JD Samson is no stranger to controversy. Since she first appeared on our radar screaming gloriously into a megaphone in Le Tigre, she’s been pushing the envelope and helping build visibility for queer women, while still creating enormously clever and irresistibly catchy dance music. After Le Tigre went on indefinite hiatus, she formed MEN with Johanna Fateman, initially as a DJ and remix team but eventually evolving into a high-energy live band. On their fantastic sophomore record Labour, JD’s lyrics tackle a number of political issues close to her heart (Occupy Wall Street, Caster Semenya’s gender presentation and the Pussy Riot Trial, to name a few) but also get a lot more personal. The record is a triumph – packed to the brim with intelligent, thought-provoking but still dancefloor-ready anthems.
JD was kind enough to take some time out to speak with us about some of the causes she felt strongly about while writing Labour, and also graciously agreed to discuss the fallout from MEN’s decision to play the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival earlier this year. She made it clear, however, that her focus was on the future of MEN, their new record and their upcoming tour.
We’re really excited to do this interview! I feel like this is something Autostraddle has wanted to do since we started. I’m not sure why we haven’t.
Well, we have a lot to talk about then!
Yeah, I think so! So the new record! I was listening to it a lot this weekend. It seems a lot darker lyrically, and a lot more personal –
But when it’s political it seems really specific. so I kind of wanted to get into some individual things, but I wondered if first you’d want to talk about the record as a whole?
Sure. I mean, the record was a pregnancy and a labor and a birth, so it was a really hard record to conceptualize for us. It being our sophomore record was kind of difficult for sure. We had some changes in lineup and some different ideas about where we wanted to go in terms of the release, and what kind of genre we wanted to move towards, who we were writing for – all of that. I think in a lot of ways that came through in the writing, this frustration of trying to do the right thing and at the same time focus on where your passion is, so somehow that really turned into a more personal approach for me. I guess it turned into more of an emotional thing as well. Lyrically we wanted to be a little less exclusively writing for our particular community, so I think that’s why politically I feel like there’s a little bit of a shift. When I listen to Talk About Body, our first record, it feels really depressing to me actually (laughs). I think they’re both really depressing! I think I’m really good at making people think they’re listening to happy music, but if you actually listen to the words you realize it’s really not.
I want to talk a little bit about the song “Let Them Out Or Let Me In.” You’ve been super vocal about the whole Pussy Riot situation, which is awesome, but I was wondering why this song isn’t on the record itself, and also if you could talk a little bit about that situation and how it’s affected you.
We had written two protest songs while were working on this album, “Make Him Pay” and “Let Them Out Or Let Me In,” and they were both pretty specific to certain situations – one was written about Occupy Wall Street and one was written about Pussy Riot. We made videos for both of those songs, so they’ve been “out” on the internet for a while now, and we’ve been pushing them as parts of those activist moments that we’ve been involved in. For that reason, they felt like they were part of a different moment in time and they didn’t feel as cohesive with the rest of the work that we were putting out on Labor. I actually wanted to give them out for free, because they’re protest songs – in the spirit of activism, I wanted to let people have them. We did that through our presale – if you order the record from us on our bandcamp, you get those songs for free. We released this album ourselves, so it was an interesting way to bring everything full circle in the spirit of working from this grassroots/DIY kind of place.
In terms of Pussy Riot and my relationship to them, I was in Europe DJing and I was reading the Guardian on the plane one day. I read this article about Pussy Riot and it was something that was so hush-hush in the states, and I realized how major media in Europe was dealing with it but the US wasn’t. As soon as I got back, I made it a goal of mine to help broaden the PR scope of the US to include the Pussy Riot news. That was kind of how it all started. I worked with some PR people and put together a reading of the statements from prison as well as a lot of the lyrics and other writings from Pussy Riot. It was over at the Ace Hotel and we had a lot of really incredible people reading – Justin Vivian Bond, Johanna Fateman from Le Tigre, Karen Finley, K8 Hardy, Chloe Sevigny and a bunch of people… That event brought so much press the day before the sentence was read, and it was really incredible to be a part of that.
I also wanted to talk about the song “Semenya,” and how it came to be.
