All photography by Ellen Pearson
When Denim performed at Glastonbury’s NYC Downlow last June, the atmosphere was one of wall-to-wall euphoria. Among the crowd were lads clutching pints, dreadlocked Glastonbury stalwarts, and an LGBTQ community who, from my pissed-up chats in the smoking area, seemed to come from all over the UK. It was an eclectic but rapt audience for Denim, a troupe of drag queens from London there to perform the campest rendition of Florence + The Machine’s “Spectrum” imaginable, flanked – no less – by Florence Welch herself.
I had met Denim’s frontwoman, Glamrou, before. In the past, we had talked at length about the politics of drag, Denim’s queering of pop culture, and what “camp” means today. It wasn’t until Glastonbury, however, that I had seen Amrou actually enacting all of these things, strutting onto the stage and working the club’s catwalk like he was delivered to this earth to lip sync in a rainbow dress and six-inch heels. The same can be said for bandmates Shirley Du Naughty, Aphrodite Greene, “Russian Heiress” Crystal Vaginova and the angsty Electra Cute – who, together, whipped the crowd into a gay frenzy.
Although it was a sight to behold for everyone else, this was a normal scene for Denim; they’ve been killing it on the drag circuit for almost five years, performing everywhere from fashion photographer Mario Testino’s 60th birthday party in front of Kate Moss, to grassroots fundraising events like their forthcoming shows with HIV charity Positive East. Now, however, they are taking on the mainstream, too. Like garish pop debutants, they’re announcing their presence as London’s newest (and most fabulous) girl band with the release of an official single and slick new video. We're premiering the track, eponymously titled “Denim”, below.
Why “Denim”? Well, denim is the universal fabric that unites us, points out Glamrou – and just like the fabric, the band’s sound aims to offer something for everyone, with French house music influences sitting alongside 80s pop beats, and lyrics that echo all the cheesy hallmarks of 90s bands like the Spice Girls, Peter Andre and Aqua. “It’s about five misfits who are stronger as one,” says Glamrou of the single, “A message of coming together through celebrating difference, while never taking anything too seriously."
Silliness and camp theatricality aside, underneath all the glitter and make up, Denim do have an important message. A bit like American drag super group DMV, Denim use parody to dismantle some of the more prevalent stereotypes we’re peddled by pop; especially those concerning femininity, fame and, well, fortune, I guess. Their look is deliberately ‘unpolished’ for this exact reason; they couldn't poke fun at the high production values and false-finesse of the pop music industry if they blended in too smoothly, after all.
To find out more about how Denim formed, what their intentions are, and how they plan world domination as a girl band, I caught up with Glamrou – real name Amrou Al-Kadhi – and threw some questions his way. Read on for Amrou’s thoughts on where the the line between parody and sincerity sits.
Noisey: Hey Amrou. Do you want to start by telling us about the genesis of Denim. How did you form?
Glamrou: We all met in our second year at university in Cambridge. There weren’t any queer nights there, just weekly LGBT nights, which were mostly male. It wasn’t very exciting. I was really worried that there wasn’t a queer night defined outside of just your sexuality and open to the wider student body, so Denim became a club night where everyone could swap or deconstruct their gender. The first night 400 students came, which showed the thirst for that kind of thing. I invited my friends to come on stage and sing with me and we evolved into a girl band. It was about queering pop culture no matter what you were.
Why are mainstream pop bands such a strong influence on what you do?
The mainstream girl band model is one anyone can enjoy, regardless of their sexuality. Denim are definitely interested in 90s nostalgia in particular. Our video references Aqua and Peter Andre – we’ve even got a waterfall scene. What I think is so interesting about 90s pop is that it isn’t as fixated on being cool as today’s is. The Spice Girls celebrated individual character; they couldn’t dance or sing but they still went for it. In contemporary pop culture, apathy is way more fashionable these days. The throwback to 90s girl bands is, for us, celebrating being lame or uncool, which is really the joy of pop music.
Would it be fair to say there was a camp element to those 90s’ bands you mention, a sort of knowingness or theatricality?
What I think is so interesting about 90s pop is that the stage was an actual stage. Pop was still seen as separate to real life so it was embedded with an inherent theatricality. Now, post-reality TV and the Internet, the barrier between real life and pop culture is blurred. You don’t have that sense of theatricality anymore. With artists like Rita Ora or Ellie Goulding, there’s no self-reflection in what they’re producing. It’s too literally put out there. They’re using the stage as a platform insofar as they are on stage. I watch it and I think, "That’s happening, but it’s not a cultural moment."
They say 'camp is in the eye of the beholder’. Do you kind of have to be in the know to understand a parody when you see it? Does one have to "get" Denim? Or does it work whether you "get" it or not?
I do agree with that, but I also think parody works well whether you’re understanding it or not. Both are significant forms of experience. That’s why artists like Lana Del Rey are really interesting. To me, she is drag, she is theatricality, she is performing this Lolita image of femininity. But whether you are listening to the lyrics as they are or you are interpreting her as deconstructing a certain type of femininity, it’s still the same image you are being confronted with. Both are equally successful, in a way.
I think Lana Del Rey is on the line – and that is what’s interesting. When do you shift into being the thing you are critiquing? Take Lorde, who was this rebellious teenager saying screw you to pop culture while working within pop culture. And then, two minutes later she was best friends with Taylor Swift … presenting Taylor Swift with an award and singing, “Shake It Off”. I thought, “Wow, Lorde, being an outsider on the inside lasted all of a day.”
On the topic of treading a fine line – what would you say to someone who says drag isn't feminist?
It’s a valid argument to have. I think drag queens have a responsibility not to imitate being a woman. In New York, particularly, there are a lot of drag queens who enact the whole, “‘I can look this good and I’d like to know what it feels like to look this good’ thing, who want to be a Victoria’s Secret superstar, and they don’t even perform! I think that’s an issue. We don’t want the Denims to look like realistic girls because that’s problematic; we imitate hyper femininity in order to critique it. Drag should always reference its own artificiality so that it can have a relationship with feminism. Then they can help each other.
And finally, tell me about the video for “Denim”. Where did the idea come from?
When we knew we wanted to make the video I approached Matthew Hammett Knott. He’s a director who tends to queers mainstream structures and genres, so he was the perfect guy to go to. He pushed the 90s throwback, the green screen, the nostalgia, the lameness, the Disney aesthetic. The Denims are all around the world and get a distress call, so they get in a pink cab, pick each other up, and beat up all the baddies – a bit like Gaga’s “Telephone” video where she was referencing Tarantino. Our ethos definitely isn’t, ‘we’re so transgressive, society doesn’t accept us’. We wanted to go mainstream like High School Musical, but with a queer narrative, featuring five drag queens.
And the experience – presumably it was mayhem on set?
It was actually incredibly moving! Crews tend to be so straight and male, but we had a gay female producer, a queer director, a drag queen cast and the entire set was run by a brilliant female first AD, which again usually tends to be male. Even just having 60 to 70 people collaborating, with everyone giving input, was a really queer experience. To be able to use those budgets and cameras to make something drag and queer was so unusual too. It was emotional. I cried when I got home.
Well it paid off! Thanks Amrou.
You can find Amelia on Twitter: @MillyAbraham
Denim have an upcoming run of performances at Vault Festival in London. Tickets and details can be found here. They’ll also be raising money for HIV charity Positive East at this event. You can buy their debut single here, and find them on Facebook here.