THE POLITICS OF JD SAMSON
The 1990s will go down in history as the decade in which the take-no-prisoners attitude of the 1970s punk era came full circle. A whole new wave of rebellious performers emerged from the underground, and took notes from their heroes to create another sort of revolution, in ways that Johnny Rotten or the late Sid Vicious could have never pictured. Female artists took a stand by incorporating cultural approaches and social activism as main ingredients in their sonic manifesto. It was around this time that a trio of riot girls known as Le Tigre boiled up the music scene with their take on electroclash dance beats with personal messages very close to feminism and LGBT issues. Along with Kathleen Hanna’s potent vocal performance and Johana Fateman’s rave musicianship, there was another artist dying to express herself, daring to question the gender identifications of our society. Though she’s now very much involved with her own musical project MEN, JD Samson is still a part of Le Tigre. She also embodies the ideology and aesthetics of “nerdy cool.” The WILD sat down with Samson after a fun-filled photo shoot.
You came out early in your life, at the age of 15. Did you always feel you were different from the rest?
I think so. There were times in my life where I felt like I was uncomfortable in my body or that I was deprived in some way, but I never figured it out until I learned the capacity of human desire. And in many different ways, I was feeling helplessly obsessed with girls. More than anything, I think I was my biggest bully and was pretty hard on myself when I was coming out. That would be the hardest part of my process, for sure.
Have you come to terms with those issues?
Yeah. I think everyone is their biggest bully, or some people might have extreme confidence. You’re always your harshest critic when you’re an artist. I feel like no matter about my sexuality, my expressions or wretches about my new work or whatever, I’m my biggest critic and that’s pretty much true. But I think I kind of let go of feeling worried about the way I am in my body, and my identity politics really find comfort in who I am. It all feels easy right now.
What did feminism mean to you then and now?
I think then I thought feminism was like being pro-choice and wanting to give women full rights, and to some extent I still agree with that. But now my feminism has become, and I know this sounds creepy for better or worse, part of my job to break down gender and sex barriers.
In regards to feminism, do you think there are challenges left?
Basically there’s still a lot to be done, because the fact that five men speak up at a birth control panel and no women are asked about their own body politics is insane. To me, it should have been an all-women panel sitting there. It’s been actually a bad few months for feminism, I would say, but what it has done is create more of a community to fight against that backlash. Yet there’s always this “one step forward, five steps back” mentality, which was a Le Tigre song lyric – one second you’re feeling like feminism is contagious and everyone’s on board, and the next minute you’re looking at five men speaking for women.
Who are your personal heroines and why?
Right now I’m really into Sinead O’Connor. There was a New York Times article about her giving too much of herself to the Internet and all over, how that’s a real struggle for her emotionally, for people to make so many judgments about her. When you are so honest and give so much of yourself and feel so much about political issues and feel oppressed for whatever reason, when you take on so much into your being and display that publicly, it’s really complicated. I also think Yoko Ono would be one of my heroines because she’s a conceptual artist who has never done anything other than make her dreams come true. She is very little affected by what people say about her. I find that to be really awesome and strong.
What are your thoughts on people calling you a “hero” or an “icon of nerdy cool”?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s me getting in the right place at the right time to be called that or something – before it was me being queer and not on a normal gender binary and keeping that public at a time when it wasn’t effective. I guess I had the opportunity to take it on or not, and I took it on because I felt like it could be genius afterwards. I was noticing that it was helping people, that my base and my body being in the world was helping other kids who didn’t feel like their normal gender or whatever, to be themselves and not be afraid of it.
How did music come into your life? Was this interest present early on?
Actually when I was a kid, my parents didn’t even have a record player. I don’t remember ever listening to music. I spent more time drawing and making crafts or whatever. I think that’s why I kind of latch on to creating visual arts with my music all the time. For better or worse, I always have to have my hands making something visual at the same time. I guess music kind of happened to me when I started listening to pop on my clock radio and got really into it, buying tapes and then CDs. In high school, I found myself getting into more cultural and queer music. And then I went to college and I started putting on shows and met a bunch of bands through the art community, bands that were making visual arts. That’s how I met Le Tigre and was turned onto being in the band.
They were pretty established by the time you recorded “Feminist Sweepstakes” with them. How did you girls get together in the first place?
I had a friend named Kate Herney who I met going to shows in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I think there was a Halloween party or something at a warehouse in Dumbo, where a friend of Kate’s was DJing and I went with Kate. We met up with Johanna (Fateman), Kathleen (Hanna) and Sadie (Benning), who used to be in Le Tigre. They were looking for someone to go on tour with them to do their visuals and they asked me to do that. I went on a two-week tour with them and they were like, “We think you should be in the band.” I remember that I wasn’t really asked to be in the band and I also didn’t ever make the decision to be in the band. It was weird, all of a sudden I was just with them. Sometimes I wonder if that’s just how my life is – ending up in places and going along with it.
