My introduction to musician slash reality television superstar Somer Bingham was in July 2011, when I received an email suggesting that I would really dig the band Clinical Trials. Somer and her music — which was described as “thrashy all-female electro grunge rock with a side of angst” — quickly became my new favorite things.
Almost one year later, the announcement was made that Somer had joined the cast of Autostraddle’s favorite lesbian reality television program, The Real L Word. Obviously I jumped at the opportunity to call her up and ask, “oh God, WHY?”
Here’s the thing: Somer gets it. Like, she’s in on the joke too, and anybody who follows her on twitter knows that from her self-deprecating episode live-tweeting and overall sense of humor about the whole project.
After dealing with a phone speaker blow-out (which, fyi, an empathetic Somer offered to help fix) and being read the world’s most polite riot act by Showtime PR, we settled in for a deep and meaningful discussion about music and TRLW that ended up getting totally de-railed.
What were you thinking when you signed on to do The Real L Word?
To be honest with you, I wasn’t all that interested on being on the show. In fact I had a couple of conversations with Vero (Hunter Valentine) when trying to decide what to do, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to be on reality television or if I wanted to let people into my life. I’m a musician, not a TV person, and so I had a lot of hesitation.
Also I was in this in-between period with Hunter Valentine, we were still trying to figure things out and it wasn’t really my decision whether the band was going to be in it or not, so I just went along for the ride. Honestly, it’s a lot harder to say no to something than it is to say yes. If you say yes then maybe you’ll wonder if you made the right choice and have to live with regret, but if you say no then you’ll always have to wonder.
So when did the decision happen?
It happened right in the first few months of us trying to work together. Kiyomi and I were already friends and she asked me to help her write songs for their new album, which sounded like fun. That led to an invitation to go to Toronto to record it, and it was right around that time the auditions were happening. Clearly Hunter Valentine did end up being cast and the story was going to be about recording the album and going on tour.
What has it been like watching your life play out on screen? Is that weird for you?
You know what’s the weirdest thing? Reading Autostraddle recaps. I read them and I’m like, “Oh wait, that’s me! They’re talking about my keyboard!”
I’m actually more nervous to be talking to Autostraddle because you guys are smart. I caffeinated myself in preparation because I don’t want to be too slow or ridiculous. I mean, a little bit of ridiculous is fine, if it’s funny. If we can pull off something that is a little ridiculous and a little funny and a little witty then I’ll be super stoked.
Way to put on the pressure. Had you seen The Real L Word? Did you know what you were getting yourself into?
I had no idea! I watched part of an episode once because one of my friends was obsessed – it was the scene with the creamed corn and the strap on scene and I was like, “Wow! This is not good television!”
I’m not a big reality television fan. I mean, I watch Survivor with my mom but that’s about it. So when we were auditioning I thought I’d better see what the show was like. That was a really interesting experience, watching the show and wondering if that would be me one day — would I be wearing pants or pumps?
So did you have “no creamed corn” as a stipulation in your contract?
That’s a great question. I’m not allowed to discuss what was and wasn’t in my contract, unfortunately creamed corn falls under non-disclosure.
How did your wife, Donna, react when you told her you were auditioning? Did she think you were a little crazy?
She always thinks I’m a little crazy. She basically said, “You’re a musician, and this show could be a way to get people to hear about your music — they may hate it, they may hate you, they may like it — at least you’re getting it out there”.
As far as being on the show, we talked about it in the context of what we would have done if this happened ten years ago — then there would have been no hesitation, we’d have been in our early twenties and we were even more crazy back then, going to lesbian parties and running around New York and just generally getting into trouble. But now we’re in a different stage in our lives, which is where that hesitation originally came from.
You already have a really great band, Clinical Trials, and so I’m curious about what drove you to join another one?
It started with a conversation — a telephone conversation — between Kiyomi and I. She said that she respected me as a musician and wanted me to infuse a bit of my sound into what they were doing. I knew that they were a lot further along than my own band was — they had more fans, they had this poppy sound that appealed to a lot of people. So we discussed and agreed how it would be mutually beneficial for both parties. I wasn’t really looking for something new, the opportunity just came up. Then all the reality craziness happened.