It was similar to the Pussy Riot thing where as soon as I heard about it in the news I felt like I could completely relate to the situation – first of all, with Pussy Riot, as someone who creates feminist performance art every day, like, that’s my job! To see someone be put in jail for that was really shocking to me. And I felt the same way about Semenya, and I think for me, making political work is about how I can put myself in that position. Caster Semenya and I are very different, but I think we both struggle to be viewed in a way that feels good to us, you know? For me, I pass as male much of the time, and even in interviews and in the press, sometimes people get my gender wrong, or my gender expression wrong, or they put things on me, and I related so much to this idea of being called out publicly but being the kind of person who’s actually really shy and doesn’t want to talk about it publicly. I wrote this song from the perspective of Caster Semenya, in first person. After I wrote the song, I really could realize how much we had in common, so it was an interesting way for me to become a part of the situation in a way. That was really hard to explain!
Pulling from that, I kind of want to go into something I’m not 100% sure you’re going to want to talk about, but I did want to ask about the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. I read quite a bit about how there was this sort of outcry, and how you were pulled from a bunch of queer events as a result of the band’s decision to play this festival. I was just curious about what it’s like, being someone who deals with gender presentation every day the way that you do, to play a festival where they’re making it very clear that certain kinds of women are not accepted there? As someone who’s familiar with your work, I’m wondering how a band like yours would end up in a space like that.
Yeah. It’s really complicated to talk about this stuff, especially in a journalistic way, mostly because I know that you have the opportunity to take words… not that I don’t trust you, but I know that things can get complicated, even if the question is “What’s your favorite color?” and I take a few seconds to answer it, I know that they might just say what they think my answer was.
I know this is a touchy topic, but we’re all really curious about it, honestly. Autostraddle has repeatedly refused to go to MichFest because of this policy.
All I can say is that I promote inclusion of all women who identify as women to the Michigan Womyn’s Festival; I’ve released statements saying that, and that’s how I feel. I also have a very personal history/herstory with Michigan; I’ve been going there more than half of my life. It fit my life when I was 17 years old. I’m choosing to have the conversation about Michigan in a more personal way, talking to people about it, but I’m doing everything I can to help change the policy. I think there has already been a lot of change and a lot of emotions and I’m working with a lot of people right now towards that change. Hopefully my activism will bring that change.
Do you think that change is actually starting to happen there?
I think that hearts and souls and minds are changing, and I think that that’s the first step. That’s where my activism is important, because I feel like I come from a loving place, trying to bridge a gap and understanding that everyone has different feelings. I think it’s going to be a hard road, but all I can say is what I hope for.
[Editor’s note: In June, JD released a statement on her blog, saying in part: ” believe that the MWMF should be open to all self-identified Womyn, and over the years, I have maintained the hope that we can find a way through all of the fighting and come to an amicable solution together. I am still confident that the MWMF will one day become a place of safety, solidarity, and unconditional love for ALL Womyn, and it is with that hope, that I am announcing that this will be my last year attending the festival until that day comes.”]
Back to the new record, is there any particular track on the album that you’re really excited for people to hear?
It’s funny, things have really shifted a lot once I’ve seen what’s popular with people. To some extent I was a little afraid of certain songs, like I wasn’t sure if people were gonna like them or not. I felt really excited about certain ones and then it just keeps shifting. Like, I wrote “All The Way Thru,” which is a love song – I had never written a love song before! I was really afraid of putting that one out. We put it out as the first single and now it’s the most popular song! So now I feel really excited about it. In terms of songs I was really excited for people to hear, I dunno, I think “Club Thang” is a song I would listen to if it wasn’t my song. I love the monotony of it; I love the disco/club feel of it. I think maybe it’s the new direction of MEN.
I was reading some other interviews you’ve been doing lately and I feel like a lot of people are focusing on the lyrics in that one – like, ‘I wanna hear my music on tv.’ It reminded me of that Huffington Post article a couple of years ago,”I Love My Job But It Made Me Poorer,” and I remember reading that article and just – as a musician, as a writer, as an artist, as all of these things, it’s so true and so depressing. I felt like there were a lot of elements of that on “Club Thang,” and on “Next” too.
Yeah, that article was really interesting. I was asked to write an editorial and I decided to write about what was happening for me, as most editorials are written from that place, you know, and I totally didn’t expect it to go viral. Obviously it was a shock to me.. Although there were as many negative comments as positive comments, I think we started a really important conversation and I do know that my personal community of artists and queers were really happy that it happened. For that, I feel proud of it.
Building from that, do you have any advice for young musicians just starting out?
