INTERVIEW: Pansy Division
By: Alex Steininger
Photos by: Chrystaei
Well known for being homosexual pop-punk'ers, Pansy Division let you know who they are and what they believe right up front. But looking beyond that, you'll see they're another four-piece creating humorous pop-punk that makes you want to bop and sing-along.
On their new album, ABSURD POP SONG ROMANCE (Lookout Records), they take everything one step further and adopt a more universal theme, more so than in the past. Love becomes the topic of interest, while their trademark lyrics revolving around homosexuality still creep up from time to time.
Hitting Portland while on tour with Rancid and Hepcat, I got a chance to talk to Chris (bass/vocals) and Luis (drums) about everything from why they haven't scored a hit already, to their more universal appeal on the name album.
Alex: Let's start off with an easy, must ask question. What are your musical influences?
Chris: I'd say the Beatles, because my sisters were all like six and eight years older than me, and they were total Beatles fanatics. So, all my early childhood memories have the Beatles in them. I remember being six years old and my sister waking me up to tell me they were going to play the new Beatles songs, like "Eleanor Rigby." So, it's pretty much Beatles for me. Then at age fourteen, which is when I think kids start to figure out their own musical tastes, I started to listen to Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Glam rock. Then, three years later the Ramones came out. So, I bought ROCKET TO RUSSIA. But, I consider myself a fan of music. I don't like any one type of music, I like a variety of music. And that always bugged me about kids in high school. You had to like these certain bands and none of the others, but I was like, "Why can't I listen to The Carpenters?" I like the Carpenters, so why can't I listen to them?
Luis: It's because you're a fag! (laughter). It's funny, I change my mind every week about what I like. I listen to a lot of different stuff. But, things that come into play a lot, as far as this band is concerned, are Motown beats and pop elements. Each member has their own musical tastes, and we go through the "no, your tastes suck" routine a lot, but the Motown beats and pop elements are what we share. We were all born and raised on pop music and punk rock, so we all come from the same elements, I guess. When it comes together, more than any other element, we are all just fans of music that is fun and makes you want to have fun regardless of what it is. Good time music is what it's all about for us. Music that makes you want to shake your ass and have a fun time. Our main influence is feeling.
Alex: What are your band goals for 1999?
Luis: To make it through the next tour. (laughter)
Chris: We're hopefully going to do a tour of Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Japan. That will probably last about a month, and then we'll do another U.S. tour that will last about two months. Then, between those tours, we'll start writing songs for the next record. Maybe by September or October we'll start recording for the next record. So, it's basically another transitional year. We'll probably put out something in March of 2000, or something like that. I'm not really sure.
Luis: I think another goal of the band is -- and it really doesn't translate into making money and record sales, which would be nice for everyone, but -- more so the attitude that we want more people to give the band a chance that have written us off in the past. "Oh, they're a bunch of fags," or, "they're just another pop-punk band and we don't care," we just want people to give us a chance. Maybe, "Pansy Division, I think I'll give them a chance," or something like that. I think anything that isn't easy to define -- anything you can't quickly slap a label on -- people are so quick to write it off.
Alex: Do you feel some people are too quick to write off Pansy Division because of your lifestyle choices?
Luis: Not necessarily. People that would write us off because we're a gay band, I don't really care if they like us or not. There is a certain mentality, if people are going to be like that, then I don't really care if they listen to us or not. It's not like I'm begging them to listen to are band or anything like that. It's more of a thing where I think people have written off the band as one big joke. When the band started out...A lot of the best ways to get across your message is with humor, so John was writing all these funny, fun, in-your-face, unapologetic, raunchy songs and it was fun. But after five albums of that material, you want to branch off and expand. And once people have heard you, they're so quick to write you off. They can classify you now, so they can stop listening. Like Weird Al, gay Weird Al or whatever. I don't think people write us off because we're gay. Of course, not everyone writes us off. There are a lot of people who like us. But, if you were to play our first album and our new album back-to-back, you wouldn't even think it was the same band. Maybe a lot of people will not like that, and maybe some will. So, that's what we are attempting now. Some people may want social-political lyrics, and some might be happy that it's a bunch of pop songs. Who knows?
Chris: It's difficult to be in our position, because we're not on a major label that can throw a bunch of money our way and get us played on the radio. One of the things we wanted to do when we started the band was live in the world with a gay rock band. And now we've done that. So now, at this point, we've accomplished every goal we set out for. We've been together for seven years, put out six albums, and we've gotten that far. What's our next goal? Well, we've already accomplished everything else, so for our next goal we'd like to live in a world where a gay rock band can have a number one hit. It's not because we want to be rock stars, it's because that is the kind of world I want to live in. We've had a gay sitcom, we've had gay characters in movies, so lets go as far as we can with it. But we're not willing to cater to, and do, all the things that might be necessary to get the radio play we want. We want to keep our integrity.
