Critical Questions: JD Samson
Name changes, experimenting with music, and controversy.
In a very revealing and honest interview, we spoke with JD Samson about why her band/art collective JD Samson & MEN changed their name, how her relationship with Le Tigre has changed, and why financial equity is one of the most important elements at the heart of her art collective's work.
CM: What, if anything or anyone, inspired you to become involved with music and performance art?
JD: I'm not sure. You know, I really fell into the music industry in a really weird way-- through Feminist art practice. I went to school for experimental film and that's kind of what I did throughout college while taking Gender Studies classes and Anthropology classes. But definitely I was more of an "art kid." I guess I just met the right people and I was interested in promoting shows and was the kind of person at my school that brought bands to come and things like that. So, I guess I was interested in the scene and interested in the activism part of it, but, I didn't really know that performance was what I was going to do until I joined Le Tigre. And it just kind of all clicked then -- it felt really great to be onstage and I also felt part of my activism -- I was able to make art at the same time and being visible as a queer body was something that just kind of became a part of my activism, which I really loved.
Yeah, that was my next question, because I know that you went to Sarah Lawrence College [a very liberal academic setting], I was just going to ask if the interest got sparked or fostered there. It seems like Performance Art specifically was sparked more by Le Tigre. So, what were your initial conceptions, coming from Le Tigre for the JD Samson & MEN collective? I know that that you guys changed names fairly recently-- the group was originally called "MEN". I know I read that it had something to do with emphasizing you guys as a collective, but, why exactly did the name change happen?
I think that was a way in the press to say that it was, like, positive, but I'd just like to be honest and say that it was really complicated to Google us. People were having a really hard time finding our music. For example, if somebody knows that JD Samson is in a new band, it's not necessarily easy to figure that out. One time [band member] Michael [O'Neill] went to Guitar Center and they were like ‘what band are you in?' and he said ‘it's called MEN', and they were like, ‘oh, we don't know them', and he was like ‘do you know who JD Samson is?' and they were like ‘oh yeah, we love her new band'. So, it kind of was complicated name-wise. And then the real reason why we finally decided to go through with it, it was always kind of a question, but finally the real reason we went through with it was because there's a band called The Men, and they're getting more and more popular. At first, we were like ‘whatever, it's cool, they're just a little band with a 7-inch and now, they're like huge. When you look for our music on Amazon, their music comes up first. It was just kind of one of those things where we were like-- we don't want the wrong people to come see us and we don't want our fans to get confused. So, it just kind of felt like the right thing to do.
Yeah, that makes total sense.
Yeah, I mean it's sad, but that's how it goes.
Conceptually, behind the group, what would you say are the main-- I know Joanna Fateman is involved-- but how would you say the sound differs from your previous group Le Tigre?
I think the biggest thing is that it's for people. I know that people say that all the time, but the main writers for the band, that are myself and Michael O'Neill-- he's just a really different kind of a writer than Jo[anna] and Kathleen [Hanna]. He actually has a fairly classical-- not in terms of Classical music, but a classical music knowledge that is based in theory and he went to school for music and knows about chord progressions. Le Tigre was like a sample-based project-- we had songs that didn't change chords the whole entire time, you know? It was just a lot less musical, I guess. I mean, in the formal way. Obviously my musical knowledge is limited, it comes from a very DIY place, and that's still there, but I'd say now it's a little bit more advanced structurally in terms of chords.
So, would you say that your relatively new musical interest got you piqued to learn more about formal, technical music theory? Is that where you're headed? Maybe you don't think of it on an individual basis, but where you and this project are?
Well, my main intention in life is to queer everything. When I read a book, I think about the ways in which I could take that knowledge, but then do it in the opposite way or something, just to make a point. There's something interesting about playing music with Michael that sometimes I say ‘where would you normally go from here?' or ‘what's a normal chord you would play now?' and then we kind of do the opposite of what that is. It's important for me to have knowledge about something in order to critique it.
Aside from working with Joanna, I guess she's a ‘consultant'-- that's what it said on your website, so that's why I said it like that--
Yeah, we used that word because it makes her seem like she's at an office.
Yeah [laughs]. So, are you working with Kathleen on anything, or are you guys [from Le Tigre] all working on something else together? Or maintaining some other sort of professional relationship?
