Q&A: JD Samson of MEN on Playing Occupy Wall Street on May Day


JD Samson and MEN are helping to close down today’s May Day events with a free concert at 7 p.m. at 2 Broadway in the Financial District. We sat down with Samson on a sun-dappled stoop recently to talk about the show, what Occupy Wall Street means to her, and her band’s upcoming album.

Village Voice: How did you get involved with playing this show?

JD Samson: The first week of Occupy last year started the day we left on tour, and we were gone for six weeks, so we kind of watched from the road the rise of the whole community and the whole movement. And it was so incredible to go through each different town, and this geographical aspect of the movement was so awesome for us.

We felt really close to the movement, just because we kept seeing it from so many different perspectives—different cities had different reactions to it, and also different methodologies of leading the movement—that was really interesting to us. In some places all the anarchist queer kids hated occupy, and in some places they loved it. In Athens, Georgia there were some issues with people who were leading it. So it was really interesting to talk to people about the way they felt about it, and what it was doing to their town and in this way we felt really sad and guilty that we weren’t in New York and we missed it and we wanted to be there so badly.

I remember the night of the huge action we were in Chicago, and during soundcheck we were just streaming the video footage and getting news that our friends were in jail and in this way—I almost never say this—but the internet somehow brought us closer to it and that was our link to it all during that tour. So when we came back, it was the week the police came to shut it down, and I woke up at 2 in the morning and saw all these tweets about it and I just went That was the first time that I had actually gone down there. I was out until 4:30 or something. It was crazy. I have protested in new York many times and that was something very new to me: it was so violent. There were times where we were waiting for lights to change, being completely law-abiding, and people were just torn down by the cops and got their faces busted open. I felt a lot of fear.

This is a weird quote to quote, but I was watching Damages, and there’s this line where Glenn Close is like “You know how I pick a case? I have this twinge of anger inside of me and then I think ‘I need to punish them.'” And I definitely felt a sense of that. We had been working on a new song, I’d written it that summer and I don’t know why but the chorus was “Make him pay.” The chorus was a lot about feminism to me when I wrote it. But at that moment everything sort of shifted for me and I rewrote the song to discuss the Occupy movement and as a protest song. So that’s my relation to Occupy.

I’ve been asking some of the other artists playing this May Day show what it means to them to be political in their art.

I always think about my relationship to the music industry and to performance in general and really it all just sort of emerged out of my friendship group and my interest in activism, I think. So that happening, and getting enveloped into this world, I really thought the only thing I can do is use this pedestal or this microphone to be an activist, to make the world a better place. I’m not a politician, but I can be a philanthropist.

A philanthropist in the sense that you’re giving your time and your performances?

Exactly. It’s been really interesting for me, especially with MEN, because I have this freedom to do what I want with this project, and still, all I want to do is be a protest band. And if anything, just give a reality check to people about what’s going on in the world, whether that’s conceptually stated or pretty literal, I think that’s what’s important to me. What inspires me about being a performer is the ability to create this desire to move for change, and when I look out into the crowd and we’re singing “Who Am I To Feel So Free,” people just have this realization, and you watch their faces turn to smiles because they realize that as a team they can have power. That’s the best gift that I could get. But also the best gift that I can give. I’ve been really lucky to have been in project that work like that.

I read the piece you wrote a while ago for the Huffington Post, and I wondered if you wanted to talk more about how that experience you were talking about of the precariousness of parts of your life, and how you map that onto more systemic issues.

Like I said before, it’s that twinge of anger. Maybe I’m just used to feeling oppressed, but that’s what I felt when I wrote that article. It was just a perfect time for me to talk about Occupy and be angry about it and create a conversation that people weren’t necessarily having. I know there was a lot of backlash about it from some communities, people saying I’m complaining and I actually have a lot—honestly, I can understand that argument. Of course I choose to live in Williamsburg, of course I choose to be an artist. That argument is not only fair but necessary.

But it’s been hard. I’ve been given a lot of great gifts from being in this industry, but it’s also been really hard for me not only to pay my bills but to feel a sense of confidence about my career. And of course you play a show and people are freaking out and it’s awesome, and you feel “This is all I’ve ever wanted. This is all I ever need.” But the next moment you play a show and there are maybe three people there and they don’t give a shit about what you’re saying and when you play “Who Am I To Feel So Free” they’re staring at you like they don’t even know what you’re talking about and you’re thinking to yourself “Why am I doing this? Where do I exist in the world? Where should I be? What is important?” All those are normal questions—everyone second-guesses their careers sometimes.