The biggest piece of advice I have about making art your career in general is to continue to study the things that feel passionate for you outside of your art. Not only will it help your work, both conceptually, and creatively, but it will help you find a community of artists that have the same passions. It can also help you to diversify your art career and potentially have another career to fall back on. For some this might be politics, or fashion, or even medicine, who knows? But I think making sure you round out all of your interests while making work is really important.
Can you tell me a little bit about the video for “Making Art?”
The “Making Art” video was made by an amazing sound/video artist named Laura Vitale. She was recommended to us by someone that attended a residency with her this summer. We wanted to focus on the practice of making art, and really find a way to capture that process. I reached out a bunch of artist friends in Los Angeles, she went around to their spaces and shot them, and edited a beautiful video that focuses on all of their movements.
Will there be a video for “Club Thang” (the next single)?
We will have a video soon for “Club Thang,” made by a video artist from London named Rachel John Barrawood. We can’t wait to see it.
[ Ed: The video is out, look at this! ]
Lastly, what are you looking forwards to this upcoming tour?
I’m really excited to come up with a new stage situation for our upcoming shows. It’s my favorite part of touring, creating visuals to go along with the feelings. So I’m looking forward to getting my hands dirty again.
MEN’s new album Labour is available now, and they may very well be coming to a city near you in the immediate future:
I HAVE A SECRET (ok not so secret) CRUSH ON JD
that is all. thanks stef.
she was gonna dj in my city and the show was cancelled :( really happy to read this. jd if you read this: I ♥ you
Wouldn’t be coming to the UK any time soon? Because I think that should happen.
Really like, “Let Them Out Or Let Me In”
hudson NY for REAL?
hudson, ny is a real place, i’ve been there.
Stef, thank you so much for asking JD about about MichFest. I felt her responses were rather evasive but, hey, at least you asked…
Stellar interview, Stef. Like Gina said, I appreciate that you asked about MichFest and I wasn’t actually aware that JD was pulling out after this year, so that makes me feel a little bit more comfortable with her.
awesome interview. “all the way thru” has been on repeat for a couple days. also really into JD’s half-moustache.
This its great, esp about MWMF, but its it wrong that I wish she’d said that she gets read as male instead of that she passes?
Right, I agree. And the other issue I have with JD’s politics is that she…is okay with being read as trans* and therefore thinks that she can be a spokeperson for the trans* community? Here’s an interview.
and I do think that’s kinda messed up. I think she is trying and moving in the right direction, though.
that’s not really what i got from that interview at all! what i discerned was that some people THINK jd somehow represents trans communities, but she doesn’t really view herself that way?
Well I mean she doesn’t see herself as trans*, apparently, but is being viewed as trans* by other people enough to be a spokesperson? I’m not sure I get the whole thing, at all.
I guess I’d prefer the term “advocate” to “spokesperson” because spokesperson kind of implies, though not always, that someone is a member of that community? and it definitely implies that the person does speak for that community. I’m guessing this is an issue of poor phrasing and good intentions.
She said she’s willing to speak out for trans people when people think she’s a spokesperson for our community (I would, unfortunately, put RuPaul in the same category). That’s messed up. Moreover, she’s been very willing to allow her MOC gender expression to be used as a “defense” why Le Tigre wasn’t supporting transphobia by twice playing at MichFest. She only came out with a statement about WBW at MichFest this year (about a month before the festival) when her and a lot of other acts playing there were starting to get called out on it (after Red Durkin wrote her letter about it) and even potentially losing bookings. She didn’t even have the conviction to put that announcement on her Facebook page but kept it kind of hidden on her blog. In a number of interviews, she’s trying to make it sound as if she’s been speaking out for trans women’s inclusion all along and I’ve yet to hear of one comment she made prior to this one, either onstage or in print about WBW. But what bugs me the most is how both her and Kathleen Hanna try to make it sound as if they’re victims for the choices they made (and have never apologized for) to play at an exclusionary festival whose policy was crystal clear, and how the trans community and its allies are picking on them. Puh-leez.
“I wrote this song from the perspective of Caster Semenya, in first person. After I wrote the song, I really could realize how much we had in common, so it was an interesting way for me to become a part of the situation in a way.” Problematic maybe? The Pussy Riot song seems to come from a place of allyship, not erasure or speaking on behalf of, why not this one?
Pleasantly surprised to see Indianapolis on the tour list. Shweeeeeeeet.