Are We Not MEN?

Written by Adam Rathe on . Posted in Posts.

JD Samson’s hands are flecked with paint. She’s been making
costumes for the members of her band MEN to wear on an upcoming European
tour—just part of an elaborate series of decorations that goes into the band’s
live show. The costumes aren’t turning out perfectly and about two weeks later,
Samson will tweet that bandmate Michael O’Neill has lost his—but that doesn’t
seem to matter. “Painting our outfits, I keep messing up,” she explains. “I
always leave a fingerprint.” 

We’re sitting at Café Select, a supposedly Swiss restaurant
on Lafayette Street, and Samson—a slight, mustachioed lady best known as a
member of Le Tigre—picks at a frisée salad and frets over what people will make
of MEN, its debut album Talk About Body
and the band’s March 9 show at Bowery Ballroom. 

“We really want to make this show special,” she says. “This
is a really scary moment for me. In Le Tigre, we always sold out shows, but it
was such a different time. [Now] money is different, live shows are different;
the music industry is different. I don’t know that we’re going to sell-out
shows, and it’s really scary to me.”

When I ask if it’s necessary to sell out shows, she’s not
defensive but certainly introspective. “No,
but I’m pretty hard on myself. It’s difficult not to be.”

It’s easy to see why. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence
College in 2000 with a degree in film, Samson was living in Chicago, working in
an art gallery and teaching children about the history of graffiti. While
there, Samson got to know video artist Sadie Benning, who founded Le Tigre, a
politically charged, feminist electro-pop band, with Johanna Fateman and
Kathleen Hanna. At the end of her summer, the band asked Samson to come on a
two-week tour to do the projections for a live show; at the end of the tour,
with Benning taking her leave, Fateman and Hanna asked Samson to join the band.

“It was really weird to me because, all of a sudden, I was
in the music industry, but luckily it also felt like I was in the art world,”
she says. “The first record I was a part of, I was earning my training wheels.
Johanna and Kathleen were so patient and interested in the ideas of somebody
who didn’t know very much, because I think it gave us this edge. I miss those
days of having those preconceived ideas of what a song should be.”

Samson recorded two albums with Le Tigre—Feminist
and the band’s major-label
This Island—and helped pen
the songs the group famously wrote for Christina Aguilera. She also found
herself in-demand as a DJ. In 2007, Le Tigre went on hiatus and Samson went on
tour with Peaches in support of the
Impeach My Bush record. After returning to New York—Samson did time
in Williamsburg, but now lives Downtown—she found herself with an excess of
creative energy, but no outlet. So Samson and Fateman started working together
as DJs, eventually adopting the name MEN.

“The name was the first thing we had, it came before
anything,” Samson recalls. “Jo and I had been DJing and people were saying we
needed a name that wasn’t ‘Jo and JD from Le Tigre,’ so we decided to go with
the name MEN because we had been joking about this ‘philosophy of living,’
like, ‘What Would A Man Do.’ I felt like Jo and I were constantly apologizing
and doing too much work that other people should be doing, so we started living
with this philosophy. And when someone asked what we wanted to be called, we
said MEN.”

The duo would DJ parties and events and continued working on
remixing and music production. They even collaborated on songs that had never
been finished for Le Tigre. When Fateman got pregnant and stepped back from the
project, Samson decided to meld MEN with another project she had started, a
band comprised of artist and writer Emily Roysdon, The Ladybug Transistor’s
Michael O’Neill and Ginger Brooks Takahashi, a college friend of Samson’s who
had been in the band The Boys of Now.

Royson soon dropped out of the group, but the remaining trio
soldiered on, writing songs and recording at the home studio of a friend who
made commercial jingles. The band continued on the electro path that Samson had
traveled with Le Tigre, but took pains not to lose any of the political
ferocity that Samson’s former project had put into its pop songs.

“It’s dance music about the freedom and expression of
dancing and actually moving,” O’Neill says. “It’s one of the safest places you
can be, on a dance floor. Even in a room of people, you end up in your own
head. Whereas punk music was giving people the opportunity to be angry and to
yell and to fight, we’re talking about some of the same ideas of oppression and
equality and freedom but coming from a different angle.”

The songs on Talk About Body reflect this. “Off Our Backs”—which brings to mind the feminist
journal of the same name—also happens to be a ridiculously exciting dance song.
The surging, rollicking “Who Am I To Feel So Free” could score the musical
montage of a teen romp, but finds the members of MEN howling the title question
and spitting lyrics like, “Radical surgery/ And prosthetic sex/ We built this
world and we are asking your best.” Every song on the record mentions
money—needing it and how to get it—and talks about struggle over a driving
beat. This is music for a dance party that lets out at 7 a.m., when everyone
can pack up their glow sticks and move on to the research library.

Talk About Body,
however, is almost three years old, and now the band has big plans for its
future—which includes musician Tami Hart in place of Takahashi. “We’re actually
writing our next record right now, which is a totally different place,” Samson
says. “I hope people appreciate the work we did. I’m proud of it, and it’s like
a tattoo: We made that, it’s done now and it’s a piece of history. But now
we’re ready to move forward and put it out into the world. What we’re working
on now is a bit less polished. We want more space, [and] we’re ready to be even
more vulnerable.”

