JD Samson of MEN on her art and the reaction to her political piece in the Huffington Post
JD Samson of MEN (due Thursday, October 13, at the Bluebird Theater) was once a member of Le Tigre, a band that became synonymous with the electroclash genre. For nearly a decade, Le Tigre wrote some of the most exciting, politically charged music of all time. After that band split, Samson found herself on tour with Peaches and developing a DJ project and a live band that she melded together into her latest project, MEN.
With a background in experimental film, Samson was very much a part of the visual side of Le Tigre, and with MEN -- which released its debut album, Talk About Body, earlier this year -- she brings the same conceptual visual art sensibility to the performances. We recently spoke with the thoughtful and kind Samson before her tour with Brazillian electro-pop band CSS about her art and reaction to her recent political piece in the Huffington Post.
Westword: When you were touring with Peaches, did you have any interaction with M.I.A., and what were some of the most important things you learned from that experience?
JD Samson: I guess I did hang out with M.I.A. one time at Coachella, and she's cool. I loved playing with Peaches. It was really fun to experience her performance persona. She's so great live, and she has such an intense devotion to her fans, and I think it's admirable.
You were a projectionist for Le Tigre before becoming one of the core performers. What got you started with filmmaking instead of just thinking about it like a lot of people?
I grew up in Ohio, and my aunt was a filmmaker, and I was always really interested in that. I watched some experimental films before I went to college by a filmmaker named Jennifer Reeves. I got really interested in that style of experimental film, and I think that's what prompted me to go to the school I went to and study experimental film. I guess it was more of a visual-art aspect rather than a Hollywood style.
You've said in other interviews that you're from Ohio and that you came out when you were fifteen. How did people react? What would you recommend to other young people who might be dealing with coming out in this day and age?
I feel like I was really lucky. I had a really supportive family, but I also grew up in the same town for my whole life, so I went to the same school from nursery school until I graduated. The school was pretty small, so there were maybe a hundred fifty kids in my class. And it was like the same kids, and really, they got to know me as me and not as anything else. When I came out, it wasn't much of a surprise to people, I think. I also think people were friends with me, so there wasn't really an option to just completely ostracize me or something.
So I felt like I was really supported by my friends and family. Granted, Ohio isn't a very liberal or open-minded place. But for some reason I feel like I came of age in the right part of Ohio. I think the most important thing to remember is wherever you are having oppression or wherever you are being ridiculed or being treated poorly because of your sexuality or any other identity, I would say that you can look past that and that there's a whole world of people out there who are accepting and who are like you and who will be there to support you. You can really choose your own family and your own path.
When you came through Denver earlier this year, that thing you did where you all wore those helmet things linked by tubes and whatnot was really interesting. Like a symbol for a third gender and whatnot. Do you often come up with performance-art pieces for your tours, and, considering some of the effort and planning involved, why do you do them?
It's really important for us to make something new, visually, for every tour. Right now it's really important to get people to come back to your shows. Being a band that always does something new every time is really important to us, and I think our fans keep coming back because they know that we're going to have something special for them.
It's always really awesome for me to spend the couple of weeks right before the tour working really hard on something, because it feels like I'm giving a lot to the tour and fans, and it feels like I'm creating something for them. So, yeah, every tour we do something different visually and usually musically as well. It's cool to keep things fresh.
One of my favorite songs by you is "Credit Card Babie$," and you've discussed what that song is about and what you're talking about in it in other interviews. As your political and artistic visions are fused in your work, what do you do to draw out the complexities of issues for a pop song without oversimplifying them? Because you do that pretty well.
Thanks. I don't know, sometimes the ideas come before the song, and sometimes the song comes before the ideas. It's hard to say, really, how that all happens, but for that particular song, I really wanted to create a song about how it felt to have a baby as a queer person. It was really difficult to figure out how to say everything, but I think that in the end, there was a way to do it in a clever and humorous way, but also in a way that's powerful. I think that song straddles both of those things, and that's what makes it successful, because it can feel light at parts, and it can also feel really dark and heavy in parts. Somehow it was the recipe for some sort of anthem.
I was lucky enough to see a bit of the evolution of some of the material for Talk About Body. Did any of those songs exist before you developed MEN into more of a live band project and what attracted you to turning MEN into a live band?
Yeah, actually a couple of those songs were songs I had started a long time ago, "Make It Reverse" and "Take Your Shirt Off." There are a couple more that MEN might still flesh out. Not too many, because most of them were written as MEN became a live project. I think, honestly, MEN just felt like I had to continue to have a live project. I guess it just felt like when Le Tigre was over and I stopped touring with Peaches, the next step was, "Okay, now I need to start up a new thing." I had been working on these two different projects, and we just kind of made them into the same project and went forward.
