Interview: Musician JD Samson mans up

JD Samson, of MEN and Le Tigre, defies music---and gender---expectations.

JD Samson, 32, has been a powerful, visible lesbian in circles both activist and musical since at least 2000, when she joined Le Tigre. Now the Brooklyn singer, DJ and composer—whose wispy mustache has often earned her more attention than her talent—is making music with MEN, an electropop trio also featuring Tami Hart and Michael O'Neill. TONY spoke with Samson between stops on the band's tour, which hits Brooklyn in early spring.

How did MEN come about, and what's up with the name?
Le Tigre went on hiatus and Johanna [Fateman] and I still wanted to keep making music together. At the same time, I was also playing music with friends of mine in a Williamsburg studio. Then Johanna got pregnant and said, "Do what you need to do," so I merged the two projects into one. "MEN" was what Johanna and I had been calling our DJ duo, because Jo had created this whole new confidence-boosting exercise called "What would a man do?" It's kind of like, if someone tells you they're not going to give you your full [performance] fee, then you say, "Fuck that! We have a contract!" Whereas I tend to be overapologetic, like, "I'm sorry no one came to the party that you promoted!" But as time has gone on, we've thought of new ways to explain the name. Now it's more in terms of fluidity of gender and sex, and who really gets to call themselves a man or a woman, and who really cares.

What's the concept behind your new album, Talk About Body?

Initially, we didn't think of it as a record. We basically wrote a couple of songs and went on tour, and we've been on tour since, so that's why it's taken a long time to come out. One thing that's really cool about [the album] is it's kind of genreless: It's dance music, but it's also kind of depressing at times, and it's also pop music, but with structural differences. We kind of combat the idea of pop structure. I would say we just did what we wanted to.

You've made it clear over the years that it's important for you to be visible as a lesbian, especially for queer kids. Is it still a main impetus in your work?
I was just talking to a friend about this. He was like, "[A Le Tigre show] was so incredible; it was this place where all the queer kids could go to feel safe." And I was like, "I know, I'm kind of addicted to that idea, because that space needs to exist." And I was just realizing that a lot of my work in general is to try and create a space for those kids. But it's funny, because a lot of the stuff I do now is not all-ages—like DJing at clubs. There's definitely been a shift for me in thinking that maybe I'm not the creator of that space anymore, that I'm older now or something. Also, our record kind of speaks to this idea of aging, and aging as a queer person. For me, it's been really interesting, because people have looked up to me and have been inspired by me looking the way I do, and being visible. I think that's really awesome and important and I'm really happy I could do that. But it's like, now I keep trying to find the next group of people who can validate me.

Is your facial hair a point of pride?
I don't really think about it that much anymore, and I don't think I really ever did. It's like one of those things where all of a sudden that's what you're known for. I've been thinking about it, because someone asked me to put something into an art show recently, and I was like, What if I just waxed my mustache and sold the piece of wax in a frame? Just kind of commenting on the fact that that's not who I am. I haven't done it yet, but I wouldn't put it past me. Still, I'm happy that I exist in some sort of public eye as a woman with facial hair, and not as a weirdo.

Well, you are a lesbian sex symbol.
Oh, I don't know. Having that image does really strange things to you, because it makes you feel like being sexy is your job, or something, and that you have to continue to be good at that. I feel sad sometimes that it's not my brain that is interesting—or my heart and soul.

Of course, the other side of that is when you step out of a queer context to face discrimination about your appearance—like with your recent online interview with New York magazine, which inspired all sorts of transphobic vitriol by readers. How do you react to things like that?
It doesn't really affect me. I think my skin has gotten really thick in terms of the Internet. Probably, like, the first day I was in Le Tigre, when people started talking about who I was on message boards, there were extremely hateful things being thrown around just because of the way I look. Nowadays I know I have so many supporters that when I find stuff like [the New York magazine comments], I almost think it's really hilarious.

How does living in Brooklyn affect your work?
It's interesting. People think there are a bunch of people in the same studio hanging out and talking through ideas while iChatting with other Brooklyn bands, but it's just not like that. I actually think that musicians and artists in Brooklyn—and Williamsburg in particular—kind of hide out, and write music in other places, and also spend not very much time in New York, but touring, because they have to make money to pay their rent. So it's kind of a weird place to be a musician. There's this idea that it's this utopia of creativity, which can be true. But I think that I'm kind of jaded because I know I don't spend much time here anymore.

You wrote and produced a couple songs for Christina Aguilera recently. What did it teach you?
That I was capable of making music in any capacity, and that if somebody asks, "Can you do this?" I can do it. I think that the whole thing was really weird. I didn't believe it would really happen, and I tried to not get excited about it, and I'm happy that I had that relationship to the whole process, because it helped me to be humble about it. Now I can say that I can write for other people, so if [MEN] doesn't work out, I can do that.

Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey St at Bowery. Mar 9 at 8pm; $13. * Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 North 6th St between Kent and Wythe Aves, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Apr 7 at 8pm; $13. *