Frequently Asked Questions

 

    Jon answers some of the most commonly asked questions about Pansy Division.


1. Where did the name come from?

In January 1991, before the band had formed, I was sitting at my desk in the San Francisco office of Rough Trade Distribution, trying to think of a name for this queer rock thing I was starting. I looked up at the bulletin board next to the desk and misread the name of an upcoming release by some band called Third Panzer Division. I flashed on Pansy Division by mistake and thought it was good, and it stuck.


2. Is the entire band gay?

Right now it's 3/4 gay (Joel is our hetero member). An all-gay band was our goal at the beginning, but finding the right queer drummer took five years. During that time we had a series of drummers, some queer, some not. Though ideally we like the idea of a 100% queer band, we aren't so dogmatic about it that we let it hinder the music.

3. How did Pansy Division start?

In the beginning it was me by myself: I'd written some songs and was performing them solo under the name Pansy Division. At first I didn't want to form a band, but after a few months realized it was the thing to do, and through an ad in SF Weekly, found Chris Freeman. Shortly after we found Jay Paget (of SF band Thinking Fellers Union Local 282), and the first all gay rock band that any of us had ever known of was formed, at the end of 1991.

By 1990, it seemed like you could do anything in popular music but be gay. It seemed like the last taboo. Then, within a year, seemingly queer songs started popping up in the indie scene (such as The Mekons' "Empire of the Senseless," Billy Bragg's "Sexuality," Lemonheads' suggestive version of "Different Drum," Superchunk's "Train From Kansas City," The Fall's "Van Plague"), but after some sleuthing, discovered they were all straight. The time was so ripe that even enlightened straights were singing "gay" and gay-friendly lyrics, but where were the open queers? There were a few in the uncontested terrain of disco and showtunes, but none doing rock, where you are assumed to be hetero unless stated otherwise. There had been queer rock stars before, but there were always cloaked in an air of ambiguity, and they all later renounced their queer club memberships (David Bowie, Lou Reed, Prince), or never came out (Freddie Mercury, on his deathbed). The only openly gay rockers I was aware of at the time our band started were Patrick Fitzgerald of the UK band Kitchens Of Distinction, Gary Floyd of Sister Double Happiness, and 70s UK rocker Tom Robinson. Many others were suspected, but very few were public.

Frustrated by this, and waiting for the hoped-for queer rock icon to come along, we had decided: if nobody else was going to come out and risk having their career ruined by unwanted disclosures, that disclosure would be the basis for our band. We figured there were X number of people who might be into it, and we'd play for them... and if people couldn't handle it, fuck 'em.


4. Are you a queercore band? What is queercore?

Queercore is a term used to describe a number of openly gay rock and punk bands that seemed to burst out of nowhere in the early 90s. Pansy Division, Tribe 8, Team Dresch, Fifth Column, The Mukilteo Fairies, Glen Meadmore, Cunts With Attitude (CWA), Sister George, and others appeared almost simultaneously, some of whom are documented on the compilation Outpunk Dance Party. What these bands had in common was an in-your-face approach about queer sexuality, and some link to punk rock and its DIY ethos. (And except for Fifth Column in Toronto and Sister George in London, all the bands above were from the U.S. West Coast.) It was more of an approach and attitude than of a particular sound; some of the aforementioned bands sound very little like one another. It's also important to note that this happened shortly after the riot grrrl bands suddenly appeared, and that most of the people involved in queercore bands were women.

At this point, the phrase has outlived its usefulness for our band. On the surface it suggests a raw and rugged sound, whereas our sound is more pop; as a blend of the words queer and hardcore, it never described us very well anyway. Now I'd say we're not a queercore band, and that the moment of queercore is over. The moment of the initial impulse has now passed; of the list above, Glen Meadmore is the only one besides us still active playing music. That said, it's like any movement/trend/idea: just because the founding moment has passed doesn't mean it won't continue to evolve or to influence people, especially among those too young to have had the opportunity to hear this music when it was brand new.


5. You opened a tour for Green Day. How did that go?

It was a great experience. At the beginning of our band we had low expectations; if we'd set out to be commercially successful, we'd have never done what we did! So to find ourselves playing 1000 seat halls was amazing! That was in 1994 on Green Day's summer tour; by fall, after Dookie exploded, we were playing 15,000 seat arenas, and ended the tour at Madison Square Garden! So it was very nice to be asked, and we really admired Green Day's reasons for asking us---to challenge the mainstream MTV audience they had suddenly acquired, and to promote other Lookout bands.

