The idea of an openly queer musician would hardly raise any eyebrows today. To be sure, there will always be religious nuts, hawkish members of the PTA and other sundry haters bent on the eradication of anything sparkly and queer. The recent visibility of openly queer pop stars and critically acclaimed indie artists, however, has done a great deal to send those frothing hordes back to the beige pits of hell from whence they came. But while we recognize and celebrate the current generation of queer musicians, it becomes imperative that we recognize the trailblazing artists who came before.
Certainly few other bands can claim the title of “pioneers” like Pansy Division. Often lumped in with the nebulous “queer-core” movement of the early nineties, Pansy Division were nevertheless one of the first openly queer bands ever formed, and certainly the first to attract national attention. Formed in 1991 in San Francisco, Pansy Division rose to prominence as the opening act for a then-little-known Bay Area band called Green Day, whose major label debut, Dookie, was beginning its ascent of the major music charts.
Sharp, irreverent and unabashedly gay, Pansy Division wrote songs like “Femme in a Black Leather Jacket,” “The Cocksuckers Club,” and “Versatile.” Their punchy take on pop-punk offered a frank, raunchy examination of the queer experience that took aim at the foibles of the gay community as often as bigots and homophobes. Founded by guitarist and singer Jon Ginoli, who was joined quickly joined by bassist Chris Freeman, Pansy Division has continued to record and release music over the past twenty-five years.
The current lineup, which also features guitarist Joel Reader and drummer Luis Illades, is currently touring in support of their most recent release, 2016’s Quite Contrary. In anticipation of their November 9 Seattle show at Eastlake’s Funhouse, I spoke to Chris about the history of Pansy Division, their new album, and the future of queer music. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Thanks so much for talking to me! This has obviously been covered pretty extensively, but for readers who don’t know, could you give me an overview of Pansy Division’s beginnings? I know it initially began as Jon’s solo project.
It did. From what I understand, June was when John started playing as Pansy Division-it would have been June of 1991. My understanding is that he’d demo’d most of the original songs with some friends back in Champaign, Illinois. Some friends had started a studio and they wanted a project to work out the bugs. So they collected some musicians together and he had this batch of songs and a lot of that ended up being the first album. So when I met him in October of ’91, he gave me the demo tape of the album and it was basically all done. I joined in November of ’91. We went back into a studio in San Francisco and cleaned up some of the tracks, re-recorded some, patched up a few that weren’t recording well. So that became our first record. That’s kind of the start of everything. About a year and change later, we had our first 7-inch record out.
And the Dookie tour was in ’94, correct? Again, that’s been covered extensively, but it really was a big deal for you guys and for Green Day, because it was the first time that an openly queer band was playing to crowds of that size. MTV did a feature on you guys too, right?
Well, they did a feature on the entire queer music scene, but it focused on us and the attention that Green Day had inadvertently put on us by asking us to tour with them. They knew about us because we were on the same label [Lookout Records] prior to Dookie. And they’d been to our shows, they’d seen us at Gilman Street. Their thinking was “A.) We want to bring Gilman Street to the masses and this is one of the bands that typifies what Gilman is about, and B.) in a certain wink-wink-nudge-nudge way, we want to piss off all those Guns N’Roses fans that are coming to see us.”
I will say that they were huge in keeping us on the tour. They were told many times that their show would get pulled if they came to town with Pansy Division, and they stood up for us. So that was really amazing for us because we just kept thinking that at some point we were going to get yanked. But they stuck by us. That whole tour, that whole year, was a big lesson.
My life is absolutely picture perfect. But that is not the complexion of a queer experience everywhere. People are getting thrown off buildings, people are getting stoned to death, people are being burned alive.”
You’ve all said before that, by and large, you didn’t really have any issues with hostile audiences, but was that a worry you had going into that tour?
Well we were always worried. When we began touring in general we were extremely afraid. Even our first few shows, even in San Francisco. Because we had no idea what was going to happen. It was unprecedented. [On the Dookie tour] We had a call-in time–6 o’clock–when we called a friend of mine every day in San Francisco so we could call in and report that everything was all good. We also knew there’d be security everywhere, so that was less of a worry. We knew that nobody could really get to us.
But that didn’t stop them from throwing things. We played the Paladium here in Hollywood, and I remember looking back at our drummer to get a cue and I noticed a trickle of blood down his face. After we got off he said he’d gotten hit with a coin or something. And there are marks on my bass from getting hit with stuff. But we would never ever let that get to us. We’d actually stand there, if they got to loud or something, John and I would stand there with our arms folded until they quieted down. We pushed back a lot. And we enlisted the girls for help a lot, because there were a ton of girls. That was really funny. We’d be like, “See all these guys with their hands in the air? They’re homophobic! They probably hate girls too!” and suddenly all the guys’ hands would go down. But we finished all the way to the bitter end. We thought it was kind of funny, in a way.
I re-visited your discography in preparation for this interview, and one thing that struck me about so much of your music is how funny and deliberately raunchy it is. In ’91, when you started, you were in the shadow of the 80’s, of Reagan and the AIDS crisis. Do you feel like that humor was a response to the social and political backdrop–and the accompanying feelings in the queer community–against which you were starting out?
When we started, ACT UP was a big deal in San Francisco. I’ve had dozens of friends die, including five boyfriends. It was really harsh. Here was this sitting president who wouldn’t even say the word, never acknowledged it. So there was anger about that, and ACT UP was all about being visible, about saying something and doing something in response. But we didn’t really feel that having a dour message was going to be popular. We’d watched the anger of ACT UP, and some of it was misguided, high school BS. I’m not trying to paint the whole thing with that brush, but some of the antics were just too much.