So far this show is portrays Kiyomi as someone who has a very strong personality, who is a little bit cocky. Is this the Kiyomi that you know?
It is and it isn’t. She does have a very strong personality and we’ve clashed a few times. As my wife has pointed out, we’re both brats. So yes, there’s a part of her that can be abrasive. She’s very focused on her music goals and whatever gets in the way of achieving success can get pushed aside.
But there’s this other side to her. She’s charismatic and she’s fun and she can be incredibly generous and caring and loyal, and these subtleties aren’t really coming across on the show because there’s so much conflict! Also, telling a story about the beauty of friendship probably isn’t all that interesting. Are viewers going to tune in for hugs, or are they going to tune in because two people are screaming at each other on stage?
When you witness all of the girl drama that Kiyomi has with her non-girlfriend, Ali, does it make you feel a sense of relief that you’ve got Donna back home?
Absolutely! I think most people want to find their soul mate and I’ve been very lucky to have found mine. Those two fight a lot and it can be tough to watch. People just want to find their partner and they’re trying to figure out whether they’re going to work as a couple.
How did you and Donna meet?
I was handing out flyers for a show, it was this drag king show with a musical act in middle. I saw this cute girl sitting on a curb and I thought, “I’m gonna give this girl a flyer!” and I did. She was so cute and so drunk — she was in grad school, she had just finished writing a paper and was out celebrating.
I was so upset because she disappeared before I could get her number. Then she showed up ten minutes later eating a falafel and I knew then that she was the one for me — the drunk girl eating a felafel in the middle of a bar. She was so sweet. We ended up hanging out another night when we were both more sober and we clicked, we both realized that we had good hearts and that was it.
SO what was the proposal like? Was it as orchestrated as Whitney’s?
No. I wanted to wait until our anniversary to propose, but then I started having these terrible nightmares about Donna not liking the ring and not liking the proposal and so I kept waking up in the middle of the night all sweaty and upset. Naturally she wanted to know what was going on. When I finally admitted that the nightmares were about getting her a piece of jewelery that she didn’t like, she put two and two together and ruined the surprise!
So I wanted to get down on my knee and tell her that I loved her and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her, but I didn’t get the chance to do the romantic, suave proposal thing. No chance to do any of that Romeo crap.
One of the things I enjoy about you is that you’re the first to make fun of your involvement in the show. Is having a sense of humor essential to being part of this cast?
Oh god, I think it’s essential to existence! I don’t take myself very seriously — which I think you know — and that is my attitude to life. It’s the same with music. I mean there’s obviously work and practice and starving involved, all these things that come with being an artist — but ultimately you’re doing it for fun. Being on stage is fun and writing songs is fun and seeing people sing the lyrics to your songs is fun, that’s what I live for.
If you see yourself on reality TV and think, “‘wow, that was a big mistake”… I mean if you can’t laugh about that then you’re screwed. And humor is part of the genre, I think. With the recaps, for example, where you’re taking the piss and being a bit snarky… taking that personally isn’t helping anyone. In the last recap I was laughing so hard. Riese wrote this amazing caption about me looking for compassion under my keyboard and I was just like, “I want to hang out and get a beer with her!” That was my reaction. I want to find compassion at the bottom of a draft beer.
My favorite thing was the ‘Where’s Somer?’ graphic from episode one.
I loved that! I found myself very quickly. I don’t know if that was because I was looking for me or because I was the only one not wearing bright primary colors, but there I was standing right next to Waldo, who is fancy and obviously uses a dry cleaning service.
Are you really always late?
I’m not a particularly timely person, although it’s something I’ve been working on over the past few years. It really doesn’t help that neither Donna nor I have an overly great awareness of objective time. But you know, I’ve been the one who has been there waiting for the band to show up, that’s happened once or twice. It wasn’t caught on camera but it happened.
Did you hang out with the LA cast while filming?
I don’t want to spoil future episodes but there is this one point when there is a coming together of the two teams. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but I will anyway — I can tell you for certain that there was no creamed corn involved.