Right after joining Le Tigre, you began to include your personal thoughts into records with songs like “New Kicks” and “Viz,” setting a positive firestorm on the LGBT community. Why did you think it was so important to get those ideas out for the world to hear?
It was pretty natural for me to write about things that were political and were bringing people together. I think that was just the nature of the band. Kathleen and Jo are also very political, they want to write smart things, they want to write things nobody has written about and they start to speak to a certain group of people. I definitely felt really in tune with it.
You also took part in several photography projects like “JD’s Lesbian Calendar” and “JD’s Lesbian Utopia.” What was the intention behind all of these side projects?
The idea for the first calendar, “JD’s Lesbian Calendar,” came about on tour one time. Kathleen and I were joking around and we were taking calendar pictures and I was like, “I want to do a calendar.” We spent five days trying to put together butch lesbian occupations and the whole concept was really to use a very commercial medium to get across the idea of butch lesbian visibility. I thought it was really cool to have that character up on the wall all year when actually, the whole intention of butch lesbians for myself is to kind of be invisible. It was kind of this moment of visibility.
Le Tigre took some time off and then you assembled MEN, which is more a collective of artists rather than a personal effort. How would you describe MEN?
MEN has gone through a lot of changes. It started out as a collective, trying to work with different artists and musicians. But as time went on, it kind of turned more into a music project by playing at Coachella, touring all the time and putting out records, stuff like that. We’ve changed a lot of different members and some have stopped coming on tour but I think that’s something that I really love about the whole thing - the project has adapted itself in any situation. It’s been really interesting to create a different performance every time we play somewhere because it makes people come back to see how we’re growing, shifting or even how we’re weakening. I really like the idea that we’re not always the same band onstage.
How did the volatile politics and the economic turmoil become a part of the songwriting for MEN’s “Talk About Body” album?
We really tried to talk about what’s going on, whether within ourselves or in our love lives or what’s happening with the rest of the world. I think it’s just emotional and honest work. We wrote the record around 2007-2008, which was the beginning of the recession in the States. You can tell because every song has something to do with losing money - love and money, power and money, money changing the shape of economy, money and war, freedom and money.
You’ve been very outspoken on how the crisis has affected you personally, to the point of exposing your situation in the Huffington Post. Is that situation still going on or has it changed since then?
The truth is that I will never be rich. I’ll never be wealthy. At some point, I might have money and live comfortably, but I definitely live month to month. I never have any savings. It’s always been like that, to be honest, and I don’t think it’s going change. It can only get worse, knowing that the music industry is taking a nosedive. Hopefully I’ll have a hit record and I’ll be able to have savings and buy a house or whatever. About that article, it wasn’t written to sound like a complaint. It was more about being realistic, and I think some people wanted to be mean or angry about it. But I think if you read it from a sentimental point of view, you would understand that I was trying to explain that everyone is having a hard time. It’s not just me, it’s everyone.
Has the “Occupy Wall Street” movement fulfilled your expectations or is there a long road ahead?
I do think there’s a long road ahead. I have a lot of hope for the “Occupy” movement. I’m so in it. We were aware of what was happening and went to all these different movements in other states, hung out with people and talked with them. It felt great to be around so many people fighting for the change, but I just felt like there was such confusion in the way that it was run, and it was sort of withering out. I know it’s still going on, and I feel so thankful for the people who are doing it, but I have to say there was a point where I looked around and thought it was not what I wanted it to be. I stopped going and a lot of people did, although I do feel some sort of sadness or guilt about that.
With all these creative and personal endeavors you’ve been taking on, do you think Le Tigre will ever get back together?
We always say we are on a hiatus because we don’t want to say we broke up. We think that’s very dramatic and we don’t want to put out a press release like, “We broke up.” People move on and do new things. I guess that if it came down to it and someone asks us to play an event that we really want to be part of, we might think about doing it in some form. Also, if we got asked to curate a show, I think we would probably do it. Le Tigre existed in lot of different ways other than just music - as political activists and as artists.
What would you like to leave to future generations?
I’d like to leave a quality on all levels and kindness, honesty, sincerity. I hope these things continue because it seems that with this new technology, teenagers are lacking that. Also, there is something about doing things with your hands that’s very rewarding and beautiful. Whether it’s music or visual arts, I’d love for people to continue using their hands like I did.
What is your WILD Wish?
I want to have more confidence, that would be my answer. I want to wake up tomorrow morning and feel confident.
Photographer : Aingeru Zorita
Stylist : Guillaume Boulez
Hair stylist and Make Up artist : Bethany Brill
Retouching : Kate Bryant
Photographer’s assistant : Amy Buckley
Stylist’s assistant : Nakima Benjamin
Special thanks to Against Nature Atelier.
JD wears all clothing by DOYLE MUESER,
available at “Against Nature Atelier”
and “Doyle Mueser Bespoke”