One of the things I thought was interesting about that was deflating the idea that successful artists are secure in the system. You don’t hear that so much.For a lot of artists presenting that success is part of being the success.

Sure, that. But I also wanted to address the idea that being freelance in the States right now, whether you’re a construction worker or an artist, it’s extremely challenging to exist, to have health insurance, to get an apartment. And that’s really important in the discussion of rebuilding the economy, because that’s a huge part of what people do in their 20s and 30s now.

I did receive thousands of responses though that were extremely positive from other artists and other freelance pieces. I’ve had so many responses from other musicians who live in New York. I got an email from a guy recently who said “I’m freaking out right now, I don’t know what to do, I read your article, can we talk? I said, meet me at the coffee shop. And we just sat and talked for a couple hours. It felt like a therapy session, but I think it’s good to talk to people about that stuff. I was just thinking “There should be a Musicians Anonymous.” One thing I mentioned in the article that interesting, I thought, was all the other music that had been coming out last fall that referenced not having money. Das Racist, Spank Rock, Drums. Hesta Prynn from Northern State tweeted something a while ago: that being a musician right now is kind of like being a stock-broker during the depression.

What does that mean to you?

Everything! That now is not the time to be making music your career. It IS time to be making music. That’s what people need. And that’s why this May Day thing is really awesome, I think, because there hasn’t been a real concert yet, and it’s really cool to do that. But one of the things that was interesting about writing that article was that on your last album I had written all of these songs about money. Like, every song is about money. I didn’t realize it until we put the record out. But we started putting that record out in 2007. So when it came out in 2011 I was like: A) this is old news, and B) nobody criticized it or even really got it. No journalists asked me “Oh, all these songs are about money…” It was so weird, it was like nobody’s listening to the lyrics, nobody’s getting it.

What do you make of that?

I have no idea. Actually, one woman asked it, a women in France. I think it was because she had to translate it. It was so crazy for me that then I wrote this thing for the Huffington Post, and it wasn’t in my medium so people read it and they paid attention. I don’t know, maybe my lyrics are a little abstract. I don’t think they are, I think they’re pretty literal.

Yeah. And I would have thought that your fans are lyrically alert. It’s not like your lyrics are incidental.

I think my fans don’t question it. But I was just so struck that when you work outside of your medium, people have a different ear. That and the fact that it was on the internet and so shareable.

It’s so interesting: that Drums song was the hot single, but nobody talked about what that meant. But if he wrote an article about how nobody has any money, that would get a much different reaction.

I hadn’t realized that you started writing that album so early. You started that before everything really went to hell in all the obvious ways. Do some of those songs mean different things to you now than they did when you first wrote them?

In 2007, our first practice space was on Wall Street. It was a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, in the basement of a bank on Wall Street. I always forget about that. And we literally wrote these songs there. At the time it was so cool—we were in this old bank. There were safes and everything. Our first show was supposed to be there, but one of our band-mates got really sick and we had to cancel it.

Subliminally that must have had some effect, but at the time we just felt like these weird artists who had gotten transplanted into a business world. And that felt good, because it felt like we were taking over and we had this confidence about ourselves. 2007 to me was the beginning of the recession and all that. It maybe even started before that. So to us, as artists in between projects, trying to build it up, all the financial woes of change were there for us and what we were thinking about for sure. I mean, some of the songs are about money and break-ups, they’re not necessarily systemic like that.

What are you hoping will come out of your performance on May Day?

I hope a lot of people attend. The thing about performance is the audience needs to give out just as much energy as is being put out by the performer, and being that people are skipping work or whatever, I would assume there’s going to be a lot of energy, and a lot of that energy feels like the correct energy for our performance. So I can guess that it’s going to be perfect!

We’re playing three songs that are going to be perfect. We’re going to play Boom Boom Boom, which is about living in a wartime economy. We’re playing Make Him Pay, which is a song about the Occupy movement, and we’re playing Who Am I to Feel So Free. The cover of the Make Him Pay EP is this incredible photograph by Moyra Davie who’s in the Whitney Biennial right now. She took a photographic series of pennies really really close up, and they’re just trashed. And the one that’s on the cover is just so scraped and scratched up, it’s perfect. Because the EP is still about money. There’s something really personal to the band that yeah: we’re still talking about money, and it may be scraped and imperfect, but it’s still here. And there’s also the bigger sense of the economy: seeing Lincoln’s face scraped up is a really powerful image to me. We’re in trouble.