I really, really, really, liked Kacy and Cori. I know I’m not alone in this fact — I think haters of Kacy and Cori are very few and far between and I hate those people back on their behalf. They’re just so cool! I think they’re just really sweet, genuine, loving, rad people.
Riese wants to know what your favorite book is.
I like Dostoevsky. I like all the really depressing Russian literature. The Idiot is my favorite — that’s the one I couldn’t put down. I think I read the first part for two days straight in college, I was just alone in my dorm room and I missed all of my classes. So I’ll read anything by the Russians.
Tolstoy doesn’t do all that much for me but I read him anyway because he’s there, and because he’s famous and I can name-drop it. I really like to name-drop Tolstoy, like “oh yeah me and Tolstoy, we hung out one summer”.
One of the things I was interested to learn about you is that you volunteer at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. Why is that work important to you?
When you volunteer for the first time there’s just so much excitement and joy. These girls come in and they’re already super rad, and they get to learn an instrument and then be in a band… we teach them a bit of riot grrrl history and then they leave and they’re just so enthusiastic about life. Part of my job was fixing gear, like guitars and cables and stuff, which is kind of funny now that I think about it. I think the work helps the counsellors as much as it helps the kids because those kids are all so awesome. You get as much from it as they do, it’s not a totally selfless thing.
What’s happening at the moment with Clinical Trials?
It’s a solo project now. I lost my drummer while we were taping The Real L Word. She was a little frustrated because I wasn’t able to give a lot of time to the band, which was hard because the reason I was doing the show was to try to get us some exposure musically. But unfortunately I wasn’t managing my time very well. Now there’s a reoccurring theme.
So now I’m playing around. I used to do a lot with loops and beats and samples, and layering them and playing on top of them, and so I’m maybe going to revert back to that — to combine that grungy, heavier sound with some electronic sounds. Maybe I’ll do a bit of acoustic crap. I started out playing acoustic, I did these stripped down shows with a beat machine and a guitar, although it seems a little pansy-ish to me now. I’m like, “Where’s the balls!?”
What are you listening to right now?
Oh man, the new Santigold album, I love it, I can’t get enough. I thought maybe because she did a first great album that the sophomore slump was going to hit, but some of those tracks are mind-blowingly awesome. I’m also loving this band called Zambri, they are awesome, I swear to God that they’ll be opening for Bjork or someone within the next year. They’re from Brooklyn, I don’t know if they’re twins or if they just look very similar, so. It’s just cool electronic stuff, Depeche Mode would be proud.
Can we keep talking, or are you on a time limit?
No, I’m just hanging out. Donna and I just got back from seeing my parents in Florida and so I’m still in vacation mode. It was the first chance I’ve had to see them since Christmas, since all the things happened with the band and the show, and so that distance has been brutal because we’re very close. So we went down there and hung out on the beach. I taught Donna how to throw a spiral with a football. We’re a cliché, a lesbian married couple who play football.
Is there anything about the show that you regret?
No. I tried to be true to myself, although that was hard when there were cameras in my face. They’re fairly unobtrusive though. It was mostly a fly-on-the-wall thing, although when a big event happened then they would ask you lots of questions about it, that’s when the obtrusion happened. When filming it’s supposed to be reality, but the act of filming actually changes your reality into this weird meta-reality. And sometimes it brings out this crazy part of you, like the cameras are providing an audience and so part of you performs a little more.
Also I never had sex on camera. Donna and I are very private about that aspect of our lives. And when I shot heroin that one time, maybe I shouldn’t have done it in front of the camera but really it was a personal choice, just like sleeping with dudes or wearing one feathered earring or having dreadlocks is a choice… that was the decision that I made and I have to live with that. So I don’t regret anything.
Just kidding, I regret everything. I’m starting to regret this interview. Someone should probably take this coffee out of my hand.
If you had to write a punny headline for this interview, what would it be?
Hm. Maybe it would be something about ‘Somer’s Eve’. Do you know what Summer’s Eve is? It’s a women’s douche.
