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Bay Area Vets Flesh World Talk Queer Punk Survival in San Francisco

Mysterious gay hardcore, anyone?

Photo courtesy of Melissa Farley.

In the fall of 2012, seminal queercore guitarist Scott Moore and Jess Scott of the Bay Area noise pop band Brilliant Colors formed Flesh World and started making dark, noisy punk together. Flesh World might not scream about gay identity like Limp Wrist, but, between songs like “Poolside Boys” and the beautiful men they choose for their album art, you'd have to be pretty dense not to get where they're coming from. Jess does the vocals, plays guitar, and shares songwriting duties with Scott, who plays guitar in this band as well. Both members are repositories of an art college library's worth of queer film, art, music, and literary references and these lace Flesh World’s music in a tangle of tributes. Mysterious gay hardcore, anyone?

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The San Francisco-based pair’s arrestingly beautiful debut full-length, The Wild Animals in My Life, mimics San Francisco's cold mists and bitter drizzle (as well as its sunny patches) with chilly synths and dirty guitars. Flesh World's releases are marked by a certain urgent freshness, which might be because their recording sessions have been crammed in around Jess's restless bi-coastal peregrinations. The first 12-inch record came out while Jess was in New York, shortly before she decamped to Los Angeles. Ultimately, something about the sound she and Scott create, with Brilliant Colors drummer Diane Anastasio and bassist Andrew Luttrell, drew her back to rarely-sunny San Francisco and the Bay Area native returned home to finish recording the LP. At the moment, they’re all still hanging in there despite rising rents.

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Noisey got Jess and Scott on the phone to dissect their gloomily alluring sound and discuss some of their inspirations from the canon of queer weirdo geniuses—a family tree that connects habitually incarcerated novelist Jean Genet to '60s San Francisco performance groups like The Cockettes.

Noisey: Flesh World is very different from both of your other bands. What kind of music did you want to make when you started playing together?
Jess Scott: It was more like we had these songs that we knew wouldn't really fit in the bands we were currently doing and we just brought them together. I think we both wanted a little bit more of each others direction. We have really eclectic taste in music and art and stuff but for some reason or another the stuff we were making was actually sounding really cohesive. We kinda just lucked out. I'll have something that honestly I know is too pop but I know that I don't have to wrestle with it because I know that I can just bring it to Scott and he'll make it exactly the right thing.

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I find the album quite emotional. What kind of a head space is the album coming from?
Jess: As far as the lyrics go, it's pretty dark, to be honest. It's pretty depressing. The title is lifted from a National Geographic article, literally about a zoo keeper. It's just lifted from this really literal, feel good article about this guy with orangutangs all over him and stuff. Only in a pretty dark head space are you reading that and thinking, “Yeah, I've got some fucking animals in my life.”

A lot of the lyrics are very personal vignettes from your own life, Jess. Apart from the magazine article, what was the inspiration for the song Wild Animals in My Life?
Jess: The lyrics are pretty personal. It was inspired by different romantic and social watershed moments, of alienation. Me and Scott have kind of gone through parallel things in our personal lives, romantically and stuff and I think it sort of spoke to those personal microscopic things but also had this macroscopic application where it's about taking a look at what people sort of do to each other completely unintentionally. [Laughs] You know, some people are just animals.

Is “Poolside Boys” a particular homage to something or is it also more personal?
Jess: Yeah. I had just gone to a big David Hockney exhibition at the De Young up here, which I think has traveled around the world. That was by far the most amazing exhibition I'd ever been to. I was literally seeing colors outside of it afterward.

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Do you feel there is a particular queer aesthetic on this album? If so, in what way?
Jess: There obviously is, but it's just a lot more interesting to describe something through the artists or the writers that you admire and want to draw from in different ways than saying you're something or saying this band is something. Like, some people ask and some people don't which is kind of what we wanted. I mean, obviously an intelligent person can probably figure out what we're doing in our bedrooms. I don't have much to offer somebody if that's their only question, but if they want to talk about books by people in that culture or paintings—that to me is just a lot more meaningful.

Aside from David Hockney, what are some of the album's non-musical inspirations?
Jess: Filmmakers like Bruce LaBruce and Kenneth Anger.

