Whatever It Is, We Can Get Through It: An Interview With JD Samson

Disco will save us, heaven is other people, and we will survive. Ahead of her appearance at MIA's Meltdown, queer hero and renaissance woman JD Samson talks to Anna Wood

JD Samson has a swoony, old-fashioned film star way about her, but delicate and quiet, like Sal Mineo rather than James Dean or Natalie Wood. The first time I saw her was at a Le Tigre gig at the Astoria in 2002, one of the best gigs of my life not just because I love Le Tigre (creators of one of the Great Pop Songs) and not just because I got to gaze in giddy pogoing adoration at the magnificent Kathleen Hanna, Johanna Fateman and JD Samson and hear a load of electronic punk pop magic; about halfway through the gig I realised there was something particularly effusive and joyful and abundant about the whole atmosphere, and I looked around the packed place and saw only (as I remember it) two blokes standing to my right, looking a bit grumpy, and a scattering of other men around the place. I’d never been to a gig that was utterly dominated by women, and it did feel wonderful. Le Tigre on stage, noisy, happy, dancing, and a venue full of noisy, happy, dancing women.

Le Tigre was the first band Samson was in – she started as their projectionist, straight out of college. Since then she has been a Brooklyn party powerhouse: a pop star (in MEN with Johanna Fateman after Le Tigre ended), a DJ, a promoter, a remixer, a teacher, an activist. And a model, and a public speaker and an occasional journalist: six years ago, she wrote about the stress of being a successful-but-skint artist, long before most of us had started muttering about the precariat and how ‘freelance’ is just a middle-class euphemism for zero-hours contract.

Samson works, all the time. She runs regular parties across New York, including a weekly stint at the Ace Hotel, with DJs like Rimarkable, Beppe Savoni and JLMR. She recently did a gorgeous ‘Smalltown Boy’-infused remix of Romance’s ‘Chapters Of Love’, as well as mixes for Krista Papista and Name The Pet and, last year, a pretty ace version of Peaches’ ‘I Mean Something’ with Feist. On June 17 she’s playing at the Royal Festival Hall with Mykki Blanco as part of MIA’s Meltdown festival. When we talk, she’s in Brussels, about to go out and DJ at a Pride party.

You were one of the first successful artists to talk about being absolutely broke. Do you feel like you have some financial security now?

JD Samson: No, not at all. I’ve diversified my career in a way that makes more sense for me but I don’t think I will ever necessarily feel that safety. I’ve started teaching at NYU in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. That doesn’t pay me a lot, though, because it’s an adjunct position and, in the States anyway, adjunct positions are paid less than minimum wage.

And there’s no security.

JDS: Exactly. I feel lucky to have started on a different track, where there’s growth potential that is supported with things like medical support. We’ll see what happens. A couple of years ago I looked at my finances, and MEN was costing me money and DJing was making me money. For a while it was great for me to be able to express myself more politically with MEN and basically fund that with my DJ career. But after a while I was like, if this isn’t bringing me hella joy then I’m going to DJ more often and start phasing out my band. And so I did. I’ve become a lot more down to earth about money. I feel like money is evil and terrible, of course, but in order to survive in this world I have to work so I want to work on things that bring me joy and work on things that will help other people. That’s my main goal.

A lot of your work is about feeling hella joy and being hella angry.

JDS: I’m a super-negative, pessimistic person, I can worry a lot, but I’m also trying to be funny and zen about everything, so it’s an interesting dichotomy in my brain. I’m constantly worried about money but I’m constantly generous with my money. Then I look at my bank account and think, Whoops. And there’s plenty of jobs that are very important to me where I don’t make a lot. Like the teaching, and some of the promoting. If you promote a free party you don’t really make money – you have to pay the DJs and everything. But those things bring me such joy so I keep doing them.

And they’re part of the microclimate of what you do.

JDS: Exactly. I need to be in touch with people who are being creative, I need to be in touch with the queer community and the political community, so it’s great for me to continue to do that stuff.

The boof-boof-boof-boof beat of dancing is so important for that, how it allows that rage and pleasure to be together.

JDS: In the beginning of Le Tigre our main intention was to turn the rage into dancing and fun. It was definitely a conscious decision and it turned to to be a really incredible combination of things which I think people definitely needed at that time, in our community specifically. I don’t think that would happen again. It was the timing. I feel really lucky to have experienced what it felt like, to have been part of a revolution of dance and politics. At this point there’s very little interest in creating political music in general, I would say, so for me as a DJ I’ve been going back in time a little bit. Mostly my sets are made up of classic house and disco, which is another revolutionary time and a time that was very positive in terms of change. That’s where I tend to sit in the dance world right now. It’s funny because a lot of people are into really dark industrial techno but I just can’t do it. It feels so apathetic to me.

You want to be having fun while you fight.

JDS: Music is soulful to me. For fear of being too corny, it’s what you feel in your heart, it’s hope for the future. Put your hands up in the air, put your hand on your heart. I always think of going to see the Gossip, and it was like going to church. That’s what I feel like when I DJ, because I’m playing these tracks that feel like that to me. I love when other DJs play like that too.

And the congregation, with their hands in the air.

JDS: Sometimes people come up to me and say, You saved my life. And I’m like, You saved mine too! Just because I’m on a stage looking out at this sea of people who are appreciative of what I’m doing, doesn’t mean that doesn’t give me the hope and the energy I need for myself. That connection is really important.