I didn’t know that. That’s oddly fascinating.
Yeah. Why would you call it that? I don’t understand.
Not sure, but I’m glad I learned something new.
That’s why I’m here, to educate. I’ll have to keep thinking about that headline.
You can email it to me later.
I’ll send you ten options.
So what are you doing when you’re not making reality television and music?
I have a regular ol’ day job. I run sound at a couple of venues in the city, Webster Hall and Sidewalk Cafe, about five nights per week, and I’ll be sweating my ass off, on my feet all night, lifting heavy gear — but getting to mix everything from awful generic white boy rap to surprisingly good metalcore to cool electro and amazing stripped-down singer-songwriters. It sucks when viewers/readers don’t know this, because my life hasn’t really changed much – I still struggle to make ends meet, living month-to-month and even getting way behind on bills during tour and filming.
I’ve also been watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica lately.
I love Battlestar Galactica!
It’s SO good, right? I’m still on the first season, about ten or twelve episodes in. It’s brilliant.
I have an epic crush on Starbuck.
Of course. You want to be her, you want to be with her… what is so sexually appealing about someone who is that reckless?
I wish I knew. She has no fucks to give, that’s somehow always hot.
Yeah. She’s just so great. Do I want to marry her? No. But do my wife and I want to sit on the couch and watch and admire and fantasize? The answer is yes. Absolutely yes.
Just so you know, I’m all out of The Real L Word questions.
Well I think Battlestar is a great place to lead on from because we’re talking about the future of humanity and that transcends reality television, doesn’t it? I might be a cylon and you just didn’t know until now. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Or maybe it would be terrible, I don’t know. I’m only partway into the series and so there’s only one sort of good cylon so far. I think I’d want to be her, or maybe not. I think I just confused myself. Who am I?
We just established that you’re a cylon, right? At least that’s what I’m running with, it’ll be an Autostraddle exclusive.
‘Evil Cylon Infiltrates Reality Lesbian Television’.
You just wrote that headline.
You’re welcome. Battlestar Galactica is something that I’ve been trying to work into conversation for a while now, I’m just so excited about it. I think I’m going to make it a stipulation of future interviews. Must ask one Battlestar question.
Where there any other topics that I should ask about?
You know what would be a better question? What I was dreading that you’d ask about.
You’re right, that is a better question. So tell me.
Probably whether Kiyomi and I clash on the show because I am a cylon and she is not.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of that. This interview has taken a really interesting turn.
We could talk about Somer Fridays, if you want? I do these little vlogs about The Real L Word and it’s been one of the more fun parts of being involved with this show. The rest of the filming is hard, it’s really draining. You’re like, “I just want to take a nap!” and then they film you taking that nap, and so in comparison shooting Somer Fridays is really fun. It’s just me on camera being a doofus.
Are you given topics to talk about, or do you just make it all up?
A little bit of both. Sometimes we brainstorm — I work with a really cool producer at the network — but mostly it’s me just talking about things that are probably crazy and that no-one else thinks are funny. I did one about lesbians in the wild, which I enjoyed. I’d had this idea of doing a nature show about lesbians. I wanted to film it outside but then decided it would be too disorienting.
Maybe you should pitch Lesbians In The Wild to Ilene.
You’re right. I actually have this other idea and I don’t know whether I should say anything, I don’t want someone to steal it. But I was thinking of doing this post-apocalyptic guide to killing zombies if you’re a lesbian, because lesbians have different needs. We have a different culture and we have different potential zombie fighting weapons lying around, you know?
I think so. What do you recommend we use to fight zombies?
Well you could kill zombies with a chihuahua, a jar of peanut butter and a butter knife. And I could teach people how to do that, for sure.
‘The Zombie Slaying Kit for Lesbians’ would probably be a big seller on Etsy.
Exactly. And there could be different kits for different lesbians, like one for the pumps and one for the pants.
Genius. Let us know how the pitch goes.
I’ll send you a link to the pilot. Just don’t show any your rival websites, they’ll steal the idea.
It’s in the vault, don’t worry. Have you met Ilene Chaiken?