Scott: Jean Genet. I feel like what we're doing has been sort of unspoken between Jess and I, just sort of like this kind of aesthetic that just sort of popped up. We're both interested in the history of a lot of queer artists and writers and musicians and then you kind of start reading and researching history and you kind of see how much people are connected. I think us being influenced and using some of that imagery is an homage to those people, but it's also our way of connecting ourselves with that history and what that means to us.

Do you feel that there is a separate queer tradition within punk, beyond queercore or even riot grrrl?
Scott: Well, yeah, especially if you look at the inception of punk. In the beginning, the crossover was huge. People like Tomata du Plenty from the Screamers, who was doing performance art stuff before the Screamers. You know, there's a tradition here in San Francisco with the Angels of Light, who were an offshoot of The Cockettes. There's bands like The Wasp Women, No Mercy. A lot of early punks were queer and also doing performance art. I think that history is really rich. Unfortunately, a lot of those creative people passed away.

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Jess: And, for sure, I used to live with this old hardcore gnarler and he used to tell me about how they could only have punk shows somewhere in Ohio at gay clubs because gay clubs just didn't care what the fuck went down. And all the punks knew to go there because it would be some weird name like The Strawberry Drill Press. They would have the same sort of codes and the same sort of coded language. They would name their bar The Strawberry Drill Press, which is an example my roommate gave me, just so you would be like, “What the fuck is that? Weird people must go there.” They're totally parallel.

Screen shot from the 2002 documentary "The Cockettes."

On a related note, do you feel like there are queer figures from the pre-punk era who would have been into the scene if they had been around in time?
Jess: I mean, fuck yeah. Jean Genet, for sure. He just wanted to steal shit and fuck, you know?

How are rising rents in San Francisco affecting the music scene and your lives as musicians?
Jess: It's definitely crazy, but Scott and I have both found a way to survive here. There are different parts of our identities that kind of feel like they're on the verge of becoming extinct all the time. So, this isn't a new feeling for me.

Scott: It's hard because you see your friends leave and you see people get evicted. The flip side to that is there's this narrative that there's nobody here anymore and nothing is going on. Really, it's what you want to make for yourself. Like, last night I did this club and so many people reacted to it and were so happy that there was something going on. It was a room full of over a hundred people here and they were all freaky punks and freaky fags that want to hang out in the same room together. If you want to be surrounded by interesting people or interesting things, it's not just there for you. You have to make it yourself.

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So, what was this club night?
Scott: It's called Stuffed Queens. It's at this place called El Rio which is in the outer Mission. It is a music night but we try not to have more than two bands play and we kind of try to space it out so there's also drag performers, and people stapling money to their face, and DJs in between. It's less like a conventional band, band, band show and more like trying to get people to hang out and interact with each other and dance.

I assume there was only one person who stapled money to their face?
Scott: Phatima Rude is her name and she stapled money to her body with a staple gun on stage while Suicidal Tendencies's “Institutionalized” was playing. Jess: I was like, “Why is this queen not opening for our record release?”

Scott, Limp Wrist went on tour not long ago and has never really stopped playing since you formed in the late 1990s. What is it like to play a Limp Wrist show now versus in the earlier days of the band? What are the kids who come out to see you like now?
Scott: It blows my mind every time we play because I'm just like “oh my god, what are you doing here?” It trips me out that there's still people who haven't seen it and there's still younger kids getting into it. And it's great. As much as we talk about not being so vocal or obvious about our queerness in Flesh World, I do think that still has its place. It's really great to play these shows and have all these new kids show up. I grew up in this tiny rural town in Pennsylvania and, you know, I had some kid come up to me once and say “I live in a tiny town in Virginia and I'm the only punk kid in my town and I'm gay and your band means a lot to me.” And I think that is the most gratifying thing that anybody could ever say to you.

People often talk about queercore as something that happened in previous decades, but I look around and I see a lot of subversive queer punk activity going on around me. Like, there's this group here in New York called Brooklyn TransCore putting on shows. Do you feel like the queercore scene is something that's still necessary as a movement and a community?
Scott: It's not up to me to tell people whether what they're doing is important or not. I would get tripped out with Limp Wrist sometimes when I would hear people reacting negatively to it or being like “I don't know why they have to sing about that stuff. Nobody cares if they're gay,” but I just got to this place where I was like “You know, this isn't for you.” Not everything has to be for everybody, but it is for somebody, and that somebody could just be the person who is making that music or that art.

Beverly Bryan is a music writer based in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.