It was great having access to such a large audience, especially one that was so overwhelmingly teenaged (and younger). The response was very mixed---some nights it was more favorable than others, but we had only one outright hostile crowd (at Cobo Hall in Detroit, where ironically we had one of our best nights for T-shirt sales on the tour) out of about 40 shows. At every show you could see people getting into it, often right beside people flipping us off. It was a very polarized atmosphere. But we knew it was raising gay issues with an age group that hadn't directly confronted them yet, and knew our presence meant the subject was raised, which we considered a success. One of the things we learned, too, was that a lot of our allies were girls.


6. Is it dangerous playing gigs? Do you ever have trouble from small-minded bigots and rednecks?

Luckily, no. Having now logged well over 900 gigs, the attack level has been really, really low: less than one show in a hundred. On our first national tour, fearing homophobes lying in wait, Chris called home everyday at the same time to let someone know we were okay. There have been a handful of people wanting to pick fights, but they've been greatly outnumbered. To us, this is proof that the climate for gays is better than at any time before. (When I first conceived of the band in 1987 in Illinois it seemed an impossibility that such a band could exist, much less perform in public.) Also, we're not that huge a band, not a household name, so we're still beneath the radar of certain morons. We're not on mainstream radio and you can't buy our CDs at Wal-Mart.


7. Is it true that Kirk Hammett of Metallica plays on one of your songs?

Yes. Kirk Hammett played on the track "Headbanger," from our 45 EP titled For Those About To Suck Cock, We Salute You. It's also on our More Lovin' From Our Oven CD. I had written the song "Headbanger" and wanted to have an authentic sounding heavy metal guitar solo on it. I knew a friend who could do it, and mentioned it to the band. Our drummer at the time, Dustin, was friends with Kirk, and said he'd ask Kirk to do it--why not get the real thing--and to our surprise, he did it. He came into the studio and was there for, at most, a half hour. He ran through it once, did a second take, and that was it. He asked us to use the pseudonym Al Shatonia instead of his real name, cause he didn't want people to buy it just because he was on it (or have it advertised as such). We agreed to his request, and for months we told the secret only to friends. About 4 months after it came out, there was a news piece in Kerrang! in which it was reported that he'd played on the song (it was still just on 45 at that point). Since then we've answered honestly when asked about it. In another interview in Kerrang! that I read later, he acknowledged it, saying everyone seemed to know about it anyway.


8. How did you get Rob Halford of Judas Priest to sing with you?

Chris and Patrick met him in a gay bar in San Francisco in 1996, about a year before he came out. When they told him who they were, Rob was very enthusiastic to meet them. We had done a cover of the Judas Priest song "Breaking The Law" and he said he'd heard it and loved it. Chris said that if he ever came to see us we'd do the song; Rob volunteered that if he ever came to see us, he'd sing it with us! When we played San Diego the following month, Rob joined us onstage for both a club show and a Gay Pride performance and sang the song with us.


9. Do you think that singing about sex (and casual sex) reinforces negative stereotypes about gays?

No. We live in a society filled with sexual images that is at the same time sex-negative. The USA is very squeamish about sex. But our songs are unapologetic. They describe experiences we've had (or fantasies about what we might want to have). They are meant for gay people to be able to relate to. Not all queers have the same experiences, but we write about ours and people we know and a lot of people relate to them. But we don't spend too much time worrying about whether straight people approve--we'll define ourselves by our own standards, thank you very much.

Our take is that being gay is not deviant or dirty, but rather that sex with someone of your own gender is kind of wholesome and fun. We celebrate that. To me, one of the advantages of being gay is that gays tend to have a more open view of sexuality and relationships. I talked to a sexually active straight guy friend, who is 29, and he told me he's never had a one night stand. Though a lot of gays are relationship oriented, I doubt many gay guys would be able to say that. Over the years we've have had great one night stands; at times we've had boyfriends. Some of us have had both at the same time! Why NOT have both? A more enlightened, less repressed society would be more likely to embrace such an attitude. Basically, we're ethical sluts!

We aren't gay propaganda--we sing about the joys of sex, but also the frustration of loneliness (which is universal, queer or straight), and about our gripes and frustrations with gay culture. We are pro-sex (and vocally pro-safe sex) but I think we give a balanced view. We think that being blunt and upfront about our sexuality is something that makes us unique and interesting. Our reputation is based on more of the sex-oriented songs; we definitely have them but we have other types of songs too.

Also: it's still important to counter the right-wing fundamentalist propaganda that portrays gays and lesbians as immoral by being open and out and relating our stories and experiences.


10. Your earlier records come out on Lookout Records, but your recent albums are on Alternative Tentacles. Why the change?