Luis: I think the important thing is the ideology of being in a gay band, and not just being in a band and taking our pop songs on the road and playing them every night. It is a lot more important to us because there are feelings and there are agendas behind this band. Let's push it as far as we can. We've gone a lot farther than anyone would have ever guessed. When John started writing the songs, he just wanted to have us play them in front of a few friends in a few bars in San Francisco. "Maybe a few people will laugh and we'll have fun," was what he said. Then, all of a sudden, it kept getting bigger. Lookout wanted to put out our record, and Green Day wanted to take us out on tour with them. Everywhere from Missouri to New York was coming out to see us. Now, it's like, what do we do now? It's an ideological thing. Let's keep pushing it as much as possible, and shove it around. The media accepts gay characters a bit more now. As was stated earlier, we have gay characters and everything, but if you take a look the gay character is always clean cut and perfect. "My Best Friend's Wedding" made me puke. Everyone in the media is trying to get gays accepted by the general public as normal people, so they try to do this by making gays clean-cut, perfect people. And we just want to play rock 'n roll. Not everyone is the same. The more you put gays out in the media, and the more they are the same, the more everyone will try to stereotype it. Let's just play rock 'n roll music and let everyone else handle the 'dirty' side.
Chris: It's weird saying the words gay community together, because there is no heterosexual community. I have nothing in common with most fags. I'm a musician. I was a musician before I even came out, and before I even knew what my sexuality was. So, I've always had straight friends and musician friends. And I relate to them way more than I do with most gay people. Most gays have nothing to do with me. That's why we started the band. We were tired of having these stereotypes jammed down our throats, so we wanted to do something that was us.
Luis: If you're unhappy with your surroundings, make surroundings for yourself. The music life is fun. I'd much rather go to shows and hang out, or sit around my kitchen and drink beers with friends. The simple life, you know? None of this disco-dancing, stereotypical bullshit. No fucking rainbow flags for me. If you're not happy with what's around you, go out and create surroundings you'll like. That's what we did.
Alex: Do you feel your open-ness affects radio attention, and media appeal, towards you guys?
Luis: I don't think so, because there is no radio attention towards us. (laugher). Mainstream radio is locked down. It's all about payola. It's about how many tickets your record company can supply the radio station to go see the band, how much advertising dollars they can spend at a radio station, and how you can help to get money to the stock holders.
Chris: That's exactly how it is with major labels. No major label has came up to us and said, "You know, you may have something." It's because we're too risky. We're not willing to bow down. We have a deal with Lookout where we license our albums to them. We want to own our masters, because that's a danger a lot of bands get into. They sell off their publishing rights just to get somewhere. We don't want to have anyone put our songs on a car commercial, or anywhere we don't want them. That's something you can't do with a major label. You have to sell off your rights, you have to give them your masters.
Luis: The thing with radio, which is really frustrating, is the fact that even if people think you're right on and they like you, they still don't have the power to do anything about it. They still don't have the power to play you. It's all pre-planned. It's all about money and the system. We have a friend that works at MTV, and he's like Kurt Loder's assistant or whatever...
Chris: Was Kurt Loder's assistant...
Luis: Yes, was Kurt Loder's assistant. But there are people high up at MTV who have Pansy Division posters and really dig the band. We did the tour of the office and there were people who were like "Oh wow, you're Pansy Division." They had posters and everything. And Matt Pinfield was borrowing their Pansy Division CD's, but there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. We've talked to several radio people who love our music, and have told us that our albums rock and that one song is so poppy that it could totally be a hit, but there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. I'm not pissed off or anything, it's just so frustrating. I wish more people could hear us or whatever, but I'm not sitting around whining about it.
Chris: (In a sarcastic, whiny voice) But I do! (laughter).
Alex: Why did you decide to go to a more universal theme on the new album?
Chris: Like I said earlier, we got tired of doing the same thing album after album. We did five records of DICK DICK DICK. People who know of us understand what we're all about. They've heard the records, they've read something somewhere, but they understand what we're all about. We felt like we didn't have to keep saying those things. I mean, after you've written songs like "Beer Can Boy" and "Dick of Death," you really don't need to keep stressing it. How many big dick songs can you write? After awhile, you're just writing the same songs again. After our third record, we thought we had opened the flood gates. We thought there was going to be a zillion gay bands following our lead. But nobody else has, so we feel like we still have the playing field to ourselves. One of the hardest things people can find out is that they can relate to gay people, if they're homophobic. So, we don't want to write just universal songs, we want to write a song they can relate too. We want people to go, "Oh wow! That's a gay band? But he didn't change the pronoun." We didn't change things to be gender-less, they're still songs about being gay.
Luis: What about the gay kids that listen to Pansy Division? After five albums, they've already heard it several times over. I wouldn't say it's less effective for them, but they've already heard it. We want to cover a lot more ground. The old songs were all sex and funny, and were good for gay people who didn't have stuff to listen to, but after awhile they don't want to hear the same things over and over again. In the past, the songs were like "We're gay, we're happy." But these songs have a lot more feeling to them. You can actually sit down and listen to the album, and it will mean a lot more to you. It's a lot more about relationships, being sad, being happy, and loneliness. It's about emotions and human agendas. It triggers feelings, which was what I always loved about music.