Samson cites New York bands like Light Asylum as an
inspiration, and speaks admiringly of Downtown disco titan Arthur Russell and
the lesbian art collective Ridykeulous, planting MEN into something of a
multi-media queercore scene. Sort of.

“I don’t know what I am, what genre or scene I am a part of.
I don’t concern myself with that because I don’t want to be the person who only
concerns myself with what’s cool now,” Samson says. She tells a story about
DJing in Australia, where punk kids would dance all night to mainstream techno,
freaking out for hard electronic beats. As a kid, Samson herself was into Tribe
8, Pansy Division and Team Dresch—all hallmarks of a proper homo-punk
education—but says she also liked Melissa Etheridge and The Indigo Girls. “I
didn’t care what the music was, I cared about the people who were making it.

“The aesthetic of punk and of being DIY has changed,” she
adds. “It’s like the music is almost the part that doesn’t matter; it’s the
body that’s performing.”


March 9, Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey St. (betw. Bowery &
Chrystie St.), 212-533-2111; 8, $13.

Are We Not Men?

Written by Chris O'Connell on . Posted in Posts.


THE FIRST TIME I listened to Mannequin Men, I regretted taking this assignment.The Chicago-based band is on that someone like myself (read: jaded) will dismiss as another angular-sounding rock group with a sassy, snarling singer. The hooks all sounded the same, the production was familiarly noisy and singer Kevin Richard’s sneer reminded me of too much of Brainiac or The Jesus Lizard. With repeated listens and some research, though, something unexpected happened: the band grew on me.

From the fabled, chaotic live shows in Chicago with bands like New Bomb Turks to Kevin Richard, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, and fellow Mannequin Man Ethan D’Ercole’s subbing in for former Contortions leader and New York No Wave pioneer James Chance’s live shows, the band began to seem much more interesting and complex than I’d originally thought.

The duo’s encounters with Chance were shocking to say the least. “One time, he ripped a fart as loud as you could think while we were recording and he didn’t bat an eyelash,” Richard says. “He also sometimes answers questions with his saxophone instead of words.”

That being said, the band isn’t emulating the eccentricities of Chance’s recordings or trying to fix what isn’t broken in music. Richard doesn’t think there is any reason to try and be weird on purpose. “Nowadays, you need to use, like, surgical instruments as a musician to reinvent the wheel or be different,” he says. “I don’t think being basic is a bad thing.”

Skipping the pretentious wordplay, inane time signature changes and overall aureate nature of modern rock bands trying to be different, Mannequin Men does just this by sticking with what works on its newest record, as well as adding some sardonic humor to the mix without appearing sloppy.

The record, Lose Your Illusion,Too, is just another example of the Men not taking itself too seriously. It’s a straightforward yet memorable collection of tracks that sounds somewhere near a mixture of Minneapolis’ favorite sons The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, with a touch of the poppiness of The Clean or Toy Love. Right down to the naming the record, an obvious play on the Guns ‘N’ Roses series of albums from almost two decades ago, the band just did what was natural. “It just came to me,” Richard says. “I wasn’t thinking too much.”

The band doesn’t always agree with comparisons to Minneapolis’ most popular group,The Replacements, though Richard is certainly flattered. “It’s a total compliment, but you don’t wanna be too closely aligned with another band,” Richard explains. “People saw them as Midwestern fuckups who got drunk and played.That’s why I love them, but I don’t want that to be our image.”

Comparisons aside, Mannequin Men’s record is a collection of dense, reverb-laden, late-night rockers with wry humor peppered throughout the lyrics, like in the echo-y call and response of the track “WTF LOL” or the sort-of weed anthem “Massage.”The latter is actually a perfect representation of the band as a whole, as it shows its sardonic side, poking fun at a friend. “It is and isn’t about weed,” Richard says. “A friend of ours always gets way too stoned and as a result, is never relaxed. It’s kind of ironic because she is a massage therapist and weed, which is supposed to relax her, has the opposite effect on her.”

“WTF LOL,” is a song that came from a side project that a few of the band members play in, but it was assimilated into Mannequin Men because, well, it just seemed like a Mannequin Men song.

“It’s kind of a joke song,” Kevin says. “But people actually talk like this. My mom says ‘k bye’ to me in person! She shouldn’t be doing that!”

Just as Kevin has qualms with something his mother does, she certainly has a bit of a problem with the cover of Lose Your Illusion,Too.

Depicting four naked men and women holding up pictures of the band members’ faces over their own, the cover is sure to keep the album out of some record stores.

“It’s kind of an intense photo,” said Kevin. “My mom is not too stoked.”

I suppose it’s just one more Internet acronym to add to the Mannequin Men dictionary: NSFW.

> Mannequin Men

July 17, Southpaw, 125 5th Ave. (at Sterling Pl.), Brooklyn, 718-230-0236; 8, $10.