At the very end of 2001 we realized we were ready to do another album. We told Lookout what we were up to, and laid out a schedule of what we wanted to do in the next year or so. But instead of being enthusiastic and interested in our new project, Lookout stonewalled us, not responding in a timely manner and or in a positive way. Finally, they said they didn't want to do our new record. After a decade of working with them, this was very disappointing. But it's classic record company politics--the person who signed us to the label (Larry Livermore) had left the label in '97, and those there now have less interest in us. Given that Lookout is a shell of its former self, almost defunct, it worked out well for us, but it's sad to see a label that was so good for so long completely blow it.

Alterntative Tentacles had been interested in signing us around the same time we signed with Lookout,
and they were happy to have another shot to have us on their label. We're quite pleased with the way it has turned out.

11. Why did it take you five years to release Total Entertainment?

Our previous album Absurd Pop Song Romance was our least-selling album; we still believe it's one of our best, but it came out at a time when punk & "alternative" stuff fell out of favor, a time when rap metal (the worst music ever!) and manufactured pop (Britney, Backstreet Boys, NSync) dominated the scene. As the pendulum swings (as it always does), there was less attention paid to our kind of music.

So we retrenched and reassessed our situation. We'd done 6 albums in 6 years, and did some soul searching. Had we exhausted our possibilities? We decided that we still had something to say and that although gays were more accepted (in society in general, but also in the music scene) than when we began, there was still room for us to do our thing. It's not like the world is flooded with queer musicians! Also, we began to get emails asking if we'd broken up, begging us not to; realizing that people missed us helped motivate us to get moving again.

After the more serious tone of Absurd Pop Song Romance, we agreed that we wanted to make a more fun album, so Total Entertainment! splits the difference between the earlier, funnier material and the more introspective approach of Absurd.

After
Total Entertainment! came out in late 2003, we released a split single with Vancouver band Skinjobs on the Canadian label Mint Records. As Patrick's hard rock band Dirty Power (whose first CD came out in 2003) took up more of his time, in fall 2004 he left. He was replaced by Bernard Yin, who had subbed for Patrick in the past, but Bernard left to play with Astra Heights (who were signed to a major label that then refused to release their album). Joel Reader (of The Plus Ones, and formerly of the Mr. T Experience) is now our lead guitarist; he plays bass in his other bands, so this is a different role for him. He and Luis also play together as the rhythm section of The Avengers.

12. What’s happened the last few years then?

In January 2006 we released a 30-song compilation
The Essential Pansy Division, a career overview that also included a DVD. Unfortunately, after 15 years together, jobs, school, and living in different cities have made PD less than a full-time pre-occupation. At the time this CD was released, we thought there might not be any more Pansy Division albums.

So it was a bit of a surprise, after a quiet period, that we got moving again in 2008. Our next album (studio album #8) came out in March of 2009.  It was called
That’s So Gay and contained 14 original songs. In April 2007 we did our first recording session in five years, recording four songs that are the beginning of the next album. In January 2008 we did 7 more songs, and in June & July of 2008 we did three more to complete it. The album came out on Alternative Tentacles, as did a 7” single preceding it, including a non-album B-side (our version of a Green Day song).

In October 2007 we did a US tour with The Avengers. We did an East Coast tour on our own in June 2009 and did a West Coast tour w/The Avengers in September 2009.

Chris, who finished film school in 2007, completed a documentary film about the band. The film, titled Pansy Division: My Life In A Gay Rock Band, had its premiere at the London Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in April 2008. It made the rounds of the film festival circuit during 2008. Directed by Michael Carmona, Chris was the film’s editor. The DVD was released in March 2009. The CD, 7”, and DVD were all released by Alternative Tentacles.

A book about my PD experiences, a memoir called Deflowered: My Life In Pansy Division, was published by Cleis Press in March 2009.  A 46-city book tour followed. In 2013 an audiobook version was released through Audible.com.

Since 2009 we’ve gathered once or twice each year to play a few shows, usually on the West Coast, but intend to get back to the East Coast eventually.  Overseas?  Probably not.  (Make us an offer we can’t refuse!)

Though we’ve done demos for future possible recording, at this time we have no plans to record.

  1. 13.What is the current PD situation in 2014?

    We play occasionally if possible.  I live in San Francisco, Chris lives in Los Angeles, Luis lives in Brooklyn, and Joel lives in Boston. Joel & Luis continue to play in The Avengers, so sometimes that makes it easier for all of us to be in the same place.  If we lived closer to each other we’d be more active, but it’s been over 20 years since we started the band, and now it’s a fun sideline for us to indulge in once in a while.

      The band has no plans to tour, but are contemplating recording again at some point in the not too distant future.

14. Have any of the guys in PD ever had sex with each other?

No! It's not a Fleetwood Mac situation, thank heavens.