And yeah, it would be awesome if the cops don’t freak out.

Dan Deacon was telling me he thinks political music is at something of a low ebb right now. Would you agree?

I would venture to say that people have been making political content out of pretty watered-down lyrics. Or even personas. I think Lady Gaga is great and I would never shoot her down. But I don’t think her songs are inherently focused on creating a political discourse. I think her songs have become political because there is a desire for politics but people aren’t sure how to develop their intake of pop music into being something smart.

Does that represent an opportunity for you?

Listen, I have hoped to be that. It’s not something I dream about at night, but I have always hoped to be that. I think about the Talking Heads, I think about bands like the B-52s, that really crossed over from being punk and from being smart into the mainstream. I do think there’s a capacity for it, but I think people are afraid of it. And let’s not be shy: Right now, nobody buys music except 13-year-olds, and it’s hard to make 13-year-olds like a song like “Who Am I To Feel So Free.” They understand the words, but I don’t know if the concept really hits them.

So we try. This new record we’re writing right now. When it comes out, I think people will see a lot of things they’ve seen from us before, but they’ll also see new stuff, like love songs! And that’s definitely in there with the idea that we want to reach more people, and then give them the more political stuff. With each song having it’s own life, it’s hard to write a love song and produce it in a poppy way without the context of the other stuff. As a political artist, that feels weird, really scary.

What’s scary about that?

That someone would hear that and miss the bigger picture.

But that’s also the trap you’re setting, right? “You like this love song? You should listen to the rest of the album too!”

Exactly. And that’s what you have to do. That’s the conceptual activism that I have to do, is sequence the record in a way that makes sense, and sequence what we put out in a way that’s really sensitive to that.

Have you talked to other artists about that level of strategy, or are there people who you look at and say, “they did that right?”

No. I dont’ talk about it, ever. I don’t even talk about it with our PR people. I talk about it with my band-mates. I don’t know a lot of artists that are in the same position, that are riding this line between indie and semi-poppy in terms of style, and yet also electronic. It’s an interesting position because we can go in so many directions, but we also need some level of coherence. Sometimes that coherence is the politics.

What’s the time-frame on that new album?

It’s funny you mention that. What we had decided was to put it out ourselves. In the frustration of the Huffington Post article moment, we had talked as a band about what we could do to grow the band, but also how we could retain as much money as possible that we did make. And we decided to leave our label and leave our management, get grass roots where we started.

That must have been terrifying.

God no, it was so freeing! Just to say, I’m going to blame myself if something goes wrong, and I’m going to try my best and work as hard as I can. That was the plan. We decided we were going to put out three EPs and then a record in September. The first EP came out last month, and it was called Next, and we put it out ourselves. We wanted it to be a soft release, mostly for our fans. That came out, and nobody knew about it. Even our friends didn’t buy it. So we started feeling like the next EP we put out was going to be the pop one, the love songs. And all of a sudden it started to feel like “This isn’t right.” So that was supposed to come out next week. And we just pulled it yesterday.

What went wrong?

Something we did wrong! I don’t know. I know that now I have a different sense of “I can do it myself.” Which I love. I love failing, you know? Because you have an opportunity to change. I think this is a great opportunity for us to sit down, reconfigure, take a second and think about it, and we’re actually talking to some labels that have some really similar politics to us. I think in the next couple of days we’ll make a decision to work with a label that’s part of our family and makes sense for us, politically and in terms of partnership.

So is the move back to a label a retreat from the freedom of doing it yourself?

No. Before we had a manager who was like, “You should go with this label, and you should hire this business manager, and this lawyer,” and all these guys in suits were talking about how we were going to be the next band on the radio who are queer and activist. And I’m just like: We’re going to do what we do, and if people like it, that’s awesome.

All we need is a community to help spread the word of what we do. But I’m not going to change what I do, and that’s the main thing. It took us six months to be like “Okay, now we’re in control.” And now we can go to other people and say “Do you want to do this with us?” Because the songs are already written. The album is pretty much done. And all we need is someone to help us distribute it and to market it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Especially when you’ve retained creative control. So I think of this as also being freeing.

No matter what I do as JD Samson, it’s always going to be the same vessel, no matter who else comes along. That’s a weird thing to say, but MEN has changed a lot in the couple years in terms of who’s in the project, so all I can say is for myself: That I will always continue to be me, who is sincere, honest, political and conceptual. So I’ll always continue to make work like that, no matter what I’m doing.