Becoming MEN: JD Samson on music, politics, and gender

JD Samson (Le Tigre, MEN) DJs at Control Top March 23.
JD Samson (Le Tigre, MEN) DJs at Control Top March 23.
By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

Queers of a certain age may remember Le Tigre’s music as the soundtrack to the booze-fueled feminist dance parties of their early 20s. But former band member JD Samson’s current project, MEN, takes that fusion of pop and politics to a more grown-up place.

PQ Monthly chatted with Samson in advance of her West Coast DJ tour about the band’s second album (due out in the fall) and the evolution of her approach to music, politics, and gender.

PQ: How would you compare MEN’s upcoming album to the last one?

Samson: I think I went more introspective. Someone was interviewing me from France for the promo from the first record and she said something like, “You never say ‘I’ in this record, you say ‘we’ the whole time.” I was so shocked because I had never heard that before in a review…. I think I was hiding behind this “we” or something and this album is very much more personal for me. Like there’s some love songs and things like that and I think it was a really big step for me as an artist to be vulnerable in that way, so that is cool. But then there’s also, of course, a bunch of political songs — one about [South African runner] Caster Semenya and one about Pussy Riot and, you know, some general feminist jams. I would say we took more chances and, in a way, it feels like that makes the record a little all over the place. But to me, what I really like about it is that it’s not 15 songs that sound the same. It’s a journey.

PQ: What about Caster’s story spoke to you?

JD Samson (Le Tigre, MEN) performs a DJ set at Control Top March 23. Illustration by Mary McAllister.
Illustration by Mary McAllister.
Samson: I think I’ve always been kind of androgynous in the way that I look and questioned in terms of who I was and what I identified as. It’s always a struggle for me to respond to people because I find that I’m kind of shy and I feel so vulnerable in those moments that I just want people to be quiet and go away. And I really saw that in her. I think that my relationship to it is extremely personal and emotional. I feel like I saw this feeling that I feel all the time in her face and that really drew me in and I feel like I wanted to express that. And the song that we wrote about her is in the first person, so people could think that I’m talking about myself, but it’s her voice.

PQ: Where does the album rank on a scale of dance-i-ness?

Samson: I think it general it’s almost dancier [than the last album] but it’s a little bit more experimental.

PQ: People sometimes complain that the queer community focuses too much on dance parties, saying they’re just an excuse to get drunk and debaucherous. But you’ve argued that dance can be political. Is it inherently political or is that an intention that has to be brought by the DJ or the crowd?

Samson: I think that in Le Tigre we were definitely working with the idea that being in a space with all these incredible feminists and allies moving their bodies around and being vulnerable to the music was inherently political, for sure…. I think that in terms of this record I really wanted to think about something that someone would turn on at home. Something that you could listen to on the dance floor but that you also want to listen to by yourself and in your headphones and all the other places we’re queer. I think that was really an interesting thing for me because as I grow older I definitely have less interest in spending all the time I have at the dance club. And that’s made me really redefine what is political about dancing and what is political about just being by yourself at home and thinking a lot about art.

PQ: Where did the name MEN come from and how has its meaning shifted over time?

Samson: The name kind of came about because Johanna [Fateman] and I were DJing a lot and our agent was like, “You guys really need a name — you can’t just be Jo and JD from Le Tigre.” So we had been traveling a lot on tour and talking about how we needed to adapt to a new philosophy, mostly for travel purposes, which was: “What would a man do?” It was kind of about this idea that men have more confidence and believe in themselves more, so women need to pretend they’re like men when they’re in situations where they might feel vulnerable in order to gain some of that. It was kind of this tongue-in-cheek idea. Obviously I don’t think men and women need to pretend to act like men all the time to feel better about themselves, but you get what I’m saying…. We talk a lot about this idea that anyone can call themselves a man, anyone can call themselves a woman — and we are all just human beings. And so that another part of it – it’s like men as in humans, and I like that idea, too.

JD Samson performs a DJ set in Portland March 23 at Control Top with DJs Nark, Roy G Biv, Mr Charming, and Bruce La Bruiser; White Owl Social Club, 1305 SE 8th Ave. Find more from PQ’s interview with Samson here.