Do you think there’s a broader connection culturally at the moment with the late 70s/early 80s, and earlier? I’m thinking of the the reissue of David Wojnarowicz’s memoir, Audre Lorde, the new documentary about James Baldwin, all kinds of activists and artists who we’re looking to again. Not that they were forgotten in the meantime, of course. Baldwin’s mentioned in ‘Hot Topic’, isn’t he?

I think all of the people you’ve mentioned so far are in ‘Hot Topic’.

Oh shit, ha, okay.

JDS: It’s beneficial to look back. What’s interesting is that a lot of the younger generation, the millennials, they don’t want to look back. They feel like moving forward is the only way to go. I don’t want to generalise, but I see that in my teaching and people in my community that I talk with. It’s primarily our generation who feel like we need to go back, and we need to remember what came before us, and I think there’s this push to help the millennials to understand where we came from. I don’t know if it’s working. But that’s definitely why I started only playing classics. I feel like there was so much more intention with the music, and it was so much more political. And after Le Tigre, really, there hasn’t been a band willing to talk about political things. There are people who have the idea that they are, like Lady Gaga for example, but… the lyrics aren’t as literal.

Does America feel any different in the last year?

JDS: It’s really confusing. Everybody was so worried and upset and sad, it was terrible. A lot of my friends went through pretty serious mental breakdowns during the time of the election. It was scary for every marginalised community. And what we’ve seen so far is that he’s really doing all the things he said he would, but it’s like a longer period, a slower decline – weeks go by and it’s just constant. This is a rightwing moment in the entire world – we can see that with Brexit, with the French election – but these things have been before and we will get through it. We’ve been through worse than this. This is four years of our lives and something crazy’s going to happen and whatever it is, we can get through it. And as a country, we’ve realised that we can come together, we’re not as apathetic as we seem. That was something I really felt from all the protests that are going on, and that’s definitely a good feeling. That has brought a lot of hope to me. But the truth is we’re not going to impeach him, it’s probably not going to happen. All of this stuff piling up is just a really great lesson for everyone in the world about celebrity culture and the internet, because it’s really depressing that he even made it as far as the election in the first place.

You think it’s to do with celebrity and the internet as much as anything else?

JDS: Oh yeah. He’s actually somebody who’s been on TV so [every] American knows who this person is. If you’re looking at a card and you don’t know who anyone is except for this person, and you’re like, Oh well, yeah, sure, he makes a lot of money, he’s successful. A lot of people wanted change, but they went for this person who’s a celebrity, who doesn’t know anything and is a liar and is a misogynist, and has sexually assaulted people, but that doesn’t matter because he’s a celebrity. That’s really sad. It’s also about social media, how the celebrity came from this idea of taking down someone else. I’ve read articles about how the most misogynist thing that’s happened in our culture was the takedown of Hillary in the election through social media. It spread so far, into the far left. That’s to me is really sad. That gang mentality that is hard to admit to, that comes with the internet and with social media.

That idea of power through visibility – how he had a head start because of his celebrity – is making me think of how important it is in all your work to amplify other voices, increase visibility. Do you still build that into everything you do?

JDS: To an extent. Experiencing the little celebrity that I had was a really interesting experience and for the most part it brought me a lot of negativity. I’ve tried to take a step back from being so visible. There are so many artists right now making incredible work and being visible in ways that should be magnified, and I feel like I’ve handed over the torch a little bit, to others in the community. I like to have other people’s voice be louder.

Like who?

JDS: Mykki Blanco is a good example. Mykki has said, ‘You changed my life, your band was amazing.’ To see somebody who had the experience of seeing that live performance and then doing what Mykki does, it’s really cool to watch that happen It’s like, You should be famous right now, you should be in the spotlight. It feels good in a lot of ways. And as a promoter I’ve been able to give people those opportunities who wouldn’t have had them otherwise, give people that visibility. It’s been great for me. I don’t really wish fame on anybody. I feel lucky, I feel really grateful for my community and the people who have supported me no matter what, but I also feel like fame highlights you as a kind of god or something, who can never do wrong, who needs to do all the right things at the right time. That pressure, which you can put on yourself because you want everyone to be happy, is really extreme.

And it comes with there not being enough people representing that community. What you’re describing seems like a kind of lineage, looking back and moving forward.

JDS: Totally. There were so many festivals that Le Tigre played where we were the only band with any female performers. And now I have an opportunity to hire bands with women, people of colour, trans people, and I feel really lucky to have that advantage and to give people the space to make their work and be visible.

You know Mykki pretty well?

JDS: I know Mykki because we’re both in Brooklyn. But one time we ran into each other in a Korean spa in LA, both wearing our weird outfits. We were in our robes in the restaurant they have there. I had actually just had a gender issue and I was stuck there because I didn’t have a ride, it was very strange. This was before uber. My ride had left me there and I had this big gender problem, they put me in the men’s side and I just thought, I’ll go with it, whatever, and then you had to get naked and they freaked out on me, like, You’re in the wrong side! So I just went to the restaurant because everyone can go there. And when I got there and Mykki was there. It was kind of amazing.

Meltdown is at the Southbank Centre, June 9 – 18, with gigs including Princess Nokia & Yung Lean, JD Samson & Mykki Blanco, Young MA & Tommy Genesis, MHD, I Wayne & Dexta Daps, Young Fathers, Soulwax, Giggs, Crystal Castles, Father and Afrikan Boy

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