Alex: Do you see yourself losing your 'edge' and focusing on purely universal themes in the future?
Luis: We don't know where we are going to tomorrow.
Chris: We are writing the songs, and we just need to see where they take us. For this record we ditched like twenty songs that seemed to be too much of the same thing. So hopefully...(Luis turns two bananas and an orange into you know what)...(laughter)...thank you, more dick humor.
Luis: Sorry, bad timing.
Chris: Well, that's debatable. So, we'll have to just see which songs make the most sense together. These songs fit together the best, so we put them on the new record. That's the way it will be on the next record. But, I don't think we'll ever lose the gay thing. Our whole thing is that we're gay and we're going to make sure you know it. But, we won't always have to sing about it. Otherwise, that's almost selling out. If you stay the same and stick with what is reliable, you're basically selling out.
Luis: Plus, we are all pretty comfortable with what we're doing and where we are at with our lives at this point. You and I are spoiled in a way. You live in Portland, and I live in San Francisco. These are very diverse areas, so we're spoiled to live where we do. But, it's really fun when we play areas like Columbia, Missouri, or Sioux Falls, or wherever. Any place where the kids haven't seen this before. That's when it stands out the most. Small towns, little college cities are always fun because it renews your faith in what you're doing. I get jaded sometimes and I'm like, "Fuck it. Let's not play. Everybody's heard it before." But, then you go to these areas where it's brand new, and they're so thankful because you played their town. That is truly rewarding. I've had kids write me and be like, "I live in Iowa and am gay, but I can't tell my friends." I've even had people write and tell me they have to hide their Pansy Division CD's under their beds so their parents won't find them. Swear to go, it's true!
Chris: It is true. And when we realized it was true, that is when it became more than our fun little band. When we started to get mail from people saying our CD's kept them from committing suicide, because they were relieved to find there was someone else out there like them, that is when we decided we had to keep going. All the while, I'm reading all these letters and just crying. This is something we never though would happen. We're the alternative to the alternative, so we need to keep this band going. It's not about being rock stars, we just need to keep it going to let people know there is others out there and they're not alone.
Luis: I'm a rock star in my own house, I don't need to be a rock star for anyone else. I play air guitar to Kiss albums all the time, so I'm a big rock star.
Alex: Do you answer all your own fan mail?
Chris: Yes, we do all our fan mail ourselves. We do our own website, and we manage ourselves. We do everything ourselves. We don't book ourselves, but that's too hard.
Alex: How do you feel ABSURD POP SONG ROMANCE compares to your previous albums, and how is it different -- unique -- in its own way? How does it have it's own voice?
Chris: All our albums have had a few songs like this. Like our first album had "Boyfriend Wanted" and "Luck of the Draw." The more somber things. All the records have had something like this, but this one is mainly those types of songs. So, it's the same in the fact that we've focused more on the songs that didn't get much focus before.
Luis: We're focusing more on an element or a certain feeling that was there, but was a bit hidden under all the other things.
Chris: And the fact that we're now a four piece really changed things. We added a guitar player, so that changed a lot of how we arranged and worked things out. John really isn't a guitar player, he's just meat and bones. With him we had to figure out how we'd play the songs live. He can just barely get the songs and the chords going. So, we had to think of how we'd bring that to the live aspect. But, now we have this guitar player who can fill in those gaps and actually pull off songs that are five minutes long. We've never been able to do that before, so this has allowed us to branch out more musically. Which, I think this album did. There is also keyboards and horns on this album, which we haven't used before. Plus, we used up all our savings and bought some time with Steve Albini. He's a brilliant person and an amazing recording engineer, so we got him to give this album the best chance it could get. He's done records that are on the radio, so we went out and got him without interfering with our integrity. He didn't interfere with our music at all. That was another change. Before we did everything for $3,500 for 30 songs. We knocked them out really quick. This time it was nine days and we concentrated on making the songs come out right. We also worked out the songs live and played them on a three month tour before bringing them into the recording studio.
Luis: We made checklists of everything that had to be done, and knew what we wanted to do. And since we had everything pretty much figured out, we had a lot more time to mess around. It was nice to branch out and experiment a bit more. We could try tossing this in, and tossing that in. Let's mess around with this and then mess around with that, and all the things like that. Then there was one night, I think I was drunk. We were just messing around and someone was running up and down there stairs. It was going 'clink,' 'clinkity,' 'clink.' So I was like, "Hey! Let's record that." We threw in a lot of stupid last minute stuff like that.
Alex: Is there any road experiences that stand out in your mind?
Luis: Oh yeah!
Chris: Yeah, but we can't talk about them.
Luis: I can!
Chris: You'll talk forever.
Luis: New Orleans and getting in a fight with Days of the New. There are a lot of stories. Being in New York and fucking with Michael Stipe.
Chris: Yeah, there are a lot of stories, but we can't really tell you. They'll get us in trouble.