wondering since 2004, what change or progress (or not progress) you’ve seen over pop culture for lesbian and queer visibility?
JD: I think there’s definitely been an upswing in terms of a revolution of queer equality. Like, all over the world I think people have been way more interested in visibility in general for queers in the media. In the music industry, on television, in movies. I mean the fact that the Oscars this year was kind of dominated by movies with queer people in them, and just GLAAD being so upfront in the media industry right now and everything. It’s just been really awesome to watch.
I don’t really know why, but I think the internet has a lot to do with it. Just people being able to see what’s not just in their immediate vicinity is really important, and I think that’s really opened it up. It’s been really cool. I still feel like there’s a fight to be fought, like, all the time. And I will always think that, no matter what happens. Because we still go through the states and see horrible graffiti on walls of bathrooms, and obviously there’s still hate crimes happening all the time. It’s important still to continue to make ourselves visible.
KJ: I know that collaborating with other artists and musicians is important to you, and I was wondering what other artists or musicians or collaborations you’re really excited about right now that are out there.
JD: Well I’m going to be in my friend Emily Roysdon’s (she was a part of MEN, actually from the beginning)…she is doing a performance at the Kitchen, in New York, which is an amazing performance space. It’s been there since the seventies. And I am going to be in some sort of drama-performance there with her, which I’m really psyched about, with A. L. Steiner and MPA, who are also artists from New York. So I’m really excited about that. That will happen in May.
[MEN plans] to collaborate with some artists from Australia, the Kingpins, for some work for Coachella, and so that’s exciting for us, the band. And other collaborations in the world…well, Wynne Greenwood, of Tracy + the Plastics, is doing a show in LA in April with Nicole Eisenman, who’s a painter from New York. I’m really excited for that show.