Yeah I have, actually. I liked her a lot. She was really excited about the New York set because she’s from Philly. She was really sweet and almost shy. We met a few times and had some interesting conversations about meta-reality and the fourth wall with the show — the way that gets broken and not broken and should be broken. We talked about kids and where we’d raise them if we had them. We had nice adult conversations. I can do that, be an adult. I can hang.
How many kids do you want?
I’m picturing a couple. Maybe two-and-a-half, that’s the national average. We would probably each like to have a biological child if we could, we like that idea but life doesn’t always give you what you want and we’d be just as happy to adopt.
Would you consider allowing a reality TV show to document the story of you and Donna and the making of your 2.5 kids? Kinda like Kacy and Cori…
We could be like Jon & Kate Plus 8! Of course I’d have to talk to Donna about this, but I think I would consider it because reality television can really help to normalize things for lesbians, people get to see a couple who really love each other and want to start a family and I think that’s a good thing. I obviously can’t speak on behalf of Kacy and Cori, but I suspect that this might be part of what motivated them to be on this show.
I don’t know if people would care, though. They might be like, “Get these chicks outta here! We want to see more of Romi hooking up with a dude!”
I don’t know about that. It’s just my opinion, but I think you and Donna come across as some of the more likeable personalities on this show.
That’s all editing. We’re actually total assholes.
Well, I guess we are only three episodes in.
Exactly. Wait until you see us kicking puppies, I think you’ll have a whole different opinion. That’s how Donna and I hang out. We used to have seven chihuahuas but now we only have two.
What are their names?
One is a male named Chachi, which is short for Senior Muchacho, which was Donna’s doing. And the other is a female called Charlie. She’s still a puppy, she thinks she’s a labrador, all sporty like a real dog, and is very confused. She’s kind of my favorite, but don’t tell Chachi that.
My father’s grandmother was a chihuahua breeder, she had 40 or 50 of them at one time and so it’s in my blood line. I think she cooked for them. There are a lot of crazy genes floating through the Bingham line. So I would actually love to have seven of them, that’s a dream of mine — to have this little herd of chihuahuas that I could put in a sled on wheels and roll around Brooklyn.
So you’re a dog lesbian? Or do you play both sides?
I’m both, I’m bi-pet inclined™. I just don’t own any cats because Donna isn’t really a cat person, she hasn’t yet wandered into the feline world.
You could do a lot of things with seven chihuahuas, costume-wise.
I could dress up as Santa and put little reindeer antlers on their heads.
You could also do the Seven Dwarfs.
Perfect. These ideas have a lot of potential. Think of all the greeting and holiday cards that I could make from the photos.
Now there’s a show that I would actually watch. Somer & Donna Plus 7 (Chihuahuas).
Oh like The Nature Channel meets The Real L Word meets Jon & Kate Plus 8? That’s a hit right there. I’ll be pitching it to CBS, for sure.
You can thank me in the credits.
I sort of already assumed you’d come and do the music supervision. I’m picturing some really bad country music, like new country. What do you think?
I don’t think I know what new country sounds like. I’m not confident about how that would turn out.
Wow, are you pre-emptively resigning from this position? It sounds like you are. I can’t believe we’re having creative differences before we’ve even started.
No, I’m in. We can workshop the idea in September, when I’m in the US for A-Camp.
[Ed. note: I elaborate on A-Camp]
It is kind of like a highbrow educational Dinah Shore, right? Like without all the booze and hook-ups…
There is still booze and hook-ups. But there is also cabins and discussion panels and talent shows and crafts and camp fires.
That sounds amazing. I’m going to dress in disguise and infiltrate the next A-Camp, and then I’m going to recap the shit out of it. What do you think about that?
That seems only fair. If we hold a camp near New York then I’ll let you know.
Forget that. I’m gonna get in my car and drive to LA, then hide in the woods and take notes and photos for the recaps. You’d better warn Riese.
Maybe we can get you in to hold a Battlestar Galactica discussion panel.
I can also teach workshops on viper piloting, if you want.
I’ll run it by the organizers.
Great. See you at camp.