But coupled with that was the fact that our favorite punk bands were funny. Devo was hilarious! Buzzcocks were hilarious! The Ramones were hilarious! I mean, Blondies’ “Rip Her to Shreds,” it just went on and on. All the original punk bands had an element of humor or self-deprecation. And that was something we wanted to go back to. At the time, through the LA hardcore scene and everything, it had gotten nasty and violent and it had lost the humor that made it so much fun–for us, anyway. So we said, “Ok. Let’s be funny, let’s be fun, and let’s let the anger be implicit but not the message.” The anger is in there, but it’s given with a spoonful of sugar, if you will.
You released Quite Contrary this year, which was your first album since 2009. First of all, it’s an incredibly solid album, but the track that particularly stuck out to me, maybe just because of the ongoing shit show of this election, was “Blame the Bible.” It’s interesting that you mention that anger and politics are often implied in your music but rarely the message, because “Blame the Bible” seems like a departure from that.
It deliberately was. We talked about what the album was going to be, and we asked ourselves what the risk was going to be. We’ve alluded to things, I’ve alluded to being anti-religion in songs like “Never You Mind,” or “Slut.” [“Blame the Bible”] was mostly written by Joel and Luis. They’d gotten together on the East Coast to work on some demos that Jon and I had sent over, and they came up with that chord progression and that beat and everything. They sent it to me and asked if I had any lyrics that might fit. At the time I was flying back from somewhere, and I was sitting on the plane, watching the first Republican debate. I just thought, these are fucking assholes, especially the ones that were spewing this fucking bullshit about Christianity. And I realized that was the risk. We need to come out as atheists. The gay community? I’m settled with the gay community. We’ve said our stuff about ridiculous twinks and the other stuff you find, but why eat our own? I wrote the lyrics virtually within an hour of getting off the plane. At first I read them back to myself and wondered if we’d be able to do this, but I realized that is exactly how I felt when we made our first album. So I knew I was onto something.
I’ll tell you something: I’m complacent to a certain extent. I’m married, I have a great life, I have a great job, I have a great band, I’m in a few other bands that are doing well. My life is absolutely picture perfect. But that is not the complexion of a queer experience everywhere. People are getting thrown off buildings, people are getting stoned to death, people are being burned alive. That’s happening right now, in other places in the world, and the only reason that’s happening is because people pointed to their book and said “this says you die.” So that’s what I wanted to say: you are full of shit. I blame the Bible, I blame your fucking book.
You’re playing a show on November 9 here in Seattle as part of your West Coast tour. After twenty-five years, what’s touring like these days for Pansy Division?
[laughs] It’s very different. When we started Pansy Division, we were in our thirties. I actually put the kibosh on touring when I turned forty. We’d had a wonderful decade, but I couldn’t come home with rent for two months, work a temp job while we worked on our next record and then go back on the road for seven months. Psychically, I couldn’t sleep on floors in squats in Germany anymore. I couldn’t live that life because I had nothing. I was basically homeless and jobless in San Francisco in 2000. I had to take care of myself or the band was going to suffer. I moved down to LA, got a real job, went back to school, stopped smoking, basically got my life together. Also, our guitar player is the straight one in the band, and he has a two-year-old daughter. So, for the last couple of years, we also have to make sure we don’t step on Joel, because we want him to remain in the band.
So the touring machine stopped. Now we only play the bigger cities, we only play as much as we want to play, we only record a record when we want to. Therefore, everything we do we only do because we want to. We don’t care about the cash. If we’re making an album it’s because we decided that it’s something we want to do. The most important thing is that we can tour in a way that let’s us keep doing things.
What are your thoughts on how the landscape looks for queer musicians right now? Do you feel like Pansy Division’s experiment worked?
You know, after the Green Day tour and our MTV exposure, we expected a huge number of bands to come out, but there just weren’t. Still to this day, there are only handfuls in little pockets. Some of them get big sometimes, like PWR BTTM out of New York, who’re awesome. But it’s difficult to say that this social experiment has worked in every way. But it did work in some ways. At the end of the Green Day tour, we played Madison Square Garden and Melissa Etheridge and The Indigo Girls were on that bill. On that tour, we also met Michael Stipe and k.d. lang, and later we met Rob Halford. Every one of them, a year to eighteen months after we met them, came out. We can’t take responsibility for it, but we talked to all of them about coming out.
I’m just not sure how many queer people are picking up guitars. I think you see a lot of them in DJ culture. I can name a huge number of DJs in LA that are queer, but not rock bands really. It takes a certain type of person. It’s hard enough to be gay–that’s already swimming against the current–but being a gay rock musician means you’re swimming against the current of gay culture too. Pansy Division has played so many pride events where you see so many people over in the beer tents dancing to “YMCA,” and there’s twenty people in front of us. There’s the rub. It’s one thing to be gay, it’s another thing to be gay and into punk, and I don’t know if that’s inspiring anybody to pick up a guitar.
I’ve tried to do my part here. This year, LA Pride took a big turn this year. They called it a music event, and geared it towards millennials, and they got all these bands that weren’t queer identified and none of them were local. I thought it was a shame so I called the Viper Room and asked if I could book almost a dozen bands from the area on the Friday and Saturday of Pride weekend. It was stellar and it was so diverse–gays, dykes, trans folks. But it’s hard to keep that going. I haven’t seen as much growth from that as I’d like, but we’ll see. I keep hoping.