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JD Samson's Life After MEN

JD Samson's queer art and music collective MEN has decided to call it quits, so we spoke to the queer icon about what's next.

by John Norris
Jan 10 2015, 5:57pm

As a member of the queer art and music collective MEN, JD Samson continued the work she started with Le Tigre, infusing punk dance music with observations on gender issues. Samson recently decided to call it quits with MEN, but that obviously won't stop her work as a queer musician and activist. At a recent performance during Indianapolis's Winter Pride Show, she and her band wore shirts reading "Shut It Down," "I Can't Breathe," and "Hands Up Don't Shoot."

The protests were still very much on Samson's mind when we recently met for coffee in Brooklyn—but so were other matters, like her recent collaboration with Pussy Riot's Masha Alyokhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova and Atlas Chair, the indie label Samson runs with her friend Inge Colsen. (The label's roster features the duo Baby Alpaca, AVAN LAVA, and the gay electro-punk trio bottoms.) Samson also dropped some news that hadn't been widely known: She recently got engaged to Ariel Sims, via a surprisingly traditional proposal.

VICE: What happened with MEN?
JD Samson: MEN doesn't exist anymore. I haven't really wanted to talk about it in the press, because I don't want it to be like a press moment or something, but the reality is that that project kind of started in 2007 as a collective with five people, of which only two of us were in it at the end.

You and Michael O'Neill?
Yeah, and the whole meaning of it really changed for me. In the beginning it was really like an art project, and I wasn't really that interested in making pop music—I wanted to make weird, experimental, political, queer art. It kind of took a turn in a different direction somewhere along the line, and I ended up being stuck in this place that didn't feel like where I wanted to be. So after the last record—which we released ourselves and was a complicated record to make—it was all kind of frustrating for me. After that record, we toured it, and I was kind of like, "I think we should stop doing this." There was a day where it just came out of my mouth, and I was like, "My God, yes."

In terms of income these days then, is DJing your main gig?
It's kind of split into four things I would say: DJ'ing, promoting parties, writing songs, producing and doing remixes, and playing live. I play live as JD Samson now, kind of a combination of MEN and we've done some Le Tigre covers and newer stuff too.

How did you and Johanna Fateman end up also working on new music with Pussy Riot?
I met them through this event I did at the Ace Hotel that was a few years ago before they got sentenced, which was to kind of like "bring attention to Pussy Riot." Then strangely I became this weird point person for them in the States. Back in the summer they had to write a song for something, which I can't mention, and I asked if I could invite Johanna to work on it as well. They were like, "Sure," and Johanna and I wrote them a song. So then after we wrote that song for this particular thing, they were like, "We wanna make more music!" They were here for the VICE 20th Anniversary party, and they were basically every day working with different artists. One of those days was with me and Johanna.

Besides making music with Pussy Riot, you've also been participating in the protests in New York. What's the difference between the Black Lives Matter protests and Occupy Wall Street?
I wouldn't say [the protests against the NYPD are] necessarily more diverse racially but it's super diverse just by virtue of the fact of what it's about. Occupy was criticized a lot just in terms of who was leading it, and I think this is race, this is class, this is a million other things, whereas Occupy was kind of just class.

Is it true you recently got engaged in the middle of all this?
I did. It was very traditional; it was in our house. I had made her this drawing in the beginning of our relationship that was kind of this conceptual drawing of me hugging her —it's kind of like concentric circles, it's a weird drawing—and I had a ring made that looked like it. Once it was made, I asked her.

Did you get down on one knee?
Yeah, I did, and I was wearing a tux! She walked in, and I was wearing a tux, and there was like roses and stuff. She was like, "What are you doing?" and it was kind of like, "Is this happening?"

You've also been working on your label with Inge Colsen, Atlas Chair, for a couple years now, right?
Yeah, I forgot about that as one of my jobs! You know Inge started this label with the idea of having bands use us for PR and label management, and kind of release an introductory EP, as a way to incubate artists that didn't yet have an image or a fan base. The first thing we put out was Baby Alpaca—[Chris Kittrell] did an EP that came out last year—then we did the Aikiu, which is a friend of mine from France, and Sony France has that record but they didn't want to release it in the States, so they licensed it to us to just do an EP. And then we did a Baby Alpaca remix record, and now we're doing bottoms. This bottoms record has been super awesome to be a part of. I think they're really a face of a new generation of punk dance music that's political.

Philosophically, they're very similar to Le Tigre.
There's something about being at a punk show where you're surrounded by your community and you're angry but your body is allowed to move and be somewhat aggressive while still being celebratory or something. Bottoms to me totally inhabits all of those things for me. I remember being at some of the first Gossip shows and feeling the same way, like screaming and being around your family and being angry and happy at the same time. Sharing a discontent is something that feels incredibly ecstatic.

On the subject of Le Tigre. I feel like we are in an era of "never say never" when it comes to reunions. Obviously Kathleen Hanna's got her own thing going now with the Julie Ruin, but does a reunion ever cross your mind?
I just don't think it's gonna happen, even though we all are friends, totally on good terms. I'm seeing Kathleen on Saturday, I see Jo like every day—like, a lot. We are all close. We love each other a lot, we will always be there for each other and will probably work together on something, but I just don't think a Le Tigre thing will happen. Part of that actually is logistical, which has to do with how we used to play our music. It was completely sample-based and super complicated—and it doesn't exist anymore. It's kind of weird. Our keyboards were like, "this sample here, this sample here, this sample here." I don't even know how we would get that. We would have to re-learn everything. It wouldn't be as easy as just picking up a guitar and playing a song.

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