Around nine years ago I got to see Tami Hart play a solo tour in Boulder. How did you meet her, and why did you want her to be a part of MEN?
I met Tami Hart a long time ago, when she was like eighteen and put out her first record. She was on Mr. Lady and so was Le Tigre. So we had known each other for a long time, and we needed someone to play guitar and bass, and, I don't know, I love Tami. She's such a great person, so we asked her to join. Unfortunately, she's not with us any longer. She was just touring with us for the cycle of the record, and she's going to start going to back to school. This time, we have a drummer with us, Lee Free. It's been really awesome, and it brings a whole new element to the live show.
Coming up with the name for your band and the phrase "what would a man do" is interesting to me on many levels. Women, I feel, are generally taught to question themselves and the validity of their thinking and their work. And you could abstract that idea to other experiences people have with their own identities in various realms of life. Do you see what you're doing with MEN as a vehicle for encouraging personal liberation and empowerment on a personal and specific, and thus wider, scale?
Yeah, for sure. I think it's important. First of all, one of the reasons we're called MEN is just because "men" really identifies the human race in general. "Men" is everybody that is human, and part of what we speak to is this all-encompassing idea that we are all one, and we also can all be ourselves and different. So I think it's been really cool to be able to talk about identity politics, whether that be about class, race, sexuality or gender identity, and kind of just be able to give power to every single label there is and whatever labels there aren't, as well. It's an important part of the project, for sure.
A few months ago I interviewed Seth Bogart, and he said one of the big misconceptions about him as a musician is that his band is a queer band. Not that he didn't fully embrace being gay and sing about that experience, but that people maybe didn't take the music and songwriting itself on its own terms, and you've expressed a similar frustration, even though, personally, I think you've both succeeded in making great music that resonates with people regardless of their sexuality. Do you think that kind of odd dualism that seems to pervade the thinking of many people is a barrier to fully understanding or appreciating what you do? Like something has to be queer music or not queer music, political or not political and so forth.
We are political because we are interested in politics. We listen to the news on the radio. It's something that we are, and it's what we want to talk about. It does mean we don't want to talk about having sex or falling in love or any of those things, too, that are a little bit more of the normal thing you would sing about. But I think it's important to us to maintain our brainpower or our intent on creating art that has a message and that is smart and made for smart people.
I think we are really lucky to be able to do that. I think in a sense being that self-referential has put us into a box, like Seth was saying. I think that's really hard for us, because no matter how many people know who we are and have heard our record, whether or not they would consider themselves fans, might be contingent on whether or not they're queer. And that's depressing to me, and I think it would really be great to have an audience that ran the gamut of all sexualities, races, genders, classes and everything, and I think that's what we strive for. And also not to lose our pride and [what we're about].
That piece you wrote for the Huffington Post, I thought, was very articulate and eloquent. Unfortunately, I read some of the comments to the article, and it was like a bunch of cranky people were responding to what you said. Like they couldn't relate to what you were trying to express because of one detail or another. You've probably received that sort of non-productive feedback a lot in your career, and I know you've checked it out here and there. How do you, in your own heart and mind, deal with that kind of criticism, and do you bother to even address it?
Well, I don't read comments on purpose because it really would hurt my feelings. I'm a pretty sensitive person, and I think that comes through in the writing itself. Part of who I am as a person is about my sincerity and putting myself out there, and being vulnerable to that is a scary thing. I am sensitive and I am a human, and that does hurt my feelings.
I knew that writing a blog about my feelings was going to be picked apart and people were going to take it as the end-all/be-all and that's all I believe and whatever. The truth is that it's a moment in my life that I wanted to put out there, because I thought it would be able to speak for other people and create change that was needed.
I think that has happened, and I feel good about that, but I also have read things that make me want to fight back or something and say, "That's not what I meant!" But the truth is that those aren't my peers, and they don't know me, and I just need to let people have their feelings, and the Internet is a shitty place.
When I read stuff like that, I think: "You don't know this person, and you don't need to be so aggressive about this."
Yeah, but I mean, you know, it's the perfect place to make fun of someone or talk shit about them or call them ugly because you don't have to say it to their face.
MEN, with CSS, 7 p.m. doors, Thursday, October 13, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, 888-9AXS-TIXS, $18.75-$20, 16+.