We do work on a Le Tigre stuff every once in a while. We did the film [the Who Took the Bomp? tour documentary] that just came out, and we've been working on-- it's like, a process, getting it out on time and having screenings, etc. Even though it came out last year, we're still dealing with that and honestly, most of the stuff that we've been doing is like super business--getting our merch up and getting the video out. Recently, in the past couple of years we actually took distribution back for Le Tigre Records [Le Tigre's record label that they now own], which was like distributed through a company that has gone out of business in the past couple of years. In the meantime, we've been taking over all of that stuff like the business management and running the business ourselves. So, that's been a big part of working together nowadays between the three of us, which is funny. But then we also put out a live EP last month or so.
Cool. And I guess you guys are still friends and hang out socially, I assume?
Totally. Jo and I went to the Whitney Biennial last week. And Kathleen, I was texting with her just the other day. Yeah, we definitely are friends.
Yeah, that's what it's seemed like all along from the beginning of Le Tigre. As far as JD Samson & MEN, I know you guys have more records coming out, and you have a tour, and you just played the May Day protest concert yesterday. Can you tell me more about those things?
Yeah, the Time EP is no longer going to be released. The Next EP came out and we were super stoked on it and we were gonna put out other EPs and not put out a full-length. But, when we saw the reaction to the first EP, we thought it would be smarter for us to put out the full-length instead of all the EPs. Even though it was a really good conceptual idea for us, we thought it'd be cooler to stick all the tracks we had together in a full-length record. Honestly, it's pretty hard to promote an EP and to get people to write about it, and get people interested in it, and just have it out there. So, we've been struggling with-- we've been DIY-- the right way to do things, making sure we're re-vamping the music industry in the smartest way possible. Everything is just about experimenting and failing over and over again right now in the industry. We felt like ‘hey, let's take another stab at this in a different way' and we're hoping to get everything done till we can get it all out in the fall.
Can you explain a little more about the original conception behind releasing a bunch of EPs in a row, one after the other?
The main thing for us was kind of a very small business management situation. Ok, an EP costs like $2.97, and it has three songs on it, and we're working with three different producers on this record. How cool would it be to give each person an EP and don't you think that people would be more into spending $3 than $15? So we thought it would be a really cool idea experiment and it'd make it so that we would be continuing to make music and putting it out over the year instead of just like putting out this large portion at one time. The idea was that each EP had kind of a different personality, but then, they're all so loaded. Like, the first one felt really good, but then the second one was gonna be really poppy and we felt really great about that. But, then we thought, wait, is the timing off on when the poppy one should come out? Just weird stuff like that. So we just started questioning ourselves and we were like ‘this isn't right.' you know?
Ok. Did you want to talk about your tour and the May Day protest?
Yeah, May Day was awesome. We were so excited to be a part of the event yesterday. We were basically set up on a stage that was at the end of the march, so we saw 15,000 people coming by us while we were playing. Unfortunately, the timing was off for us to play our full set, but we played the whole set at sound check for the bikers who were the first to come down. But, it was just a great experience to just be on the stage at Wall Street was really cool and a great opportunity for us to be a part of the Occupy movement, which is something that's been important to us since it started.
You received some criticism for a recent Huffington Post article you wrote about facing housing discrimination as a lesbian. How did you handle the criticism? What was your reaction?
You know, honestly, I try not to read comments that much. The only thing I was getting was complete and utter support and thanks from people in my community and my world. I think a lot of people that I know are freelance, whether that's as artists or any other jobs, and I think that article speaks to people who work freelance in any field, really. I guess I got so much love and support from it that I didn't really notice that there was any other kind of a problem until somebody told me, and I looked at the comments, and it ruined my life [laughs]! And to be honest, I just wrote something, or I just did an interview with The Village Voice, it was about Occupy protests and it says a little bit in there, but I understand the arguments of like ‘you choose to live in Williamsburg [Brooklyn] and you choose to be an artist' and believe me, those are exactly the things that I'm questioning in the piece because it's like, wait, I can't live here anymore, I can't do this anymore, I need to get a job. And that fear-- I feel like I was just trying-- it was a very personal piece about my feelings. I guess if you don't understand how to read something that way, then that's your fault. But, it wasn't for people to analyze, it was like an Op Ed piece, just talking about what I was going through.
Sometimes that can cause a lot of controversy, yeah.
I mean, it was important that the conversation started and that people were having it. I think that was the most important part of it. It's kind of scary to talk about money and being vulnerable and all those things. It's pretty important to start that conversation.
|JD Samson +MEN at OWS May Day March|
|Make Him Pay|